“Present Imperfect”: an overview of 20th-c. American organbuilding

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The Future of The Organ. Can’t you just hear the dire, tremulating chord in the background? It’s a topic with terrific potential, especially in the domain of oratory and panel discussion. You can say almost anything you want, and as long as the words don’t make their way into print, thus keeping your predictions away from the heckling gaze of a future generation, you can say the most outrageous things and almost get away with them.

Trying to talk about the future of the organ is perhaps a moot point, because it is clear that the instrument will be with us for a long while yet. The future of organbuilding is a different story, and a topic to ponder with some trepidation. No one of us is a fortune-teller, and only a very few are so well-traveled as to have a finger on the pulse of the entire organ world (which, as we know, is one of tremendous consensus and solidarity, everybody rooting for the same team). One thing that keeps us from being able to get a grasp on the future, however, is that for all our numbers, few people today have a good grasp on what has actually happened in the 20th century and the full extent of what is occurring now. This is not a criticism, and it is certainly not because the culture has grown less perceptive as a whole—far from it. It is simply because the organ world has grown more complex than anyone ever dreamed. Surely in order to have any intelligent thoughts about the future of the organ, we had better know as much as possible about the present state of the organ, the organ of today?

Even as recently as twenty years ago, life was so much simpler: the tracker people hated the electric-action people, the electric-action people hated the tracker people, and everyone hated electronics. Today, a surprising number of tracker people are oddly accepting of electric-action, especially historical examples; moreover, they occasionally use electric-action, even if they speak of it in whispers. Its status as the Destroyer of All Organ Art would appear to have faded, especially when several tracker builders (Dobson, Noack, Rosales, Ott, Nordlie) have built new electric-action instruments. Meanwhile, even when they don’t like to admit it, the electric-action people surely realize that among them there isn’t a single name that is taken as seriously as the leading lights of the tracker world. Either they are recommitting themselves to artistic principles or pairing up with electronic voices in a stance of survival. And electronic voices are finding a new and serious audience. Having gained a curious aura of legitimacy recently, electronically-generated sounds that are seen as a component of a basically pipe organ have proliferated to an extent that most pipe organ people simply were not prepared to address in the 20th-century.

Even these three labels—tracker, electric, combination—they must be considered suspect. The term “tracker organbuilder” is too indefinite to lump together the work of Brombaugh on the one hand, Bedient on the other; the word electric-action only barely encompasses both Reuter or Schoenstein; and even the term electronic now means many things where it merely used to imply the worst. The organ world has become as complex as modern life. Like our televisions, it has gained numerous channels in place of a former few. We have almost ceased to try to define our culture because it has grown beyond the tidy definitions we used to enjoy. Without any recognizable consensus on style, the organ of today is amorphous, difficult to codify. Once you think have become acquainted with it, whole new avenues are revealed. Rapidly evolving styles and musical priorities, the very latest discovery in performance practice, MIDI, last year’s deified builder: all of it tends to make the organ a fair weather friend in search of the next cocktail party.

Just because the organ world has become more difficult to know, there isn’t any reason to rejoice in it any less than we always have. A saying attributed to Mao Tse Tung which Gary Trudeau was fond of quoting in his comic strip Doonesbury read: “There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent.” If it's any comfort, this kind of atmosphere seems to attend the closing years of a century. Turning over that largest page in the calendar is probably more daunting than we dare admit, and we channel our uncertainty into inquisitiveness, inventiveness and curiosity on the one hand, pickiness, factionalism and nervous energy on the other. Certainly this characterizes the organ of our time, a period in which you can buy a tracker organ, an organ with Barker Lever, an organ with a servo-controllable pneumatic lever, an electric action organ with slider chests, an electric action organ with pitman chests, movable consoles, fixed consoles, all kinds of stop action and console control, and combination actions ranging from the human hand to the vastly complicated.

Did I say our own time? Of course, I really meant that incredible decade—the 1890s. In looking over that period a century ago, the similarities to our own time are too coincidental to ignore. While unlike Peter Williams I don't advocate that in the past lies the future (cultural and economic conditions are never so conveniently constant to admit of that), I do believe that those who do not remember the past will not only repeat its mistakes, they will do so more clumsily than the philosopher of yore ever dreamed. Therefore, looking at what the next several decades may bring best involves three initial areas of review:

1. studying the last turn-of-the-century and taking stock of that era’s corollaries to our own;

2. reviewing and re-evaluating—rather than just callously judging—what has actually happened in this century, and the musical and cultural reasons behind it;

3. exploring today's diversity with an open and generous spirit toward what it actually offers and where it may lead.

By weaving in some of what we discover from the first and second areas, and being as broad-minded as possible about the third, we may at last find useful clues as to where we really are, and from that point it may be possible to determine if we are headed up the avenue of progress or down the same old garden path.


Even though the people of the 1890s were enjoying a turbulent economy, the culture of the organ world was still riding the crest of a big boom in church-going. Where the organ was concerned, from our modern perspective things look wondrously bright. People went to church. People still appeared to believe in God. Churches bought organs. Hunky dorey, end of story.

But to read the trade journals of the time often displays another perspective. People were optimistic about new developments, but concerned that the organ might not secure a future as a serious instrument, like the piano or the violin. They were as beguiled by new technology as they were concerned that such advances were being stretched to a breaking point. The joy of playing a big organ without the encumbrance of mechanical coupling or the confident clatter of the Barker Lever was counteracted with the despair of dead battery cells, the unreliability of public power, sluggish action and persistent ciphers. People were concerned with how to create good programs. They fretted that they might be playing too many transcriptions. They worried that too many organ recitals were dull.

(Obviously, we've made untold progress since then, since women can vote, our churches look like drugstores and our drugstores look like cathedrals.)

Another aspect of the 1890s correlative to our time is that there was no clear premier organbuilder, but several. Perhaps it was something of a rivalry between George Hutchings and the Roosevelts. Hutchings was the Boston organbuilder who, with E.M. Skinner as his inventive factory superintendent, had introduced electric action into some immense instruments as early as 1893. The Roosevelt brothers, with their generally reliable electric-action, opulent construction and individual tonal approach were clearly the leading New York organ builders. Through a curious combination of elements, the Roosevelt organs sounded like giant, heroic harmoniums: perhaps by way of trying to approximate the French cathedral organ for dead acoustics, but borne out of a combination of German and American elements, seasoned with a dash of Audsley.

