First Congregational Church in picturesque Madison, Connecticut stands proudly on the town Green just west of the business district. The church dates from the early nineteenth century; its handsome tower boasts an ancient clock having only an hour hand, the huge iron weights of which are connected by an elaborate system of pulleys and heavy ropes that allow them to descend into the hollow columns of the portico. There is a sense of timeless serenity to the setting that is inescapable and worthy of page in a picture calendar.
The Thomas G. Shepard Memorial Organ located in the gallery of First Church was built by the M. P. Mφller Organ Company of Hagerstown, Maryland in 1930. It is placed behind a simple screen of gold ornamental pipes alternating with a wooden lattice design, permitting ample sound egress into the meeting-house.
Opus 5713 is a three-manual instrument placed in two side-by-side chambers; the Swell Organ chamber is on the left side of the gallery (viewed from the pulpit) and the Great and Choir Organs share a larger chamber to the right. The entire instrument is under expression, allowing a remarkable degree of nuance in registrations, and permitting the ultimate in flexibility and subtle shading when accompanying a choir or a congregational hymn. The expression shades are of the characteristic individual-action type; effective swell boxes permit the sound of the organ to progress from nearly inaudible to heroically powerful without the slightest hint of a bump in the crescendo.
The stoplist of the organ gives little idea of its musical qualities. There are no mixtures or independent mutations, most of the instruments power being centered on the unison pitch. But by careful scaling, a judicious amount of unification and duplexing, and a complete array of unison, sub- and super-couplers, the organs ensemble is satisfying and lacks no clarity.
The Swell Organ consists of eight ranks: Diapason, Gedeckt, Viole dOrchestre, Salicional, Vox Celeste, Cornopean, Oboe and Vox Humana. A Pedal Bourdon unit also shares the Swell box. The Salicional rank is unified to play at 8 and 4 pitch; the Gedeckt unit plays at five pitches from 16 to 2. From these modest resources are derived enough stops to form an agreeable ensemble, one having power and clarity, as well as the necessary subtlety for most accompanimental purposes. The Cornopean is successful as a chorus reed, while the sugary Oboe finds much use for both solo and ensemble work. The ethereal and haunting Vox Humana, in its own enclosure and provided with an effective tremolo, is one of the finest examples of its type to be found.
In the adjacent chamber are two large duplexed chests placed end to end. Stops are both unified and shared between the Great and Choir divisions. The windchest nearest the Swell division contains the boldly foundational First Diapason and the milder Second Diapason, this latter duplexed to furnish a double for the Great Organ chorus. A colorful Doppel Flute plays on both the Great and Choir manuals, as does the keen Viole de Gambe. Also on this chest is an attractive Melodia, playable on the Great at 8 pitch and on the Choir at 4 pitch.
The other main windchest in this chamber contains the Choir Organs English Diapason, serving also as a 4 Octave on the Great manual; a lucid Harmonic Flute that can be played at unison pitch on the Choir manual and 4 pitch on the Great manual; a soft Gemshorn available to both Great and Choir manuals; and a gentle and intriguing Dulciana with its flat-tuned companion, a haunting Unda Maris of remarkable beauty. Also on this chest is a colorful and woody Clarinet.
Lastly, on a pair of elevated unit chests above and between the two main windchests, is placed a Tuba of considerable power, available on both Great and Pedal divisions at 16, 8 and 4 pitch. The lowest twelve notes of this stop provide a solid and smooth bass to the entire organ, without the slightest hint of rasp or buzz. Finally in this chamber is a floor-shaking Pedal Diapason unit that defines the full organ and feeds the acoustically dry room with the foundational bass it requires.
An Echo Organ of some six stops was never installed, and its intended location remains unclear. The console is placed at an angle about halfway down the left gallery of the church, thereby allowing the organist to hear the organ and direct the choir to great advantage.
In early 2004 the organ narrowly escaped being ruined by the ceiling collapsing onto the pipework and mechanism, as a result of workers in the attic laboring to prevent the churchs historic tower from falling into the meetinghouse. A quick rescue effort was mounted to safely place the organs pipework in trays and cover the mechanism to prevent further damage to the fabric of the organ. By the end of 2004 the ceiling had been re-plastered and the pipework cleaned and repaired. Today the Shepard Memorial Organ once again serves the congregation of First Church with reliable distinction.