Review: “Aeolian-Skinner Remembered”

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Æolian-Skinner Remembered is conceived as a companion volume to The American Classic Organ, published by OHS in 1990. The second book, published by Randall Egan, duplicates the visual and conceptual format of the OHS volume: a book of letters, supplemented by biographical data on the correspondents, the occasional footnote to clarify items in the letters, and pipe shop notes meant to convey something of the technical development of the instruments under discussion. Also included are telling essays from J. Michael Harrison (son of G. Donald), Bill Bunch, John Tyrrell, John Kellner, Lawrence Schoenstein and Allen Kinzey: a nice refinement on the original concept. These two convenient volumes form a corps of unparalleled primary source material.

While the first book covers 1924-1956 and centers around the rise of G. Donald Harrison, the second book essentially concentrates on the post-Harrison years, coupled with numerous letters from all periods that Callahan has been able to unearth since the publication of the first book. From a literary perspective, Æolian-Skinner Remembered is as dramatic as its predecessor, unfolding like a mystery novel in its absorbing dialogue on things dear to an Æolian-Skinner lover’s heart. Technical developments are discussed as they evolve; clients articulate their (sometimes outlandish) requests; problems are addressed and solved, only to resurface later and be revisited.

Where Harrison was the star of the first book, the second volume has no real central figure but features many of the same characters: William King Covell, organ observer and author, pedantic, thorough and theoretical; the ever loquacious Senator Emerson Richards, by now—with a memory on the wane, an ego on the rise, and an ever sharper sense of observation—the spiciest correspondent of the lot; Joseph Whiteford, the ambitious young vice president of Æolian-Skinner, whose talents and motives emerge gradually. The correspondence of G. Donald Harrison’s son, J. Michael Harrison (which the younger Harrison made public a few years ago), is also included. The letters show GDH at his most tender, as well as including a revealing assessment of the house of Willis. There are also entries from Skinner’s Chicago salesmen Walter Hardy and Lawrence Schoenstein. Indeed, the book opens with a 1933 memo from company president Arthur Hudson Marks to Hardy and Schoenstein’s predecessor, Stanley Williams, explaining the deposing of Ernest Skinner. Although it only confirms what the evidence leads one to suspect in that disastrous divorce between Skinner and his own company, Marks’ words are still scorching to read:

I have done everything in my power to keep E.M. on the pedestal and to avoid humiliating him. It has not been possible to get him to realize that he went over the top a few years ago and has been slipping since that time. This is perfectly natural at his age and he had the alternative of remaining the Grand Old Man of the Skinner Company, resting on his laurels and pushing Harrison into the limelight or of bucking the inevitable and trying to hold the limelight. He himself chose to try and hold the limelight and apparently felt that he could oust Harrison.… The fact is that Harrison has arrived and is today in the limelight because of his achievements. Neither E.M. nor the Company can keep E.M. in the center of the stage.

Hard evidence of this kind is the book’s glory: it is history’s own narration. The essays only serve to strengthen the narrative, clarifying threads in the story and offering perspective tempered by time and distance. Given that these essayists were all involved first-hand with Æolian-Skinner organbuilding, it may be prudent on the part of Callahan, who did not work for Æolian-Skinner, to resist the temptation to comment on the proceedings at length. After a brief introduction, Callahan steps back and essentially lets the writers speak for themselves, unaided. Because of this, the book is really for the initiated, and will be enjoyed in direct proportion to the reader’s knowledge. The novice should expect to become confused here and there.

In small details, the confusion is harmless, like overhearing secrets whispered in public. In the provision of tantalizing technical details, such as the original shop orders for the Tubas and State Trumpet at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, there is a kind of titillation in reading the hard facts behind legends. But the aura can be misleading: the finished stops were modified from the initial details in the orders Callahan includes. The same can be said for virtually all of the pipe shop notes, but here Callahan judiciously points out that they reflect "works in progress," not finished results. Some larger items go unexplained. One topic of particular interest, covered in more than a dozen letters between Lawrence Schoenstein and Joseph Whiteford, is a new type of key action, devised and patented by Schoenstein, US patent 3094890. For the record, this was something akin to a slider chest in which there existed no grid or pallet box, but rather two crossed sliders, one for stops, the other notes. The note sliders were to have been Mylar™ tape, into which was cut a shape (either as a diamond, spade, oval, pearl) to convey wind to the pipes, customizing the attack and thus pipe speech. (The idea was ingenious, but Mylar™ proved too unstable a material to be employed reliably in this application. After considerable experimentation, the project was abandoned.)

