English influence and how it reached Denver organs, 1925-1940

by Jonathan Ambrosino

When on a hazy evening some months ago I got an e-mail from Mike Rowe, hounding me for a topic, I spilled out that paragraph you have perhaps read in the Handbook, and promptly forgot about it. How I thought that I could squeeze 15 years into 45 minutes is beyond me, because there really is much to discuss. Consider what a dynamic time it was:

1. Within 15 years American organbuilding underwent almost a significant stylistic about-face.

2. The transformation occurred despite wildly varying financial and cultural conditions. Progress was a constant, unrelated either to the numbers of organs produced and or the grim economic outlook.

3. The way in which reform spun out took unpredictable turns, looking first to England, and then in a circuitous manner to Germany for inspiration and ideas, and never entirely absent from French influences.

4. Denver is unusual in that its local financial climate did not produce the same boon in 1920s church building as struck many other prominent cities.

5. The installation of almost every organ during the 1920s and ’30s in the region was governed through essentially one man: Fred Meunier.

In fact, understanding Fred Meunier is critical to understanding how organbuilding in Colorado unfolded from 1920 forward. A fixture in the musical life of Denver was the Knight-Campbell company, a one-stop shopping source for all things musical: sheet music, journals, harmonicas, pianos, nickelodeons, automatic pianos, other automatic musical instruments for the home, and even organs. A man named Charles Wells was the company’s agent for organs, primarily Esteys and Kimballs. It is fully conceivable that since these firms specialized in reed organs and other parlor instruments, a line that an outfit like Knight-Campbell would have made a killing in, it was only natural that Estey and Kimball would have looked to a responsible agent for further sales into church and theatre avenues. (Many smaller cities received their organs through similar types of venues, LIST.)

Fred Meunier went to work for Knight-Campbell around 1907 or ’08 as an elevator operator. Mechanically inclined, he was fascinated to work his way into the machine shop and get acquainted with the mechanized side of things. Soon enough he had picked up enough in the way of servicing automatic pianos and nickelodeon-type machinery that he was sent out on installation and service work. Since most of these instruments were in saloons, and since he was still underaged, Fred was even given a note on official stationery to assure proprietors of his legitimacy. Rick Morel reports that Fred had a lifelong aversion to liquor, and has wondered aloud whether it wasn’t possibly from Fred’s having to install remote-operated nickel coin boxes, wriggling through crawl spaces with stale beer and other fragrant diversion, enough to put off a man for a lifetime.

History once again digresses. From player work, Fred Meunier was soon promoted to helping with the installation of pipe organs that Knight-Campbell brokered. A first, perhaps the earliest, was a 1911 Estey in Temple Emanuel. It was an early indication of Fred’s incredible workaholic ways. Both Rick Morel and Larry Burt remember Fred’s insistence on working a full day without breaks, although he was genial, fair and good-spirited. By the time of another Estey installation, that at the Methodist Church in Lamar, Colorado, Fred was in charge of the installation. A man came around to see how the work was progressing, and was dismayed to see Fred and the other man sitting on the curb — at least until he went inside and saw the whole thing erected and tuned.

In 1919 Charles Wells opened a rival store to Knight-Campbell, and lured away Fred Meunier as a worker. In fact Fred was also company treasurer and worked for two years until he discovered what he considered to be an alarming disparity between his hourly wage and the rate at which he was being billed out. So in 1921 Fred became a free agent, essentially setting himself up as the primary organ installation man. His work was top-notch and he worked quick; business came his way without any difficulty. Soon he was installing organs by Kimball, Estey, Robert Morton, Wurlitzer, Aeolian, Reuter, and PLEASE FILL IN.

To backtrack slightly, it is helpful to note the kinds of new progressive organs that were hitting Denver at the time. In general I think it is safe to say that before World War I very little of progressive consequence had occurred since the installation of the two Roosevelts in Grace Church and Trinity Methodist. If we turn to the handouts, the original Kimball at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a good example of the kind of ‘important’ organ that came to the region.

