The historic Northrop pipe organ is a remarkable instrument worthy of recognition. An Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892, the organ was built between 1932 and 1936, and is one of the last remaining concert-hall pipe organs in the United States. With its nearly 7,000 pipes, the Northrop organ is approximately 40 feet tall and occupies an area the size of the Northrop stage. The largest of the organ's pipes is 32 feet tall, while the smallest is the size of a pencil. The public face of the organ is the console, the playable part of the instrument that rises on a platform from the orchestra pit with four keyboards and about 225 stops, pedals and buttons.
The Northrop organ is the third-largest auditorium-based Aeolian-Skinner extant in the U.S., and is one of the finest examples of a late-Romantic-era instrument. It was awarded the prestigious “Exceptional Historic Merit” citation by the Organ Historical Society in 1999, and organ scholars attest to the Aeolian Skinner’s historic value as a completely unaltered and intact example of the organ builder’s skill.
Along with its remarkable sound quality in concerts and performances, the Northrop Organ has been used as a teaching instrument throughout the years. Dr. Dean Billmeyer, who is the current and longest-serving University organist, believes the organ is the single strongest factor in the U’s continuation of the organ instruction program and its ability to attract new students to the program.
Over the decades the Northrop organ fell into disrepair. By the early 1970s, it had nearly stopped working. Gordon Schultz, then a student at the University of Minnesota, started an effort to restore the unplayable organ and would sneak into Northrop on nights and weekends to work on it. Schultz had apprenticed with a Minneapolis organ shop and had an accommodating friend with a key who left certain Northrop doors open for him. More than three decades later, Schultz runs Gould and Schultz musical instrument company and travels the Midwest repairing and building pipe organs. He’s helped to maintain the organ ever since.
When the Northrop building renovation began in 2011, the organ was carefully moved to storage, where it sat for several years waiting for the funding needed to repair and reinstall the instrument. A generous bequest by the late Dr. Roger E. Anderson, long-time supporter of the Friends of the Northrop Organ, provided funds for the reinstallation of the instrument in its new location in the chambers above the stage and behind the proscenium.
The reinstallation, which has been painstakingly carried out by Foley-Baker and Associates, culminated in a grand inaugural concert on Oct 12-13, 2018, featuring the Minnesota Orchestra, conductor Osmo Vänskä and renowned organist Paul Jacobs.
In addition to the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony No. 3 (a nod to the first concert played on the Northrop organ) the program featured the world premiere of a commissioned contemporary work for organ by composer John Harbison, one of America’s most distinguished artistic figures. Northrop, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony were commissioning partners for this new symphonic work.
The Friends of the Northrop Organ committee continues to meet on a regular basis to promote the historic instrument, support student and faculty recitals, and plan programming for future seasons to spotlight the restored pipe organ.