Duke Employees, Retirees Play the Chapel Organ

Listen to organ music during free weekday demonstrations at Duke Chapel

As a necessity, Seth Warner learned to play organ as a boy growing up during the Great Depression.

His mother knew that learning how to control the massive pipes was a step toward job security in the 1930s. Talented organists were in demand by churches and synagogues looking to fill their halls with hymns and traditional music.

On a recent Thursday, Warner, a math professor emeritus who taught at Duke for 40 years, walked up a winding stone staircase to Duke Chapel’s Flentrop 1976 organ. With more than 5,000 pipes towering around him, he used a metal shoehorn to slip on special leather sole shoes to better control the wooden pedals.

“I am glad, through my music, to contribute to the music of Duke Chapel and hope to continue to do so as long as I am able,” said Warner, 87.

Warner is among the volunteer organists who put their repertoire on display every weekday, between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. in Duke Chapel for curious visitors and reflecting staff and students. The demonstrations are free, and a few of the musicians are retirees or current Duke employees.

Warner has been playing an organ in the Chapel for about 40 years. During his hour-long performances, he’ll begin with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and then move on to pieces by French composers such as Pierre Dumage. On a recent Thursday, he played a piece by Bach, “Come, Holy Ghost, Lord God,” while his daughter, Sarah Burdick, listened in an adjacent room that houses the Flentrop’s blower, which feeds wind through the pipes.

In elementary school, Burdick said, her class visited the Chapel while studying Gothic architecture. Her dad ended up playing for her classmates.

“It made me very cool for the day,” said Burdick, now director of administration and special projects for Duke Facilities Management.

One day as Warner played, Rosamaria Scasserra sat in the Chapel pews and listened. She had traveled from the Bronx to visit her cousin, who lives in Durham, and they were touring campus.

“It’s beautiful,” Scasserra said of the organ music. “It just sets the tone. It’s very spiritual.”

Biochemistry assistant research professor Brian Coggins and Liz Paley, a writing instructor with Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, both take turns on Tuesdays turning the pages for each other and playing the organ. Alongside classical works and hymns, they’ll play pieces such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during holidays or special occasions.

“I hope that the music has in some way made their day better,” Coggins said of visitors to the Chapel. “To me, music pretty much always can make a day better. That’s why it exists. We look to the arts to provide more depth and fulfillment in our lives, and hearing music should hopefully do that.”

Christopher Jacobson, the new Duke Chapel organist who started July 1, previously worked at the Washington National Cathedral, where they would hold two organ demonstrations per week. This fall, he will demonstrate the Chapel organs on Wednesdays and include a discussion about the instruments.

“The volunteers are wonderfully gracious, and I see part of my job as making their time spent in the Chapel as volunteers as easy and as hospitable as possible,” Jacobson said. “I want them to enjoy volunteering their music and feel like they’re contributing to the Chapel's mission. That’s the kind of atmosphere and mood I want to foster with the volunteers and the organ demonstrations as a whole.”

LISTEN: Liz Paley, a writing instructor in Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, plays the Flentrop organ in Duke Chapel on a recent Tuesday. She's playing "Deep River" and "Shall We Gather at the River?"