English influence in American organbuilding, 1850-1940

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Among Americans, English organs are the most misunderstood of any of the great national styles. Those of you who watch South Park will remember the man in the morgue who puts Worcestershire sauce on everything because it makes his food taste, well, more British. Surely many of you have gone to sell an organ, and the first thing out of the organist’s mouth is that they want a good solid English-sounding organ? As Stephen Bicknell has so adroitly pointed out, this is about as specific as their telling you that they are really looking for an organ made out of wood and metal.

Because of the broad scope of English organbuilding in the last hundred and fifty years, and our own still broader scope in the same time period, our common heritage and language leads us to assume a connection which is now fragmentary at best. All it takes is one bewildering trip to Heathrow airport to realize the cliché that America and England are two countries divided by a common language. So before identifying the influences, let’s tackle a few basic parameters of this unwieldy topic.

The first issue is parentage. Certainly in the period from 1850 to 1950 the United States was still very much the uncomfortable offspring of Great Britain, a place from which we sought liberation in order to pursue the seemingly incongruous goals of being more independent, free-spirited, rugged, uptight, pious and picky. In this period the debt to England is great but begrudgingly acknowledged, much as might an independent man both savor and curse the thought of being his father’s son. Particularly in waves during the late 19th-century and again during the 1910s and early 1920s, Anglo-Saxonism fueled the expansion of colleges, the development of prep schools, and in general informed the tastes of the rich. In the face of any perceived lapse in propriety, appropriateness, civility, deportment or fanfare, American culture turned first to parent England, in an effort to re-establish bearings in these areas. When this country went to the aid of England in World War II, it was certainly out of a world alliance, but also with the spirit of a child coming forward to tend a parent in need. Given the demise of the British empire since World War II, it’s easy to forget the second nature of how people would have viewed the American-English alliance back then.

Because both England and America are independent and stubborn, both innovative but ready to assimilate, a very subtle game of give and take has occurred in the years between 1840 and around 1955, with the child both borrowing liberally from the parent, but also challenging and provoking the parent’s assumed superiority. Even at times when American organbuilding has not looked to England for precise influence, it has almost unconsciously tended to appraise its own progress by English standards, and in a repertoire, both concert and liturgical, that has remained informed by a similar outlook.

The second parameter to consider is the practice of cultural borrowing. In general, the English stand ready to assimilate features from other countries: we see this in architecture, clothing, furniture design, manners, and unfortunately only too recently, cuisine. Germans borrow from the Italians and the French, and the French in their delicious provincial resist outside influence at every turn. In organbuilding, there is the occasional reversal of this trend. For example, the French organ takes certain English influences in the early 19th century from the builder John Abbey. The Germans and French are not foreign to the exchange of ideas. The German organ enters an interesting period of cross-pollination with French ideals, both in the Alsacian instruments of Andreas Silbermann but then further with the school of Riepp and Holzhay at the turn of the 19th century.

So, while England has periods of insulation, it borrows more than any other European country. There exists a notion that the smart set of English musicians are in an almost perpetual state of dissatisfaction with the English organ from 1840 onward, and do not hesitate to travel and seek influence from France and Germany. They do this first in the 1830s and ‘40s, saying in effect that the entire format of the English organ is wrong; and then they do it again in the 1860s, saying that the format has been corrected, but the quality and results still lag behind. English builders comply; admitting foreign influence is not automatically seen as a bad thing.

If England still retains some slight hesitation at cultural borrowing, America takes it up almost as a matter of course, so much so that the influences of other countries become an integral part of the American way of doing things. This overriding perspective is still integral to our organbuilding — we think nothing of adopting the tendencies of other nationalistic organbuilding styles — and such a perspective is directly descended from this English outlook.

A third factor is the issue of false historical notions, the sound bite of times past. We are a land that wants its diet simple and concise and easy to understand: the long pattern of immigrants simplifying their surnames is the perfect illustration of this syndrome. Many of us use the phrases English, French, Dutch or German to describe developments, concepts and sounds that are in fact at this point entirely American. Is there a better example than the English muffin, which is neither English nor a muffin? The English Horn, which is neither English nor a horn?

By so doing, I think that we have tended to create, almost for this entire century, a notion of what an English organ is about that is almost entirely fictional, but continues to inform some of what we to today. This notion of what is English extends beyond tonality to ideas of how an organ should behave: English to us means a grand full swell, a noble and broad diapason, an open wood. Rather than being clarified by our history, this English notion is obscured by the mythology given to us by older historians and the organbuilders themselves; and when we go on study trips and hear ye grand swell, yonder noble diapason, and a big open wood, the myth is still so far from reality that the experience is one of confusion rather than clarification.

Lest I seem to be trying to downplay English influence in American organbuilding, I am merely trying to point out how complex the issue really is, and this is best reinforced by a simple list of those who came over from England to America. Consider the builders alone:

John T. Austin
Basil Austin
Arthur Birchall
David A.J. Broome
Bruce Q. S.-F. Buchanan
James Cole
G. Donald Harrison
Frederick Hedgeland
Robert Hope-Jones
George Michel, another Englishman:
Carlton Cumberbatch Michell
Moline, Willis-trained
James H. Nuttall
Richard J. Piper
Stephen Stoot, Willis-trained
Richard Whitelegg
Stanley Williams
John Whiteley, introduces Thynne’s voicing to Hope-Jones
Harry Vincent Willis
Jesse Woodberry

And this list deals merely with the builders. Of the organists, we need touch upon only a few to see that their influence, by and large, is far more extensive than the builders, and must be recognized as such.

Edward Hodges
Adding pedals and rationalizing compass to CC, in that he extends Great to CCC, coupled CC pedal board to it, and Swell is still tenor C.
Octave couplers also (Harris & Byfield at St. Mary Redcliffe may have had one?)

Edwin H. Lemare
T. Tertius Noble
Perhaps Saint Thomas is a great deal like his Walker of 1904-1906 at York Minster, a mild organ with a lot of 8’ flue tone, smooth and dark chorus reed tone that sounds as if fluework is already drawn in with it.
Frederic G. Boothroyd
David McK. Williams

(There is more than a little similarity in how these two Englishmen trade on their Britishness while practically rejecting that very tradition.)

