"The Erosion of Heritage"

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Poor Ernest Skinner. Dying at 94 in 1960, he survived probably longer than an organbuilder should. As his style faded into disregard, numerous Skinner creations were either severely altered or replaced outright. The earliest completely unaltered four-manual Skinner dates from 1915, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of our Fathers in Detroit — built fourteen years into the existence of Skinner’s company and already well into the development of his middle mature period. Understanding Skinner’s earliest work now requires stitching together bits of tonal and mechanical evidence, guessing at the result and motivation rather than listening to hard evidence. Poor Ernest Skinner; poor us.

The funny thing is, few people extend the same sentiment to G. Donald Harrison — even though his best work has fared no better, and sometimes worse. Of Harrison’s earliest quartet of collaborations with Ernest Skinner — the so-called “University” organs of Michigan, Princeton, Chicago and Yale, dating from 1928-’29 — only Yale survives. Being a rebuild and enlargement of a 1915 Steere (itself a considerable reconstruction of the original 1903 Hutchings), Yale is more a spectacular anomaly than typical example. The next six years saw a development in Harrison’s work so gradual yet sweeping, confident yet measured, that it carried advocate and critic alike in its wake. This fresh and utterly personal style — later termed “American Classic” — exchanged the obvious heroïsm of the high romantic Skinner approach for lower wind pressures, well-developed chorus and mutation work, independent pedals and unenclosed positivs, and overall a goal of mildness, clarity and eclecticism. Listening to the Aeolian-Skinner for the Groton School chapel in Massachusetts, finished in November 1935 and embodying all the new ideas, it must have been hard to believe the same man played a vital role in the fashioning of the Yale Skinner, finished only six years previously.

Of Harrison’s work between Yale and Groton, few instruments survive in anything like original condition. The 1930 Skinner organ Harrison oversaw for Saint Peter’s, Morristown, New Jersey, is extant, as is the instrument for the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, built in stages from 1932 to 1936. The three-manual organ for Johnson Chapel at Amherst College in Massachusetts also remains unaltered, but exists in such a disadvantageous location and cloying acoustic as to be more a curious document than a successful instrument. One of the earliest all–low-pressure organs, Trinity Church, New Haven, finished in June 1935, has its large gallery section intact, save for Aeolian-Skinner’s 1948 replacement of the Swell Trumpet and Clarion (the originals ended up at Groton in 1950). But the most important instruments in this chain — Trinity College, Hartford (1931); Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City (1932); Harvard University (19333); Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (1934); All Saints, Worcester (1934); and Calvary Church in Memphis (1935) — are no longer available to us as authentic indications of how Harrison had hoped we might hear music upon them.

Of the organs from Groton forward, the news is better now than it was ten years ago. Some of the organs are closer to resembling their original states, although few can truly claim original condition status. Groton has been changed as much as any organ, at first by Harrison himself in collaboration with the School’s famous organ-designing musician Edward B. “Ned” Gammons, and later by others. The most recent work, a collaboration of Foley-Baker Inc., Jeff Weiler and myself completed in early 2003, attempted to rationalize the post-Harrison changes into a tonal framework Harrison himself might actually recognize. Though guided by research and knowledge of unaltered instruments, this work cannot be called restoration, however: many of the most critical pipes, including the bulk of the Great and Positif choruses, were simply too altered to be "put back." Instead, one hears plausible approximation. Groton’s famous sister organ at Boston’s Church of the Advent (completed April 1936) underwent an equally comprehensive series of changes in 1964; some of it was recently reversed, but much more — notably the Great principal chorus — remains far from what Harrison might recognize.

The instruments following Groton and Advent have met their own fates. A 103-rank organ for Wellesley College, finished directly after the Advent, was harshly revised in the late 1960s, and so remains; although perhaps slightly buried and lacking a gracious acoustic, the instrument could be exquisite once again. Saint Mark’s Philadelphia, a 104-rank organ of 1937, self-consciously mild in a church of sublime visual delicacy, was recently rebuilt by Cornel Zimmer. This project left the Harrison material essentially untouched but added dozens of new ranks and a riotous array of digital voices, some vexingly veiled behind attractive new gallery casework. The organ plays from its third console. Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights (1937), a more conservative four-manual with a Solo instead of a Positiv, was carefully restored a decade ago by Nelson Barden Associates, reversing tonal changes and additions; this organ is also on its third console. Harrison’s 1939 Columbia University instrument underwent changes by Aeolian-Skinner in 1962, following the direction of Searle Wright. The tonal finisher on the job, Allen Kinzey, was scrupulous about preserving Harrison’s masterful choruses, and the general character of the organ remains available, though with additions, electronic 32-foot registers and a new Turner console. The organ at Sage Chapel, Cornell University (1940) has had four tonal changes, but is more or less intact, having always been cherished by long-time OHS member Donald R.M. Paterson. Another large pre-War job, the 1941 organ for the University of Texas at Austin, is being renovated and relocated by Schoenstein & Co. to a new church in Amarillo, Texas gaining a few additions along the way — a happy fate for an organ many thought might languish toward disposal.

Some smaller organs have escaped without change. The Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts houses an idiosyncratic three-manual of twenty stops, designed by Edward Flint and completed in 1938. The organ was painstakingly restored a few years ago by the A. Thompson-Allen Co., retaining two additions by Andover that Aeolian-Skinner had prepared for: a Great 8-foot Principal and Swell celeste. (Ironically, the original absence of such stops would have enshrined the instrument’s renegade status.) Alas, this period’s most influential organ — the “Germanic” Museum at Harvard, the little two-manual unenclosed instrument upon which E. Power Biggs began his famous series of broadcasts and recordings — was destroyed by fire in 1971.

It’s still possible to visit many of these 1930s organs and hear the Harrison instrument within. Some have beautiful additions, or elegant new consoles with all the modern conveniences. But is that good enough? Many of these organs have been subject to work of very high quality, but with an artistic intent much in the manner that the historic Baroque and pre-Baroque German and Dutch organs were treated by the first wave of “restorations” (more properly rebuilds) of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s: the best of intentions amidst all the limitations of that generation’s understanding. Harrison’s organs have an additional twist: he said we should be able to play all music on these organs, but how are we supposed to without more foundation tone, Great reeds and all the musical understanding of our time? It is a natural enough question with a thorny answer: his authenticity wasn’t ours, and respecting his organs means viewing the music through his filter. Playing any historic organ takes both work and thought. A Harrison instrument is no different, with the added advantage that its creator was more in tune with much of the core organ literature we still play today. As with any stylized organ, careful listening and a patience to look beyond the obvious will provide answers to practically any registrational issue. Historical concerns aside, the unchanged early Harrison organ produces a subtle, sophisticated and balanced type of music-making which, the rebuilders have handily proven, is extremely easy to undo.

Still, however, understanding Harrison’s fascinating early work is no different than for Skinner: it requires the same patching together of original this and that, guessing at the result and motivation rather than listening to a continuous body of evidence. In that context, Aeolian-Skinner Op. 953 at Strong Auditorium remains the premier unaltered Harrison organ from the early mature period. It contains all of the features that characterize Groton and Advent plus a few more. The prospect of its sympathetic treatment, scrupulously not deleting, adding or changing one pipe, is not merely good news for lovers of Harrison organs. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for a post-1930 organ of tremendous significance to be subject to the latest standards of restoration and conservation. Lucky G. Donald Harrison!