In honour of Remembrance Day we decided to share the story of how our beautiful university organ in Convocation Hall relates to this important day of commemoration.
Although the U of A currently has around 37,000 students, in the early 1900s there were fewer than 1000 students enrolled. This student population was drastically reduced by almost half when 436 students and staff were conscripted during the First World War. Out of these 436 individuals, “eighty two lost their lives in service.” (9)
In response to such a significant loss of staff and students, a committee was initiated to create a memorial commemorating those who lost their lives in service. Many options were considered, including a statue and a flagpole. However, in the end, the Memorial Committee made a unique decision.
In December of 1924, it was decided “an organ would be an appropriate war memorial” (8) because, it was believed, the students “would benefit greatly from the cultural value of such an instrument” (11).
Because every organ is individually constructed to perfectly fit its location, installing an organ normally takes an immensely long time. However, this World War One memorial organ was “delivered and installed no later than November 11, 1924” (14). This installation occurred just in time for a Remembrance Day Ceremony which began the tradition of Remembrance Day concerts in Convocation Hall. Today, the University’s Remembrance Day Ceremonies are so well attended, they are held in the Butterdome in order to accommodate everyone.
Throughout the years the memorial organ was heard frequently in weekly concerts, performed by the university organist, Professor H. L. Nichols. These weekly concerts had such a high student attendance, extra performances were held during exams to help with stress. Also, this memorial organ made it possible for the U of A to become the first Department of Music in Canada to offer an organ doctoral program. This organ ended being both a beautiful memorial and a fantastic contribution to the University and its students.
Although the original organ eventually had to be replaced, its cases still stand in the Convocation Hall Gallery. Large plaques commemorating staff and students who died during both wars can also be found outside the entrance to Convocation Hall.
All information for this story was graciously provided by Dr. Marnie Giesbrecht-Segger, who is both a passionate organist and U of A professor emerita. More information about the memorial organ’s history can be found in Dr. Marnie Giesbrecht-Segger’s intriguing book titled Lest We Forget.
Giesbrecht, Marnie. Lest We Forget. Cabrien Publishing, 1995.