CSU’s pipe organ: A half-century of amazing music

Fifty years ago, Robert Cavarra pitched an idea to Colorado State University officials that must have seemed a little crazy.

Cavarra, who was head of CSU’s organ program for years, wanted to build a pipe organ on campus. And not just any pipe organ – Cavarra wanted it to be unique among college instruments, and one of the best organs in the world.

Joe Bacon pipe organ
Joel Bacon holds the Stewart and Sheron Golden Chair in Organ and Liturgical Studies in the College of Liberal Arts.

Keep in mind, Fort Collins was a fairly sleepy place at the time, with fewer than 50,000 residents, and CSU had been a university for just 11 years. Neither the town nor the university were known as musical meccas – especially for pipe organ enthusiasts.

But he raised $80,000 to make the project a reality. It is estimated the same organ would cost more than $1 million to build today.

“Back then it was extremely unique to have an instrument like this on a university campus,” said Joel Bacon, assistant professor of music at CSU and current head of the pipe organ program. “Not even the top conservatories had an organ like this. CSU started something big, giving us a unique place in organ building history.”

Cavarra, who died in 2008, worked with Casavant Freres, a Canadian company that is one of the world’s most respected organ builders, to create CSU’s instrument. When it was completed in 1968 in the old Music Building (currently the TILT building) on the CSU Oval, the magnificent instrument had 2,096 pipes, a 56-note keyboard, a 32-note pedalboard and 34 stops.

“Dr. Cavarra was utterly passionate and committed to high-quality organ building,” Bacon said. “Some people probably thought he was too radical at the time, but time has proven that he was right to be so committed to his beliefs. For him, it was about the beauty of sound, and this organ certainly is testament to that.”

In 2009, CSU’s Casavant was moved to its current home in the Organ Performance Hall at the University Center for the Arts. The process, which included moving, cleaning and restoration by Parsons Pipe Organ Builders in New York, took 3,000 hours to complete.

Bacon, who holds the Stewart and Sheron Golden Chair in Organ and Liturgical Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, has worked hard to continue Cavarra’s legacy. He hosts Organ Week every summer, which attracts top organists from around the world to perform on the Casavant. He also established a new tradition with the tremendously popular Halloween Organ Extravaganza, held yearly on Halloween night.

Bacon said interest in the pipe organ is waning as churches turn to other forms of music for their services. He said a recent survey found just six young students in the Denver area studying the pipe organ.

“We’re trying to keep the legacy of great organ playing alive and well,” he said. “I’m hearing some of the best organ music I’ve heard in my life out of young organists, and that’s exciting.”

Giving button

To celebrate this special anniversary, the Organ Program is asking alumni, friends and organ performance patrons to help ensure the organ can continue to impact future generations of students, musicians, and community members with a gift in support of CSU’s Organ Week.

Building on the famous summer courses that Cavarra established, Organ Week, now in its sixth year, includes a week-long summer camp for young people from around the country. This program helps bring the instrument to the next generation of organists.

Support is vital to keep this special event going – help reach the $10,000 campaign goal by making a gift today. If the $10,000 goal is reached, the Fan Foundation has pledged to match it.

Organ Week 2018 is set for June 3-8. You can hear the Casavant organ at 7:30 p.m. April 21 when noted French organist Vincent Warnier plays as part of CSU’s Guest Artist Series.