The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas has been home to the Gabriel Kney organ for nearly 25 years. The organ is named for its builder, who recently returned to campus to take a look at his masterpiece.
Gabriel Kney is considered among the top tier of artists who built instruments in the last 30 years, which is why he was chosen by a committee of music department faculty, headed by Merritt Nequette and including Rob Strusinski and Jim Callahan, to design and build organ for the chapel in the mid-1980s.
Kney was introduced to the profession by simply being in the right place and the right time. He grew up in the town of Speyer, Germany, where he lived near an organ builder’s shop. He studied church music as a young man and eventually took up the craft of organ building by serving an apprenticeship with the same builder he knew as a child. In the late 1950s, he went on to open his own business in London, Ontario, specializing in mechanical action organs – something that was quite new at the time.
His process begins with assessing the building in which the organ will be housed and its musical purpose. Acoustics play a major role in this assessment. According to Kney, “An instrument can only sound as good as the acoustics will allow.”
Since the organ in the chapel was to be used for liturgical life of the UST community, teaching of organists and church musicians, and for concerts, it was clear to Kney that it needed to be flexible. “It would have to accommodate a variety of musical styles and offer diversity in its possibilities for musical performance,” he said.
Of the 129 organs he has built, the one in the chapel is the third largest. It took seven people 7,580 hours to design and construct the organ – about a year from the beginning of construction to installation. There are three keyboards and 4,000 pipes
According to David Jenkins, liturgical music director at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, “This is a landmark instrument in the Twin Cities. It is often sought for broadcast recordings and performances."
In addition to the training he had in his apprenticeship, Kney credits his background in church music and conducting for helping him understand his craft. “The familiarity with music literature helps inform the design and construction process,” said Kney. “It’s difficult to tone the pipes correctly without a foundation in music."
As he reflected upon his first visit to his third-largest organ in nearly 25 years, Kney admitted it was a bit emotional. “People from all over the world have played here. The recordings are very precious to me,” he said. “It’s nice to know that it’s often used here by very competent musicians.”
For more information on the Gabriel Kney organ in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, read the St. Thomas Magazine article “Organ Dedication Hits a High Note,” (PDF) from the fall 1987 edition.
See more of Gabriel Kney’s work and read a full biography on his website.