Hutchings was late into his career by 1905, and lacking the dynamic Skinner, this once-grand man of Boston organbuilding faded out of the limelight, his company failing in 1907. It revived for a short point, but never again dominated the scene. Likewise, Roosevelt organs enjoyed a comparatively short artistic life-span. The company ceased operations in 1893, and their patents were purchased by Farrand & Votey of Detroit. Although Farrand & Votey gained some marvelously prestigious contracts, such the original edifice of the Mother Church in Boston in 1894 and St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco in 1896, the firm was quickly a “has-been” moving into the 20th-century, once Votey had moved first to Hutchings, and then to Aeolian.

Roosevelt and Hutchings, however, had many other contenders to the limelight, some of them in existence for only brief periods. A favorite example is James Treat, who enjoyed the regular patronage of Edwin F. Searles, the wealthy widower of the woman whose first husband was the California railroad baron Mark Hopkins, also of San Francisco hotel fame. (A bit of background is helpful here: as an employee of Herter Brothers, the famous New York decorators and furniture makers, Mr. Searles decorated Mrs. Hopkins’ Nob Hill mansion; Mr. Hopkins died; Mr. Searles married Mrs. Hopkins, who was twenty-plus years his senior; Mrs. Hopkins died seven years later; clearly deeply grieved, Mr. Searles devoted his remaining days to spending her money. It is precisely the sort of situation that invites so superficial an assessment.)

At any rate, since Searles loved organs (he is the man who rescued the Boston Music Hall Walcker and built the Methuen Organ Hall to house it), he essentially bankrolled Treat and many Treat organs. One could not characterize Mr. Searles’ perspective as small scale: the Methuen Organ Hall, several huge homes, churches, and large organs all figured into his glorious program of bereavement. The one that was to make the biggest splash was for Grace Church, San Francisco, a large three-manual organ of 1894 with electric action, imposing casework and an elegant terraced-jamb console in the American style of the day: a memorial to the late Mrs. Searles. But although they had some notable contracts, Cole & Treat, and later Treat on his own, made little more than this occasional impact on the national scene.

It was a time of occasional but intense English influence. The ideas and writings of Robert Hope-Jones were absorbed with a mixture of wonder and horror. Carlton Michell, of the spectacular but quickly-failing partnership of Michell & Thynne, came to Boston in 1890 and worked with Hutchings, Woodberry and Jardine, everywhere espousing his “positive colouring,” intense voicing style and commitment to a red-blooded romantic interpretation of the classical ideal. He joined Austin in 1902 as tonal director, but stepped aside when Robert Hope-Jones took over in 1904.

The turn of the century was also a time in which numerous firms that were to become big, or at least prolific names in the 20th-century got their early starts building reliable and respectable small organs. Pilcher, Kilgen, Hillgreen Lane and Kimball fall into this category; Hinners helped define it, with their large mail-order business. Even venerable firms that were beginning to be considered old-fashioned, like Johnson and Hook & Hastings, were still turning out really fine instruments, merely of conservative mechanical and “tonal appointments” (as they might have said back then).

Historians (I among them) will swear on a stack of Dom Bedos that Skinner was the predominant force in organbuilding from 1900 to 1930. In retrospect he has proven to be, but at the time the situation was hardly so clear. Early Skinner organs were more reliable than their experimental 1890s counterparts, but they did not automatically prevail. More likely the big name between 1900 and 1910 was Austin, and for the simple reason that the organs were so uncomplicated and reliable as to evoke awe, and no small relief, on the part of the players. If something did go wrong, practically anyone could slip inside the Universal Air Chest and fix it: a pleasant trip to the science museum compared to removing dozens of screws, sometimes still by candlelight, to get at a binding pitman in the early and unperfected Skinner chest.

Of course, Skinner was unquestionably a key player during this period, and while never seeming overtly progressive, he was nevertheless the man who would ultimately put together the most compelling vision of the 20th-century orchestral organ. He landed his pivotal contract at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City in 1906, but even in 1911 when that job had been finished, Skinner was still by no means leading the pack. Skinner’s estimating books from this period reveal all that his firm did not secure. Surely there was wincing over big jobs like the Denver Auditorium in 1911, which he won at first, but later lost to the repository of his old employee and nemesis Robert Hope Jones, Wurlitzer, or the Panama Pacific Exposition organs of 1915 in San Francisco and San Diego, both of which were awarded to the Austin brothers.

It's easy to think that this happened on price. But what available evidence tells us is that Austin and Skinner were neck-in-neck where cost was concerned. Moreover, Austins from before the First World War had much more vibrancy and brilliance than their ’20s counterparts (the same can be said of Skinner’s work for that matter). Given organs such as the Civic Auditorium in Portland Maine, it is not surprising that a distinguished panel of organists chose Austin in San Diego and San Francisco. However, by the early 1920s, it is clear that the Skinner Organ Company had emerged as the artistic builder of choice, and this situation basically continued until the early 1950s with its successor firm, Æolian-Skinner.

Just as there was no field leader a hundred years ago, neither was there much precise consensus as to style, although people certainly chattered on about it. The vocabulary of the turn-of-the-century was still an interesting mixture of leftover English practice from the 1860s with German-inspired elements, and a smattering of other influences. But progress was gauged as much by the mechanical yardstick; the Hutchings organs that were trend-setting in the early 1890s were already somewhat passé by 1905, because in retrospect their innovations were technical and temporary, rather than musical or revolutionary. New tonal features were just that: “features,” not wholesale revision in tonal philosophy heading toward a new ideal. The fanfare attached to such innovation is understandable in context. When one is considering the changeover from a basically mechanical console with Barker lever, composition pedals and perhaps a few thumb ventils, to an electric console with blind pistons (as most Hutchings organs had), certainly the new method of control would have appeared in itself revolutionary, without a discernible change in the sound.

