Ernest M. Skinner and the Grand Avenue Methodist Temple Organ of 1912

by Jonathan Ambrosino

(This lecture was given prior to a recital by Dr. Huw Lewis of Hope College, Holland, Michigan. Dr. Lewis kindly demonstrated the various effects listed at the close of the lecture.)

It is indeed a pleasure to have been asked to talk to you tonight about this Skinner organ and Skinner organs in general. For the last ten years I have written a lot about these instruments, as well as doing a great deal of research into the company, the organs, the people who played them and the music made upon them. But I’ve never before had the opportunity to get up and lecture about a Skinner organ with it right here beside me, and demonstrated by a good organist to boot, so this is indeed a pleasant first for me.

Certainly Skinner worship is on a roll these days, and I think it must strike some people as being very odd indeed. Weren’t these organs supposed to represent the nadir of organbuilding? In a day in which performance practice and the early music movement has reached a peak of scholarship, how can we also admire the work of Skinner, when we “know so much better?” I’m sure you are familiar with all the usual comments, or have said them at one point in your career. I certainly have: Skinner organs are heavy and ponderous, the chorus reeds lack fire, they don’t have mixtures, or if they do they are usually too tame to say much, and the greatest curse of all: Skinner organs have no literature written for them. None of you need worry: the tachometer on the Skinner grave reached its red line a long time ago, and probably the poor old man is past taunting at this stage.

Of all 20th-century organbuilders, Ernest Skinner is the easiest to misunderstand. For that matter, few people probably understand G. Donald Harrison either—it took me almost fifteen years to figure his work out, and I’m still struggling with some of the anomalies, the slips between musical cup and lip—but it’s harder to take pot-shots at Harrison for two reasons, one being that he did help start organ reform, which is viewed as having been useful, and the other being that Harrison’s musical interests were then what ours are today, in the main. You might disagree with how he wanted to hear that music, but you can’t fault him for loving Bach and wanting to hear it properly and clearly, at least according to his own ears and taste.

But Skinner! Skinner had no time for Bach and was bold enough to say so. In the 1930s he called the new school of organists “hard-boiled classicists” (had it been the 1990s, they could have shot back that he was a “card-carrying Romantic”). Very late in life he was tape recorded as saying, “I like Offenbach, but not Bach often.” He didn’t want to make the organ into an orchestra, but his entire aesthetic was orchestral in nature, and he was determined to make an organ that responded to the player in such a away as to create music as agile and fleet and colorful as that of the orchestra. A proponent of tracker action? Hardly -- Skinner succinctly wrote in 1917 that the entire beauty of electric action was “the disassociation of the touch and the wind pressure”, that the organist no longer had to fight his instrument in order to feel complete freedom from mechanical difficulty, no obstacle to obtaining specialized and complex effects, or merely full organ. The pitman chest, the freestanding American drawknob console, the electro-pneumatic swell engine, adjustable combination actions: all of these things were invented or developed by Skinner, but more importantly, he put them into a package that made them far more than the sum of its parts. In other builders’ work, this or that stop was touted as significant, or the adjustable combination action was a feature of the work. In the Skinner organ it was the package that made the most sense, and showed the way forward in this new symphonic/orchestral style.

New voices? absolutely. We must remember that the 19th-century had a long tradition of organbuilders providing new voices to inspire the current generation of players and composers. Cavaillé-Coll had done this in a limited way, primarily through harmonic flutes and strings; Father Willis and the English school had done a great deal more along these lines. Skinner was probably the last organbuilder to studiously create new voices as part of redefining what an organ could and should be. What is really quite ironic is the pains he went in order to authenticate those voices, and as such he was the first of a new generation of organbuilders who let the music dictate their tonal developments, and not the other way around. Skinner’s fastidious reproductions of English and French Horns, Orchestral Oboes and Clarinets were meant to bring the music of Strauss, Wagner and Mahler to life on the organ with a real fidelity to the original: if you follow that thinking to the current day, it isn’t all that far removed from Taylor & Boody or Paul Fritts fastidiously creating the choruses and mutations that bring Bruhns and Buxtehude to life. So then, Skinner was on the cusp of a major motivational force for 20th-century organbuilders—fidelity and authenticity—without really knowing what he was starting.

