The Duke Chapel is the most important building on campus.

Its status as the tallest building on West Campus and as the central architectural marvel of Duke makes it emblematic of the Collegiate Gothic style our university is famous for. The first-year class gathers for convocation under its arches and over 70 marriages take place in the Chapel each year. In recent history, the Chapel has even become a focus of political tension, as the statues of historical figures that line the entrance breed discourse over the role of statue glorification in American culture.

Yet for all of its charms, it is criminally underappreciated. As the days go by, sometimes it can fade into the backdrop of campus, simply another wonderful building that students glance at as they race to and from classes and meetings. When prospective students and parents come to visit Duke, do you see their awed reactions to the Chapel? Oh, how that excitement can sometimes be forgotten. In no context is that more clear than through the numerous services offered by the Chapel, and through the stunning organ music that plays from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays during the academic year.

Over the past week, I’ve visited the Chapel several times and sat for the hour-long organ music display. I’ve encountered numerous first-time visitors to the Duke Chapel, but very few students. All of the visitors answered in a similar way: “Stunning,” said three of the onlookers when I asked them to describe the experience. The organ music swelled and faded over the course of the hour, filling the Chapel with a wondrous sound. As I left to go to class, I felt happier and more at peace — the Chapel had been therapeutic.

I had the chance to ask Joseph Fala, one of two Organ Scholars at Duke, and Christopher Jacobson, Duke University Chapel Organist, some questions about their time here and about the experience of playing organ music in the Chapel.

“On a campus like this, where things are so stressful and busy ... spending 15 minutes to come and just relax in the Chapel is a really wonderful thing,” said Jacobson, who has been the Chapel Organist since 2014, echoing the sentiment of the Chapel as a calming presence. 

In an email, Fala wrote about how the organ music helps him deal with feeling overwhelmed: “The music that pours out of this instrument instantly reminds me why I do what I do. ... It’s hard to leave that organ bench without a smile inside.” 

One of Fala’s favorite parts of playing in the Chapel is watching the diversity of reactions of visitors as they enter, from contemplative praying to the excitement of children and the fascination that so many people experience.

The organ is an old and storied instrument, and Jacobson noted the excellence of Duke’s collection, calling the four organs in the chapel “one of the finest collections of organs under one roof in the U.S.”  

Fala, who came to Duke this year after receiving his Masters in organ music from Yale this past spring, agreed, writing that “the Aeolian organ at Duke Chapel is easily one of the top three organs I’ve played in this country.” Its approximately 6,600 pipes — some of which are almost 32 feet in length — and location in a chapel whose design complements the acoustics of the organ truly bring out the full sound of the instrument. 

Jacobson remarked on the complexity of services here at Duke, wryly smiling as he admitted that “My job is multifaceted, and certainly involves organ playing and overseeing a team or organists.”  

As an Organ Scholar, Fala’s responsibilities include accompanying the weekly Sunday choral evensong as well as other ceremonies like weddings, funerals and choral vesper services. Fala noted that the Organ Scholar program, only in its fourth year, takes its concept from “many of the great English cathedrals and collegiate chapels, which would employ young organists to shadow a principal organist/choirmaster and learn the ropes of church music done at a very high level.”

I was surprised to learn that the organ and the piano have very little in common, as Jacobson called the difference between the two instruments akin to “a trumpet and a violin.” The biggest difference, Jacobson noted, is that when notes are played on the piano by pressing a key, “the sound will eventually decay and stop,” while with an organ, “the sound will always be made until you release the key.” 

Additionally, an organ can be altered to sound like a variety of instruments using sets of pipes called ranks. As Fala wrote, the Aeolian organ “was built during a period where organs were conceived of as complete orchestras. … It has every imaginable instrument available at the organist’s disposal.”

The daily 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. organ music used to be covered by volunteer organists but is now primarily the responsibility of the two Organ Scholars. The music, which ranges from improvised hymn tunes to pieces set to be played at later services, is less formal than a recital and is structured so that visitors interested in hearing the organ can schedule a trip and be sure that music will fill the Chapel when they arrive.

So the next time you’re trying to squeeze in some homework before your 1:25 p.m. class, I suggest stopping by the Duke Chapel and listening to the hour of organ music instead. Maybe take a look at the Duke Chapel website and attend some of the performances. Everyone deserves the opportunity to hear what Fala termed “the voice of the Chapel.”