A historical review of organs in Colonial America, 1700-1830

by Jonathan Ambrosino

To ask me to lecture about anything prior to 1850 is, let’s face it, an entirely perverse notion. You might as well ask me for a lecture on the history of grits, or better still, why not ask George Taylor to lecture on the virtues and varieties of solid-state switching systems? What I knew for certain about eighteenth century American organs is that they were built in the eighteenth century and none of them had a cancel button.

As teachers say, the teacher learns just as much if not more than the pupil. In that context it is preposterous for me to present this lecture as the work of a scholar who knows anything about his subject. Preparing this lecture has almost been like studying for a final exam after one has skipped a whole semester of classes. After a lot of reading and conversations with people who actually do know something about this talking, and after ruthlessly borrowing every slide from every friend I know, this is instead a simple overview of what influences were brought to bear upon Colonial organbuilding, together with some of the things that I, as a newcomer to this topic, have found of particular interest as they relate to our own views about these organs and our present-day culture of organbuilding.

As our culture matures — if that is the term — so too does it become increasingly difficult to have any genuine notion of what it was like to be an American in Revolutionary times. As a child growing up in Boston, it was unavoidable to here and there run into glimpses of the genuine past, but they are now so few and far between that it takes a lot of knowledge and not a little imagination to gain an appreciation what it might have been like to walk through 18th-century Boston. Driving down here from Connecticut in a mere seven hours is to pass all too casually through all the greater centers of organbuilding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in this country. One hits all these cities: New York, Philadelphia, Washington, much like bulleted points in a history book, having to remember hard of when instead it took our forebears days of hard travel and emotional energy to reach any destination remote from home.

It is the same with traveling through the landscape of the first organs in America. It is necessary to recall that they must surely have been regarded as miraculous objects: being of great architectural and decorative beauty, being technological marvels, and combining science, machinery and art in a way that produced music. It all must have seemed quite magical and rare, especially given that America was a long way off from any counterpart to London’s rarefied Georgian sophistication.

Part of the charm of being in Williamsburg is that much effort is devoted to our hopeful understanding of what it might have been like to live as an American two centuries ago. This was not the sophistication of London, Paris or Vienna, both in the sense as that day understood sophistication in a cosmopolitan sense, or even against the context of our own times. But London remained for many the source of much cultural and artistic inspiration. It is a bittersweet irony that in the formation of a native artistic culture America should look to the country from which it wrenched its independence, for models and creative points of departure. However, what is apparent in the field of organbuilding is that from a handful of imported organs, native American builders gleaned a great deal from very little, and slowly built up a tradition that, while heavily indebted to the English models before them, nonetheless increasingly began to assume a readily identifiable American character.

Like the relative insularity and isolation of Colonial living, organbuilding is greatly regionalized in the first two hundred years of American life. What is perhaps amazing is the extent to which organs pop up in various historical accounts, and how far flung those places are. From 1610 on, there are reports of organs being used in Santa Fe, the California missions, Quebec City, Florida and North Carolina, as well as the more expected centers of Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

But for practical purposes, organbuilding in the New World at this time is to be found in three major enclaves: Mexico with the Spanish settlers, Pennsylvania with the German settlers, and the metropolitan Northeast with the English and Dutch settlers. I think it’s prudent for this morning’s overview to postpone any meaningful discussion of Mexican organs, since that is really a separate lecture and one that should be given by Susan Tattershall, pinadas, finger bells, and all. The Pennsylvania tradition is if anything more fascinating, since it shows genuine German-style organs being built in a manner that many builders today are sincerely trying to emulate, and this naturally strikes a timely chord. However, in neither Mexico nor Pennsylvania did an indigenous organ aesthetic take root. Although those traditions developed to a remarkable degree, they did so essentially in isolation and within a given lifespan, and despite the excellence of the work these instruments ended up having little real influence on what was to become more a national and less a regional craft. Therefore, it seems more advisable to discuss the English organs and the influence that imported English organs had upon the eastern Seaboard towns, since it was these instruments that would start a thread of organbuilding style and aesthetic which has persisted, in one way or another, right down to our own time.