What a pity then that Mr. Skinner didn’t get to build his organ for the Denver Auditorium, for it would have been the most significant new organ in Colorado in the early 20th-century. In the handout is provided Skinner’s proposal for this large organ, as well as the final page of the estimate outlining console features and details, and it has many fascinating features. (Note the coupling and piston features.) You should also know that this is a contract Skinner would have sold himself. In these days Skinner sold all his organs directly, and he would have been a bit flush with the success of his recent organs in the East, notably Saint John the Divine, Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, Kings Chapel Boston, and the Great Hall in the College of the City of New York. In Denver this worked against him, as we shall see.

That Skinner didn’t get to build the organ is an interesting story. The mayor of Denver at the time was Mayor Speer, after which Speer Boulevard is named, and he was all involved in City Beautiful and public works, a centerpiece of which was the auditorium. After signing the contract with Skinner, however, a big reform effort swelled up, and the populace voted Speer from office; the new administration cancelled the Skinner contract. On a happier note of sweet revenge, Speer was voted back in office four years later, but the organ landscape had changed by this time. In 1913 a pivotal Wurlitzer had hit town at the Paris Theatre, one that received much specific attention of Robert Hope-Jones. Another big Wurlitzer arrived at the Isis Theatre in 1915 (Fred Meunier helped to install this one), and Fred even gave Mayor Speer a tour of the organ chambers. The modern, populist bent of the Unit Orchestra seems to have struck a chord with the Mayor, and an $82,000 Wurlitzer organ was finished in the Auditorium in 1919. Among its many features were two 32’ Diaphones, a 32’ Bombarde, an Echo organ, and special traps meant to depict the mining trade, including the sound of pouring ore.

Around the same time as the Denver Auditorium estimate, Skinner had also proposed another organ for the region, this time for the University of Colorado at Boulder. At the time the University Organist was George Chadwick, who played at the local Methodist church and had there installed a Hope-Jones organ in 1908. In fact, the Macky Auditorium took a long time to complete, and by the time they got around to installing an organ in 1921 it would come instead from Austin. However, if in the Immaculate Conception Kimball we see an essentially 19th-century concept on modern mechanisms, the Skinner stoplist for U of C helps us to pinpoint the differences that defined his style.

Skinner’s stoplists 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. Take the Roosevelt we heard Bruce Stevens play yesterday, in which the Great organ is clearly the center of the organ, the Swell a second and the Choir a distant third. This is a direct descendant of tracker action and every classical tradition, with the desire to have the Great say all there was to say in the ensemble, to avoid the strenuous work of coupled manuals.

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. 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 proportions.

But if he was so famous and prominent, why did Skinner build no organs in Colorado? In fact it would be 1940 until even an Aeolian-Skinner arrived in town, at Saint Philomena’s Church, a small two-manual opus 1000. One would think that Skinner’s prominence would have assured work, some of it prestigious. The answer is again tied up both with Fred Meunier and with the Skinner company organization. Unlike the builders who contracted with Knight-Campbell or who had regional sales representatives, Skinner did all of its work in-house. In 1920 either Skinner or his vice president William E. Zeuch, the talented Chicago organist, handled almost all sales work; organs were installed by factory personnel and almost never by outside contractors. This arrangement froze Fred Meunier out of any involvement; and since he had a good customer base, and it was in his interest to make sales commission and the extra income of installing the organs, it is hardly surprising to see that he did not stress any other builder than those whose sale would net him business.

It is obvious that not everyone was swept away with the electric-action symphonic organ; and some people were perhaps dismayed at how dark and chocolatey organs had become by 1920. The most wordy of all was George Ashdown Audsley, whose ability to write could also be characterized as an inability to stop writing, and who, on a good day, could capitalize almost every word of a sentence. Paradoxically, the more Audsley wrote, the less influence he seemed to have; he was at the height of his influence when he designed the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair organ, now the nucleus of the Wanamaker organ. But by the time of his death in 1925 his 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.

