Bravo to Paul Hale

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Bravo to Paul Hale for having the courage to scale the thorny action wall, and equal kudos to John Mander’s using it as a balance beam. Mr Hale is careful, perhaps political, lest he appear backward: are these large organs best served by having mechanical action? His very timidity tells us that we have not matured enough to suppose that an organ without mechanical action can be just as serious, just as disciplined, just as musical as one with it. At least in imagining this to be true, Mr Hale joins a few of the more enlightened builders of the age (Rosales, Dobson, Noack) in saying that while there is nothing better than a good tracker action, good organs are possible without it. The issue is not mechanical versus electric, but good action as opposed to bad, appropriate application against inappropriate encumbrance. Although Mr Hale attributes some of his unease to suspended action and balancers — which Mr Mander sagely corrects —the general point is worth further discourse. When the politics of tracker action outweigh the music of tracker action, what is the gain?

Mr Mander gives us practically undiluted a manifesto for the 1960s ways of doing things. One can only admire such dogged plugging away at principles dear to any neo-classical heart, but isn’t this all a bit out of touch with how organs and music are actually played? All things being equal, a larger organ means wider repertory, and soon we stray inevitably into that territory which expects romantic and post-romantic music, greater wind consumption and — horrors! — coupled manuals. When piano technique becomes the basis for this music, and the digital control becomes less about the nuance with which the finger moves the key and more about the muscular governance of the finger itself, we approach the matter primarily from honesty of contact: that the finger knows when the key will do its work. From there, we become concerned with the sheer ability to get the keys down and back up again in an increasingly bravura manner equal to the music such instruments must render.

He writes: “In a large organ (and this is what we are discussing here) it must surely be a premise that by and large the various departments have a high degree of self sufficiency. Does adding stops from an enclosed Choir division really make that much difference, or perhaps even a Swell Organ? Yes, it may make a marginal difference, but is it actually necessary for the musical performance of the piece in question? Would anybody listening actually notice the difference? If the organ was conceived and voiced with the discipline (yes, and restrictions) of mechanical action in mind, it is unlikely.”

Surely he writes of unassisted tracker action, and not of the many German and French organs for which the full effect demands coupled manuals? One senses in his words a hope that the beauty and discipline of Schnitgerian registration can extend beyond its time to assist the modern builder in the conundrum of mating action to tone. This seems unrealistic; Mr Mander is perhaps suggesting that organists are occasionally insensitive in registration, but let us not forget what performance practice demands. Already by the time of Bach’s death, organbuilders were producing instruments in which it was possible not only to draw simultaneously the 8-foot stops of a single manual, but also to couple those manuals together. From there, it was a short step to instruments in which full effects meant drawing a preponderance of the stops, and music written with that effect in mind. What Mr Mander writes has wider application for 19th-century English and American organs, for which the largest effect relies principally upon Swell to Great. Coupling becomes more vital in the German romantic organ, in which the wind systems and style of playing indicate absolutely that ‘fistfuls of stops’ is not only the intent of the builder (and by extension the player nudging the rollschweller) but many composers as well. Arrive in France, and there isn’t any doubt that in the toute ensemble of the Cavaillé-Coll organ, one unhesitatingly pulls all stops and couplers. The example of Alkmaar is illuminating; the truth of Saint-Sulpice is obvious every Sunday still.

But of course, every key at Saint-Sulpice plays through a Barker machine. When Mr Mander further writes, ‘The main advantage of the servo-assistance is that it gives the feel of mechanical action but in fact there is no direct connection between the organist's fingers and the pallets, so a major benefit of tracker action, the feedback to his finger from the soundboard pallet, is lost. It is not a direct system and is arguably no better than a good pneumatic action,’ to my mind he argues for precisely the opposite of what he concludes. A good assisted action, be it Barker or pneumatic action, has distinct tactile advantages over electric, in that there is often still a ‘pluck’, and the point of contact remains an honest one.