If the influence of these men is hard to quantify, it is because they fall into one of two unusual classes. The first class contains the individualists, the ones who cannot convince the British public of the worth of their ideas, and therefore the developments they pioneer take place here rather than in England, thus making them American for all intents and purposes. For example Edwin Lemare had a definite effect in Britain, but mostly on playing styles; here he had more of an impact on the development of the early 20th-century organ, mostly by his constant stream of complaining to builders such as Austin and Skinner.

The second class of immigrant involves superbly talented craftsmen who are following the bright lights of their masters across the sea to a land of greater promise and reception, and do their best work here. An excellent example is John Whiteley, who worked with William Thynne, the person who most perfected modern string voicing, and introduced those voicing techniques to Robert Hope-Jones. Whiteley found his way over here after Hope-Jones’ fleeing of England, and worked for the Los Angeles Art Organ Co., voicing the famous 1904 World’s Fair organ that became the nucleus of the Wanamaker organ, as well as other instruments such as the organ in San Francisco’s Temple Sherith-Israel.

And last but not least, what about George Ashdown Audsley, surely an incredible English influence on American organbuilding? Another complex answer. Audsley was so generally discontented by the organbuilding of his time that he turned to an individual concept for what he considered the ideal instrument. In that search he blended together ideas from England, France, Germany and America, and in that very blending he sets his lot more in the American mindset than any other. While his influence is definite, it comes at a time that organ advancement in the United States is already unfocussed. His influence is moral and intellectual, but the results are hard to find.

Audsley was nothing if not passionate, and his message is sometimes buried in a morass of words; indeed his ability to write might also be characterized as an inability to stop writing. Paradoxically, the more Audsley wrote, the less influence he seemed to have; he was at the height of his influence when a design of his was adopted for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair organ, now the nucleus of the Wanamaker organ. But by the time of his death in 1925 Audsley’s audience would appear to have largely waned. His dissatisfaction with the organ was perhaps well-founded, but his solution of reform can only have struck even the most sympathetic organbuilder as a bit illogical. He wanted almost everything enclosed, but favored thin shades and only a modest range of expression. He favored lots of different divisions, but some of them entangled up in common expression; certainly his nomenclature of “First Organ—Second Subdivision” was liable to confuse the unwary. And it is hard to ignore an essential fact, namely that the organs he always cites as models of tonal magnificence are ones that hardly follow any of his precepts, but are in many respects doggedly normal organs whose ingenuity lies entirely in voicing and tonal architecture rather than tonal design per se. I speak not of the St. Louis World Fair organ, or the oft-cited Church of our Lady of Grace in Hoboken, but instead of Saint Ouen de Rouen and the famous Schulze of Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Armley. Audsley is not easily pigeonholed, but for me he is not easily understood.

However long this list of English immigrants may seem, however, it pales beside the wave of German immigration that occurred.

May we dim the lights and begin our slides?


Those of you attended Michael Friesen’s lectures yesterday cannot have failed to notice that, in an eerie foretaste of things to come, the Germans were as usual trying to take over everything as the 19th century wore on. Slightly more seriously, this was further bolstered, in the smarter set, by a wave of younger organists taking their study in Germany — two of the most prominent being Clarence Eddy and Dudley Buck. Though German organbuilders are coming to America very early in the 19th-century, one organ has an immense influence and marks the turning point of emphasis abroad: the famous 1863 Boston Music Hall organ, built by E.F. Walcker of Ludwigsburg of Germany. And the organists, having received advanced training on similar instruments, are now asking for new German-derived features. It is at this point that English influence becomes secondary and residual, instead of primary and inspirational, and thus more difficult to identify.

However, from last year’s lecture, you will remember that almost all metropolitan northeastern organbuilding is English in its inspiration, drawn almost solely from the handful of imported English organs in the 18th and early 19th centuries. By the 1840s, if we consider Boston as an example, several superb builders had sprung up: Appleton, Goodrich and the Hooks. These gentlemen were able to supply very classy, refined organs that equalled their English counterparts if not exactly challenging the style and musical goals of those instruments.

Let’s get a grounding in that pre-Boston Music Hall organ aesthetic and decide what about it is English and what is not.


First, the work of Erben, and the famous 1846 organ in Trinity Church Wall Street, New York City. Here is where the Bristol organist Edward Hodges came, and supervised with some rigor, the construction of the new organ along his individual lines. Like the Bristol movement organs, the Trinity organ had the wild varied C compasses, and a very complete set of all the most modern tonal appointments.

SLIDE 002 Hook nameplate shiny

Back in Boston, the Hook brothers were eager to keep pace with the times.

SLIDE 003 Hook Hinsdale

As late as 1849 they were building GGG compass organs, such as this one now at Hinsdale, New Hampshire, but switched to CC compass very shortly thereafter. After being in business some 25-plus years they are capable of building organs of very significant stature.

SLIDE 003a Tremont Temple 1854

Michael Friesen mentioned yesterday the organs and buildings of Tremont Temple, the Baptist fane in Boston that was continually setting fire to itself in order to get a new Hook organ. Here is either the first or the second, I don’t remember, but in 1854 this is quite a specification, with its duplicated Great chorus work at 8, 4 and 2 pitches, Choir mixture and very complete Swell with chorus and chorus reeds. I think we can be certain that the Hooks are either reading their English periodicals, noting the great duplication of tone found on big English organs of the 1830s and 1840s such as York Minster, or they are trying to absorb some of Hodges’ thinking and demonstrate that they are not inferior to such thought as prevails in rival New York. Thi

Furthermore, the Americans were keeping pace with the revolutionary shift in balances that has occurred in English organbuilding from the 1830s forward — that change in format for which the English revolutionary musicians had been clamoring. The older English relationship of a central great, a secondary choir, and a very tertiary short-compass Echo-cum-Swell department gave way to a fascination with the possibilities of a fully-evolved Swell, with both diapason and reed choruses of some real power. If contemporary Hook organs are any guide, we can assume that at Tremont Temple the Great and Pedal were still central in this design, but now the Swell is next in line, with the Choir a department perhaps equal to the Swell generally but with no chorus of reeds to match the Swell’s assertion; the Solo division voices are probably equal to their Great counterparts.