Since the organs that are here locally will be discussed in greater length later in the conference, I would instead like to concentrate on New England, using English organbuilding in the 18th century as a basis for discussion, and then chronicle some of the English organs that found their way to New England, and the very lasting impression these few instruments made upon a group of industrious and resourceful early organbuilders. Since the first English organs begin to arrive in the New World by 1700, lets review what was going on in England directly prior and into this period, to get some of the sense of the organ culture that began to export their wares to the Colonies.

In the late 17th-century there were two big names in English organbuilding, and they will be quite familiar to you: the genteel and aristocratic Bernard Smith, better known as Father Smith, and the feisty and trouble-making Renatus Harris. These two builders came onto the English scene at a fortuitous time, when various phenomenon, including issues of reconciling pitches of organs and pitches of choir, changing fashions, new wealth, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, converged to create the need for a wave of new organs by 1680.

For anyone who has read very far into English organ journalism it is difficult to avoid the names of Smith and Harris, especially in write-ups of Cathedral organs in which a 100-stop Harrison & Harrison contains four precious ranks of either Harris or Smith, lovingly preserved, notwithstanding that they have been revoiced three times and now speak on seven inches of wind. Although Harris and Smith are often spoken of in the same breath, it is important to note that Smith was twenty-three years Harris’ senior, and arrived in England from Holland already as an accomplished organbuilder. Stephen Bicknell has asserted that it was probably the Great Fire, coupled to the fact that for a period of seven years foreign workers were permitted to assist in the rebuilding of the City of London, that drew Smith to London in search of prosperity. Harris was the son of Thomas Harris, a prominent builder whose stylistic line grew out of the Dallams, organbuilders who had fled to France during the middle of the 17th century, and had come back very much informed and contributing to what the 17th century organ in France had been all about.

Very few of either builder’s work survives, and one must instead rely on contemporary accounts, judged with various doses of salt, to gain an impression of either builder as an artistic force. The lingering impression would appear to be that Smith’s organs were well enough built, somewhat aristocratic in their tone, sweet and refined. Harris was something like Henry Willis only two hundred years earlier: inventive, argumentative, confident, and with an outspoken feeling of superiority and outright surprise that such behavior did not win him more friends. From the stoplists one can see a desire to create more a semblance of the French grand jeux than actual choruses, with mutations, Cornets and reed batteries. Perhaps our modern ears might find that the Smith and Harris styles had more in common than they had in opposition, nevertheless the two ideals set up opposing camps that would become the foundation of many disciples throughout the 18th century.

The Smith/Harris disciples are important to us, then, because in most every case it is the work of these builders that ends up finding its way to our shores and becomes those textbooks, to use Barbara Owen’s word, that our own native builders studied in order to build instruments of their own. Before looking at the work of individual builers, it is helpful to gain an orientation by summarizing some features of the organs at that time.

Compasses were generally from 8’ FF or GG to C 49 or d51. In general, the keyboard grew down before it grew up, culminating in the 16’ G compass organs of a century later. At this point, pedals are a thing of the future, unless as an experimental pull down of the Great bass keys.

Actions at this point appear to be at a transitional point between suspended and backfalled or balanced. Winding is of course mechanical and simply conceived, with feeders and a single double-rise bellows. The meantone tuning system is still the standard. Smith built at least one organ with 14 notes per octave, in an attempt to lend versatility and work around certain dissonances caused thereby.

Tonal design was as standardized in England as it was in France. The cornerstone of the organ was a Great, with a chorus culminating in a mixture with a tierce, as well as a solo cornet sometimes mounted and flutes; a second department on the first manual would be a Chair or Choir organ, sometimes within the main case, sometimes in a Chaire case; and as three manual organs are introduced, the third manual department would be termed “Echoes” of short compass, either middle c or tenor g, for melodic exploitations, not unlike the early French Recit department.

The liturgical function of the instrument was to lead either choir or congregation in the chanting of the metrical psalm settings. It was not until a few decades later that the organ voluntary style would reach a more mature flowering, exploiting the disposition of the English organ in a manner much as the French did with the early French organ.