Mr Mander finds his organ at Loyola a mechanical success because it unquestionably is. It would be silly indeed to suggest that it should have any other action than it has. But my question with it and the other large organs of his I have played is that their actions lack the very qualities we generally prize in tracker action: sensitivity and control. These largely pluckless actions have a smoothness of travel one associates with non-articulated electric keyboards, and removes the greatest indicator of contact — pluck — whose lack people often deplore in bad electric-action keyboards. At Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, the keys are at their most sensitive in the release — surely important, but leading to the tendency where one works more to avoid bad releases than to create good ones. At Loyola, the couplers are so cascaded that the divisions torrent forward sequentially. The sensation of “My word, it’s easy to play this four-manual tracker organ all coupled up” is met with an engaging visceral appropriateness — it still takes work to make all this sound, as it arguably should — but with very little communication of how it will all fire. We insist on slider chests for synchronicity of pipe speech, but then intentionally engineer the coupling to work against consistency of attack, simply to achieve the aesthetic ‘purity’ of avoiding an assisted key action?

My point is not to pick on Loyola, which is a wonderful and important modern organ, but merely to illustrate that when a mechanical or aesthetic ideal comes ahead of the music, the music inevitably suffers. Such a mechanical action at Loyola has its advantages, and may be fine up to the music of Franck. Edge into the territory of Widor (think Allegro from Symphonie V or VI), Vierne (Naïdes), Dupré (so many Stravinsky-esque rapid chord passages) to Alain (Litanies), and the composers clearly want the organs to be able to crack. Frankly, from Vierne forward these organist-composers wanted electric-action, however much we may wince to read their words. But how can we ignore the realities of the music if we are to respect its needs?

The rub comes in that modern builders are trying to do something unprecedented: provide a sensitive action mated to tonal schemes that, in the past, were built by builders far more interested in getting the keys down smartly than in the nuance of any link to the pallet. One occasionally comes across a pleasant tracker manual here and there in 19th-century organs, but it seems far more from happenstance than by design. The fact that these actions provide such little control seems to go hand in hand with the Barker Lever, a purely digital device, and whose touch varies greatly even among the work of the same builder. Usually, however, honesty in the point of contact is amply evident, but, as Mr Mander suggests, the sensation is akin to a car door lock or a toilet handle, not the lever of a handbrake. Even Vincent Willis, in his servo-pneumatic ‘floating lever’ of 1888 sought not sensitivity but quiet: if the machine followed the finger, chances were that the action would be more cushioned and less noisy in its travel.

Contemporary American builders have wrestled dearly with these issues, balancing the triple demons of compromise (apologies to Juster): wind consumption, sensitivity and heaviness. The most successful large new American tracker organs have resulted from promoting a sensitive environment for the player, an avoidance of dogma, and a certain transparency of interface.

A brief history of Fisk’s larger instruments illustrates one approach. The company’s first ‘large’ organ is arguably the four-manual instrument at Harvard University in 1967. In its overall tonal and visual design, that instrument bridges the first and second schools of the tracker revival. But the disposition of the four manuals reflects nothing in history so much as the very unusual situation at Memorial Chapel. The Great and Positive are located high, and are intended to traverse the length of the cavernous, secluded chancel to reach the nave; the Swell and unenclosed Choir are at floor level, resulting in a sort of organ-within-an-organ for the daily services held within the chancel. This tonal design means that large combinations are unlikely to be played with all four manuals coupled together, at best Great, Swell and Positive; and if you really wanted all the sound from those three, you would have to pay the stiff price. (Besides, in the late 1960s, wasn’t the workout all part of the dogma?) Fisk’s next four-manual came a decade later at House of Hope in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The eclectic tonal design indicates rather unambiguously that all stops are to be drawn; besides which, such registration excites the wind system in the characterful and histrionic manner of which Fisk wrote so persuasively.

One of the quirky joys of Fisk organs is that Charles Fisk delighted in using electric-action in most every instrument, usually in a tiny and covert fashion (one or two direct electric magnets here or there to help out, and for wind-gulping pedal stops.) The all-mechanical dogma grew to be part of a wider mindset concerned with console dimensions, the presence of combination actions and how those actions would work: through electric-stop action or the more cumbersome dual-registration system in which solenoids are applied to a direct mechanical stop action. Fisk dabbled around the fringes of these questions. In the early 1980s Fisk organs began to use electric action for larger unified pedal stops; by 1989 Steven Kowalyshn had developed his finger-following servopneumatic lever, first introduced at Slee Hall, Buffalo alongside Fisk’s first dual-registration stop action.