You all know Skinner’s background, so I will repeat it only briefly: Skinner was born in 1866, in Clarion Pennsylvania (an apt name), the son of vaudeville performers. He was raised outside of Boston, and after working in the shops of George Ryder, he went to work for George S. Hutchings in 1890. Hutchings was the most prominent Boston builder of the time, having gained an edge over the well-established firm of Hook & Hastings. Skinner started in the drawing office as a draughtsman, and soon devised a new kind of windchest with an individual pouch for each note of each stop, with the express desire of playing it with an electric action. This mechanism made its debut at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York City in 1893, and was perfected and patented in 1895. In 1894, Skinner published an interesting article entitled An Ideal Organ. It was big three-manual affair in which a modest great was flanked by an enormous swell organ, all of which was available by duplex action on a third manual known as the choir. The pedal was typical of the time, with 16 and 8 foot stops. The idea of flexibility through duplexing, as opposed to the practice of unification, would permeate much of Skinner’s thinking in the coming years. In this organ, you can see its fruit in the largely shared Choir and Solo departments.

Skinner made a trip to England in 1898 that would prove pivotal in his ideas of tone production and tonal design. He went to England expressly to hear the work of Robert Hope-Jones, professed to hate it, instead became deeply enamored of Willis tuba tone -- and this is important, for he didn’t seem to cotton much to the actual Willis chorus reeds (DEMONSTRATE TUBA HERE) -- and came back intent on combining all that he already knew with all that he’d just been exposed to.

Skinner came back to Boston and left Hutchings in 1901 to form his own company. He had two short-lived early partnerships, one with James Cole of Cole & Woodberry, of which history records very little. The other was with Robert Hope-Jones, and it lasted only about a year. It’s amazing it lasted even that long, frankly; I try to picture working them working together, but somehow can only conjure up a B-movie horror flick, some organ equivalent to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both with voicing tools in hand, each lunging for the other’s throat. Nostrils dilated, Hope-Jones left Boston for Elmira, New York -- which indicates how serious the situation had become, for Elmira was probably as dreary then as it is now. There eh churned out an organ or two, and then headed for North Tonawanda to work for Rudolph Wurlitzer. But that is another lecture.

By the time Hope Jones left Skinner in 1906, Skinner had secured his stepping-stone jobs -- the four-manual organs for Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, Columbia University, College of the City of New York and Tompkins Avenue Congregational Church Brooklyn. Typical of 20th-century organbuilders, he came to fame in a city other than his own, and that city then offered him a real prize: Saint John the Divine, contract signed 1906, organ finished 1911.

But although his work is firmly of the 20th-century, Skinner himself really was a 19th-century holdover of a character: a crusty, feisty, flinty, dapper little man who had obviously read his Mark Twain and was mightily impressed: someone who spent money faster than it came in, someone who used the downpayment of the next job to finish the current one, someone who infuriated architects and charmed organists, someone who told clients exactly what they wanted to hear and then blithely did what he wanted anyway. Naturally he died a pauper. Indeed, given all of this, what else could he possibly have been but a great American organbuilder? You don’t see Mathias Möller or John T. Austin pulling this kind of artistic nonsense, they were too busy making money, profits and volume production. Skinner was an artist, and yawed all over the pond of financial misery in search of the perfect organ.

Skinner’s later years were a mixture of great success and deep tragedy, a part of the story that is perhaps better known. He was in such bad financial condition come the late teens that he sold his business to a wealthy chemist named Arthur Hudson Marks, someone who had developed the process for vulcanizing rubber, which made possible the modern automobile tire. (If I may digress, the greatest of the early 20th-century pianists, Josef Hoffman, devised the shock absorber. Who says musicians aren’t practical? Without them, we wouldn’t be able to drive at all.) Marks made over Skinner’s business; he reorganized the factory and streamlined the process, and things really took off: with the result that many more Skinner organs were built over the next decade. The company actually started turning a profit, notwithstanding the quarter-million dollars Marks had poured into it, and things seemed better.

