Ernest M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison: Retrospective & Review

by Jonathan Ambrosino

It is an oft-noted phenomenon that organ building styles have shifted more wildly in the 20th century than in any other. It is also true that the same has happened with our entire perspective, research, and treatment of the past. The 20th century has found it necessary to create a Bach organ in 1937 (the Aeolian-Skinner at Harvard University), a Bach organ in 1961 (the Baltimore Fisk), a Bach organ in 1985, and a Bach organ in 2001. It logically follows that our understanding of each instrument, as an historical entity, will shift as time goes on.

The most important aspect of 20th century organ research has been its striving toward a dispassionate honesty. It is now clearer than ever to researchers that legacy and legend are often cooked up out of the same ingredients. With respect to the Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organ, it is critical to sift fact from fiction—both exist in abundance. Take, for example, Ned Gammons and William King Covell, Harvard graduates of the 1920’s who played a critical journalistic role in public acceptance of the Aeolian-Skinner organ of the 1930’s. Here are two gentlemen that, from a historian's viewpoint, provide both clue and foil. Each was a real participant in the Aeolian-Skinner development and publicity machine of the 1930’s, each, a player in the drama. Gammons’s constant tinkering with the Groton School organ provided a vision of G. Donald Harrison in his laboratory; after Harrison’s death, Gammons’s further changes at Groton compromised Harrison’s vision for the organ he considered among his two or three most successful. Covell was the writer and observer, the man whose own tonal goals may have been a bit idealistic, but whose cogent written reaction to the ideas of others helped his generation understand the latest developments. Where Covell may have been most important was in writings that helped clarify G. Donald Harrison’s thinking when Harrison himself was reluctant to articulate his ideals, and when the polemical write-ups of Emerson Richards seemed too blatantly political.

In yet another sphere, Gammons and Covell are good organ characters, the types of lovable eccentrics that have peppered organ history from the beginning. The one time I met Gammons was about four months before his death in 1981. He was an unavoidably larger than life figure, not merely a famous name sprinkled through Barnes, old TAO’s, and any number of instruments for which he had served as consultant, but physically enormous too—not unlike Senator Richards. Over lunch, Mr. Gammons regaled Thomas Murray and me with stories, opinions, and perspectives about Skinner, Harrison, and Whiteford, and shared fascinating data about various instruments. He even uttered a few key sentences regarding the political quotient of “chiff,” alluding to the fact that Harrison might have been behind the times in an effort to achieve the next stage of “clarity.”

Covell was more reclusive, but no less curious a figure. A lover of antiquity, he lived in a sprawling home in Newport, surrounded by fine objects, many of them handed down from family. He was a confirmed bachelor, once grumbling to Aubrey Thompson-Allen that he’d “rather roll over and find a Father Willis Cornopean” lying next to him in bed.

Gammons and Covell are easy examples of the conflict between lore and history. When we look upon the works of great people, it is sometimes difficult for us to separate results from ideals, aspirations from achievement, what they said from what they meant, and what they meant from what they intended. Legacy and legend seem only to inflate with time (particularly when they’re good and juicy), often overlapping and blurring to the point that the two sometimes become indistinguishable. Skinner wrote often about his achievements and aspirations, but helpful though his writings are, they occasionally cloud the less visible, but equally vital developments of Skinner’s inventiveness. Harrison rarely wrote about his work, even going so far as to caution his son later in life, “Work like hell and stay out of print.” This is fine for folklore and for the telling of bedtime stories, but it has often led to dangerous consequences. Because Skinner didn’t understand organ music, let’s change his Solo into a Positiv. Because Harrison proposed adding a Positiv to an unaltered Skinner organ in the 1950’s, let’s fulfill his dictum and do so today, so as to “complete” the organ. This instrument sounds allright, but it doesn’t have the polish of some others—let’s revoice it slightly so that it approximates the “real” Aeolian-Skinner style. Harrison never really did much tonal finishing, and didn’t work on this organ personally—let’s refinish it as if he had. The most astonishing things have been done in this way, reflecting not an understanding of history, but a weak attempt to bridge historical folklore (“all old things are good and we mustn’t tamper with them”) with present-day desire and taste. In the end, what is really being done is to alter history to suit our needs. So much of this kind of thing goes on all around us in the name of “restoration” that it is hardly surprising that most people in the organ world don’t even mind doing it to organs.

My initial interest stemmed from a fascination with the work of G. Donald Harrison. His work seemed more musically responsible than Skinner’s, his outlook more rational and cosmopolitan. Coming into contact with the mechanism of the Skinner organ led to a greater respect for its mechanical nature, as opposed to that of the Aeolian-Skinner. Though each is generally excellent in its own right, the Skinner mechanism is more uniformly well-built, and certainly a more honest mechanical expression—the personification of Skinner’s ideal. Aeolian-Skinner made some good modifications to the Skinner ideas, but one is always struck by the fact that it is an interpretation of someone else’s ideal.