Finally, with this nifty Egyptian revival case, the Hooks prove themselves capable of being fashionable and technically adept all in one stroke: the equal of their English or New York contemporaries, but in an individual expression of that style.

SLIDE 004 Jamaica Plain Case

To gain some auditory bearing, let’s visit the famous 1854 Hook in the Unitarian Church of Jamaica Plain, Boston; a three-manual instrument of C-compass adhering to the newer Great-Swell-Choir balance hierarchy. All of the features of good English organbuilding are present: silvery chorus with tierce mixture, clean blending chorus reeds, and an agile pedal that gives an illusion of command that it still by no means domineering. Thomas Murray plays a snippet from the last movement of Mendelssohn’s first sonata.

PLAY DEMO DISC 002, 0:34

During demo, sequence through next three slides at 8 second intervals

SLIDE 008 East Boston Simmons

In contrast, listen to the rather bare-chested sound of William B.D. Simmon’s ensemble at Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston of just a few years later in 1857. Here the reeds are bolder, the mixtures, the pedal more telling.

PLAY DEMO DISC 001, 0:30

During demo, sequence through next two slides at 10 second intervals

If the Hook is brewing beer, the Simmons is guzzling it down at last call. But despite the gentility of one and the brawn of the other, you can see that these organs are still very much within the broad framework that defines the organs of such English builders as Hill and Gray & Davison — all the more astonishing because I believe the Hooks never got to England. The interpretation of the elements is thus different; but the recipe and the musical goal is very similar.

SLIDE 010 Immaculation far

Moving ahead a decade, we can still hear the English-based Hook style taken to its logical culmination in the 1863 organ at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston, an instrument many feel to be the superlative 19th-century American pipe organ. By this time the Hooks have realized what had dawned upon the English builders a decade earlier: as at Tremont Temple, the simple duplication of chorus work within a manual may have added texture but did not materially affect the power of the chorus. At Immaculate, they have adopted a more sophisticated approach to the Great chorus. There is a 16’ Diapason, 8’ Diapason Forte, 8’ Diapason Mezzo (actually added in 1902), Octave, Twelfth, Fifteenth and three mixtures, one each at three, five and seven ranks. The first two are unison and quint mixtures, and were there from the beginning. At some point after the organ was installed, a prepared-for seven-rank Cymbale was added, containing unison, quint and tierce-sounding ranks. Here is the building up of that chorus, starting with the 8’ Diapason Mezzo.

003, hit pause directly after second cadence! 0:31

During demo, I will talk during the pauses
(“Now with 16’ Diapason.”)

- - - -

The three mixtures are interesting to hear on their own. Here they are in order, three-rank, then five then seven, followed by another build-up of the chorus.

004 and 005 without gap, be sure to hit pause after just one cadence!

The chorus reeds are, like those at Jamaica Plain, still thin-sounding, bright and blending. Here they are built up 16-8-4 in the battery, followed by a short passage on the full great coupled to the pedal. The battery is impressive on its own, but does not rival the supremacy of the chorus.

006 and 007 without gap, hit pause after the Widor finishes

Coming back to the issue of departmental balance, listen now to the Swell chorus work, and you will see that we are still within a contemporary English framework as essentially set forth at Jamaica Plain. Here the mixture has a spicy, almost Simmons-like, Tierce rank.

PLAY DEMONSTRATION DISC 008, which is 00:30

Hardly inconsiderable. Here the 8 and 4-foot reeds are slightly louder in relation to the fluework than the relative relationship between the Great reeds and flues.

PLAY DEMONSTRATION DISC 009, which is 00:19

By comparison, here are the Great reeds again, which are only slightly louder.

PLAY DEMONSTRATION DISC 010, which is 00:20

If this parity of reed development represents perhaps a slight break with English pattern, the dramatic full swell is something that would have been not only familiar but delightful to an English organist acquainted with the most recent and best work in his own country. Here the Immaculate Full Swell is coupled to the Great 8’ and 4’ foundations. Is a Willis Full Swell of the period any more exciting?

PLAY DEMO DISC 012- 014 (skipping 11), 01:04
pause after die away in Franck GPS (timing = 0:24)

During demo, I will talk during the pauses
(“Again, full Great for comparison.”)
(“And now, building up to full organ with Pedal Trombone.”)

During demo, change to slide 011 and 012.


Being of the same year, 1863, the Immaculate Conception organ was the Hooks’ attempt to produce every bit the equal, and indeed probably the superior, of the famous Boston Music Hall Walcker. But despite its tonal magnificence and Barker Lever, the Immaculate Conception organ would almost take a century to be appreciated fully, and the reason is not surprising. Rather than a pioneer, the Immaculate organ was a brilliant summary argument of all that had come before. The jury, however, was still heavily swayed in favor of the new organ in town.

Despite the fact that it took six years to be prepared, and was unreliable, the Walcker was so novel in its disposition and so striking to look at that few could question the dawn of a new age, and one teeming with things that most American organists hadn’t before seen. Mechanically, the organ sat upon cone-valve chests with pneumatic stop action; there were two enclosed departments; there were odd and interesting pipe forms, such as lathe-turned cylindrical wood flutes with round mouths and complicated inverted wedge blocks; free reeds galore; two impressive 32’ foot stops, including a 32’ free reed, and also a four-rank 32’ Grand Bourdon, which played 10-2/3, 6-2/5, 5-1/3’ and 4’ pitches. The case was manufactured by the Herter Brothers in New York.

German influences began to pervade the industry, mostly in the development of sliderless windchests and tonal developments, and for all intents and purposes English influence does not return to us in a concrete enough manner until the 1890s. Meanwhile, let’s examine some staples of English organbuilding that might have made it here had not the German builders been so widespread in their influence.

The first is actually German-inspired, the Lieblich gedeckt, a slender-scaled stop most commonly made of heavy-walled metal pipes with wood stoppers, sometimes pierced with very narrow diameter chimneys. Here are two examples of that sound: the first is on the 1881 Choir division of the Father Willis at Saint Dominic’s Priory, Haverstock Hill, London. D. Battigan Verne, an organ journalist in the 1930s, referred to this color as having a magical husky chime.