One of the earliest people to become involved in reform was Senator Emerson Richards, the maverick lawyer from Atlantic City, born to wealth, sometime organist, and delightfully meddlesome, prolific with word and influence. In his capacity as senator and lawyer, Richards was influential in the business developments of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnel projects as well as other New Jersey transportation issues, including I believe the Pulaski Skyway. His long list of residence organs started out with an Estey. It is clear that Richards’ early interests were fully in the taste of the times, playing transcriptions and other light music then popular. One senses that his early dissatisfaction with modern organs stemmed perhaps less from strict musical motivations—providing sounds, choruses and an ensemble that made sense for a particular kind of music—and more from tonal ones: searching for a brighter and less cloying ensemble. Others joined with him in this desire, although reform was hardly an organized matter at this point. We can look to Harold Gleason’s insistence on the inclusion of chorus work and flexible console controls in his 1921 Skinner for the Eastman School’ Kilbourne Hall; we can look to Richard’s wild design, including low-pressure unenclosed Choir section, for the Midmer-Losh organ in the Atlantic City High School, an organ built and modified several times from 1922 to 1925. Richards carried on with his West End department at Saint Mark’s in Philadelphia, all supposedly carried out on Schulze lines (a courageous stance for a very intimate church) and executed by Midmer Losh. These various activities paved the way for the Senatorial fillibuster that is the Atlantic City organ.

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; his main pursuit was in residence organs, but he seems to have liked bold, virile sounds in all work. In his correspondence, he never seems to want to make any organ, be it in a residence or a concert hall, softer! Zeuch was a superb organist, practically on a par with any of the great names then current, such as Farnam or Courboin; probably his work at Skinner’s 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 direction of reform, even without having much of a notion of what shape that reform might take.

The first place everyone turned for inspiration was England. The knee-jerk reaction to turn to England was so intuitive for them as to be overlooked today. Today few look to England and many look to France and Germany for musical and tonal motivation in organbuilding. In the 1920s precisely the opposite was true, since the musical cultures of England and America were still very similar, while there were few cultural counterparts between this country and France or Germany. Besides, the 1920s was a period of rampant Anglo-Saxonism in this country, and as much as French organists were venerated and their music played, it was not unusual for the French as a country to be looked upon as suspect and ‘foreign’. Also, it was fairly commonly known that the French had not kept up with technical innovations in their organs, and if an organ didn’t work well, it was highly unlikely that any American organbuilder would take a French organ seriously, no matter how fabulous the sound. English organs had been eclipsed by American examples for technical innovation, but the industrial and inventive spirit was still seen to be at work, and therefore English organs were still to be venerated.

For all these reasons it is only logical that Skinner should turn there first. That he and Marks went to France is probably more the result of having befriended those French organists, including Bonnet and Dupre, who had made such triumphant tours of the States following World War I.

What Skinner brought back was first and foremost a love of bright silvery quint mixtures, with a view towards making them another ingredient in his massed ensembles. Eventually the trip also resulted in the arrival of G. Donald Harrison, a Willis director and someone keenly interested in tonal and musical matters. These two events started the Skinner organ down a road of reform. 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 Harrison: the authentic English goods. Robert Pier Elliot tried to make the same hay 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.

But in Denver, with the Skinner connection downplayed, other forces would work to get four Eliot-style organs into the region, all of them important and fine. The first was the Grace & Saint Stephens Welte in Colorado Springs, which we’ll hear Thursday. Aside from the fact that by 1928 an organ of any pretense had to recognize the current English-inspired trends, the organist Frederick Boothroyd was himself English, having been the organist of Paisley Abbey but removed to the West on account of severe asthma. If you’ve read the article on Welte in the Tracker, you’ll note that the Grace organ represents a transition period in the Welte output, when organs still contained a considerable amount of manual unification but had basic core choruses on both Great and Swell. Here some of the unification would have been meant to address the chanting of the psalms, such as the unified Viola in the Choir. Another element that is probably best attributed to Boothroyd is the fact that the Great and Solo are located in the transept, within the main body of the church. Perhaps it was merely because there was too much organ to fit in chancel chambers; but the location of Great and Solo in the transept, with Swell inside the chancel and Choir nearest the altar, shows more than the usual intelligence in dealing with an organ in side chambers.

The second organ in Colorado’s English Ensemble unfolding was the Shove Chapel Welte. Here the Boothroyd connection again pops up, since he was College organist, a position historically linked with Grace and Saint Stephen’s. Furthermore it is interesting to note the chastity that has entered the design of Shove as opposed to Grace; manual unification has disappeared, the 16-8-4 principal diapasons of the Great are now unenclosed and boldly voiced, and there is greater cohesion, brilliance and blend in the chorus work. Furthermore it occupies an ideal placement at the east end of the building on axis: another concern for good location, as well as a splendid visual display.