Regard for the Skinner mechanism drew me deeper into what Skinner might have been seeking tonally, and from there, musically. In recent years, however, research and dissection of the best of Skinner’s work has allowed me to conjure a clearer picture of where I imagine G. Donald Harrison himself might have been in 1932—loving the strengths, but candidly accepting the limitations.

My reemerged interest in the work of Harrison centers around several things. As limited as his efforts may appear against today’s musical goals, or even against those of a contemporary builder such as Walter Holtkamp, it is possible to retain a high regard for Harrison’s seriousness of musical purpose. There is something fascinating, too, about the incredibly effective restraint of his musico-political approach, and in his ability to create a style in tune with the day. He is a perplexing organbuilder, in that it is possible to have not only utter admiration for his masterpieces from both the 30’s and 50’s, but also, sincere frustration at instruments whose goals seem beyond any obvious explanation.

Studying the work of both Skinner and Harrison is difficult, for very few instruments have been left alone. A bare handful of large pre-World War I Skinner organs still exist. More survive from the 1920’s, but very few in truly original mechanical and tonal condition. Moreover, some of the public’s favorite organs have been changed in ways that would have made Skinner cringe. The most obvious example is Girard College, with its juiced-up Pedal reed unit and Solo Tubas. With such key elements changed, enthusiasm for them becomes historically dishonest when the impression is given that the instrument represents the indelible voice of its maker.

Though Harrison’s work never hit the rock-bottom level of disregard that Skinner’s did in the 1950’s and ’60’s, significant Harrison organs in original condition are amazingly scarce. Each of his landmark organs of the 1930’s was chronicled and hailed by a regular propaganda machine in The American Organist magazine, in write-ups by Covell or Senator Richards. The course of development that begins with Trinity College, Hartford (1931), and ends at the University of Texas at Austin (1941), has had many connecting segments erased beyond recognition, and the only large instruments now readily available for inspection are University of Minnesota (1932), Trinity Church, New Haven (1935), Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia (1937), Strong Auditorium at the Eastman School (1937), and Sage Chapel at Cornell University (1940). Ironically, all the really famous organs upon which much of the Aeolian-Skinner reputation rests, have been considerably, and in some cases drastically altered: Saint Mary the Virgin, All Saints Worcester, Grace Cathedral, Calvary Church Memphis, The Groton School, Church of the Advent Boston, Tabernacle Christian in Indianapolis, and in the postwar years, The Riverside Church, The Mother Church, The Mormon Tabernacle, First Presbyterian Kilgore. These are the organs of legend, and their original tonal condition is indeed now the stuff of legend. Either the organs have been changed in significant ways (not merely the pipes, but the wind systems and other mechanical features) or added to in such a manner that it is all too easy to overwhelm the Harrison style within—with the deficiencies corrected, the rebuilders would doubtless argue.

Skinner and Harrison had a few things in common, of course. Along with Holtkamp, these gentlemen were the last holdouts of a centuries-long tradition of forward movement in organbuilding. Successful, vital organbuilding up to 1950 was characterized by the impression that the goal of new work was to move forward in a recognizably new style, one that could be attached directly to the builder’s ingenuity and sensibility. At the end of the 20th century, this kind of individuality was no longer the central factor that characterized much creative organbuilding, and where present, it often seemed downplayed. Increasingly, as the century wore on, the successful organbuilder was the one who merged his talent with an ability to be a viable conduit of the past into the present. When we try to understand what motivated Skinner and Harrison to seek genuinely new paths, we must remember that, first and foremost, this is simply what organbuilders have always done. The past might inspire, but the future held wonders as yet undreamt of. It was the organbuilder’s job to realize those dreams and usher them into reality for a new public.

If neither organbuilder wished to go backward in a physical sense, the same cannot be said of musical perspective. Skinner’s devotion to the orchestral literature and its faithful tonal recreation at the organ marked him at the beginning as being of a distinctly 20th century mindset: to make an instrument specifically to satisfy a pre-existing literature. In this case, the development of English and French Horns is beyond mere ear-tickling—it reflects a passionate desire for an authentic experience. If Skinner planted the seedling, it was G. Donald Harrison who watered and trimmed the tree, and Charles Fisk and John Brombaugh who climbed it as children. A whole host of people are falling from it now, and we are the beneficiaries of their skinned knees.

