BARCELONA - King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave Christopher Columbus a hero's welcome when he returned to the royal court here in 1493 after that first voyage to the New World. Thousands gawked as Columbus and his crew paraded down the main street with Indians, parrots, gold nuggets, and other bounty.
At Mass in the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, refrains from the musical instrument associated with divinity - a pipe organ - solemnized the event and seemingly brought heaven's blessing to Earth. It is a role that organs have played in occasions, historic and humble, for centuries.
Now a mysterious epidemic of organ failure threatens to silence some of continental Europe's greatest instruments. With pipe organs regarded not only as musical instruments, but bearers of history and culture, the European Union has mounted a research effort to save the endangered voices.
"Organs were the personal computers of their era, the most complicated devices made by humans," said Carl Johan Bergsten, a research engineer at Gothenburg University in Sweden who also is an organist. "They combined so many different disciplines, both technical and artistic. It makes the organ a central and indispensable part of our common European cultural heritage."
Mr. Bergsten heads a team of chemists, metallurgists, music historians, and other experts that got EU funding for a project to study the problem, which involves corrosion of the pipes that produce an organ's music. Entitled "Corrosion of Lead and Lead-Tin Alloys of Organ Pipes in Europe," its acronym - COLLAPSE - describes the risk that unchecked corrosion carries for organ pipes.
Europe's historic organs are different from the relatively small electronic-type keyboard instruments found in many American churches. They are enormous devices several stories high with hundreds or thousands of hollow pipes up to 64 feet long; multiple keyboards played with the hands and feet; controls to regulate air flow through the pipes; and pneumatic machinery to produce streams of air.
The complicated design, range of sounds, and the high skills needed to play one led Mozart to term pipe organs "the king of instruments."
Air forced through the pipes produces music, with each pipe having its own unique sound from the bright, piercing sound of festival trumpets to the mellow quality of soft flutes and the deepest chest-throbbing basses.
Organ pipes are made from different kinds of metal or wood.
When a pipe corrodes, it may develop cracks and holes that allow air to escape and affect the pipe's sound. "The corrosion starts inside the lower part and moves gradually upward inside the pipe toward the mouth area where sound is generated," Mr. Bergsten explained. "If nothing is done, the pipe will collapse."
Organ pipe corrosion is not new. Sporadic cases occurred in church organs in the past, including corrosion due to "tin plague." Organ pipes sometimes are made from an alloy of lead and tin. Scientists long have known that tin slowly disintegrates into a powder at low temperatures. Superstitious parishioners thought it was the devil's work, an attempt to silence instruments regarded as God's own.
But Mr. Bergsten and his associates are concerned mainly with an apparently different kind of corrosion, which affects lead organ pipes, and seems to be accelerating in recent years and spreading to more and more organs.
The problem developed a high profile in the 1990s, when corrosion silenced some of the largest pipes in the renowned Stellwagen organ built in 1467 in St. Jakobi's Church in Lubeck, Germany. About 1,500 pipes were severely corroded, with holes and cracks. Some of its pipes are more than 500 years old. Strangely, however, the corrosion seemed to have started during the last few decades.
As the news spread, other churches inspected their organs and identified new corrosion.
At the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L'Aquila, Italy, 80 percent of the pipework is corroded. The corrosion is so bad at a cathedral in Bordeaux, France, that church officials fear the pipes will collapse under their own weight. St. Jakobi's organist asked Mr. Bergsten for help. The plea launched COLLAPSE, which teams up researchers from Sweden, Italy, Denmark, and Germany to investigate the problem.
Nobody is sure how many of Europe's historic organs are affected. "Historic" means old, and many of Europe's organs date back centuries. Although people often associate pipe organs with worship services, it took more than 1,000 years for the instruments to appear in churches.
An engineer named Ctesibus of Alexandria (who lived in the 3rd century B.C.) gets credit for inventing the organ, which then was the loudest mechanical device on Earth. They were first used in ancient Roman sporting events and other spectacles. The first pipe organs started to appear in churches and monasteries around the year 800.
John Pike Mander, of Mander Organs in London, whose family has been building and restoring pipe organs since the 18th century, said that newer organs outside continental Europe also are falling victim to corrosion.
"Indeed, we have seen pipe corrosion in organs that Mander has restored in the United Kingdom," he said. Since the project began, Mr. Bergsten's group has learned that corrosion also can affect organ pipes made in modern times, and said organs in the United States and elsewhere also may be in danger.
Details about the organs involved and the severity of the corrosion were not available.
Mr. Bergsten's team is comparing one group of "healthy" organs with another group of "sick" organs in an effort to identify the environmental and other factors that may be responsible. They have recorded humidity and temperature in the churches, and probed samples of healthy and diseased pipes with high-tech instruments such as X-ray fluorescence and atomic absorption spectroscopy.
Early findings fingered central heating, relatively new to many churches in Europe, as a prime suspect. Many of the corroded organ pipes had unexpectedly high levels of acetic acid, which gives vinegar its sour taste. The acid can corrode metals. Acetic acid is found in oak wood, which is used to build and restore certain parts of an organ's structure. Researchers suspect that central heating systems may drive more acetic acid out of oak.
However, many organs restored with oak do not show corrosion. Corrosive pollutants from the outside air are another suspect.
Italian members of the COLLAPSE group have found that all the affected organ pipes were made with barely 2 percent of tin. The metal once was very expensive, and organ builders tried to economize by using a German recipe that called for little tin.
In the United Kingdom, where tin was mined locally and was less pricey, organ builders used up to 20 percent in their pipes, and corrosion is rare, Mr. Bergsten said.
COLLAPSE's researchers are not just looking for causes. They also want better ways of treating corroded pipes, maintaining pipe organs, and preventing future corrosion.
"We hope that the results of this study will be useful in particular in the Central and Eastern European countries with their enormous heritage of around 10,000 instruments," Mr. Bergsten said. Eight of those countries joined the EU last May.
At present, amputation is the usual treatment for severe corrosion, which often occurs in the base, or "foot" of a pipe, according to Mr. Mander. "If it is only the feet which are affected one can often off the foot above the damage and make a new pipe foot of exactly the same shape and material as the old one," he explained. The new section of pipe often can be tuned so that the sound is very close to the original.
Transplantation is the only cure for pipes on the verge of collapse.
"When the pipes have collapsed, there is no other way to solve the problem than replacing the historic pipes with modern ones," Mr. Bergsten said. "And the historical sound quality will be lost and the sounding cultural heritage is forever gone."
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