Such developments would prove temporary, however; any comparison between the bat-wing style console and a more modern Skinner console would leave the older style far behind. Once consoles became really convenient to play—couplers standardized and plentiful, pistons gained in number, proximity and adjustability, the principle of duplexing implemented, the unified pedal well established—the tonal style and balance structure of the early 20th-century organ could be better understood, and thus free to flourish.


The darkly orchestral organ solidified its style around 1920, clinched by a new popularity of cast-iron reed tone that seemed to strike many people’s fancy. But it would prove itself an extreme capable of inducing violent revolt, as would be seen just 15 years later in the work of Walter Holtkamp and the Æolian-Skinners built under the supervision of G. Donald Harrison. Holtkamp started out building orchestral organs, as most others were doing at the time. By 1933, under the influence of Melville Smith and Walter Blodgett, he added an exposed Positiv organ to the 1921 Skinner at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Holtkamp soon developed a distinct tonal and visual style that by the late 1940s had become his trademark.

Holtkamp had what it takes to make a mark—a look, a feel and a sound—and his style was sufficiently strong that it showed itself largely incapable of meaningful development. At first the organs were viewed as outré, the exposed divisions daring, the stop-lists avant garde. Visually, the Holtkamp vernacular mirrored the budding International Style, in its less-is-more exposed display. The tonal design exhibited the same tendency to edit the stops down to clever haiku (small pedal organ: 16’ Subbass, 8’ Cello, 8’ Posaune). Here, intrigue was generated not by fancy stops or clever touches, but a style of disposition designed simultaneously to provoke curiosity and exploration and almost by definition to prevent the organs being played in the then-traditional, Anglo-American manner. The consoles could not have been simpler; Mies van der Rohe would have been proud.

By 1950 Holtkamp was considered perhaps the more musically-astute organbuilder, having outstripped his competition in defining a style in step with the latest organ pedagogy. Holtkamp’s savvy extended from the drafting room to the business office. He charged the high prices his caché could command, but used a considerable percentage of supply-house mechanism and pipework, thus proving himself that rare human being: an organbuilder with a good business sense. But there was a great seriousness of purpose at work. He took organ music to heart, and wrote about it engagingly. Who else was so bold as to liken the independent voices in trio playing to a good dancing team? Even if his acclaim never quite traveled outside a certain Bohemian circle, and few others sought to work within his style, Holtkamp aligned himself with the serious thinkers of his time.

The mode most others ended up emulating, however, was that of G. Donald Harrison, the diffident, diplomatic Englishman whose reform was smoother, perhaps more palatable and much more carefully orchestrated than Holtkamp's, and whose appeal was ultimately more widespread. For today’s musical tastes, Harrison's organs from the 1930s are probably his best work, when his emerging classical ideal had not yet overthrown the late romantic tradition in which he was trained and raised. Organs such as Trinity Church in New Haven, Connecticut or St. Mark's Philadelphia reveal themselves as remarkably eclectic organs, whose good sense of tonal compromise allows them to be taken in many different directions musically with pleasing and plausible results: an erudite model for a post-war, electric-action, equal-temperament vision of the future. The later organs are less consistent and more varied in their ideas, although certain heroic organs—St. John the Divine, First Baptist Church in Longview, Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina—demonstrate that when Harrison sat down to put the organ together himself, he could still produce a compelling instrument in his distinctive style.

As they defined their age, it is important to denote some key stylistic differences between the Holtkamp and Harrison modes, starting with the terms attached to their respective styles, terms that have not helped us in grasping fundamental motivations and predilections. For example, the time from 1935 to 1965 is often called the American Classic period, but Holtkamp organs are generally thought of as neo-Baroque. Are these terms accurate? To be specific, the American Classic organ was originally used to denote only the Æolian-Skinner organ. And neo-Baroque is a poor term to describe Holtkamp; a much better one is Anti-Romantic, which sums up the Holtkamp organ even to this day. Everything about Walter Holtkamp's work was a revolt against what had come before; no facades, no cases, Spartan consoles, fluorescent rather than incandescent voicing, and a strict emphasis, through inter-voice and inter-manual balance, on a certain period of organ literature, primarily Bach. These organs have a kind of tough-love tonal design, where even the inclusion of a string and celeste is seen as a weak-kneed concession. The reeds, which seem almost self-consciously to lack refinement or beauty, may well have been determined more by what Giesecke was shipping at the time than any personal desire on Holtkamp’s part. Even the willingness to accept those results—a come-what-may approach, that to tinker with the pipe was to tamper with destiny—ran counter to the romantic era’s fastidiousness and preoccupation with science, technique and refinement. The flue voicing uses a corruption of early 20th-century technique far more than its harkens back to anything genuinely old, and besides, neither Holtkamp nor his family found any appeal in moving backward. Anti-Romantic sums this up nicely, while in no way negating Holtkamp’s effect and success.

Harrison’s work is not so neatly categorized, because the man and his tastes were more complex. First of all, he was a far more eclectic person; one gets the feeling that he really did love a wide range of music, which may have enabled him to build organs with differing points of view, in cooperation with such divergent clients as Ernest White and Alexander Schreiner. Moreover, Harrison could never have been called anti-Romantic, because almost all of the voicing and tonal approach is firmly rooted in late-romantic methods. More importantly, Harrison was always willing to accept the best of what the romantic period had to offer him. It is often said of a generation that it rejects the work of its parents while cherishing that of its grandparents; it will ultimately be seen as a sign of maturity that Harrison could cherish and see the wisdom in both? He had studied the best English organs well beyond the superficial appreciation of his contemporaries, and knew certain French organs intimately. He took from Father Willis a sense of industry and method; from T.C. Lewis, the English builder who followed the brilliant German 19th-century classicist builder Edmund Schulze, Harrison took a sense of the ringing flue chorus, the idea that strong twelfths help to articulate inner voices, and the intricate texture of multiple mixtures. He took from Cavaillé-Coll certain concepts without bringing over the actual sonorities. If one were to characterize an organ as having fairly even manual balances, a similar type of ensemble on every manual, the organ as a giant single-manual instrument, each adding to the whole, gaining melodic clarity through a balance of reeds and wide-scale mixtures/cornets, the description could match both the Cavaillé-Coll organs Harrison knew best (Notre Dame, St. Sulpice and St. Ouen de Rouen) and Harrison’s own work. But Harrison eschewed those specific French practices (very wide-scale cornets, obvious treble ascendancy, bass-aggressive reeds, reed domination, sheer power) that, of course, we now crave and find exciting, but which our forebears considered vulgar and coarse. And if you think Harrison didn't know what a real French reed was, and therefore couldn’t duplicate them, guess again. All of Richards' write-ups of Harrison organs mention at least Richard’s disdain for real French reeds, and strive to call them “modified French reeds.” These people knew exactly what they were doing and exactly what they were after.

