Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organs we will hear

by Jonathan Ambrosino

It is a privilege to speak, not only after seeing such charming footage of a great American organbuilder, but also after two men [Nicholas Thompson-Allen and Joseph Dzeda] who have done as much as anyone else to ensure that some of the finest efforts of that builder’s work be preserved intact for our generation and future ones.

Setting aside the Skinner at Hartford Second Science for the moment, I would like to concentrate on the Woolsey Hall organ as seen in contrast to the Trinity, New Haven organ. Both are highly atypical. Unlike other large organs of the time, Woolsey was a rebuild, and of a stupendous size. 196 ranks is essentially twice that of the sister Skinner organs at Michigan, Princeton and University of Chicago. Within this scope, the client and both builders could accommodate most every desire. Trinity was entirely typical of its period, but the period was short, the tonal thesis in transition, and of these instruments many have been altered —Groton, Church of the Advent, Grace Cathedral, All Saints Worcester, the gallery organ at St. Bartholomew’s Church —beyond recognition. A few remain, such as St. Mark’s in Philadelphia [changed in 2001, seven years after this lecture was read], and despite changes to soft stops, the choruses and reeds of the Columbia organ of 1939 remain as installed.

In approaching the Woolsey organ, a detailed analysis of its many choruses and their relationships to one another would require the scope of an entire book. However, we can consider three main points. First, Skinner and Harrison were able to transform the ensemble quite readily, because they replaced virtually all of the choruses, keeping those conservatively-scaled ranks which would agree with their new concept. The Solo chorus was much like that at Princeton, with dominating and brilliant mixture, and a very bold octave; the tubas were new, and of their sort, bright. The Swell chorus is utterly standard for its period, merely augmented by an independent Twelfth and Seventeenth, as well as an additional, almost stringy Geigen at 8’. Most unusual are the Choir Violin Diapason and Octave. Although many Skinner choir organs have slender, bright Diapasons, most aren’t powerful, and with one exception, never have a mate at 4’ pitch. While still slender and bright, this Violin Diapason is not only powerful but with a noticeable treble emphasis; if anything the 4’ Octave, is even more so. The Great is the most complete diapason chorus ever to come from the Skinner factory, with a 32’ Violone, double, four opens, two octaves, all applicable mutations and three mixtures, capped by two reed choruses.

In the last ten years, the cult of Skinner has grown appreciably, in such a way as to worry this historian. While staying with one very prominent OHS couple in the last year, we came to the discussion of Skinner and Æolian-Skinner organs. We came to the discussion of a certain Skinner instrument, when the wife piped up, “Oh, I just can’t stand those Æolian-Skinner organs, with their flutey mixtures, and their grainy choruses, and their lack of foundation and their inability to be played clearly.” Whereupon the husband said, “Skinner, dear, not Æolian-Skinner. Ernest Skinner organs are beautiful, it’s the Æolian-Skinner organs that are ugly.”

Horrors! It would be like dismissing all the post 1870 Hook & Hastings organs because the unisons are too fat and the mixtures are too stringy. While I would readily profess my preference for Hook organs of an earlier generation, I feel it is encumbent upon us, as devotees and advocates of pipe organs in general, to know our history, and more importantly to absorb its underlying motivations, and how those motivations relate to larger contexts. The Woolsey Hall organ could not have been built at any other time except 1928 to 1930, while there are hardly any Æolian-Skinners quite like Trinity Church on the Green, despite its innocent specification.

Having opened up an enormous topic, I would like to address two particular aspects which relate to this larger topic of contexts and motivations. It is largely thought that in the late 1890s with the advent of Hope-Jones, the notion of ensemble was “dispensed with” because mixtures disappeared from organs, and thus, so did traditional mixture-topped choruses. While it mixture-topped choruses certainly did disappear from organs by-and-large, the notion of ensemble hardly went with it. The truth is that the concept of an American symphonic ensemble finally came of age, was tried for a while and found only part-way successful in the eyes of many. Therefore, the symphonic era culminated in a period that merged traditional mixture-topped choruses with a refined symphonic ensemble.

So what then was this Symphonic ensemble, and why was Skinner so popular in its realization? If we turn back to earlier Romantic organs of the mid 19th-century, especially in England and America, we find flue-and-reed choruses on the Great and Swell, often very fine, with a bare-bones pedal to match many basic registrations. But the Choir and Solo departments are treated almost as stand-alone entities, with collections of solo and echo voices which exist mostly out of relationship with the stops in the other divisions. So as not to step on any American toes, I’ll use an English example: the 1864 Willis organ in Reading Town Hall. The flue-and-reed choruses on the Great and Swell of this organ, matched by a splendid Tuba on the fourth manual and a dominating pedal reed, form as fine an example of Father Willis’ earlier work as can be found anywhere. But the flute stops, though excellent and colorful in themselves, bear little ensemble of their own when taken as a whole. For example, the Swell organ has just two unison flue registers, and open and stopped diapasons. The unenclosed Choir has two string stops, a scratchy little Viole and a broader, pellucid Salicional, assorted flutes, clarinet and oboe. The unenclosed Solo has two more open flutes at 8 and 4, an orchestral oboe and the heraldic tuba. These various solo voices, all lovely but lacking in variety or relationship, can work against the best in transcription playing, further foiled by their state of unenclosure.

It was this sense of relationship that I’m sure Skinner strove to achieve, and this is why his organs work so beautifully for choral accompaniment and for transcription playing. Each unison flue of a standard four-manual organ bears a definite relationship to the other stops of similar character found around the rest of the organ. Take the obvious matter of strings; often, the flute celeste is the softest voice in the organ, found in the Swell. It leads naturally to the Unda Maris, almost invariably on the Choir, which in turn leads seamlessly to the Swell Voix Celeste. Where there is a pair of Solo Gambas, they are usually at just the strength at which, with the box closed, the Swell Voix Celeste can just barely hide their entrance. The Gambas, in turn, are of sufficient power to pave the way for either larger, diapason foundations, or, if the Gambas are of the reverse-taper piranha variety, the sort so loud that they seem louder than all the Great fluework drawn together, they will logically prepare for all of Full Swell. The flutes are similarly balanced so that they can be used in a crescendo, or as the right accompaniment for color reeds. Where color reeds are concerned, Skinner varied his disposition greatly, and research reveals only certain indications where an organist had a great influence. What has been found to work best is when the color reeds are intelligently alternated between the Choir and Solo organs. In Skinner’s organ for the St. Paul Auditorium, now the nucleus of the instrument in Boston’s Old South Church on Copley Square, Skinner’s disposition was somewhat hampering. The Choir has a Fagotto at 16’, and a Clarinet and Flugel Horn at 8’, the Flugel Horn a sheer duplicate of the Swell’s. However, the Solo is beseiged with every color reed imaginable: Tubas at 8 and 4’, 16’ Heckelphone, 8’ English Horn (very similar), Orchestral Oboe, Corno di Bassetto, Musette, French Horn. This leaves the Choir organ as little more than a bridging division, or an accompanimental one, where the Solo gets all the solo lines. Contrast this to the sister instrument at the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke, Mass., where the color reeds are elegantly distributed between Choir and Solo.