Ernest M. Skinner as an organbuilding personality has something of a basis in Skinner’s mentor George Hutchings, and a bit of Boston organbuilding history. In the 1880’s, Boston’s organbuilding establishment had pretty much boiled down to a rivalry between two main houses, the conservative Hook & Hastings, now controlled by the distinguished Frank Hastings of landed gentry, and George Hutchings, also Hook-trained and possibly slightly put out that Hastings and not he, himself, had assumed the reins at the Hook atelier. The difference between the two men is one of class and station. Hastings had breeding, money, and class, a social conscience with regard to the livelihood of his workers. Hutchings was a commoner who made his name through hard work and sheer ambition. When Hastings writes to the press, it is as a proud man, defending his achievements much in the manner of a gentlemanly dispute, ruffled but never rankled. When Hutchings writes to the press, it is less refined, more pompous, short on credit. When he mentions the developments of his young superintendent, Hutchings fails to cite Ernest Skinner by name.

Hutchings’s drive is unmistakable. By 1890, however, it seems that he acknowledges a willingness to collaborate on tonal developments, almost as if he cannot move forward alone, and therefore seeks his impetus through others. First, it was Carlton Michell in 1890—the same year that Skinner joined the company. But by 1892, Michell was out, and on to other pursuits. Lahaise family folklore relates that Hutchings thought Michell too slow and painstaking in the voicing room. In this light, Skinner’s mechanical preoccupations are allowed to take center stage in the arena of artistic advance. By 1893, the company turned out important, large electric action organs, continually refining the pitman action windchests, the electrical systems, and the rather wild bat-wing movable consoles. Feature-wise, these organs outclass anything that had come from Hook & Hastings (who were still building tracker and tubular organs with slider chests), while rivaling the work of Roosevelt and Farrand & Votey.

The lack of recognition and an inability to exert real tonal influence over the Hutchings organ surely figured in Skinner’s decision to seek outside capitalization and to start his own shop. This he did in 1901, and it took about five years for him to get his sea legs. It is quite possible that Skinner saw in Hutchings’s example of upward mobility a way of fueling his own. And he is just the character to do it. After all, Skinner is the son of vaudeville actors; there is something of Mark Twain in him—he is salty, dapper, clownish yet gentlemanly, with a clipped Yankee accent and a quick tongue. And he infused his deportment with sufficient charm to make the unlikely combination work. Having been privy to so much of Hutchings’s high-profile work, Skinner seems to have used those same connections and familiarities to burst onto the scene.

One of Skinner’s interesting tenets is that he never embraced the notion of building stock-model organs, unlike both Hook & Hastings and Hutchings, for whom such instruments were bread and butter. Where other builders cranked out dozens of organs every year, the Skinner factory never completed more than 60 in any given year. Skinner is undaunted by the possibilities of success, and has an am bition and a straightforward manner not unlike that of Hutchings. But unlike Hutchings’s own beginnings, Skinner reaches immediately for a high-end clientele as if he were well-funded and well-positioned, much like Roosevelt had been able to do almost from the beginning. In this, Skinner is not the inheritor of the Hooks, Hastings, or Hutchings legend, but is taking his cue from someone like Carlton Michell, who makes a splash wherever he goes, trumpets his ideals in the press, and becomes a public personality involved in organbuilding rather than an organbuilder whose work happens to attracts public notice. This kind of approach paves the way for G. Donald Harrison himself, and comes to characterize much of the approach of the Fisk, Brombaugh, and Rosales school, in which a client gets as much involved with the man as with the creation of the instrument.

Musically, the Skinner organ was a radical in conservative garb. Where Hook & Hastings was too staid in both mechanical and tonal advance, where Hutchings went only so far, and where Robert Hope-Jones was simply too novel for most organists to cope with, Skinner’s stoplists were a marvelous blending of tradition and progress. But behind the simplicity lay some quietly revolutionary ideas.

Skinner’s earliest stoplists give the illusion of being mostly traditional late-19th century organs, albeit without 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, that he was the first to fully grasp how electric action could permit the elimination of customary divisional roles. Take any of the prominent 19th century organs seen, for example, throughout the Boston OHS Convention. The Great is clearly the center of the organ, the Swell and Choir often sharing place for a distant second, and the Pedal provides only the most necessary of bass effects. This is a direct result of both tracker action and the 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. As the 19th century comes to a close, the Swell may have eclipsed the Choir to become second in command, but the station of the Great remained intact. Almost immediately, Skinner upturns this notion. In the Skinner organ of anything other than considerable size (see stoplist), the Great is now a source of foundation tone, on top of which is gathered the rest of the instrument. The Swell is really more the center of things, usually having the primary set of chorus reeds under expression. Although the Choir long since ceased to be an Echo department, it is now less than ever a stand-alone division, and it has graduated into a supporting partner of the lesser Swell voices. More forcibly than anyone, Skinner realized that electric action freed him to recalibrate the voices throughout the organ in a fresh way, and that ease of coupling through electric action 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.