All of the above is perhaps understandable, as it requires first-hand technical knowledge of the organs in question or awareness of some admittedly arcane information. Perhaps Callahan ought to raise his voice, however, when the writers don’t get their facts right and begin to rewrite history. One thorny example involves the landmark Æolian-Skinner organs in the Groton School and Church of the Advent, Boston, finished in September 1935 and April 1936, respectively. In these two instruments G. Donald Harrison achieved a successful, musically eclectic style based mostly upon reasoning, deduction and good taste. After the April 1936 dedication of the Advent organ, Harrison and Carl Weinrich (of Westminster Choir School and Princeton fame) set out for Germany.

Against these facts so eloquently clarified by letters in The American Classic Organ, we read in Aeolian-Skinner Remembered a lecture by Harrison in 1952, telling of his 1936 trip to Germany:

After returning to the States I realized that the pure classic, or baroque type instrument was unsuited, not only for church use, but to the normal acoustical environment which is found in our churches. It was then that the idea of blending the classic an modern in one whole seemed to be the answer to the organ for the country and, indeed, it would result in an instrument which would be an expression of our own times.

Here is a case where the organ builder decided to hold the bag and I persuaded several churches to allow me to build instruments of this type, such as the organ in Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts and the instrument in the Church of the Advent, Boston.

Which makes a good story, and is in keeping with Harrison’s modest bent: how much better to credit the hallowed past rather than his own abilities. It is equally interesting when, a decade later in a letter to King Covell, Senator Emerson Richards parrots the same notion: Germany started Harrison and the American Classic organ on its way. In his opening chronology of events, Callahan also adopts this revised sequence, writing:

1936 GDH becomes an American citizen; he remarries and visits Germany for the first time. Æolian-Skinner builds important organs for Groton School and Church of the Advent.

Was Harrison so modest as to nudge his friends into a revisionist history? Perhaps so; given the times, such a statement might have put his work in a more fashionable light. But the facts of this particular story are otherwise: Harrison’s trip to Germany is notable for how little it affected his work, encouraging him to refine what he had already well begun. That Harrison would choose to alter his own history only highlights this fascinating point. Of course, there is no question that Harrison returned from Germany with ideas and inspiration: so-called baroque reeds (the Krummhorn, Rohr Schalmei, etc.), the first really-high pitched Zimbel-type mixtures of the 20th-century, an even stronger conviction to use light pressures and pipes of high tin content. But the basic and highly personal chorus formula that he was to use until his death (broad 4’, slightly narrower 8’, large 2’ and 2-2/3’, and large-scaled mixtures, all lightly blown with low cut-ups and often very large-scale trebles), as well as the structure of the tonal design, scaling and balance relationships, and the role of chorus reeds—all of this was firmly established in the Groton and Advent organs, and in some ways even earlier, for the June, 1935 organ for Trinity Church, New Haven already adheres to these basic tenets. Against this, the trip to Germany was probably more a confirmation than a revelation. To claim otherwise might well be another demonstration of modesty on Harrison’s part.

To criticize Æolian-Skinner Remembered on these terms, however, is to accuse the book of not being what it never sets out to be. This is not a scholarly work, nor does it strive to be. Callahan should be praised for his considerable skill as gatherer and presenter, for he has found what few else have and brought it to public attention. True, to reap the deeper meaning of each book requires a lot of background that neither volume can adequately include. And even if you know what you’re looking for, it will take you a while to find it: the book, like its predecessor, tragically lacks an index. But there is priceless, invaluable material here, and we would be much the poorer without it. The hunt is always worthwhile.

If this book serves another purpose, it is to remind us of the fervor of the anti-romantic period, so recent in time that we are now attempting to wave it away—just as Whiteford’s time dismissed Harrison, and Harrison’s Skinner’s, and Skinner’s Hutchings, Hutchings’ the Hooks’, and so on backward through history. Moreover, the nearness of the material to our own day sets up an increasingly uneasy emotion in the reading. Most of these letters are personal—almost all were never meant for public consumption, and some are as recent as 1972, from people still alive and building organs. Decide for yourself whether it is appropriate to be reading the words of Robert Sipe, Donald Gillett, John Tyrrell, William Bunch and Allen Kinzey hung afresh on the clothesline—let alone both Helen Harrison and Emerson Richards quoting Don Harrison as saying “Joe [Whiteford] was just waiting for me to die or get out.” But it makes for great reading. Especially if you know Æolian-Skinner organs, you’ll find this book a goldmine—almost to the letter.