PLAY DEMO DISC 021, 0:30, turn up volume perhaps?

The second aspect that the German influence kept from developing in America is treble ascendancy, which is developed practically as much in the work of Lewis and Willis as it is in the work of Cavaillé-Coll. Keeping on the subject of flute tone for the moment, you just heard how incredibly melodic was the lone Lieblichgedeckt of Willis. Here at Southwark Cathedral, the massed choir of Lieblich gedeckt tones, plus a few harmonic flutes, becomes an English equivalent of the more harmonic-flute-dominated massed flute choir in the French symphonic organ. Unlike the French, however, here the dominant color is the husky chime of the Lieblich gedeckts and rohrflotes.

PLAY DEMO DISC 022, 0:44

During demo there is a fade-down and fade-up,
during which I will talk

(“While the Roosevelt and Steere Doppelflötes have this color, we rarely find them with this kind of treble intensity. The German system doesn’t really aim toward this kind of effect.”)

A third aspect that the German influence kept from developing in America is orchestral string tone. History books often credit William Thynne with the application of roller beards to manual string voices, following the practice that Edmund Schulze developed for large Pedal Violones; the Viole d’Orchestre and Voix Celeste in the Tewkesbury organ are always accorded this legendary status. However, the appearance of soldered half-round roller beards in the Violes of Lewis as early as 1870 suggest that either Thynne, who is working with Lewis at this time, has developed this system, or that Lewis has figured it out himself, being a Schulze disciple, and Thynne steals credit later on. In light of Lewis string tone, the Tewkesbury strings are beautiful but not revolutionary; significant, however, is the fact that for perhaps the first time in history, the celeste is extended below tenor C to GG, paving the way for Ernest Skinner to discover the pronounced Cello effect that would cause him to provide almost every proper string rank from bottom C up.

Here again we’re at Southwark, and can hear the Swell Violes, which are representative of what Lewis has been doing now for almost 30 years. This is from the Lamento of Augustin Barié, and the player is Peter Wright. Following the string passage is another essay on the massed flutes, that you will have suffer through because it’s too pretty to pass up.

ON STRINGS, but reduce for flutes if you can at 0:29/:30

Compare this to the family of string tone on the Immaculate Conception choir organ of thirty-five years prior, which follows the more usual arrangement of American practice: here are voices at 16, 8 and 4 pitches.

PLAY DEMO DISC 024, 0:45


The best English practice has moved past this quite a ways, exceeding also the strings of Cavaillé-Coll which for both English and American taste of the period would probably have proven simply too acidic for regular use.

It is not necessarily that American strings of the period were not getting keener, merely that voicers were resorting to tactics other than the more modern application of the harmonic bridge: slow speech, thin pipes, low cut ups, narrow slots, very long skiving on upper lips, and very fine nicking for proper diffusion of the wind stream. While thin, tin pipes, upper lip skiving and narrow slots were common to both approaches, the slow speech was antithetical to orchestral tendencies, and thus the roller beard and higher cut-ups followed from Cavaillé-Coll’s much cruder frein harmonique.

Of course, people’s idea of what constitutes good orchestral string tone surely varies during this period. Coming back to a contemporary American instrument, the 1894 Farrand & Votey in St. Martin of Tours Church, Louisville, Kentucky, demonstrates what the better American work was doing at the time. Here, the slight slowness in speech is orchestral in its own right. James Hammann is playing Schumann’s B-Minor canon in this example; pay particular attention to the left hand canon.

PLAY F&V TRACK 002, Schumann, manually fading out when I begin to speak after the reintroduction of the A theme.

This same instrument gives us one example of the hybrid American-German style flue chorus that had developed out of the events of the 1860s and persisted in many forms until just after the turn of the century. Here is what I presume to be the coupled Swell and Great choruses of this good-sized three-manual Farrand & Votey; notice that while the Mixture work retains the earlier sense of gentility but is broader, and the foundation proportion has been increased; as is possible within the German system, tierce ranks are still present in the mixture work.

PLAY F&V TRACK 003, Mendelssohn, please fade out at the beginning of the fugue, then prepare to Track 11 at 6:15

Here is James Hammann again, playing the end of the Guilmant Final in E-flat.

PLAY F&V TRACK 011, Guilmant, which you’ve prepared

Now, how does this rather dashing combination of the racy American reed tradition with Germanic elements compare to the choruses and ensembles of Lewis and Willis?


In 1863 German influence was also a significant factor in England’s own organs, with the arrival of the great Doncaster Parish Church Schulze organ. Schulze’s greatest disciple, T.C. Lewis, was already active in 1861, and as Stephen has pointed out, developed a characteristic style that rationalized the excesses of Schulze’s 16-foot based choruses into something with greater general utility. Here is a short passage played on the three-stop Diapason chorus of the 1875 Lewis organ in Saint Mary’s Church, Studley Royal: this is merely an 8-foot, 4-foot and three-rank 2’ mixture with one break. Following it is another short passage on the Great chorus of Southwark Cathedral, 1897, 8-4-3-2-IV with suitable pedal and the smaller of two pedal reeds. My points here are threefold: first of all, here is a Germanic style chorus directly in the tradition of Silbermann through Schulze, stretching all the way forward to 1897 and magnificently; second, in a preview please remember that it was Lewis for whom G. Donald Harrison had originally hoped to work, and third, how very different is this entire approach to the chorus than anything we’ve yet heard in this session.

PLAY DEMO DISC 015-016 with no break, 0:49 total,
pause after die away in Bach G Major (timing = 1:03)

Compare this yet again to the earlier ensembles, first to Immaculate Conception, and then further to the Simmons ensemble.