What these romantic builders all shared, Lewis, Willis, Schulze and Cavaillé-Coll, was a sense of the heroic, of creating dramatic sounds for soaring spaces and the pageant of the liturgy. Drama in this case meant decibels and power; to a post-romantic perspective of the 1930s, this was perhaps the currency of too obvious a kind of glory. If you had grown up in an age where every organ had a degree of heroism as its end-goal, where Tubas and Bombardes were means to an end, and where the age was saturated with Wagnerian thought and music-making, perhaps you too wouldn't feel so inclined to perpetuate heroic ideals as we do today. Harrison certainly wanted a breather, and that is why he should be labeled not Anti-Romantic, but anti-heroic. Furthermore, he was developing his style in an era no longer conducive to the heroic gesture. In the 1930s, times were tough, and anything approaching grandeur was seen as conspicuous. Therefore, Harrison's mild-mannered, reasoned and sophisticated new type of instrument seemed stylistically, musically and culturally appropriate —not unlike the chastity of the Holtkamp organ, whose spirit was also very much in keeping with the new chastity.

Neither Holtkamp nor Harrison could have foreseen the final chapter of the book they both started: the organ reform movement. Both were committed to electric action, and saw no use in mechanical action. Harrison experimented early on with slider chests and found them lacking; later in his work, he employed extra-thick top-boards as expansion chambers to lessen the explosive wind rush of the pitman chest, but only occasionally. While Holtkamp liked slider chests, he rarely used them throughout an instrument, opting instead to have a slider chest in either the Great or Positiv to gain a differentiation in speech characteristics. Both were old enough to view mechanical action in terms of what they had known as children; the new generation’s pre-occupation with tracker action baffled Holtkamp and Harrison as much as their own work had annoyed their predecessors and confounded their successors.

But by 1955, the seeds of discontent had been sown, and as a culture we were on the verge of a new style. No one knew what it is going to be, but there was tension and unpleasantness all the same. It happened first for Harrison. Two conspicuous examples were the Æolian-Skinner rebuilds of earlier Skinner organs at Oberlin and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Finney Chapel at Oberlin was a 1913 Skinner rebuilt in 1955; built in 1928, the Ann Arbor organ was the first noteworthy Skinner contract Harrison worked on after coming to America in 1927. Æolian-Skinner rebuilt the instrument in 1955 to the dictates of Robert Noehren. In each case, the choice to go with Æolian-Skinner had not been that of the organ faculty, who probably viewed Harrison's commitment to organ music as having grown stale. Both organs ran behind schedule, both were problematic mechanically, and both were palpably under-whelming, in their mechanical work, tonal finesse and overall sophistication.

For Harrison, times were hectic. As the cutting edge of the 1930s became the parish vernacular of the 1950s, Æolian-Skinner was more popular than ever, and the factory soon became a logjam. But accepting less-than-ideal circumstances at two such pivotal institutions of higher learning, and producing mediocre instruments, where generations of students would be taught, would prove itself a tactical misstep. It soured an entire generation on the work of Æolian-Skinner, and with perfectly good reason. (The Michigan organ has been much revised since 1955, and has resulted in a fine teaching and recital instrument. The Oberlin organ is to be replaced by a Fisk.) If there were wounds to lick, G. Donald Harrison didn't get much of a chance. J. Michael Harrison has said of his father that he died at just the right moment, nine months after the Finney organ was finished in June of 1956, just a few days prior to the New York AGO Convention. Had Harrison lived another ten years, one wonders whether he could have maintained his standing as America's first-rank organbuilder.

In principle, Harrison’s successor had a lot going for him. Joseph Whiteford was articulate, rich and dapper, and with a combination of inertia and charm, many more contracts were to come Æolian-Skinner's way in subsequent years. Today, Whiteford’s contributions are too easily overlooked: he resuscitated the once-superb Æolian-Skinner construction quality from a certain low spot in the early and mid-1950s, his money saved Æolian-Skinner from financial ruination in 1949 (history has obscured the fact that Harrison was, if anything, even less of a businessman than Skinner), and his connections in the world of the musical elite garnered some spectacular contracts, such as the New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera.

Living in an age now snickering at many neo-classical organs, we are perhaps unable to judge Whiteford’s tonal philosophy in any meaningful way. But it was never really taken seriously, perhaps for the same reason that some people have trouble accepting all the accolades heaped upon Ernest Skinner these days. Both men could fall into the trap of being one-stop organbuilders. Very often, Skinner had a concept for a stop that was an end in itself—this is a “good” 4' flute, this is the “right” way a Swell trumpet ought to sound—without due consideration of that stop's musical purpose or role in the entire scheme. Whether or not you agree with Harrison's approach or not, his perspective is hard to fault on these grounds. He was rarely searching for a beautiful tone unto itself, but far more concerned with whether the music would come off. Whiteford was surely concerned with music, as all organbuilders occasionally are. But whether or not his organs come up for serious re-evaluation, they will not escape being seen as a collection of those tonal features prized by the neo-classicists of the 1950s: chiff, thin-toned modified French reeds, the so-called Baroque reeds Æolian-Skinner had introduced after World War II, disagreeably high-pitched mixtures, and tremendous reduction of fundamental tone.