Smith and Harris are important for the continental influence they brought to English organbuilding. Smith was Dutch, and built several organs prior to his move to London. Although the evidence is still very sketchy, English organ historians suppose that prior to Smith and Harris, pipe metal was on the thin side, pressures were quite low, around 60-70mm, and cut-ups for principals rarely exceeded a quarter. Although the nomenclature was anglicized, Smith’s style continues to fall within this basic framework, using plain metal pipes of not more than 20% tin, but his voicing is not supposed to have altered all that much from what he knew and practiced in Holland, and therefore was England introduced to what were probably more vocal-sounding principals, with 2/7 and even 1/3 cut ups.

Renatus Harris’ influence was Dallam-based and therefore French in nature, gradually developing along more individual lines as Harris came into his own. Mixtures are thought to have been brighter and reedier than Smith’s, and the batteries of reeds stronger.

The differences in style between Harris and Smith seem almost to pale in comparison with the lengths Harris seemed to go to in order to prove that he was the better builder. Things came to a head at the famous battle of the organs at the Temple Church in the 1680s. Apparently, Smith asserted that the contract was let to him in 1682. But the authorities of the Temple decided that Harris and Smith should both build an organ each, erected side by side for the purpose of comparison and competition, and that the Temple would decided which organ was superior and purchase it. Talk about the organ committee from hell! But things were clearly a little different late 17th-century London: Smith and Harris complied, in order to get the instruments ready for the trial in 1864.

Naturally, without television or Rush Limbaugh and well before even Jane Austen gave them something juicy to read, the people of London took this controversy to their collective bosom, and it turned into a delicious scandal. Each builder upped the ante at every turn, with much of the egging appearing to come from Harris: Smith hired John Blow and Henry Purcell to demonstrate the organ, while Harris secured the Queen’s organist, Giovanni Battista Draghi, to play his. Harris challenged Smith to make certain fancy reeds, thinking that Smith would crumple, but Smith rose to the bait and apparently made good of them. Legend has it that the Harris camp sabotaged Smith’s organ the day before the trial of the fancy reeds by cutting the bellows. Harris claimed that vandals got into his organ and mutilated pipes, giving his organ the disadvantage, and he had to hire a guard to safeguard the organ. I wonder, did he chew gum and read tabloid newspapers?

In the end, Smith seems to have won fair and square, with four votes in his favor; Harris, whom history records as a first-class sourpuss when the occasion demanded, made an additional challenge to Smith, but it was to no avail, and finally in 1688 Smith was awarded the contract for the organ he had already built.

The Smith organ is notable because it was the first three manual organ in England, the first with an Echo department. It had a complete chorus on the Great from 8’ to Mixture and Sesquialtera chorus mixture, plus a treble Cornet and flutes. The Chair organ was a collection of flutes and open tapered stops, culminating in a vox humana and crumhorn, and the full-compass Echo had flutes, a treble cornet and trumpet, as Bicknell has pointed out, something between a Brustwerk and a French Recit.

The fame of the Temple job, plus his general acclaim, led Smith to the contract at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had 16’ manual compasses and built upon the kind of specification found at the Temple Church. Harris, whose ability to nurture a grudge had now reached Maria Callas proportions, lost no time dispatching an anonymous set of complaints about the organ which he got published: that it was too soft, that Smith didn’t know to voice bass pipes, and so on. If he was furious enough about the Temple, and entirely chagrined with the St. Paul’s Situation, later in 1697 there was apparently some disagreement about an organ he built at Christ’s Hospital School in London, and Harris made the organ inoperable when he wasn’t paid what he was due. He sued a joiner over an apparently poorly made case for another organ, and in yet another instance Smith had to come and remedy some “cheat” that Harris had built into one of his organs to make it not work properly.

But when his anger subsided, Harris got ample opportunity to prove his worth. Smith died in 1708. Two years later Harris completed a four-manual organ for Salisbury cathedral, in which all but two of the fifteen stops of the Great were entirely duplexed, through secondary pallets, slides and check valves in the topboards, to another manual called Second Great. The extreme completeness of the tonal scheme sums up all that Harris seems about, rather than pointing in any new direction.