PLAY DEMO DISC 017-018 with no break, 01:34 total
pause after full die away in Mendelssohn (timing = 0:31)

The next example is an abridged version of the Dupré Toccata Placare Servilus Christus, again played by Peter Wright at Southwark. Lewis was a hundred years ahead of us in trying to marry overt treble ascendancy to a classically-structured chorus, and in so doing created a dramatic organ that never lost sight of clarity in all parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The flue chorus is dominated, textured but not taken over by reeds except in the Pedal. Afterwards we’ll compare this to other English and American organs of the same period, but bear this sound in mind for when we return to the complicated subject of G. Donald Harrison later on.

PLAY DEMO DISC 026, 1:20

Compare this intellectual, studied effect against the bar-room drama of the typical Father Willis, here again the Saint Dominic’s Priory organ. The pure smoothness of the high-pressure Great reeds tell strongly through the left-hand, as does the ample Pedal Open Wood and Ophicleide, but the tingly drive of the very spicy tierce mixtures is unmistakable.

PLAY DEMO DISC 019, 0:59

Closing out the 19th century, let’s do one final comparison between the Jamaica Plain Hook and the Saint Dominic’s Willis. You will have no difficulty spotting when we cross the Atlantic from Boston to London. This is the ending of Mendelssohn Sonata I, and in both instances the player is Thomas Murray.

PLAY DEMO DISC 025, 0:59

Throughout these instruments, two overriding elements have remained constant: interdivisional balances and a certain idea about what constitutes admissible ensemble coherence. Even in 1897 at Southwark, we are still in an organ where the Great reigns supreme, the Swell is second in command, and the Choir organ is a charming accompanimental division with milder stops and delicate voices. France does not have this, where the Positif and Recit are often of equal power in subordination to the Great, which in turn is overshadowed by an aggressive Pedal reed battery. Germany doesn’t have this concept of balance either, where the Great reigns supreme, followed by the Positiv, followed by the Echo in a strictly receding pattern, with a Pedal defined as much by timbre as power.

Also, in both France and Germany the manner of massing together the ensemble is geared toward greater coherence, both from the broad mixtures and mild reeds in Germany and the big reeds, smooth Cornets and lack of aggressive chorus work in the treble found in France. In both the English and the American of this period, there is still a tendency for the mixture work to stand out and ride above the rest of the ensemble; the American and English will hold on to this feature as a positive element for some time yet to come.

The Willis ideal never really makes it over here during the 19th century for, as Stephen has pointed out, Willis’ fame in America is an essentially 20th-century creation. The Lewis ideal is even less well-known, apart from one link, Carlton Michell. Michell is primarily known for the spectacular organ that he and William Thynne built in 1885 for the Inventions Exhibition in London, now the Grove Organ in Tewkesbury Abbey. This four-manual organ of but 36 stops derived maximum effect from every stop, and while based on Lewis lines, had a chorus reed element generally lacking from Lewis organs and a full ensemble to match any other romantic organ in drama, color and power. The Choir organ, which was described as a Midsummer Night’s Dream, was entirely innocent on paper: tapered principals at 8 and 4, a Viole Sourdine, a Gedeckt 8, Zauberflote 4 and Piccolo 2, and Clarinet. However, the magical care taken with voicing and balancing produces ravishing effects of surprising musical utility.

The project put the firm into bankruptcy. After the failure of Michell & Thynne, Michell came to America and worked for a succession of builders: first as a voicer for Hutchings on a few important jobs; then several projects in collaboration with Cole & Woodberry, later in the 1890s taking over the dying remains of the Jardine Co., representing Hope-Jones in America for a short patch, then becoming tonal director of Austin from 1902 to 1904.

Some of these organs survive. One in the South End of Boston, a multum-in-parvo three manual not unlike Tewkesbury has been moved to Our Lady of Pompeii in Hyde Park, Massachusetts; I’ve never seen it, but it is legend at least for its four-inch thick swell box stuffed with seaweed. It had tubular pneumatic action, rarely used in America as the jump was made more directly from Barker to electric actions.

SLIDE 014 Cole & Woodberry.

Three other organs survive in various forms in the Philadelphia area, but the most important was Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, another collaborative effort with Cole & Woodberry of Boston. Firstly, the instrument is important because the organ was tubular pneumatic, an action rarely used here, with the actions most likely imported from the London builder Hunter. Notice how in this ad of 1892, no mention is made of tubular action, and the firm’s tuning concern takes center stage.

SLIDE 015 Cole & Woodberry 1893

One year later, they are all over tubular-pneumatic action, promptitude of speech, and perfection and repetition of touch. Tubular-pneumatic action would make possible the Saint Luke’s organ …

SLIDE 016 St. Luke’s North (Great/Echo)

which was divided on either side of the chancel, a rare occurrence in those days, echoing Willis’ technological triumphs at Saint Paul’s, Durham and Salisbury. Second, Michell had his own system of sub-departments, vaguely like Audsley’s but more practical. Here at Germantown the Great was divided into unenclosed and enclosed sections; the open part had a principal chorus through 2’ and a harmonic flute, while the enclosure contained a five-rank mixture and 16-8-4 reed battery all on higher wind pressure. That same box also contained a four-stop Echo of Tewkesbury-like Choir refinement.

SLIDE 017 St. Luke’s South (Sw/Choir)

On the opposite side of the Chancel was the Swell and Choir, the former fairly conventional with a quint mixture, but the Choir another version of that at Tewkesbury. Knowing the thrill and sophistication of the Tewkesbury organ firsthand, the dullness of Germantown in its present condition is perhaps explained by the fact that everything but the pipes was replaced by Casavant in 1956, and the Casavant pitman chests more recently electrified by Wicks. To deal with this trauma, the pipework was very sensitively and consistently softened, probably by Casavant, and presumably to speak comfortably on the new mechanism. Perhaps a true restoration will provide a chassis and wind system that will allow the pipes to be returned to their full beauty and power, thus dignifying the OHS Citation that hangs by the console.

As a representative of Michell’s ideals, however, it is a pale echo of its former self or the Tewkesbury effect. Michell was on a path to a different kind of organ, on that was more orchestral, more colorful, more intense and more flexible. But it was not he who would define what the early 20th-century American organ ought to be; that would be left to Ernest M. Skinner.

SLIDE 018 EMS at 35

At the time Skinner was the superintendent of the Hutchings factory in Boston, an enormous enterprise that was turning out an organ a week.