It was a time of features and factions, camps and catcalling. Chiff became an end in itself, often destroying the very clarity it was supposed to aid. Likewise, as Charlie Callahan has succinctly pointed out, high-pitched mixtures began to dominate the ensemble without clarifying anything. The intense, thin chorus reed tone was in its way just as opaque as the 1920s cast-iron Cornopean reed tone. The excessive blare and reduced fundamental made for great distortion in chord clusters without ever being melodic; the blare now obscured the notes just as the Cornopeans' chocolatey fundamental had done. Tonal effect, even good tonal effect, had once again overwhelmed musical purpose at the hands of a lesser perspective.

Upon the death of Harrison, Holtkamp was already the darling of the smart set: the Fenner Douglasses, Robert Noehrens, Grigg Fountains. But had he lived longer, it is questionable whether his popularity would have continued, since his approach had not changed by since the late 1930s. Despite his developing architectural brilliance, his tonal thesis, like Harrison’s, remained fairly constant. The basic pattern of Great-Positiv-Swell-Pedal was occasionally modified to include two swell divisions or the occasional enclosed Choir. By the early 1940s his style of flue chorus and approach to flute choirs and mutations were established, and it served the music of the day. Upon his death in 1963, his leading clients had marched passed him on the road of organ reform he had helped to pave to insist upon encased organs with tracker action—the antithesis of Holtkamp’s functionally-exposed designs made possible through electric-action.

Three other counter melodies to the pervasive theme of reform that are now so obvious as almost to be overlooked are the influences of Hermann Schlicker, Lawrence Phelps and Robert Noehren. Schlicker had three things in his favor: he was German, his wife was German, and he could count E. Power Biggs as an early supporter. If Schlicker had a revolutionary period, however, it was short; and the firm soon fell into the pattern of repeating their successes. Noehren, whose total and unquestionably serious preoccupation with the literature has developed and diverged over fifty years of prose and playing, was very seriously interested in tracker action until he actually sat down to build his first organ. For him thereafter, it was nothing but all-electric valves.

Phelps’ keenly insightful writings of the 1950s—his 1954 “Perspective” in the Organ Institute Quarterly remains a model of an almost impossible task: assessing one’s own time with hindsight in the present tense—marked him as an obviously gifted observer and contributor to the debate. Moreover, he was eager to recognize the accomplishments of others in the pursuit of progress and artistic achievement, an early sign of the fraternity that would later develop among the Brombaugh-Fisk-Rosales-Taylor & Boody-Fritts generation in the 1980s. It is far more than posturing when in 1967, Phelps — while still the artistic director of Casavant — calls the Harvard Fisk the most important new organ project of its day. One can only imagine the reception of his superiors to this candor of a viewpoint that saw well beyond the confines of the factory walls. Phelps organs at Casavant were among the better of their type built in America during this period. But his departure to his own firm, its failure, and Phelps’ subsequent tenure at the Allen Organ Company, have made his a far less active voice in recent years.

THE PRESENT DAY: Do we know where we really are?

Change in the organ world tends to be something of a chicken-egg issue. Who provides the impetus: organbuilders or organists? One of the key differences between Harrison and Holtkamp is that Harrison was internally motivated to build clearer organs more suited to organ music, and as much by theorists as by players. Holtkamp was prodded by players out of a rut, but developed his style with players more than with theorists. But it is clear that once each builder reached a point at which internal satisfaction was reached, the engine of motivation reduced down to cruising, not passing speed.

By the mid-1950s, such a stance would no longer suffice. Though each builder was careful to point out that they were building their own instruments, inspired but hardly informed by older practices, organists now demanded something more like what they had experienced in studying with Heitmann, Walcha and Heiler on the one hand, Dupré, Langlais and Marchal on the other. At first, a flurry of imported tracker organs signaled that a new movement was afoot, its most obvious champion the immensely popular E. Power Biggs. Although other tracker organs arrived a few years before, it was Biggs’ 1958 Flentrop at the Busch-Reisinger Museum that became the beacon of a new age. Bridging and sustaining this new period on the American front were some early tracker organs from Casavant, a certain presence from Schlicker, whose work became the symbol of upstanding Spartan Lutheran worship to that generation, and a slowly increasing stream of imported neo-classical tracker organs from Northern Europe.

Inspired by these instruments, many American builders sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly from two principal roots: Charles Fisk, and the FAN Club of Fisk-Andover-Noack, and John Brombaugh. Of the two, Fisk was the more popular and eclectic, and perhaps the more charming. Brombaugh proved to be more scholarly and pioneering, perhaps more secretive, his engineering often better and the results usually more brilliant and intensely personal. Brombaugh’s 1970 organ for Lorain, Ohio predated the whole hammered-lead, high cut-up school by a solid decade, and set a standard of stability and sensibility for a modern tracker organ with a detached console. Tonally, it caused a sensation within its own circle. Brombaugh had decided to go back to Germany and unravel the neo-Classical myth, and by and large he was successful in that journey. If the Brombaugh descendants (Fritts, Taylor & Boody, Richards & Fowkes) have stepped on Brombaugh’s shoulders to take this perspective to its next logical phase, they will have found that Brombaugh’s neck was taller than they realized.

The two others of the original partnership, Fritz Noack and Andover, maintained solid track records. Noack established himself early on as a solid builder in the neo-classic tradition, later influenced by his 1984 restoration of the Hook organ in Mechanics Hall, Worcester. Andover also built new instruments, but soon became just as strongly identified with the restoration (and perhaps too frequent augmentation) of 19th-century American organs

Meanwhile, in the field of the anti-heroic electric-action organ—the Harrison fallout, as it were—no one came forth to fill the void left by the closure of Æolian-Skinner in 1972. Schantz, Austin, Möller, Reuter and Wicks developed house styles of their own, but all taking their cue first from Harrison, then from Whiteford or Holtkamp or their own in-house designers, and usually happy to bend the rules to suit consultants or strong-willed organists. Although the tonal thesis has changed somewhat, and some surprisingly good organs produced, these same basic ground rules can still be said to apply. Slowly-emerging regional builders are often more daring and innovative, but their influence still remains to be felt and appreciated as a force in organ culture. But as of this precise moment—just as in 1898—it is still quite obvious that the position of Leading Electric-Action Organbuilder remains unfilled.

