The Wanamaker Organ – What to Listen For

An instrument of moods, magic and mystique

Although the Wanamaker Organ is a wind instrument that produces sound from pipes, church organs are not its closest musical relatives, and this concert organ has more of a kinship with the symphony orchestra. As a result, musicians often discuss this organ in terms usually reserved for the orchestra. Most of the Wanamaker Organ’s pipes, in fact, imitate various orchestra instruments. They range from clarinets, trumpets, trombones and tubas to flutes and a full department re-creating the lushness and sheen of dozens of string players. Organs do not have the flexibility or fluidity of symphony orchestras, but they do afford one player the ability to fully shape a performance to a degree not possible by a conductor.  Symphonic organs like the Wanamaker Organ also possess a majesty and nobility of ensemble all their own, and can produce music at will without the need to assemble and rehearse 100 players.

In spite of this organ’s unprecedented size–as the world’s largest playing pipe organ–it may be surprising to learn that subtlety was the aim. Most sets of pipes were adjusted to produce from a half to a third of the volume of which they might be capable. For the stops used to accompany the melody, refinement and blend were sought at the expense of individuality. Power was achieved by adding sets of pipes to make the sound fuller. This required enormous expense for organ-chamber space and pipe and construction costs.  The sacrifice produced an exceptionally rich selection of harmonious textures of sound, all adjustable by the organist and used for accompaniment. The blend is carefully contrived by the artist much the same as the way a composer chooses which instruments will be heard in the supporting sections of a concerto. Since the pipes are soft, the accompaniment can be built up, reduced or modified without listeners being able to detect that that sets of pipes have been added or removed. Many smaller organs do not have this luxury.

Particularly loud and distinctive pipes are used for solo melodies from horns, flutes, tubas, etc. They can be clearly heard above the accompaniment. Musicians like to refer to the assortment of pipes used for melodies and the rich carpet of sound employed for accompaniment as tone colors because so many different bright patterns and pastels are possible and can compliment and contrast each other.

The six keyboards allow the organist to jump between different setups of sound by moving hands or fingers to different keyboards. Buttons under the keyboards change the stop selections instantly, also freeing the organist’s hands to produce music. People familiar with this organ know that the richness of sound heard here, particularly under quiet conditions when the organ can be used to its fullest, are not equaled anywhere else on earth. Many of the most beautiful effects are quiet ones, although the Wanamaker Organ can thunder when music—and business conditions—allow for it.

Played by the feet, the unusually complete pedal department, provides a magnificent bass. It gives the Wanamaker Organ a “weight” that the bass cellos and drums of the orchestra simply can’t imitate or sustain, because the pipes required to create the deep notes are as long as 32 feet! Rodman Wanamaker declared that his instrument would be a perfect organ and orchestra combined, and there are many organ sounds such as diapasons and mixtures that are not replicated by the orchestra. However these features are carefully adjusted with the rest of the organ so that the Wanamaker Organ does not have the clash of two musical personalities warring with each other for attention. Orchestral percussion devices such as chimes, gongs, celestas and metalophones allow for further variety and accent.

We invite you to enjoy the richness, delicacy, lushness, and effervescence—in infinite variety–flowing from the throats of 28,482 pipes. Come back often because the possibilities are limitless!


TO READ Jack Bethards’ “Brief for the Symphonic Organ,” please click HERE!

 Primary reasons why the Wanamaker Organ is historically important . . .


  •   As a lasting musical monument created by famous merchant-philanthropist John Wanamaker and his son Rodman.
  •   For its unusual location in the Grand Court of America’s most magnificently appointed department store.
  •   For its majestic case, designed by store architect Daniel Hudson Burnham.
  •   Because the now-enlarged organ was designed by George Ashdown Audsley, father of the Symphonic Organ and author of the      landmark book The Art of Organ-Building (1905).
  •   Because that original organ, preserved within the present instrument, was a major feature of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where it won the Grand Prize medal and several other honors/
  •   As the utmost expression of the Symphonic School of organ building.
  •   For the exceptional durability and craftsmanship of its design and construction.
  •   For the beautiful workmanship and voicing of its pipes.
  •   For the inventiveness behind the different types of stops created for the American Symphonic Organ and preserved here
  •   For the incredible richness and variety of its sound, which will always be unique.
  •   Because no attempts have been made to modernize the organ, and it is essentially preserved as it was designed and built.
  •   For its magnificent six-manual console, which was designed and constructed onsite–with most of the enlarged organ—in the Wanamaker Store’s own pipe-organ factory. A dozen craftsmen enlarged the organ on an almost daily basis from 1909 to 1930
  •   As a certified landmark of the City of Philadelphia and a National Historic Landmark, whose ongoing restoration was awarded the 2005 Grand Jury Project Award of the Preservation Alliance.
  •   For its early-20th century association with many of the world’s foremost musicians, including Alexandre Guilmant, Marcel Dupre, Louis Vierne, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra,  Charles Marie Widor, Nadia Boulanger, Charles M. Courboin, Joseph Jongen, Virgil Fox and many others, and for the careers of more recent artists including the late Keith Chapman and our own Peter Richard Conte.
  • For exceptional music that was inspired by the Wanamaker music program, including Dupre’s Symphonie-Passion and Cortege and Litany, Jongen’s Symphony Concertante, Widor’s Sixth Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, several miniature masterpieces by Louis Vierne, numerous transcriptions and the Stokowski-Bach, and more recent arrangements by Robert Hebble and  Wanamaker Organists Keith Chapman and Peter Richard Conte.
  • For the imagination and daring behind this musical masterpiece, and for its public accessibility.
  • For its presence in the Philadelphia cultural scene, having been played every business day except Sundays for nearly a full century
  • For the talents of the musicians who come here to explore its kaleidoscope of possibilities.
  • For the expert care it has constantly received, because the artistic obligation its monumental magnificence requires has always been recognized.