SLIDE 019 Hutchings ad 1893

The mainstay of the firm was tracker organs on slider chests, and their tonal philosophy was firmly rooted in Boston tradition, which by now is once again secure in its blending of English and German influenced elements.

SLIDE 020 Lynn MA

This organ for Lynn, Massachusetts is typical.

SLIDE 021 Lynn MA spec

Note how the Swell has grown to compete with the size of the Great, and the Choir has shrunk away even from its potential as a solo department, aside from the Clarinet.

SLIDE 022 Saint Bart’s NYC

But Hutchings big job of the same year is Skinner’s pride and joy: Saint Bartholomew’s Church New York, not the present edifice, which was built in 1918, but their old church on Madison Avenue. The Hutchings incorporated an older Odell, but more importantly was the first successful electric-action organ to come from this shop. It was on the side-bar lever-arm pouch chests that one finds in Aeolian organs. Although the magnets gave trouble and had to be replaced a few years after installation, Skinner was intensely proud of this job.

SLIDE 023 Skinner’s Ideal

In the same year, Skinner writes the magazines THE ORGAN with an ideal specification; it is essentially a normal 8’ Great and an immense Swell, all of which is duplexed to the Choir. Note here that the great crusader for high pressure later in life, the man who writes that one cannot have both power and quality without a heavy wind, is here advocating the modest pressure of 4”.

SLIDE 024 Skinner outside Factory

Because so much is made of Skinner’s two trips to England, first in 1898 and again in 1924, there is the natural tendency to think of Skinner’s organs as being somehow English-influenced at their core. I would like to dispel this notion, perhaps even being one who has helped to cause it. Upon careful reflection, there is almost nothing about a Skinner organ that is English: neither winding, pipework construction, layout philosophy, tonal design, compass balances, interdivisional balances, and voicing.

Paradoxically, however, Skinner is the first American builder to systematically address many of the things that the best English players, such as Lemare, are clamoring for — keener strings, more authentic orchestral reproduction, greater convenience of action and console appointment, and the ability to create a far smoother build-up than has been heretofore possible. This is an excellent instance of the parent/child relationship again, where the America has seized an English notion and is taking it farther than the parent land.

Skinner’s trip to England in 1898 was ostensibly to meet and admire the work of Hope-Jones; in 1925 he wrote that he found the tone of Hope-Jones’ organs crude and unpleasant, but that the Willis organ in Saint George’s Hall Liverpool (now having just undergone its second rebuild since 1855, the first in 1867, the second in 1897) excited him immensely, in particular the Tuba ranks. Rather than delve into whether Skinner was posturing later for his youthful enthusiasm, we can simplify matters by saying that Skinner came home smitten with the power and energy of the Willis organ, and the precise color of its Tuba tone. Moreover, in his break with Hutchings in 1901 and his early work, he is determined to act upon this idea of the Ideal Organ. In this the actual English influence is slim, and where present, strongly reinterpreted in a personal vein.

Skinner’s stoplists from around the 1910 period give the illusion of being mostly traditional late 19th-century organs, merely minus chorus work and with the addition of more orchestral reeds. But the disposition and balances show us that Skinner had a unique spin on the traditional organ; he was the first to realize that electric-action could mean the elimination of the usual divisional roles. As we’ve seen, by the end of the 19th century the Great organ clearly remains the center of the organ, the Swell a second and the Choir a distant third.

PREPARE DISC 2, Hohman at Opus 190, Track 2

In the Skinner organ of anything other than considerable size, the Great became a source of foundation tone on top of which was to be gathered the rest of the instrument. The Swell was really the heart of the matter, usually having the primary set of chorus reeds under expression, with the Choir less of a 19th-century stand-alone Echo department and more a supporting partner of the lesser Swell voices. More forcibly than anyone, Skinner realized that electric action freed him to redistribute the voices throughout the organ in a fresh way, and that electric-action’s easy of coupling made the distinction practically meaningless in the final result, as viewed from the standpoint of an orchestral-style player. This is only one of the things Skinner means when he writes in 1917 that the modern organ is made wholly possible through the disassociation of the touch and the wind pressure.

Demoting the Great as the division of primary importance was a concept of revolutionary proportion in any national language. The other was to create a class of chorus reed tone almost solely inspired by Tubas: Skinner’s three classes of chorus reed tone, Cornopeans, Trombas and Tubas are now a very dark affair indeed, quite unlike anything else that has come before. Nothing that I’ve described is English at all, but rather a very fresh notion of what the American organ might become.

Listen here to Fred Hohman play what is essentially the oldest unaltered large Skinner organ, that at Grand Avenue Methodist Temple in Kansas City: an organ that as originally built had a 6-stop Great, a 14-stop division duplexed between the Choir and Solo, a 21-stop Swell, and a Pedal with a 32-foot wood Diapason. This is the opening of Horatio Parker’s Festival Prelude.

PLAY CD 2, HOHMAN ON OPUS 190, TRACK 2, fade out at around 1:10 please

During this, JEA will progress from slides 025 through to 030

It is essential to realize how un-English is the sound of this organ, as one would be extremely hard-pressed to find such an instrument in England. This can only be an American organ: in its tone, its disposition, its manual balances, its action, and the way in which one can play it, it is first and last an American symphonic organ.

SLIE 030A Panama Pacific flyer

90 miles away in Hartford, the Austin brothers, who are both genuinely English, are creating solidly American organs of novel design just as Skinner is doing. If Skinner has proven to be the predominant force in organbuilding from 1900 to 1930, it is really only in retrospect. More likely the big name between 1900 and 1915 was Austin, and for the simple reason that the organs were so uncomplicated and reliable as to evoke awe, and no small relief, on the part of the players. If something did go wrong, practically anyone could stroll inside the Universal Air Chest and fix it: a sweet trip to the science museum when compared to removing dozens of screws, sometimes still by candlelight, to get at a binding pitman in the early and unperfected Skinner chest. With the leftover Carlton Michell influence, early Austins were virile and bright, and the canny combination of science and music was a huge selling point entirely in step with the spirit of the times.