Concurrently, the famous 1987 Rosales organ at Trinity Church (now Cathedral) in Portland, Oregon dealt with emerging eclectic musical goals in such a tonally satisfying manner that the non-dogmatic nature of its mechanism began to cause others to reconsider entrenchment. In Rosales Op. 11, large pedal stops are placed on high-quality electro-pneumatic unit chests; shared manual and pedal stops are also electric, but never above middle C. Stop action is electric, with solid-state memory; compass is 61/32, console dimensions are essentially modern. And Mr Hale will want to know that the superb suspended action unapologetically contains balancers (1-61 on the Swell!).

And yet! The tonal design and wind system absolutely indicate that one should couple everything together, and yet for the beauty of the uncoupled action, all manuals together is hard work indeed. The next benchmark in this development, then, was to have a large organ with an assisted action, placing large or high-pressure pipes unapologetically on electric action. The Fisk organ at the Meyerson Center in Dallas (1992) was precisely that example: Great, Positive, Swell and two Pedal stops on tracker action; the 6-inch wind Resonance department playing only through the servopneumatic lever; the 20-inch wind Tubas playing on electric action; the whole governed by electric stop-action, multiple-level combination action and Fisk console dimensions (61/32, straight pedalboard, modified modern keys). Another prominent example would be the 1993 Casavant for the Temple of the Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints in Independence Missouri: G.O., Positif and Récit all mechanical, Résonance/Pédale all electro-pneumatic pitman; modern console dimensions and appointments. Perhaps most telling, Fisk recently retrofitted a servopneumatic lever to the 1978 House of Hope organ.

For me, the difference between organs such as Loyola and the Meyerson is clear. The combination of Fisk’s crisp actions, coupled to the servopneumatic lever’s easy control, form a reliable merging of organ technologies that provide honesty and sensitivity while making full organ approachable without dread. The technological mix falls neatly within the canon of reliable organbuilding, and is therefore questionable only philosophically. We have only to look to the new Mander in Atlanta to see such flexibility of approach: a mechanical-action organ, bravely executed with a console of considerable detachment, yet with high-pressure reeds on electric action, essentially modern console dimensions, optional electric coupling, electric stop-action and a combination action. Is there not some sort of agreement after all?

So, back to Mr Hale. In a big mechanical-action concert organ, where the electric console is being used most of the time, is there really any point to two actions? It’s expensive, it’s difficult, and the electric action is bound to be more complicated as part of a mechanical set-up than as an exclusive action. Voicing an organ in which the pallets serve two masters means that the electric will always win, the languids always safely higher. There are the Manchester and Birmingham examples already discussed. There is the new Fisk organ in Lausanne, whose electric console remotely operates the organ's two servopneumatic levers and otherwise acts directly on some of the pallets of the other mechanical-action departments. The new Glatter-Götz–Rosales in Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles (new home of the L.A. Philharmonic) approaches the matter differently. It is essentially an electric-action organ with two consoles, yet the attached console has tracker action to Great, Swell, Positive without any mechanical couplers. All-electric coupling is also dictated by manual pressures of Great 5”, Swell 4-1/2” and Positive 4”. Perhaps this is an especially obvious example of striving towards honesty in the point of contact, without an overly complex action. Given how expensive it is merely to get the remote console on stage (union questions and all), the attached console is a practice-time necessity.

It is hard to anticipate the desires of conductors and of musicians, and it is naive to presage a path for all good organs. In answer to one part of Mr Hale’s question, it is absolutely possible to build a large organ incorporating not only mechanical action but its benefits as well. But for his larger question, it is rarely size that limits what an action should be, but more often politics. If the organ is to be played remotely most of the time, and has no good reason for an attached console, let us move beyond this unhealthy fixation with action type and concentrate instead on providing the best, most responsive, most honest action appropriate to the situation — serving the music and player first, and then the organbuilder.