Concurrent with the alteration of divisional balance, the alteration of compass balance was an important part of the new Skinner ensemble. In one sense, Skinner was responding both to popular and personal desire to see an organ more grand, more sure-footed (through the use of higher pressures), while unquestionably less brilliant. Part of the reduction in brilliance came from limiting the amount of upperwork introduced into the specification, but in equal measure, it resulted from revising the compass balances along a generally flat regulation slope. In the case of the strings and softer celestes, the compass balance is treble-descendant, to make a heavenly effect when drawing the octave coupler.

Taken together, these features were radical. But Skinner clothed them in a comfortable, recognizable pattern that invited, rather than intimidated. Skinner’s mechanical refinement and superb new consoles unquestionably had their part in putting organists at ease. Electric action organs of the 1890’s were still something of an experiment. Skinner’s organs in the first decade of the 1900’s were quiet, reliable and fast—the mechanical transparency would have put many a doubting organist at ease. Perhaps the console is Skinner’s most enduring contribution to organbuilding, since the basic concepts he laid down are still widely embraced today. The console was not only comfortable, with excellent keys and pedals, good swell shoes, and superb proportions—it was also the gateway to Skinner’s entire electropneumatic conversion of the organ. The difference between, say, the Mission Church Hutchings of 1897 and the Saint John the Divine Skinner of 1911 can only have been astonishing; the real question is how well the Hutchings would have felt and responded in 1911, compared to the ease, response and elegance of the Skinner. The only thing like it would have been an Austin, but an Austin console was never so refined, and the environment never quite so fluid and elegant an interface between player and instrument.

While Skinner certainly published and traded upon all of these features, his modern reputation all too often seems to boil down to what he himself concentrated so much public relations attention on: the family of orchestral reeds his firm developed between 1908 and 1927. Of these, one can list the Orchestral Oboe, English Horn and Heckelphone, and French Horn, plus a family of soft and loud celestes of uncommon beauty. But these individual voices, no matter how appealing or tantalizing, seem minor as a force of progress on their own. Issues such as divisional and compass balances, and the freedom of playing afforded by Skinner’s mechanical advances, are, more properly, Skinner’s real contributions to organbuilding, and make possible a means of subtle and smooth orchestral-type transcription playing. Techniques and musical effects from that style quickly cross over into choral accompaniment as well.

In 1898, Skinner visited England and was overwhelmed with the organs of Henry Willis. Father Willis and Henry Willis II showed Skinner through both the Liverpool and London works, and Skinner took away much valuable data on reed voicing and also tremolos. It becomes clear in Skinner’s own work that the organs per se did not so much catch his attention, as the bronze-toned ardor of the high-pressure Willis tubas, which he would have heard both at Saint George’s Hall Liverpool, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral London. This type of dark tone was to pervade all of Skinner’s later chorus reeds, whether Cornopean, Tromba, or Tuba. This, too, was revolutionary, a concept never before advanced and in no way related to anything in 19th century organbuilding. The goal here was no ordinary organ reed chorus, but instead the heavy brass of the Wagnerian orchestra.

This interesting new melange defined the Skinner organ: a big Swell, a small Great, timid trebles, ravishing strings, captivating orchestral colors, and a newfound ease of playing comfort. Here was, in effect, a giant one-manual organ, in which the divisions were interrelated, and stops placed in a combination of tradition and convenience, occasionally duplexed for additional flexibility. Yet Skinner eschewed the mechanical complexity and tonal chaos of unification. It was, unquestionably, a step forward that reflected a clear link with its Hutchings heritage: not too outlandish to cause concern, novel enough to stimulate new means of playing, and hardly predictable. Skinner had struck that harmonious, elevated middle ground, and had taken American organbuilding forward to its next stage.

Skinner soon proved himself a businessman in typical organbuilder fashion. Though he did have initial working capital—some from his own sale of a roll-player patent, and some from outside investors—it wasn’t quite enough, and the business grew slowly. Inevitably, downpayments on new orders provided the cash to complete organs under construction, a situation that seemed to escalate through the 1910’s. Only in 1914 was Skinner able to expand the factory and institute a pipe shop, but the pipe shop was run as a separate business by John Hanley until 1930. In 1917, Skinner hired William Zeuch, a Chicago-born organist who had sold residence organs for Aeolian, as Vice-President to assist with sales and development. Although I have yet to corroborate the data, I hope I am fair in assuming that it was probably Zeuch who was involved with the sale of, or addition to, an Aeolian Organ in Akron, Ohio at the home of Arthur Hudson Marks, a wealthy rubber magnate who had patented the process for cold vulcanization of rubber, a process used in the manufacture of automobile tires. Marks was musical, and he had a particular fascination with player organs—better still, he was rich. It cannot have taken Zeuch long to figure out what was really going on at the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company, and I wager it was Zeuch who brought about the connection between Marks and Skinner in a sincere effort to get proper capitalization and organization into the Skinner company. In a letter from 1917, Skinner writes to Marks that the company is building an Orchestrator organ, a very complicated type of player organ, and that the profit would be one-hundred percent. This was probably one-hundred percent fiction, but it points to Skinner’s desperation to move beyond financial strains. Skinner may soon have realized that making money was something Arthur Marks no longer needed to do. Marks bought the company in 1919, eventually capitalized it with a quarter-million dollars, took the stock public, brought in key men he had worked with in his own industry and in the military, renamed the whole thing the Skinner Organ Company, and even bought up the Steere Organ Company when a disastrous fire severely jeopardized that company in 1920.

