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A public radio program dedicated to the pipe organ turns 40

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pipe organ. No harmonica, now is it? It can be as big as a bus, a building, and produce a massive sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK MARTIN'S "PRELUDE NO. 3")

SIMON: Let us introduce Michael Barone, host and founder of a weekly show dedicated to organ music. Pipedreams is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and heard across the country. The program is now celebrating 40 years on the air. Michael Barone, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL BARONE, BYLINE: Scott, it is my pleasure.

SIMON: Forty years, mercy. I mean, forgive me. Forty years ago, did anybody ever say to you, listen, a show about pipe organ music, not even for public radio?

BARONE: It's something I never imagined would be ongoing. And in fact, we started with just a series of 14 programs that were offered up nationally back in 1982 with no plan for continuation. And one thing led to another. And here we are.

SIMON: Wow. What do you think is so captivating, intriguing about the pipe organ? What keeps people going and tuned in?

BARONE: Well, I would imagine that the organ is kind of a mythical beast. It's been around for ages and ages. It was invented before Christ, and its involvement with the church is a relatively recent encounter. But just the term organ, it derives from the Greek organon, which means tool. And I like to think of the organ as a tool which can be applied to pretty much any sort of music than - that one would imagine. And, of course, you can go from a simple organ of only one set of pipes to monstrous instruments that have thousands and thousands.

SIMON: We want to listen to something now that was, I am told, on your very first broadcast of Pipedreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCNEIL ROBINSON’S "OH, THAT I HAD A THOUSAND VOICES")

SIMON: McNeil Robinson's "Oh, That I Had A Thousand Voices." You remember this?

BARONE: Yeah. There were actually more than 2,000 voices waiting to respond. Neil was improvising an introduction to the first hymn, opening the inaugural convocation of the American Guild of Organists National Convention held in the Twin Cities in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCNEIL ROBINSON’S "OH, THAT I HAD A THOUSAND VOICES")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Oh, that I had a thousand voices to praise my God with thousand tongues.

BARONE: It's fantastic to set a room alive with the sound of an organ and then have that sound responded to by 2,000 church musicians who know what to do.

SIMON: You play yourself, right?

BARONE: I was trained as an organist. I was for maybe 13 years - a church organist. I haven't been serious about performing since about 1980. And I like to say I know enough to be dangerous.

SIMON: Well, I'm afraid there are lots of people who think of pipe organs, and it's - you know, it's just Lurch playing for the Addams Family and maybe ballpark organists and, of course, cathedrals. But they're all over, aren't they?

BARONE: Well, churches are, in a way, the primary home for the instruments in our culture today. Though, the original organs in Roman Coliseums probably served the same function that the electronic organs in baseball stadiums do today, to rouse the crowd.

SIMON: Duh, duh, duh-duh. Duh, duh - yeah.

BARONE: I don't know whether they had that tune in mind back then, but that's...

SIMON: Yeah. For the Centurions? Yeah, perhaps not.

BARONE: Right. But certainly in the industrial period in England in the latter part of the 19th century, organs were installed in great public spaces in the town halls. And that tradition carried on in this country. And you'll find still in some civic spaces in the United States large pipe organs. Probably the largest civic space and the largest pipe organ is in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. It is rivaled only by an instrument at what used to be the Wanamaker Department Store...

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

BARONE: ...Now Macy's in downtown Philadelphia. And it's played twice a day, Monday through Saturday, for the entertainment, the enlightenment, the surprise of whoever happens to be in shopping for a new blouse or a pair of shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCEL DUPRE'S "SYMPHONIE-PASSION, OP. 23")

SIMON: Is that the fugue of get to the cash register with your pair of socks 'cause we're about to close?

BARONE: No. This is a remarkable piece. It's the opening movements of a symphony that the great French virtuoso and improviser Marcel Dupre played on this very organ. He was given some themes which he put together in kind of a life-of-Christ scenario so that you have this opening movement which is very restless and disturbed, which is the world awaiting the Savior. And then there's a Christmas movement and a crucifixion movement and a resurrection movement.

SIMON: I want us to hear some of your own mastery.

BARONE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Recently held a 40 - celebrate 40 years concert, Bethel University. You played a little Liszt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ LISZT'S "HUNNENSCHLACHT")

SIMON: So beautifully done. What's it like to fill the air with that?

BARONE: It's a little unnerving if you haven't performed in public for quite a while and have forgotten how to count. Fortunately, Mr. Liszt does not write a very complex part for the organ in this wonderful little symphonic poem that, daresay, most people don't know. It's called "The Hunnenschlacht," or "The Battle Of The Huns," and it depicts a horrific encounter back in 700 AD, when the Huns and the Christians are in mortal conflict.

SIMON: Michael, why has Pipedreams lasted so long, do you think?

BARONE: Because there are a number of stations that continue to choose to offer it to their listeners.

SIMON: But what continues to enthrall about the music, do you think?

BARONE: Well, I think that it is so varied, and it touches upon so many different emotional possibilities. It is colorful. It is dynamic. It is exciting. It is soothing. It is everything that you want music to be if you will just give it half a chance. Most discover that if they know nothing about the organ and happened to be somewhere where one is being played, watching the organist is fascinating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARONE: And listening to the power of the instruments is astonishing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARONE: And all, you know, at the control of one simple peasant, as it were.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Michael Barone is the host of Minnesota Public Radio's Pipedreams. Michael, congratulations. Thank you so much for being with us. And I hope another 40 are ahead for you.

BARONE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And by the way, you can find the full archives of Pipedreams' programs at pipedreams.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.