By this time, the Salisbury instrument is indicative that innovation and new paths are being trod well within the context of the prevailing style. Here, Abraham Jordan’s organ of 1712 for St. Magnus the Martyr Church, London, is pivotal. You all know the name of Jordan, because he invented the most important stop of all time: the swell box. It was, in fact, the nag’s head swell, something like a large lobster trap, with the pipes as bait and the door connected by a sash to a foot pedal at the console. There was also a registrational device which would eventually come to be known as the “shifting movement,” a pedal that silences the louder stops of the Great and allows the echo effects of a three-manual instrument to be produced from only two keyboards. The tonal design recipe is the same, but now embellished and expanded upon by innovative features. Jordan becomes additionally significant to us when he imports an organ to Boston in 1744 -- but more on that later.

Before we actually cross back over to our country, let’s look at a few other builders of this post Smith/Harris generation whose work finds its way here. First, there is Richard Bridge, for whom there is some feeling that he trained under Renatus Harris. Bridge’s magnum opus is in Christ Church Spitalfields, a section of East London right by the Liverpool Street Brit Rail station. The Church is a stunning example of Georgian architecture by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the organ dates from 1735 and is an extraordinarily complete three-manual instrument with Great, Choir and Swell. The Great contains sixteen stops, with two Diapasons, two 4-foot Principals, chorus registers through a Larigot, a Sequialtera, a Fourniture, a mounted Cornet, two Trumpets, a Clarion and an 8’ Bassoon. The nine-stop Choir is based on a Gedackt and 4-foot Principal with a three-rank mixture, and four reeds: Cremona, Vox Humana, Hautboy and French Horn. The eight-stop Swell, from tenor G up, has open, stopped, principal, 4’ flute, Cornet of three ranks, Trumpet, Hautboy and Clarion. Bridge almost seems to be recapturing some of the French flavor that has been reformed out of Harris’s style at the end of his career, with a disposition certainly favorable of creating what Bicknell terms the English version of the Grand Jeu. This organ is currently being restored by William Drake, and will undoubtedly be a revelation to a generation most eager to hear it. Until then it is really hard to say what a Bridge organ sounds like.

A Swiss immigrant whose work becomes highly fashionable in the middle 18th-century is John Snetzler, born in 1710. Legend says that he worked with Christian Muller at St. Bavo’s in Harlem, which was being built between 1735 and 1738, and historians have been trying to verify the point ever since. What is known is that Snetzler’s earliest instruments turn up around 1742, from which it is surmised that he arrives in London around 1740. Snetzler’s reputation seems to have been built upon elegant chamber organs and a certain tonal innovation. He was one of the earliest builders to propose string-toned stops, possibly familiar to him from Southern Germany and Switzerland; and in an organ of the mid 1760s he inserts a Zauberflote, a stopped harmonic flute of triple length overblowing to its twelfth.

Enough Snetzler work survives to demonstrate that his choruses were brilliant, and possibly exceeding that which had been heard up to that point in English organs. Sir John Sutton, whose account of organs in England in 1847 is a remarkable snapshot of extant organs up to that time, remarks of Snetlzer’s work:

His insruments are remarkable for their purity of tone, and the extreme brilliancy of their chorus stops, which in this repsect surpassed anything that had been heard before in this country, and which have never since been equalled. His reed stops are also much better than those built before his time. His organs though they are more brilliatn then their predecessors, fall short of that fulness of tone which characterized those of Smith, Harris &c., but they are nevertheless most charming instruments.

Making allowances for English understatement, I take this to mean that effectiveness was achieved at a sacrifice of what an Englishman of the time found beautiful.

The last English builder we will look at just now is Samuel Green, again a builder for whom a recent example of his work has just been essentially restored in the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, England by David Wells. Green is thirty years the junior of Snetzler, born in 1740; one historian, David Wickens, has suggested that Green may have worked for Snetzler early on. Green set up shop in 1772, enjoyed the patronage of King George III, and therefore was in line to get much prestige work in collegiate churches and cathedrals throughout the land.