Through the early 1920’s, the Skinner output was concentrated on very large organs for prominent clients, plus the usual smaller jobs and residence organs. Development of new voices slowed, but did not stop. In 1921, Skinner provided his first organ with a series of Choir mutations, the Nazard, Tierce, and Septième. Far from any kind of traditional mutations, these were delicate Gemshorns that provided color tints. Otherwise Skinner’s style had gone essentially unchanged for a decade.

As a stimulus to artistic development, Ernest Skinner made his famous second trip to England and France in March-April 1924. Increasingly, documents reveal that the real motivation for this trip may have come from Marks and Zeuch. 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 with Skinner that kept Zeuch from becoming as much a household name as these other great artists. Being such a skilled player, he would have been the first person in the Skinner organization to become dissatisfied with the more serious musical qualities of the organs, the one to articulate shortcomings, as he would confess, decades later, to Henry Willis III. Indeed, one feels certain that, by 1924, Zeuch had more of Marks’s ear than did Skinner. Furthermore, he sold as many of the important jobs as did Skinner, and was in a prime position to point the work of the company in a new direction.

What Skinner brought back from England was a love of bright, silvery Quint mixtures, and a view that such stops could be another ingredient in his massed ensembles. Here again, the folklore is a bit hard to separate from the facts. In an article entitled “A Trip Abroad,” Skinner cites two Willis organs whose bold, silvery mixtures helped him turn a philosophical corner in using such sounds in his own work: Westminster Cathedral, and Christ Church Westminster Bridge Road, London (where, it should be noted, Carlton Michell was once organist). Willis III is eager to claim credit for Skinner’s conversion experience, but the contract for Westminster Cathedral was originally let to Lewis & Co., and was built largely to a Lewis scheme. The enormous five-rank Grand Chorus mixture that drove Skinner mixture-mad is derivative of Schulze—the inspiration for Lewis, not Willis. Certainly Father Willis organs never had anything quite like such a bold, ringing unison-and-quint-only mixture sound. Christ Church Westminster Bridge Road was barely a Willis organ at all, but in fact, a slightly rebuilt and electrified T.C. Lewis organ, with a typical bright chorus capped by a bold unison-and-quint mixture. Real Willis mixtures were rarely anything other than three ranks, and they almost always contained a tierce. So even though Willis III tried to claim credit, it was really Lewis’s idea that proved fascinating to Skinner.

Upon his return to America, Skinner began to introduce mixtures, and, while they resemble neither Father Willis’s nor most of Willis III’s mixtures, they really don’t resemble Lewis upperwork either. Despite the public alliance with Willis, it would seem that Skinner was heading his organs in neither a Willis nor a Lewis direction. Reading between the lines, a third possibility emerges. In Stop Open and Reed, Skinner writes quite favorably of the Harrison & Harrison organ at Saint Mary Redcliffe in Bristol—an organ that even Henry Willis III admitted admiring. Even more curiously, in the home movies Skinner took in England, there is no footage of Liverpool Cathedral, nothing of Westminster Cathedral, or indeed, hardly anything of Willis, the Willis London works, or Willis organs. But interestingly, there is footage at Redcliffe. This 1911 Arthur Harrison organ was a landmark in every way, from its unusual stop disposition and physical layout, to the widely contrasting tone: Swell with bright trumpets and a big quint Mixture pitted against a Great with leathered Diapasons, a Mixture with Quints, Tierces, and Septièmes; Trombas so dark and smooth they might as well have been large flue stops, and Solo Tubas of extremely dark, even oily character. The overall effect is not without brilliance, but the overriding impression was one of inexorable, ocean-liner grandeur.

The manner in which Skinner organs develop from 1925 to 1930 resembles the Harrison & Harrison model more than anything else. Swell reeds eventually become brighter, but Great reeds remain Trombas. Up until the time of G. Donald Harrison’s arrival at Skinner, chorus mixtures are exclusively of the unison and quint variety, but afterward, the Great mixture is often a harmonics type mixture, with thirds, fifths and sevenths. The tingly Swell quint mixture is never so strong as a Lewis mixture, and unlike any real sort of Willis mixture. It is uncannily close, however, to the usual Harrison & Harrison model.