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"Anti-romantic" and "anti-heroic" are helpful in trying to classify the path of organbuilding where other terms can be misleading. Two very misleading terms are Classical and Romantic as they apply to American organs of the 20th century, and they deserve a quick visit now. When the big war between these two camps started in the 1930s, it was simply a matter of tonal priorities, since the mechanism of the modern pitman-chest electro-pneumatic action was taken for granted in all organ discussion. With the introduction of tracker action, and the subsequent issues of encasement, historic precedent, temperament and stop control, the choice between Romantic and Classic seemed even more obvious. Most modern trackers were branded by the "Romantics" as unison-thin, bass-deprived, low-wind, rough, raucous (indeed, fill in the pejorative of your choice). On the other hand, the electric-action organs were then considered the holdout of Romanticism, which was somewhat silly, since by this time the anti-heroic direction had progressed to the point that few of these instruments had the characteristics, balances or timbres of any Romantic organbuilding tradition. But the characterizations continued nonetheless, and a tangible acrimony developed, lasting roughly until the mid-1980s.

In the field of organ playing, the two supposed representations of Classical and Romantic were, respectively, E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox. This turns out to have been convenient and simplistic. Far from being Harald Vogel, Power Biggs was a romantic player who, at the end, had certainly mastered an anti-romantic clipped manner: the “hot-stove” style. But even into the 1950s, Biggs’ persistent legato in Bach, vocal phrasing and overall elegance was no more “authentic” than Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord. To many it didn't matter, and still doesn’t. At his best, Biggs was a communicator, a musician who knew how to strike a public posture. In both of these fields, he was a first-class hit.

Meanwhile Fox was surely a Romantic, but a throwback to an older, late 19th-century style of romanticism, much like Vladimir Horowitz’s playing represented a step backward from the exquisitely refined late romanticism of Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne and Josef Hoffman (their corollary in organ terms, by the way, would be the playing of Lynnwood Farnam and the 1930s organs of G. Donald Harrison). Yes, Fox was a romantic, but an anomaly some fifty years late. The best illustration of the tradition Fox represented can be found in his orchestral conducting counterpart—another organist, Leopold Stokowski. (To provide a bit of cultural continuity, Stokowski was organist on the 1893 electric action Hutchings at Saint Bartholomew’s in New York, where this article started so very many pages ago. There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation sometimes needs clarification.) If Biggs was a romantic player with classic attachments. Fox was an essentially romantic player with ultra-romantic attachments, with the American Classic specification as his registrational point of departure. He too saw himself as a communicator and the keeper of a public personality, and like Biggs, his great public success attests to diligence, hard work, an unforgettable stage presence, and a willingness to explore new channels. Remember Heavy Organ? Who but Fox would shout to an audience, “Can you whistle?!”

Coming to the 1980s, the old Classic-Romantic argument in organbuilding was served a disarming lob. The more historically-versed American tracker organ builders realized that where Baroque organs were concerned, they had based many of their artistic decisions on falsehoods. Indeed, the old organs were not on super-low wind pressures, nor were they nick-free with laser-thin flues and tin foil for pipe metal. In compensation, builders started thickening their pipe metal and increasing wind-pressures, scales and cut-ups—a happy coincidence with the growing revival of interest in Romantic voices and ensembles, which also required a logical extension of this general approach.

Quietly, the tables had been turned. The beefy, decibel-rich sound was now coming from the "stick" organs, while the majority of the electric-action builders were still producing thin-sounding choruses with mixtures and near-xylophonic chiff, topped by the same old modified "French" chorus reeds with raspy basses and small but blazing trebles. While a certain few clung to the old Classic-Romantic notion, the organs that were supposed to be Classic no long fit the mold, while the organs that were supposed to be Romantic rarely were, aside from the possibility of a few good celestes. The obvious example of this syndrome is the 1992 Fisk organ in the Dallas Symphony Hall. Perhaps now an electric-action builder would have employed such Herculean treatment, but definitely not back then. Even if you don't care for the result—which some have termed "Victory at Last"—it is hard to imagine it as the work of an electric-action builder.

However, beef alone is not necessarily beauty or romanticism, and there is a darker reality to this trend in organbuilding. Very few of the tracker builders' neo-Romantic efforts have resulted in organs that have a genuine Romantic spirit. At one end of the spectrum, such instruments are simply neo-classical organs with a nod toward the Romantic stop-list in the form of add-ons: the inevitable Great harmonic flute, for instance. Or, they may be thoughtfully considered Classical organs with a more integrated program of Romantic "attachments", in the form of flutes, strings, some reeds and a Pedal Open Wood (the rite of passage for most big new organs). The voices are present, and individually they do the right things. But I can think of only a few that could be honestly called Romantic organs. Much like an antipasto is a collection of bold, delicious flavors that one would never food-process into a finished meal, so too it seems that in some recent eclectic organs the trees seem larger than the forest, and the ensemble ends up as a come-what-may concatenation of disparate elements.

The neo-romantic organ attempts to exchange the Classical bias for a Romantic one as its starting point. But even then, either a sense of caricature pervades, in which the instruments possess characteristics without character, or the Classical bias is lurking behind it all, peeking out from behind the pipe shades. The fact that both Jaeckel and Bedient have built French romantic organs tuned in Valotti, and it doesn’t bother them, answers this point perfectly. I fear that, just as we look back at the early Flentrops, Fisks, Schlickers and the like as being neo-classical organs that are in no way truly classical, too many of these neo-romantic organs will be viewed in the same light once we are able to gain some perspective on them. A later generation may also view this as a new expression; the verdict is not ours to render—just yet, anyway.