But Marks and Skinner soon grew to bickering, in what would have been a classic struggle between art and commerce. Marks sought quality, to be sure, but he was also after efficiency and lack of waste. Skinner’s methods studiously seemed to avoid these very attributes, and the two often clashed. But in 1924 they put down their swords long enough to travel to England in order to revisit tonal issues. The trip was as revolutionary as the trip in 1898 had been, and from it Skinner took an interest in brilliant mixtures -- not choruses, mind you, but the bright quint-and-unison mixture as a helpful ingredient in the overall ensemble of his organs.

The rest, as they say, is history. On that trip, Skinner and Marks met G. Donald Harrison. Marks knew that Skinner was turning sixty in 1926, and started scheming to get Harrison over permanently. Harrison came over in July of 1927, and there started a six-year long period in which Harrison and Skinner worked side by side, with great success but increasing turbulence. Skinner was eventually deposed, leaving quietly in January of 1936 to form a new company with his son Richmond. Through a delightful contractual loophole, he was able to take away a contract from Aeolian-Skinner and build his last great instrument for the Washington Cathedral in 1937. From then he lived another 23 years to see much of his earlier work rebuilt beyond recognition by a generation who could no more understand his aesthetic than he could theirs.

Why is Skinner so misunderstood? For one thing, historians—and I am one of them—will stare you straight in the eye and say that Skinner was the most influential builder between 1900 and 1930. This has only proven to be true in retrospect, and back in 1912 when this organ was built, Skinner was by no means leading the pack. No one was, to be honest. Rather, the time was not unlike our own, when many builders were vying for the slippery title of America’s greatest organbuilder.

He is also misunderstood because his organs have so many things we expect an organ to have, and yet they don’t at all. It was this subtle combination of traditional and progressive organbuilding, coupled to a basically trouble-free electric action which people had been hoping for ever since the 1880s, and the introduction of some truly breathtaking tonal colors, that captured the taste of an entire generation, and in some sense still capture us today. It’s that blend of tradition and progress which is very easy to overlook, and therefore something that’s rewarding to study briefly before we actually hear some music tonight.

There are six periods of Skinner organs, briefly enumerated:
1. Early organs on experimental lever-arm pitman chests, Cabell Hall
2. 1908-1914 period, early heroic organs, Brockbank reeds, bright princs.
3. 1915-1924 Bolton period, cast-iron reeds, darker principals
4. 1924-1926 Willis mixture period
5. 1927-1990 English Ensemble I, collaboration organs
6. 1930-1933 English Ensemble II, Harrison & Skinner separately

What is traditional (i.e. 19th-century) in a Skinner organ?
1. No manual unification, save Tuba
2. A preponderance of Diapason tone
3. A strong pedal
4. Seeking grandeur of effect
5. An ensemble is present, even if there is no chorus
6. An excellent Full Swell, with mixture and clarion
7. The retention of small voices, like Aeoline & Quintadena

What is non-traditional?
1. The ease of electric action
2. The presence of an adjustable combination action
3. The lack of a chorus
4. The balance structure of the tonal design
a. The Swell is the heart of the organ
compare the full Great to Full Swell to Full Choir
b. The Great is merely the backbone of foundation, reedless
c. the Choir a large Solo available on two manuals
d. an heroic reed for the pedal and single notes
5. The introduction of basically new effects
a. celestes to low CC
b. celestes in profusion (cite their lack in Roosevelt, Hutchings)
c. orchestral voices
d. “stentor” single-note voices (Philomela, Tuba)
e. percussion

Odd features of this organ
Vox Humana in Choir, Spitzflute in Swell, common Solo/Choir

Features yet to come
Full complement of couplers, but no unisons off
elimination of tuba unit style, Choir-Solo duplex
style remarkably achieved in just a few short years, not really to change again until 1930.