If I am correct in this theory, Skinner could never have declared the truth publicly. He had visited Willis III out of a sense of duty for all he had gained from Willis’s father and grandfather in 1898—the 1924 trip resulted in a very public alliance, wherein Willis sent pipes and tonal tips in exchange for Skinner’s pitman chest, console mechanisms and fancy color stops. Willis had completely pulled the wool over Skinner’s eyes as far as his own popularity was concerned: it was Harrison & Harrison, not Willis, who were clearly the builders of the day. But Willis’s writing and public relations gave the appearance that it was his firm that still ruled English organbuilding, and most of the traveling American artists came to adopt this stance as well. And let us not forget also that we are dealing with an organbuilder who lacked no confidence in his own abilities and in the results of his labor. As Skinner wrote to a client on May 22, 1928, “We have just finished an organ for Ann Arbor costing $75,000. It is from every angle the most magnificent thing I ever heard on either side of the water.” English influence was nice, but rest assured, Skinner was still happily building Skinner organs.

By 1898, when Skinner was hearing Willis organs in Liverpool and London, the tone of the Willis organ had dulled down from the slightly crude early organs of the 1850’s and the more razor-edged ensembles of the 1870’s. In recorded examples of the famous 1899 Willis organ at St. Bee’s Priory in Northumberland, England, and of the equally famous 1926 Skinner organ at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit, for example, it is interesting to note that the Willis organ has a greater degree of flue energy but less cohesive upperwork than foundation; the Skinner is, in its own way, slightly more brilliant, and in general, far more foundational, yet more cohesive and rather more clear. On the other hand, the likeness of the Harrison & Harrison at Saint Mary Redcliffe to this same Detroit Skinner is uncanny, though the former, with its Double Open Wood, twin 32’ reeds and gracious acoustical environment, seems to have extra trimmings of both brass and velvet.

What a Skinner organ has that no English organ ever quite gets to is the divisional balance peculiar to Skinner. Even with the dark Tromba chorus reeds, a Harrison & Harrison Great still dominates the ensemble, though energized and given fire by the reeds and mixtures of the Swell. But Skinner is not seeking choruses; he chooses to view the upperwork as an agent of brilliance, and it is a new fascination for him. He is not seeking departmental independence—in his philosophy, you’ll have all the couplers on in the end, so isn’t it handier to have the big sounds expressive?

But the pursuit of brilliance does not detract Skinner from his primary goal: orchestral opulence in pipe organ tone. The whole purpose of the Skinner organ was to produce effect, create a mood, and grace the ear with fluid, smooth, opulent timbres, disposed in such a manner as to create a wide variety of musical situations, pinpointed by the realism of orchestral color. One senses that Skinner’s goal was not that one understand music, so much as to feel it, through the agent of tonal beauty. Most likely, Skinner was entirely satisfied simply by what his ear perceived as a gorgeous sound.

The arrival of G. Donald Harrison pours water on Skinner’s very individual aesthetic. Music, not tone, is now the focus of the endeavor. Harrison is fascinated by mixtures, but not merely as stand-alone contributors of brilliance. He begins a decade-long pursuit of a chorus both elegant in tone, complex in texture, and clear in effect. His earliest choruses are exaggerated versions of certain English examples. In these choruses, the 8' line is rather broad, sometimes keen, and the 4' principal is pushed to the limit and finds itself between keenness and downright edginess, this pitch being seen not as a continuation of the chorus so much as a binder between unison and upperwork. The upperwork, in turn, is gentle, of small-scale, blown moderately, and sweet in effect. The effect is very energized for homophonic music, but less suited to contrapuntal music. Though Harrison is after a true chorus, the process is still adopting a bit of Skinner’s philosophy that individually brilliant elements can be applied, almost as corrective measures, in order to bring about a chorus. Such a process is, by turns, successful and distracting—the ear is sometimes drawn to the edginess of a 4' line or the squeakiness of a 2' line, which no subsequent addition, not even reeds, can coalesce.

What, then, are Harrison’s main sources of inspiration for organ tone and effect? Harrison was a Willis man, enamored of Father Willis and his work, but beyond that, the story becomes increasingly problematic. He originally tried to work with T.C. Lewis, the disciple of Schulze whose work blended German, French, and English ideals into a remarkably eclectic and musically Romantic instrument strongly grounded in classical traditions. Lewis rejected Harrison, perhaps because, at that point, Lewis had split from his own company and was an old man working on a very limited basis. By 1919, when Harrison decided unequivocally that he wanted to be in organbuilding, he no longer had the option of going to Lewis & Company, since that firm had been merged with Willis and was under the control of Willis III. Harrison found himself in an interesting position: although he had done some training at the Willis factory, he certainly did not ascend through the traditional five-year apprenticeship. Soon he was managing tunings, doing office work, and in general, operating as Willis III’s aide. Meanwhile, he thoroughly absorbed factory records, which included both Lewis and Willis materials, and continued to study and analyze the organs under his care, as well as other famous instruments.