Green is another innovator, but again confines his advances to features rather than revamping the prevailing tonal concept. Unlike Snetzler, who seems headed toward greater brilliance and energy, Green is headed down the road of refinement and delicacy, something that is to take root in English organ culture well into the 1830s. Green is one of the first to experiment with scaling; by 1778 there is evidence that he is fussing with Mixtures in order to make them sweeter, a decade later his 8’ open diapason becomes the largest scale of the chorus, not the straight-line affair of the Snetzler approach. By the early 1790s, some evidence points to the fact that Green may have brought extra pipes with him for finishing chorus registers on-site, so that he could re-scale as necessary to achieve the desired result. In trying to achieve deliacy, Green did something novel by attempting slightly more closed toes and increasing the nicking, coupled to large-scale basses to explore majestic possibilities.

With this background of English developments, let’s go back to the beginning of the 1700s to see what things made their way over the ocean.

One of the difficulties for organs in the New World is the fact that the Puritans were leery of any musical expression in their worship, whereas the Anglican Tories wanted to preserve the custom of congregational song as led by an organ. These days, when we think of the English as a stiff and uptight people, it is helpful to remember that the Pilgrims came here to be more uptight, not less, and evidently pipe organs seemed to strike all of their pagan alarm bells. Therefore, it is a charming irony that the first organ in Boston was purchased by a Puritan, Mr. Thomas Brattle, the treasurer of Harvard College and one of Boston’s prominent citizens. Just when the organ came is still a matter for speculation, but accounts put Mr. Brattle in England in 1689, and it is thought that he was so charmed by a chamber organ he saw that he either brought one home with him or ordered one at some point after his return. It was certainly in place by the early 1700s, when, as Barbara Owen reports, a Reverend Joseph Green “was at Mr. Thomas Brattle’s, heard ye organs organs and saw strange things in a microscope.” No doubt this was the chewing gum of Renatus Harris’ security guard.

The Brattle organ had but four stops: a Stopped Diapason, an open wood 4’ Principal, 2’ Fifteenth and II rank Sesquialtera. It remained at the Brattle residence until his death in 1713, when his will stipulated that it should be given to the somewhat liberal Puritan Church in Brattle Square. Still reveling in their uptightness and convinced that God would smite them at the first sound of any tierce or gedeckt, the Brattle Church puritans rejected the organ and in fact wouldn’t relent until 1790. Having foreseen this possibility, and perhaps having set the whole business up in order to mock them, Mr. Brattle had foreseen this possibility, so instead the Brattle Organ went over to Kings Chapel where it served for forty-three years.

This shows the Brattle organ after two centuries of rough living. It is housed in a case from the early 19th century, and was moved to St. John’s Church in portsmouth, New Hampshire, most recently restored in 1965 by C.B. Fisk. The windchest, wood pipes and some metal pipes are original. Its builder remains a mystery.


The next organ to arrive, and really the first important organ, was from Richard Bridge, the Renatus Harris descendant whose 1735 organ at Spitalfields is currently being restored. This organ would have been completed late in 1732, for it arrives in Newport early in 1733. The Church has been finished in 1724, but things being then not unlike what they are today, the church was only ready to buy an organ about eight years after the building was complete. This view represents that portion of the case which is original -- CLICK here one can view it with untidy later additions. The organ was rebuilt at least once, then replaced in 1930 by a Skinner, then I believe rebuilt by Wicks. CLICK However, its keydesk survives in the nearby historical museum, resting upon, yes, an old Singer sewing machine stand. The organ had a chorus of 8-4-3-2-1-3/5’ on the Great with Trumpet and flutes at 8 and 4. CLICK Although only one keyboard is preserved here, this was actually a two-manual instrument with a short-compass echo. Interestingly, it was a CC compass organ, with no bottom C#, extending to d51. The four-stop Echo is recorded as having been from middle C. Here, one can see a close up of Bridge’s signature indicia, plus a detail of the reverse-colour keys with their sandwiched sharps.