Success or failure, the craft-oriented builder, often those associated with tracker action, can be seen as committing the sin of commission, fueled by inquisitive and often idealistic musicians who are passionately committed to organ literature. By comparison, it is perhaps unfair to view the electric-action builders as committing sins of omission; by and large their market has been a different one, their prices far lower, and their response essentially liturgical. By the late 1980s, however, it had dawned on some that lean-cuisine tonal design was no longer classical, romantic, or anything appropriate to the spirit of our time. While few of these organs make an impact on the pedagogues or the connoisseurs, these builders do continue to provide serviceable, reliable instruments which are reasonably-priced in comparison to their mechanical-action equivalents. This is not always the case, however, and may change further as tracker organs become more standardized, or as electric-actions become simpler still (solid-state switching systems have revolutionized electric action, making it into an incredibly simple and reliable affair). And don't think for a moment that the neo-classic or anti-romantic style is dead just yet or has been supplanted by the historically-informed classical organ. Many builders perpetuate this genre of organbuilding, and they work in the style with complete if conservative confidence, much as Hook & Hastings was confidently building slider chests in 1910. Time alone will judge this.

So where does this leave the war of tracker versus electric? Electric-action builders are realizing more and more that younger players find that there is something to tracker action, even if just a personal preference for the feel of the keyboards, and this disturbs them as much as it eludes them. Moreover, these builders are sometimes frowned upon when they appear not to be placing the rôle of organ literature as central to their tonal designs. While such an approach is in many cases much more sensitive to reality than tracker builders would wish to admit, it only serves to confirm a basic problem today that confronts the entire organbuilding culture: students go to conservatory and learn something, how to play organ music, without learning that thing which they will probably be doing ninety-percent of the time, which is playing church. Moreover, this fosters, in the words of one organbuilder, the destructive notion that “Sunday morning is just an organ recital interrupted by liturgy.”

There are signs, however, that this period is coming to an end, and one area in which it can definitely be seen is in the growing commercialization and mass marketing of the early music movement. In the beginning, early music drew significant energy and momentum from its avant garde status. But when the Anonymous 4 becomes a best seller, or the Tallis Scholars sell out like Tina Turner, early music becomes assimilated as just one more strand in the fiber of public musical-making, and cannot help but lose some of its edge as a result. Furthermore, it was a bit peculiar when, in the mid-1980s, the early music movement began to run out of music. Suddenly the unthinkable became reality, the formerly dirty 19th-century was embraced with arms spread wide, and an unexpected future for the forte-piano builder was unwittingly secured. Skeptics, and I am not usually one of them, viewed all of this with a mixture of awe and wry smiling: awe, at the seemingly inexhaustible dogmatism of the early music movement; wry smiles, because a scrupulous, rigorous performance practice is hard to superimpose on a century for whom music-making was an almost entirely emotional occupation.

For organists and organbuilders, the problem is twofold: what is left to copy, or more rightly, assume as a style to work within? Builders such as Paul Fritts and Ralph Richards have shown that you can work for 20 years within the same basic style, drawn primarily from the work of Schnitger in each case, and still learn new things every day. Builders such as Taylor & Boody may appear strict, but their essay at Holy Cross in 1985 demonstrated unequivocally that there were other recipes of eclecticism than merging ‘classic’ with ‘romantic’ (itself a simplistic corruption of those misunderstood states). In fact, in assimilating elements of Dutch and German organs from the 1500s to the 1700s, Holy Cross was as eclectic, if not more so, than the more commonly held notion of an eclectic organ as merging early French, early German and later French.

But it must be admitted that each of these builders works in a style where the debt is more than acknowledged: it is relied upon. It does not strike us as a new style, because it is not meant to play new music, and traditionally we have greeted new styles as being the agent of a new type of playing and a new type of music. Is our duty to be establishing an obviously new type of tradition for the late 20th-century American pipe organ? It took a Willis to inspire Stanford, Parry and Elgar—not the other way around —and it took a Cavaillé-Coll to inspire an organ for Léfébure-Wély, and later the entire late French school from Franck on. Through new sounds, and just as importantly a new control interface for the organist, these great organbuilders offered untold inspiration to their contemporary musicians. By contrast, is all this stylistic borrowing actually concealing an artistic plateau in the development of an identifiably American organ? Are builders, players and composers waiting for the development of a new style that makes sense for our own time?

Creating an organ to play pre-existing literature, however intelligently, is to ensure a certain stagnation. The situation has been with us for now the entire century: Skinner’s orchestral voices were meant to play Wagner and Strauss, already a generation behind the music of Skinner’s time. Skinner’s vision was the first to go simultaneously backward to the authentic reproduction of something pre-existing and forward to a new mode of playing and composition. By the time of Harrison and Holtkamp, new compositions were encouraged, but almost as a byproduct of an intrinsically musical organ designed to play pre-existing literature. By the time of Fisk and Brombaugh, the notion of an organ to spawn new styles and works is accidental if present at all. Even the best examples of historically-informed eclectic organs unconsciously tend to prevent the creation of new music, or an aesthetic of organ-playing that does not in some degree depend heavily on something in the past or its research equivalent. Both in the building and in the playing, we are upon an exciting treadmill with some great organs out there. It is a treadmill nonetheless, however, and in time I can’t help but wonder whether the same old scenery is going to wear thin.


In the 1920s it was joked that the first three stops of any good organ were the harp, the chimes and the Vox Humana. These days those three must surely be the harmonic flute, the mounted cornet and MIDI. And MIDI, despite its nice clothes and good breeding, is merely the electronic organ in fashionable, flexible clothing. Moreover the ability with MIDI to make pipe sounds and electronic sounds easily coexist paved one philosophically acceptable path for the “combination” organ, an instrument that is partially pipes and partially dedicated digital electronics. Twenty-seven percent of organs built in 1996 had some form of electronic augmentation. And some of those instruments were significantly electronic in nature. Furthermore, it is clear that the issue is not whether we are winning the battle against electronic organs, but rather the moment at which we lost that battle. When the Allen Organ Company builds a third of the world's church organs, and at last count they had more than 600 employees and takes in tens of millions a year—more than the entire American pipe organ industry put together—I am sorry, but the battle is lost.

And in every sense, it cannot come as a great surprise. Here again, the 1890s offers some explanation, for it was the golden age of the stock model organ: sturdy tracker organs that handsomely led choirs and congregational singing. The motivation behind such instruments was often more pragmatic than artistic; these little organs served a functional need. It was the high quality of the times, and the excellent production methods of houses like Hook & Hastings and Hinners, that gave the purchasers more than they had perhaps dreamed of (and a century later would give the Organ Clearing House an unparalleled opportunity to redefine the words "hither" and "yon"). And for those who could not even hope to purchase a pipe organ, the hundreds of thousands of reed organs happily filled the bill.