Despite Harrison’s pledged allegiance to the work of Father Willis, it seems increasingly obvious that Lewis’s work left an indelible impression upon Harrison, and that he would carry Lewis’s early lessons right to the last organ he built. Even when Harrison had moved beyond trying to recreate the Lewis sound, his organs are, more than anything, governed by the way in which Lewis structured his choruses, balanced one division to the other, and sought a certain cohesion, balance, and restrained grandeur in the tutti. Despite writing to his son Michael that Father Willis was the most musical English organbuilder, it is the Lewis organ at Southwark Cathedral that Harrison repeatedly urges his son to visit, as a preface to hearing some of Harrison’s Aeolian-Skinner organs.

Lewis’s principal tone is based upon a refinement of Schulze’s—using heavy, hard spotted metal pipes with wide open toes and flues, moderate nicking, higher cut-ups (usually one-third), and voiced on the slow side with a high languid and a forward upper lip, the tone is intense, bright, precise, and with a very distinct vowel color. In building the chorus, Lewis reduced scales slightly as pitches ascend, but not like other builders. The Twelfth and Fifteenth are of almost identical scale, and voiced to equal strength. The big, crunchy Twelfth is a bit hard to bring on in a smooth buildup, but once drawn, has the effect of making a small chorus sound big and complex. Moreover, as twelfths always help to do, the inner voices stand out very clearly. Having established these principles by the late 1860’s, Lewis’s ideas changed only in degree, not in concept, over his 45 years of organbuilding. The mixture tone becomes slightly sweeter and smaller in scale as the years go by, and the twelfths very slightly duller, often with arched cut-ups. Chorus reeds play a minor role, except in the largest and grandest Lewis organs. The organ at Southwark Cathedral, voiced entirely on 31/2" wind (except for two stops on 12"), has a single Great 8' Trumpet, but a battery of reeds enclosed in the Solo. The result is a flue-dominated and reed-colored manual tutti, with not overly loud, but nonetheless powerful Pedal reeds. This example is eerily reminiscent of almost all of G. Donald Harrison’s important work after 1935, and recalls his often repeated comment during the finishing of an organ that he was always a bit sorry to see the reeds installed. In recorded material from Southwark, one can note that the right-hand and pedal melodies are utterly distinct, if not quite as prominent as in a French organ. Entirely unlike a French organ, however, the inner voices are easily distinguished and not a jumbled, however glorious roar.

In its cohesion, complexity and dignified texture, the Lewis ideal was far from the more straightforward grandeur—dominated by the glorious high pressure reeds

—of the Willis organs. It took G. Donald Harrison some time to reach an organ along these Lewis-like lines, and by the time he did, other influences had already permeated his thinking. He was, of course, influenced by the many existing effects of the Skinner organ as useful supplements to basic organ tone. But the 1931 Steinmeyer organ at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona, Pennsylvania was to leave a permanent effect.

In principle, the full ensemble of the Steinmeyer organ resembled the Lewis ideal, in that mixtures, not reeds, dominated the manuals. But in the Steinmeyer, reeds tended to define the Pedal. And unlike the Lewis ideal, the Steinmeyer upperwork was far larger in scale and broader in tone, creating a starchy sort of chorus that tended to leave the melody perhaps slightly less distinct, but that brought out the inner voices in even higher relief—significantly, no matter how loud the registration. The large-scale mixtures gave the full ensemble an entirely different vowel color, more “ah” than “ee.” The Steinmeyer balance structure was fairly traditional, with a dominating Great, a subordinate Swell, and a colorful but restrained Choir.

Increasingly unhappy with any sort of shrill treble, and yet determined to include more mixtures and to create a more interesting sort of chorus and ensemble, Harrison surely found an intriguing way forward in the Altoona organ. The likeness to Steinmeyer’s approach to chorus design is too similar to what Harrison would later develop to be coincidental, and the example was to be found nowhere else in America than in this instrument. Perhaps most tellingly, it was German, and in the fervor to create an organ that might play Bach, anything German seemed to be an authentic instruction book, even if the Steinmeyer was merely a late German Romantic organ with a few neo-classical features.

The first Aeolian-Skinner organs to explore choruses along the lines of Altoona were built almost concurrently in 1934, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and All Saints in Worcester, Massachusetts. The scaling pattern begins to resemble what prevails at Altoona, with more modest unison registers, a 4' larger than the 8', and mixtures whose scaling results in trebles larger than anything else in the chorus, being based on slower halving ratios. With lower wind pressures and a reduced emphasis on reed tone, Harrison was beginning to find his own voice.