An interesting point can be raised, even at this early place, about what kind of organ the English builder saw fit to import to the Colonies. For example, Jordon having introduced the Swell, Renatus Harris lost no time claiming the invention as his own and incorporating it into his work. Bridge had a swell at Spitalfields in 1735; why would he have provided just an Echo, and not and Echo and Swellings, as such departments were then called in England? Perhaps keeping things simple was important when one was shipping an organ so far away, to be set up by unknown agents.

Eleven years later, the next significant organ arrived in Boston, for which we have no slide alas. It was for Christ Church in the North End, what is known as the Old North, the famous One if by Land Two if by Sea church. Although the The organ was spurious in its construction, being installed by a man named Claggett, and gave no end of trouble until it was later replaced in the 1750s.

Much more successful and interesting was an organ of 1744 by Abraham Jordan, of Swell box fame, for the third Anglican parish to be settled in Boston, that of Trinity Church. It was a two-manual instrument with Great and Chaire, and the treble portion of the Chaire division was enclosed within a Nag’s head type swell box. Where Bridge’s organ in Newport had principal mutations on the Great but no mixture, Jordan’s had no independent tierce but a divided mixture with Sesquialtera bass and Cornet treble. Like Bridge, both Great and Echo had 8’ Trumpets.

Bridge built a second organ for Boston late in his career, in 1756 for Kings Chapel to replace the Brattle Organ. CLICK Here was a three-manual organ of 18 stops, the first such one in America and 72 years after Smith’s three-manual organ for the Temple Church in London. Bridge’s organ had the by-now obligatory Swell division, including a Trumpet and Hautboy, with a Vox Humana on the Choir. The ensemble here lies entirely on the Great, since the Choir has only 8- and 4-foot stops, and the Swell is still very much an Echo department without a chorus. The Great chorus, however, was on the lines of Bridge’s organ for Newport, with a chorus 8-4-3-2-1-3/5, but with a divided four-rank tierce mixture in which the constituent ranks could be drawn separately. 80 years later, the organ was criticized in print for being too tiercey, and for not having a sufficient foundation for the brilliant upperwork.

The case you see here is modeled after the Bridge, and the church is indeed King’s Chapel. The Bridge stayed in tact for just over a hundred years, when it was rebuilt in 1860 by Simmons Wilcox, then again by Hook and Hastings in 1884. Ernest Skinner installed his first notable local organ in 1909, behind this case, which essentially replicated the Bridge case and is I believe the work of Irving & Casson. however, the pipe shades are from the Bridge. This is of course now one of the early famous C.B. Fisk organs, over which Dan Pinkham continues to preside.

Snetzler’s work was quite popular over here, as five of his organs appear to have made their way over. This chamber organ was built for Dr. Samuel Bard in 1761, and after being passed down through the generations, was acquired by the Smithsonian in the 1960s. Bard is the same Bard College in Annandale on Hudson, and is also known for performing with his father a carbuncle operation on George Washington. Bard the younger studied in England, and probably was introduced to chamber organs during that time. Chamber organs were increasingly popular, and Snetzler had exploited the medium thoroughly, making all kinds of upright, cabinet and bureau organs.

This instrument encompasses in miniature form both the pertinent tonalities and features of its day. The compass extends from 8’ G to top e, omitting G sharp, A sharp B and tenor C sharp. The stops are an 8’ stopped diapson, an open diapason from middle C, a 4’ flute, 2’ fifteenth and divided Sesquialtera/Cornet of two ranks. A machine stop or shifting movement silences the 2’ and mixture, and a swell pedal opens a hinged lid behind the cornice at the top of the case. Thus one could have at home the melodic and expressive features of the larger church model.

CLICK Another Snetzler, is found in the Congregational Church of Dennis, which is on Cape Cod. Although it is a year later than the Bard organ, being signed 1762, its arrival in the Colonies is undocumented; it shows up on Cape Cod in 1858 like a baby on the doorstep. CLICK Here is seen its facade pipes in greater detail. CLICK The pedalboard is a bit of a mystery, since English organs don’t generally have pedals at this point. However, Barbara Owen believes this to be a very early addition, buttressed by the circumstantial evidence and in the church that housed another Snetzler organ in America, Christ Church Cambridge, was found an almost identical pedalboard.