SLIDE 030b PP Console

Despite actually being English, however, the Austins were the epitome of American ingenuity, industriousness and efficiency. Having established their business in 1898, they were very quickly a major force in organbuilding, securing huge jobs early on. It is no wonder that the Panama Pacific Exposition organs of 1915 in San Francisco and San Diego were both awarded to the Austin brothers. They persisted as the alternate artistic builder of choice until the English Ensemble war of the later 1920s.

At about this time, Samuel Stoot, a Willis-trained reed voicer, joins the Casavant brothers’ South Haven, Michigan factory, switching to the Saint Hyacinthe factory in 1918 and assuming tonal direction in about 1922 upon the death of Joseph Claver Casavant. Organs under Stoot’s direction took on an especially English flavor in the late 1920s, merely without a specific corollary to any other builder’s work and with the occasional dip into American practices such as leather-lipped diapasons. The general grandiloquence of Casavant organs in this period is somewhat reminiscent of the elegant massiveness of the Walker at Bristol Cathedral, but with a difference. The amazing thing about Stoot is that he perseveres until 1956, making very few changes in his approach to organbuilding and building even such things as leather-lipped diapasons into the early 1950s.

SLIE 030C Skinner at 60

Otherwise the American organ remained fairly American until Ernest Skinner made his famous second trip to England and France in March and April of 1924. Increasingly documents reveal that the real motivation behind this trip was not Skinner’s, but that of company president Arthur Hudson Marks and vice president William E. Zeuch. Far from being a figurehead and money man, Marks was passionately interested in organs. Zeuch was a superb organist, practically on a par with any of the great names then current, such as Farnam or Courboin; it was likely his work at Skinner’s that kept Zeuch from being as much of a household name as these other great artists. People who play organs are likely to become dissatisfied before those who build them; and with his prodigious technique and repertoire, it is not difficult to imagine Zeuch being the one to articulate shortcomings in standard Skinner practice, as he would confess decades later to Henry Willis III. Indeed, one feels certain that by 1924 Zeuch had more of Marks’ ear than did Skinner. Furthermore, he sold as many of the important jobs as did Skinner, and was in a prime position to direct the work of the company in a more ‘classical’ direction.

If you read Skinner’s resume of his trip to England with a slightly more inquisitive eye, what becomes increasingly clear is his lack of technical and musical interest in what he is seeing and hearing. Perhaps much as in 1898, he took very little away with him of genuine fascination. He points out that Americans have heard so much about fine, firm round English Diapasons that he is disappointed to discover how average they are, at least in his opinion. Stephen has mentioned Skinner’s fascination with quint mixtures, and how both examples stem from Lewis, not Willis as is boldly trumpeted at the time. Skinner visits Saint Mary Redcliffe and in a slight rebuff to Willis seems even more interested by this organ than any of the Willis jobs; here he is quite thrilled by the big Swell, but finds the rest of the organ quite ordinary. And so on.

The question I’ve had to raise after so many years of swallowing this whole is: is he there under protest? Does he realize that Marks is plotting to take the company in a direction that Skinner himself is unprepared to do? Skinner is hear pictured around his 60th birthday, and Marks being no fool is surely thinking to the future. In the meantime, Willis III makes periodic trips to America to assist with tonal developments, and an exchange of Skinner mechanism for Willis pipes ensues. Skinner clearly is interested in the bright silvery quint mixtures, but views them not as the top of any chorus but as another ingredient in his massed ensembles. He adds them solely as such, and while they are a welcome ingredient, even when boldly voiced such as at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church they are negligible when viewed in terms of the full ensemble.

PREPARE DISC 3, Tom Murray Elgar at Yale, track 12

Eventually the trip also resulted in the arrival of G. Donald Harrison, a Willis director and someone keenly interested in tonal matters. These two events started the Skinner organ down a road of reform that is well known. But did Harrison in his earliest years succeed in making the Skinner organ sound English? In a curious way yes, but with a degree of eclecticism not to be found in the English organ of the time. Harrison blends elements of Harrison & Harrison, Father Willis, Willis III and Lewis into a recipe that is at once both respectful and daring. We certainly don’t see tierce and septieme mixtures in Willi III’s work, but they pop up all over Skinner organs from 1927 to 1933; and large Swell quint mixtures appear very rarely. Here Skinner, and Harrison are taking matters into their own hands. Harrison is coyer still: he can agree with Skinner that Willis III’s organs are lacking, but he can still provide Marks with a successor worthy of the firm’s traditions.


In so doing, G. Donald Harrison unwittingly re-establishes one interesting point of reference: suddenly there are Skinner organs in which the Great is at least as large as the Swell, and sometimes the true cornerstone of the organ’s ensemble. The first major example of this is Woolsey Hall, at Yale University. Here is Thomas Murray playing the beginning of the Elgar Sonata on full Great with Pedal Trombone and flues to match.

PLAY CD 3, TRACK 12 (mismarked on booklet), fade out after things get soft at 1:22


To tie this back to England, let’s have a contest between Saint Mary Redcliffe and Woolsey. The piece is the same, the Imperial March of Elgar, with Carlo Curley at Redcliffe and Tom Murray at Woolsey. I’m not going to tell you which is which, but between the tempo and pitch changes I think you will be able to figure out when we’ve hopped shores.

JEA switch to slide 036

Although this may not make much sense, I would not mistake Redcliffe for an American organ, but I might mistake Woolsey for an English one, if only chorus work and flutes were used. Perhaps that example will have demonstrated what I mean. As another point of reference, let’s hear a slight paraphrase on the famous Willis II/III organ at Liverpool Cathedral to refresh our memories of what that sounds like.


After surveying the other Englishmen active in this period, I will come back to the complex subject of G. Donald Harrison.


Another direct link to England was the arrival of Richard Oliver Whitelegg in late 1925, recruited by Robert Pier Elliot to work at the newly revitalized Welte organ company in New York. Whitelegg had trained at Willis’ as a voicer, and had firsthand knowledge of then-current English trends.