Shove Chapel was built by a construction company owned by Platt Rogers, a former mayor of Denver whose daughter married Senator Lawrence C. Phipps. It may well have been Boothroyd who convinced the Phipps that when they built their new enormous mansion in 1933 that they should have a pipe organ. Although Welte would have seemed the logical choice, that company had been absorbed into the Kimball company even before the Shove organ was completed in 1931: therefore Kimball became the option of default.

What an unusual residence organ! Most organs in homes develop along ultra-symphonic lines, with tremendous emphasis on 8-foot flues and color reeds, a few 4-foot flutes, and in Aeolian organs, string mixtures as coloring agents. To find a 4-octave in a residence organ is highly unusual. By contrast, the Phipps organ is much more a church or small concert organ, much along the vein of Shove but with concessions made through unification. Unfortunately, Kimball was very late in delivering the organ, which caused the Phipps untold annoyance. They did manage, however, to ship the roll player cabinet out in December of 1933 so that Senator Phipps could have it under the Christmas Tree as a present to his wife, from whom he had kept the organ a secret. The organ was installed later, and was presumably played not only from the rolls but also occasionally by Boothroyd.

In 1937 the idea germinated that Mrs. Phipps should give Saint John’s Cathedral a new organ in memory of her father, Platt Rogers. Once again Boothroyd got into the act, not only from his connection to the Phipps but on account of the Cathedral’s new Dean, Dean Roberts, had gone to Saint John’s from his old job, being rector of Grace St. Stephen’s in Colorado. (Is this beginning to sound just slightly incestuous?) Meunier wrote to the Kimball factory of Boothroyd and noted “his recommendation will carry very considerable weight, and he is favorable to your organ.”

The organist of the Cathedral, Carl O. Staps, was intensely jealous of Boothroyd, and soon discovered that it was really Boothroyd, and not he, who was calling the shots. Furthermore Boothroyd convinced Mrs. Phipps to give yet more stops, in some respects duplicating a few of the specialized additions, such as the Solo 2’ Piccolo, that he had Kimball make to the Grace organ in 1936.

Backtrack and talk about tonal development of Kimball organs

upto 1927, much like Consistory and theatre organs

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

Note that Michel was an organist

Senator Phipps was against Kimball owing to how late they had been with the house organ. However, he was overruled and the contract was signed in July of 1937 with a promise of delivery and completion by Christmas. George Michel came to inspect the room and acoustics and attend a morning service on June 19 and 20 of 1937. Additions were finalized later in July, with Mrs. Phipps once again footing the bill. When in November things still hadn’t arrived, Fred Meunier wrote letter after letter to the factory; some of the organ was in and playing for Christmas, but the whole wasn’t really all in until March 22. Meunier and Michel finished the organ from March 13 through April 11, amidst letters that read “Stapps and Cathedral are on the war path because of the delays”—“Dean Roberts and the entire committee feel that you folks have very sadly fallen down on your promise”.

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.

Meanwhile organ reform marched on, guided by a desire to move beyond a perfected Anglo-American style instrument towards one better suited to play earlier music. Emerson Richards was the first to move past the fascination of the English “tonal” phase to a more 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. Given the music, it was only a matter of time before emphasis shifted from England to Germany in the pursuit of polyphonically suitable choruses. Once again Richards led the way, being the first prominent figure allied with organbuilding to make the pilgrimage. An influential series of articles on Silbermann organs was published in TAO in 1933, and the extoling of tin may well have had its effect on George Michel. G. Donald Harrison finally went to Germany in the Spring of 1936, with the organist Carl Weinrich, but not until after having created two instruments that would transform mid-century organbuilding: the Groton School Chapel and the Church of the Advent in Boston. The organ at Saint Mark’s in Philadelphia, the first significant organ to result from the trip to Germany, certainly reflects aspects of what Harrison was exposed to on his travels, but in all Harrison was already heavily influenced by the 1931 Steinmeyer at Altoona, and already by 1936 had worked out his own highly personal chorus formulas, which would remain essentially in force until his death. Thus, English influence faded from view.

A curious footnote to tie this up: the Saint Mark’s organ of Aeolian-Skinner took out of service, among other things, Emerson Richards’ Midmer Losh West End division. Richards reclaimed the pipes and used them in his house organ -- and some of them are bound to be upstairs somewhere.

Thank you.