CLICK Here are some close up shots of its stopjambs, showing the divided knobs, CLICK The stoplist contains Open Diapason, Stopped Diapason, Dulciana from tenor F, 4’ principal 4’ Flute, Twelfth, Fifteenth, Mixture and a treble-compass trumpet. More notably, the compass the nameplate.

In all there were, I believe, five Snetzlers in America: the Bard organ, this one now on Cape Cod, Christ Church Cambridge in 1764 which was damaged in the Revolutionary War, the Concert Hall in Boston at Hanover and Court Streets, Trinity new York, also destroyed in the War, and St. Michael’s Charleston SC.

Returning now to the uptight Cambridge Puritans, in 1790 they finally voted to purchase an organ, and they turned to the Englishman Samuel Green, he of the variable scales and on-site re-scaling. The organ appears to have arrived in 1792, an organ without a chair case and with a swell, which is indicative of changing priorities. As in England, the style has not changed but merely been updated with new features: the organ, for example, had exactly the Great organ of the Dennis Snetzler, but with two mixtures, a full-compass Trumpet and a Cremona. The five-stop Swell as two eights, two fours and an Hautboy, and is again a short compass department.

Although other organs begin to appear regularly from the time of Bridge’s organ for Kings Chapel, what is really quite amazing is how this handful of organs becomes the almost single-handed inspiration and guidance for organbuilders in Boston. Barbara Owen, who has done as much research and writing on this topic as any historian, ably sums up the feeling of the time when she writes:

the influence of the early imported instruments loomed very large in proportion to their numbers. In a very real sense they provide the earliest American builders with a readily accessible textbook to their craft, and until continental influences began to be felt in the 1850s and 1860s the American organ remained solidly in the mainstream of the eighteenth century English tradition — even, paradoxically, some decades after that tradition had been largely superseded in the British Isles.

Although there are reports of people being involved with organs, such as the man Claggett who sold Old North their first organ, and an enterprising young Harvard student named Bromfield who died at 23 before he could complete his first organ, it should be made clear that well until the early 19th century there are no full-time organbuilders in Boston, for the simple reason that there isn’t enough business to support it. That comes later.

The first genuine organbuilder is a man named Thomas Johnston, a native Bostonian, engaged in engraving, painting, carving and jappanning. He was also a semi-professional musician, being paid to lead the singing at the Brattle Square Church in their pre-organ uptight heyday in the 1740s. Curiously though, he ends up at Kings Chapel, having jumped the Puritan ship, being paid as a singer. He had a chamber organ in his home and his son also played the organ. Johnston gets his start by fixing and tuning organs, notably the spurious Clagget organ in the Old North Church, which by the 1750s has become a full-blown nuisance. Johnston goes on to build a new organ for the Old North, the case of which survives, as well as organs for Providence, Marblehead and elsewhere.

It is safe to assume that Johnston learned organbuilding merely from studying those around him. If he was a craftsman, then the observation of the interior workings, and certainly the cabinetry, of the Bridge organ may have been sufficient to teach him to build an organ. But where we can begin to see the resourcesfulness of the Yankee builders is in the degree to which they figured out the hard part: casting metal and making the pipes. But he must have.

Old North was closed from 1775 to 1778, during the height of the Revolutionary War, since it was in the thick of the city, such as Boston was constituted at that time. In 1820 William Goodrich provided an entirely new organ within the old case, which has since seen many other instruments, most recently by A. David Moore.

