Thursday, February 26, 2009

Haydn on a Bamboo Organ in the Philippines

Once a year a small church in the Philippines hosts a bamboo organ festival to celebrate the church’s unique organ made almost entirely of bamboo – 902 of its 1,031 pipes are made of bamboo and the rest of metal. Musicians come from different parts of the Philippines and abroad to play on the organ.

This year, I went with my family to listen to Austrian organist Christian Iwan play the works of Haydn, Kerll and Scarlatti. We sat in the old stone church, which dates back to the early nineteenth century. The walls are made from volcanic stones and the ceiling is bamboo.

For more complex works by Mozart and Bach the organist, and the audience, moved to an auditorium in a newer wing of the church complex so that Iwan could play on a “normal” organ with metal pipes. I guess this means the bamboo has a limited range; but it has its own distinct and beautiful quality of sound. And the old church is the perfect setting for the music.

The bamboo organ has an interesting history. Housed in the St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piñas, one of the 16 cities that make up Metro-Manila, it is believed to be the only bamboo organ in the world. The organ was built in 1824 by Father Diego Cera, a Spanish missionary and the first parish priest in Las Piñas. It took 8 years to build this unique organ (1816-1824). About 60 years later, in the 1880s, the organ was damaged by a typhoon and an earthquake. The pipes were put away and remained in storage for nearly a hundred years. Then, in 1973, they were shipped to Germany to be repaired. The fully repaired organ returned to Las Piñas 2 years later.