Viewed as cultural items, stock model organs and reed organs can be seen not as organs per se, but as affordable approximations of the real thing, in an era—which has by no means ended—that said the real thing was big, grand and glorious. The electronic organ, although still a two-dimensional and limited affair, has reached a stage of approximation that is perfectly acceptable for most people. And it can’t come as much of a surprise: being saturated with digitally-produced sound far more than acoustic sound, our present-day culture is well-primed to accept a digital alternative to the pipe organ.

One can always wage a spiritual argument, that if we come to church and draw breath into our lungs, we should be led by people and instruments that do the same, to pledge to our Maker our belief not in illusion but in reality. But reality is also the checkbook, and it will increasingly be the unusual organist who will play a beautiful new divided one-manual five-stop organ, or a nicely-relocated historic 12-stop organ, over a three-manual digital organ. The pity is that the very reason that spells success for these instruments—economy—turns out to be short-termed.

The story of the electronic organ is not new, and the wringing of hands has occurred ever since the Hammond was introduced in 1935. What I do find disturbing is that several of the large factory builders have apparently no higher vision for the future than survival, and with that in mind have gladly melded their pipes with speakers. A great many builders have used electronic 32' registers, of course, but as far as I know, every big North American factory builder—Austin, Casavant, Reuter, the departed Möller, Schantz and Wicks—has gone in for combination organs, at least somewhere to some degree. As a culture, we are intolerant of accepting simple things of quiet excellence; we want variety, even at the expense of quality, and we want it now. The electronic organ, and the combination organ, both speak to that, and in an eerily freeze-dried vernacular.

THE FUTURE: bright, bleak or both?

In summary, this has been an astonishing century for the organ in America. The terrain traversed, the styles explored, and the quality (both hideous and stellar) marks us as a country that is capable of practically anything. Like the disparate nature of the 1890s, we are now in another mad flux of organbuilding, coming out of a century that has cycled between action and reaction, generation and regeneration. If we follow our historical forecast, and look at where things seem to be headed, we can safely say that the tracker-electric debate will level off as people’s focus moves toward adopting good actions, in whatever form may be most appropriate, and concentrating on developing the eclecticism that is currently driving us forward into an identifiable style that may be in place by the year 2010. Dotting the landscape will be superbly-wrought period-specific organ replicas, but they will be seen primarily as educational opportunities for the builders and educational platforms for the players, informing contemporary organbuilding but not defining it.

Or at least, all of this might happen with a solid organ economy. A century ago, hundreds and hundreds of new organs were built every year. The peak year of all organ production in this country was 1925, when a few more than 4000 organs were built. In 1996, the 35 builders that comprise the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America produced just 70 instruments. The artistic forecast may be uncertain, but the market forecast is anyone’s guess. After a recession in the late 1980s business in the early ’90s was bleak. Orders were down, and even those companies who had enjoyed spectacularly luxurious backlogs were pounding the rice paper for contracts. Artistic idealism gave way to survival tactics, especially when venerable tracker builders took on electric-action rebuilding jobs, and electric-action builders turned to electronically-generated voices to produce bass tones and soft registers. Neither of these scenarios would have been considered plausible until only very recently. Since that time there have been two further cycles, and as of this writing there has been an upturn.

Certainly the decline of traditional worship is going to increase before it levels out, and since there will never be as many concert halls as churches, it is upon a religious foundation that the future of the pipe organ is most likely to rest. The electronic organ will essentially supplant the old stock-model organs, except in those places where cultural standards are high. For the more prestigious venue, the future is still uncertain. Even after much hard work, some very good organs and the survival of a fairly ugly period in organbuilding, the craft of the instrument, and the sensitivity of those who play it well, may well be reduced to a pre-industrial age level, where the pipe organ and its music represent a specialized occasion. In fact, aren’t we’re already there and can’t admit it? If the industry is reduced down to a specialized craft, does that portend that an ever-higher percentage of the work will be of inspired quality?

Even when few new ones are being built, only the nay-sayer would prophesy that the organ as an instrument is on the brink of perish. Moreover, there are some simple solutions at the most basic, local level to ensure that what we have is enjoyed by those around us. Get both adults and children inside of pipe organs. They’re already bombarded with music and have trained themselves to ignore what they don’t want to hear; but it’s hard to ignore the human-crafted wonder of a pipe organ. Be a friend and welcome all to the organ loft. Don't discourage organ nuts who drool over consoles; they’re the best evangelists of all. Don’t be afraid to be an organ nut yourself. When you see a new console, seek and celebrate that rush of adrenaline that used to greet every new organ you played as a youngster (yes, even a Kilgen Petite Ensemble). For fun, you can even take perverse joy at seeing horrible pipe organs, just to remember how good you might have things. And play as beautifully as you can, and draw together as many people as possible to listen. In the end, the music is the key to everything.

No one likes to end on a pessimistic note, least of whom myself, because I am indeed optimistic about the future of organbuilding. However, I believe I am realistic in my impression of the scale on which it is likely to be conducted for the next generation. My strongest hope is that when that time comes, a post-technological age, weary of virtually all things virtual, will have rediscovered the organ, craving beauty they can touch and make with their hands. When that occurs, they will realize that the organ is not only the greatest musical instrument of all but possibly the most exalted of the Arts: a brilliant gift from the gods that allows us to gather into one creation practically every discipline, from architecture and engineering to woodworking, metallurgy, sculpting, carving, painting, and the jeweler’s precision of the voicer and tonal finisher—all in the service of music, and more.

Meanwhile, our organ culture remains vibrant, alive and more challenging than ever. If it has diminished in size, it has distilled in flavor and widened its palette. Yes it's complicated, yes it's hard to assimilate, but it's worth the effort; while there may well be great disorder under heaven, wasn’t there always? The situation is still excellent.

Claim and embrace it for yourself.