Slowly, other builders become active in this period: Josiah Levitt seems to take over from johnston upon the latter’s death in 1767, and visited Johnston often in his shop. An indication of how far things had come religiously can be gleaned from Levitt’s 1794 organ at the First Religious Society of Newburyport, a one-manual with eight stops, with “Praise Him With Organs” inscribed across the top in big gilt letters, not precisely aimed at the uptight Brattle puritans, but you never know. Where Johnston goes along with the reputation of a normal craftsman, Levitt sought a higher profile and made good publicity, getting endorsements and testimonials. However, he is still not a full-time organbuilder, also involved in the making of harpsichords and other items. But what is clear is that he made his own pipes: when he dies in 1804, among his estate is found an Iron Pot and a table and Slate, in other words a melting pot and casting table.

Henry Pratt is the next in the chain, studying with Leavitt and building small organs for rural Congregational churches, still very slow to follow suit in the provision of any instrumental music to accompany congregational song. Barbara Owen goes so far as to assert that Pratt’s movements at that time may have contributed to dispelling the old Puritan notions about music and worship. Pratt becomes very important when we realize that he is the man who befriends William Goodrich, the first full-time organbuilder in Boston, and the person who would demonstrate not only the full extent of the debt American organbuilding owed to the imported English organs, but also the incredible achievements that the Americans could glean from that influence through their own resourcefullness and ingenuity.

An organbuilder like Goodrich could finally work full-time because the cultural climate had graduated to the point where organs were a part of the musical and religious landscape. To Quote barbar again;

changes in religious attitudes in the non-liturgical (that is to say, puritan and congregational) churches, the discouragement of foreign importations, and generally increasing prosperity created a market which could be satisfied only by professionals, and at last it was possible in New England for a person of skill and enterprise to make a comfortable living building organs.

Goodrich was largely self-taught, although his association with Pratt surely informed him as to a good deal about basic organbuilding techniques. And it was probably Goodrich who made the most systematic study of the existing English organs in Boston, because it is likely that they were the most sophisticated and well-built to emulate. The debt is clear, and yet the pattern is peculiarly insular in some ways. Goodrich repairs Jordan’s organ in 1808, and later assists with a few late English imports of Thomas Elliot. He admires Bridges organ at Kings Chapel, and adds a 16’ Subbass to it in 1825. By that time he has already built the new organ for the Old North, replacing Johnston’s organ of 1759, and several other prestigious efforts, culminating in his grand effort, a three-manual organ of 26 stops and pedal, making it the first American built three-manual organ in Boston, and four stops larger than another recent import, the 1822 Thomas Elliot organ in the Old South Church.

Let’s look at what Goodrich organs had become by the 1820s and 1830s, to gain some appreciation both of the debt and of the accomplishment. By this time he has proven his abilities and can now begin to produce more than an organ a year. Here are two organs of the 1820s, one now located in St. Stephens’ Catholi Church, R.C. of the North End. And one of his last organs, built in 1831 as a speculative organ, installed in the First Unitarian Church on Nantucket Island.

Still, the debt to 18th century England is everywhere apparent: in the look, in the compass, in the apportionment, and in the overall concept. However, Goodrich has later in life found another source of knowledge: Dom Bedos, which is found in his estate. When this nantucket organ was restored, a few of the original Oboe pipes were found, and they employ French double-block construction. Goodrich’s stopped flutes are no longer of wood in this instrument, but instead are metal chimney flutes from tenor c, perhaps another sign of experimentation along some of what Dom Bedos lays out in his treatise.

Goodrich dies in 1833, but from his shop springs virtually all trained organbuilders who are to take New England organbuilding through the rest of the century. Here, let us close by simply viewing the work of two. Here are Thomas Appleton’s organ for the Nantucket Methodist Church, built in 1831, and his 1840 organ for the Baptist Church in Biddeford Maine. Also training with Goodrich, both separately and together, are the famous Hook brothers, Elias and George, who after their training begin to build organs on their own, and then finally come together to produce the most spectacular American organs of the 19th century. Here is George Hooks’ 1827 Chamber organ for a Mr. Clap, now in the Essex Institute (the organ, not the client). And two later instruments, the 1842 organ built by the brothers for the Unitirian Church in Northfield, and the 1849 organ in Hinsdale, one of the last organs to come from the Hook shops with a GG compass, albeit with pedals.

And here, the English influence is present, but second-hand.