With his constant move away from simple brilliance, it becomes clear that Harrison disliked small-scaled trebles pushed hard and voiced bright. The adoption of large-scaled upperwork allowed him to achieve his goal of a brilliant but not shrill-toned organ. In comparing, for example, the Lewis organ at Southwark Cathedral, and the unaltered 100-rank Aeolian-Skinner at Saint Mark’s Philadelphia, the composition of the tutti at Saint Mark’s is uncannily like that of Southwark—one could almost believe that they were the work of the same hand—but in the Aeolian-Skinner, the sharp edges have been filed down, and it is, ironically, a less sheerly brilliant organ in its fluework than, say, some of the 1929 and 1930 Harrison organs. Yet, without high-pressure reeds and a reduction in the 8' mass, the texture of the full ensemble is at once more complicated and cohesive than in any Skinner organ.

This type of flue chorus, once achieved in 1934, would be a source of constant experimentation during Harrison’s life, but for all the experimentation, the recipe didn’t really vary that much, and neither did the effect. Much as Lewis had found his way through refinement in bits and pieces, so Harrison never really altered the basic premise once he stumbled upon it. His choruses from the mid-1930’s, where unaltered, are often very persuasive, complex, clear and melodic all at once. The Great chorus of the 1939 organ at Saint Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University is a fine example.

The 1940’s saw further experimentation with even larger-scaled trebles, but this proved short-lived—with very low cut-ups, the pipes were simply unstable and untunable. Moreover, the mixture work, with its straight-scaling and prominent twelfths, began to give a cloying effect not unlike that of a Cornet stop, even though no tierce was present. Harrison died in 1956, and beginning in 1954, he reverted to slightly narrower trebles for a more sparkling effect. In the examples of Saint Mark’s Philadelphia and Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Forest Park, Illinois (1954), the continuation of the basic premise is unmistakable (one can detect a slightly keener top in the choruses of the latter).

At the same time, the later heroic organs were becoming ever brighter, with the power belonging chiefly to bold mixtures of complex scale and composition. At the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City, with its sumptuous, bass-friendly acoustical environment, there is no dearth of warm foundation, even for an instrument whose bass scales are downright narrow. The trebles, however, are tank-like, and paired to excellent reeds. The build-up is an ever increasing storm of intense biting mixture and reed tone, not at all inappropriate to so vast a space.

Is there some sense of continuity between Skinner and Harrison? In subtle ways, perhaps. One of the most distinctly 20th century pipe organ sounds is that of strings. Skinner was the first traditional organbuilder to give strings a prominent role, using pipes of reverse taper construction and forceful tone. At the 1926 instrument at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, Detroit, Michigan, a single pair of Solo Gambas can, with octave coupler, stand on their own in dialogue against full Swell.

In the Skinner organ, the strings were not only a tool of orchestral timbre, but a simple, ravishing indulgence. While the strings of G. Donald Harrison’s era become progressively broader, the voicing techniques were identical to those used by Skinner, and though the tone in Harrison is less intense, there is timbral continuity. A distinct postwar development was the Viola Pomposa and Celeste, slightly tapered pipes scaled halfway between real strings and principal. Heard in context, these stops register as strings; but in comparison with the earlier, narrower stops, they sound like Geigens, something we might term Principal and Voce Umana.

Did Skinner learn anything from Harrison? Yes, tapered basses, and the voicing and balancing of mixtures in an effective, Romantic fashion. Did Harrison learn anything from Skinner? Yes, when faced with a smaller organ in a conservative vein, Harrison’s work uses much of Skinner’s thinking reinterpreted into Harrison’s own vernacular. Many larger Skinner organs have no reeds on the Great, and rely upon the Swell as the sole point of chorus reed tone, and though Harrison generally brought the Swell in line with the Great from a balance standpoint (taking a cue from Cavaillé-Coll), he just as often did not, and in his work, the Swell remains, ironically, the heart of the organ.

In conclusion, if one had to sum-up one direction of the Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organ, it would be a solid progression away from the effects of the Skinner organ, and the heroism of High Romanticism, toward an ever more restrained, yet complex effect. It has been said by some that Skinner was not interested in creating an imitation orchestra, but merely an instrument that might possess orchestral expression, responsiveness, and color. The fact remains, however, that he was hardly orthodox in what he hoped to hear an organ play. If we say that Skinner did, in fact, hope to create a surrogate orchestra, I have a feeling it is a charge he might not deny.

Yes, Skinner was a bad businessman, and in this he joins any number of other 20th century organbuilders, living and dead, who value artistic statement more than financial solvency. Under Arthur Hudson Marks’s leadership, the company made quite a bit of money in the 1920’s, building up substantial cash reserves. Virtually all of that money was spent keeping the company afloat in the 1930’s; the rest of it was eaten up by World War II and the rampant inflation directly following. By 1949, the situation became so untenable that Joseph Whiteford was able to secure controlling interest in the company with an injection of less than $50,000, while Marks had sunk $250,000 into the firm in 1919-20. The closest thing to the truth is that, if Skinner was a poor businessman, G. Donald Harrison was no better, was possibly worse, and was in no way helped by nearly two decades of very trying conditions.