When Cicely Guenther Winter first came to Oaxaca, Mexico in 1971 with her archeologist husband Marcus, they thought they would stay for two years. Forty years and four children later, Winter now says, “Oaxaca is home."
A music major in college, Winter studied the piano and harpsichord, giving her a background well suited for her current project. In 2000, Winter helped found the Institute of Oaxacan Historic Organs (known as the IOHIO, pronounced YOYO, by its acronym in Spanish), an organization that oversees the 71 historic pipe organs located throughout the state of Oaxaca.
The earliest reference to an organ in Oaxaca is from 1544, and since then there have been hundreds of organs built for Oaxacan churches. Winter notes that up until recent times, a church was not considered complete without an organ, and it was the only instrument permitted by the pope to accompany the liturgy. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council allowed the use of folk instruments in the mass, thus beginning the era of the guitar-based folk mass, and the abandonment of the organs. The present collection of 71 instruments is still a fraction of what once existed, and the oldest now date back to the late 17th century.
Winter says her musical training and graduate study in European history combined with the influence of her husband´s work in archeology to create this unique project whose mission is, “to promote, protect and document the organs as part of the Mexican national heritage, and to raise consciousness about their former glory.”
The first step in their protection can often be, “letting the villagers know that the dirty old termite-ridden piece of the furniture in the choir loft is/was an organ,” says Winter. “They often have no idea what they have. We explain to them that the organs were commissioned and paid for by their own ancestors and that removing parts or just letting them go to ruin shows a lack of respect for their memory.”
Winter says that when her team of helpers approaches an unrestored organ in a village for the first time, they spend hours first cleaning the choir loft and the organ, which is, “usually filthy and sometimes full of dead birds, rats´ nests, and animal excrement.” Then, they carefully wash and straighten out the sturdiest of the bent pipes to stand them up in their original position. Carvings and moldings, which may have fallen off the organ, are brushed off and put back in their original position. “We want to leave the organ with a dignified presentation, which is the best guarantee that it will be respected and not vandalized,” says Winter. “If it looks good, it means something.”
Winter has recently started playing concerts of Oaxacan folk music, enlivened with percussion, after years of focusing on the classical 16th-to-18th-century repertoire. “Hearing this familiar music is most exciting for people who may be hearing the organ for the first time,” she says.
She also mixes different genres in one concert to reveal the range of music - classical, liturgical, and folklore - which the organ can transmit. Young Oaxacan organists, trained through her institute, as well as organists from Mexico City, are also invited to Oaxaca to give concerts.
Eight organs are now playable, and the IOHIO´s International Organ and Early Music Festivals attract some of the world´s top artists, who are eager to play the Oaxacan organs.
The group’s work has also unearthed musical treasures.
“When we’re doing conservation work, we sometimes find related objects in the choir loft, such as old band instruments and music manuscripts. We have also published or collaborated with musicologists in publishing archive material, such as the notebook compiled by an Oaxacan nun in the 19th century which contains some of the earliest organ music in Mexico.” Winter communicates the mission of the institute both through formal lectures and informal talks in the villages.
She says the variety of the projects - local concerts, conservation work, research and publications, teaching, festivals - keeps the project strong and the public aware. There are still 63 unrestored instruments in the state. Winter says that a few of them, relatively intact and located in villages with a strong music tradition, are viable candidates for a future restoration, including one already in process this year.
It’s a long way from the piano lessons Winter once took at Cranbrook from Mischa Kottler. Yet Winter keeps playing, knowing the importance of music as a universal means of communication.
“The organs are versatile,” she says. “So we want to give them the chance to speak to all different types of audiences.”