Over the past few months, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection at the Marvin Duchow Music Library. My work involved sorting and describing the various items in the Collection such as organ plans, photographs, and other textual documents associated with the activities of the organ building firm Wolff & Associés.
Hellmuth Wolff (1937-2013) was an important and respected organ builder who took a leading role in the revival of historical organ building practices in North America in the early 1960s. Born in Switzerland, he studied and apprenticed in Europe and the United States before he immigrated to Canada in 1963 to work for the company Casavant Frères in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec. In 1968 he established his own atelier, Wolff & Associés, in Laval, and started a productive and influential career as a builder of historically-informed tracker organs. Between 1968 and 2008, Wolff designed, built, and installed fifty instruments in churches, universities, concert halls, and homes across North America.
The Collection, which is now located and available for consultation at the Marvin Duchow Music Library, consists of organ plans, pamphlets, concert information, photographs, posters, three-dimensional models, periodicals, and correspondence that document the industriousness of Wolff’s workshop, which was active from 1968 until 2012. Of great importance are the organ plans for nearly all of the fifty organs that Wolff built. These range from preliminary sketches to large-scale drawings, and thus form a unique opportunity to study the development of mechanical organ building in North America. The plans also attest to the mastery of Wolff’s craft, as the art of organ building requires a sophisticated familiarity with several disparate fields such as music history, acoustics, architecture, art history, and engineering. Notable organs that Wolff produced include the beautiful instrument at Redpath Hall on the McGill campus, which was completed in 1981, as well as the instrument at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria BC, completed in 2006.
My work also involved curating the exhibition “Hubert Bédard and Hellmuth Wolff: Visionaries of the Early Keyboard Revival,” which will be on display at the Marvin Duchow Music Library until December. This exhibit, which was coordinated with Historical Keyboard Society of North America’s annual Conference held at McGill in May, was meant to showcase some of the items in the Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection. This involved digitizing and reproducing several of the organ plans, as well as choosing photographs, CDs, and pamphlets for the exhibition.
The Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection provides invaluable insight into the style, construction, and installation of the fifty organs produced by Wolff & Associès over the span of forty years. The Collection is thus an indispensable resource for not only documenting the evolution of Wolff’s style, but also for capturing the activities of a pioneer in the historical keyboard revival and the building of tracker organs in North America.