One of the reasons that Skinner always kept an edge during this emerging reform period of 1925 to 1932 was the great publicity afforded first to Skinner’s 1924 trip, then to Henry Willis’ public alliance with Skinner, and then the arrival of G. Donald Harrison: the authentic English goods. Robert Pier Elliot tried to make the same hay out of the English sunshine of Richard Whitelegg, and it might have worked had not Welte gone through so many financial hardships with Elliot and Whitelegg losing connections in the ensuing aftermath. Whitelegg’s most wonderful work was done with Welte, however; the organ at Shove Memorial Chapel, Colorado Springs, is as confident a version of the English Ensemble style as we have.

Robert Pier Elliot had started out at Kimball, and when things got bad with Welte, he jumped back to Kimball and attempted to institute English ensemble reforms. Here he had much to overcome, as among classically-trained organists, Kimball was often tainted by the fact that they had built up a big theatre organ trade in the 1910s and 1920s. However, like Austin in 1915, Kimball scored two spectacular concert organ contracts, Memphis and Minneapolis.

1927 to 1929, revision and the big concert organs
1929 to 1932, second Elliot period, Columbus
1933 Worcester, Michel takes over
tin choruses
double choruses
enclosed and unenclosed Greats
independent pedal organs
reeds getting darker as flue choruses get brighter

Michel was an organist

The Saint John’s organ was, unbeknownst to them at the time, Kimball’s final statement of a large heroic organ, although they continued to produce instruments until mid-1942 and had hoped to resume pipe organ production after the War. However, Kimball as a large piano company had never depended on organ sales for their profits, and many have suggested that Kimball management looked upon organs merely as large promotional tools for piano sales. After the War they decided to branch out into other avenues, and sold their stock of wood pipes and organ metal to Aeolian-Skinner. Even adopting these many ‘classical’ standards in their organs, Michel remained firmly within the English ensemble style to the end, and I am curious to know whether he would have headed in a still-further classical manner, or merely retired.

Before concluding with some remarks on modern tendencies, I would like to touch upon G. Donald Harrison, who is I am afraid currently the most misunderstood American organbuilder. He was the first to move past the fascination of the English “tonal” phase to a more international musical orientation, and in so doing allied himself with a new generation whose interests in older organ music, particularly that of Bach, were sincere and strong.

The most extraordinary claims have been made for Harrison’s motivations, and yet he defies almost every categorization. What I would like to emphasis this morning is that he is English only in convolute ways, much as Skinner is: the influence is perhaps less direct and more behavioral. Harrison is in fact very concerned with smooth build-up, and this is why his organs, though radically different from Skinner’s, can be manipulated just as smoothly in a church service. Harrison’s love of a wide cross-section of organ music is genuinely eclectic at a time when that would not have been so popular: he admits to liking Widor in 1952!

Harrison is clearly interested in providing an organ within an organ on larger instruments; the complete secondary chorus on the Great at Saint John the Divine, coupled to the lighter set of Swell reeds and modified Pedal, offers a minor full organ entirely in keeping with the forces of the choir. If you see this as English, it is important to realize how individual was Harrison’s approach here: in effect reflecting a much more intelligent 20th-century English vision than ever actually existed.

For me, the largest clue to Harrison’s musical idea of what an organ chorus and ensemble should do is to be found in two organs: the 1931 Steinmeyer in Altoona, another German organ!, and the 1897 Lewis at Southwark Cathedral which we have already heard now several times. I’d like to offer two final curious musical juxtapositions.

The first is the beginning of a Handel fugue played by Thomas Murray on the Great chorus at Woolsey Hall; in the middle, there is a quick cut to Peter Stoltzfus finishing the Buxtehude Jig Fugue at Saint Mark’s Philadelphia, which is one of the only organs to remain unaltered from Harrison’s finest mature period in the mid-1930s. I’ll hand signal when we are changing organs.


The transformation from Harrison’s early, zingy style with very brilliant 4’ principal and gentle, sweet mixtures is transformed into a much starchier, clearer yet superficially less appealing sound. At first you hear the Positiv with low-pitched mixture; then to the Great; then to the Positiv with Zimbel for episodes; and finally full Great, Positiv and Pedal.

The second example merges two closing bars, the first is Peter Wright playing the end of the Barié Symphonie at Southwark, merged with Stoltzfus concluding the Sowerby Variations on a Theme of Frescobaldi, again at Saint Mark’s. I do this merely to illustrate that Harrison was still very much following the Lewis lead in amassing a large ensemble; but here he has taken a cue from Steinmeyer, smoothed out the bright edges through slightly larger upperwork. Otherwise, the similarity is unmistakable.


So where does English influence exist today in American organbuilding? In the main, I think it lies somewhere again between this notion of what an English sound is all about, coupled to the way we hope an organ will work smoothly in build-up, which is a direct consequence of English practice as set down long ago. But aside from these exceedingly general conventions, English ideas are too loosely applied to mean much more than a few features here and there. I like to think of this as the opera-singer quotient: it is easy to go to England and hear sounds that are in themselves utterly glorious, but we come home and try to reproduce them, and the effect they had upon us, forgetting that the opera doesn’t work without the orchestra, the lighting and the scenery.

Two specific influences remain, it think: even through the most intense period of the neo-classical era we seemed unable to live without some kind of full swell effect, although this sometimes appeared as a hilarious parody of the original. Second, the older American pattern of an ensemble in which the mixtures ride above the rest is still all too permissible. In an English vein, this notion is unfortunately reinforced by recordings of once-good English Cathedral organs which have had ‘brilliant’ quint mixtures added to the Great that will not admit of blend. And third, a number of builders who yearn for an English effect still seem to forget the important and primacy of the Great, particularly in its principal chorus. This last feature is something the English have almost always managed to retain, and we would do well to pay attention in this regard.

In summary, when you hear something you like, do yourself the honor of avoiding the simplistic terms of calling it English, or French, or Zimbabwean, or what have you. In organbuilding, the most fascinating elements are those truths of balance, timbre, chorus structure and mechanical integrity that each culture has discovered for itself: the golden section, if you will. Rather than hanging on to the notion that an organ has to define itself in an existing style, take every pain to establish your own: this is the lesson of English influence, in that American originality knew that it had to come up with something of its own. That is as true today as ever. Thank you.