The Organs of Princeton University Chapel

by Jonathan Ambrosino

“I am inclined to think that Princeton is the real exponent of Anglo-Saxonism,” wrote organ architect Senator Emerson Richards in 1935, “but no matter what the mess is that is boiling within, the shape of the pot that contains the stew is Anglo …”1 So wrote the grandfather of the American Organ Reform Movement, who in one characteristically brazen assessment summed up much of this charming town’s truths. Not as neatly manicured or extensive as Cambridge, England, but considerably more polished than the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Princeton lies one hour between New York and Philadelphia. Princeton University is the town’s centerpiece, one of the eight-member Ivy League colleges and a school with historic links to the Presbyterian Church.

Princeton’s architectural crown is the University Chapel, designed in 1923 by Ralph Adams Cram and completed in 1928. Although he flourished in other styles, the brilliant, opinionated Cram is regarded as the inventor of Academic Gothic in America, with Princeton Chapel being one of his great masterpieces. And into this dazzling room strode Ernest Martin Skinner, another brilliant, opinionated gentleman and the predominant figure in early twentieth-century American organbuilding. When the Princeton contract came along, Skinner had completed his twenty-sixth year in business, having built up a remarkable tradition of organbuilding through some five hundred instruments. To consider the significance of the Princeton organ, a brief review may be helpful.

In 1927, American Romantic organbuilding was in a transition between its third and final phases of development. Though not single-handedly responsible for the Symphonic organ, Skinner had been one of its motivators and enduring influences. He drew early inspiration from the heroïc Tubas in the Willis organ St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, augmented with a love of orchestral sonority gleaned from regular attendance at Boston Symphony concerts.

Skinner’s first trip to England occurred in 1898. In March of 1924, Skinner returned for a second visit, during which he met the then-current head of the Willis Company, Henry Willis III (1889-1966). Willis had traveled widely on the Continent, and was intimately familiar with a good representation of European organbuilding, both tonally and mechanically. His campaign for a more classsically-oriented ensemble, at a time when such views were unpopular, may have earned him the title of “Classicist.” In reality, Willis was probably trying to ignore the post-1890s tendensices of English organbuilding rather than anticipate any real Classical revival. His fluework shows a tendency to take Schulze’s all-out bold voicing (occasionally with wide 2/7 mouths), incorporate them into a Willis scaling system with Willis-style tierce mixtures, and produce from this recipe a forthright chorus. His reeds sought to merge the refinement of Father Willis’s later examples with some of their earlier fire. Married to color mutations, imitative stops and other novel soft flutes, plus electro-pneumatic action, modern consoles and an insistence on no manual unification, the Willis III organ took shape.2 His instrument in Liverpool Cathedral (1924-’26, 5/171) instantly became a standard for classically-oriented English work, and in an almost mythic manner influenced much American work of the late 1920s and ’30s.

Although Skinner wrote that the Liverpool organ was “regarded as the greatest example of the art of organbuilding anywhere,” he gives no specific indication that he actually heard it. (Skinner and Arthur Marks traveled through the region during 1924, and half of the organ was ready for use that August, so perhaps some of it could be played during Skinner’s visit.) However, Skinner saw two other London Willis installations—Westminster Cathedral and Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road—which were to have pivotal influence on both Skinner and American organ building. The organ in Westminster Cathedral combined a slightly older Lewis chancel organ with a partially-complete 1922 Willis in the rear gallery, built mostly to the original Lewis specifications and design.3 The other instrument, Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, was in fact almost entirely Lewis, somewhat rebuilt by Willis III. In the ’20s, these organs could not fail to make an impression on anyone. Bold and brilliant, yet hardly lacking in foundation tone and fine reeds, these may have seemed to Skinner a plausible 20th-century interpretation of the traditional mixture-topped chorus—and, in some ways, a point of departure for new concepts of his own.

Whatever his precise reaction, Skinner returned home clearly convinced that his own organs were lacking in brilliance. In new instruments, Skinner began inserting prominent upperwork, initially of two classes: big quint mixtures not unlike the Willis Grand Chorus (or the standard Lewis quint mixture), and Cornets, classical in composition. The Cornets were mostly of the “dolce cornet” variety, but a few were voiced as bold chorus registers. Although the disposition of these mixtures varied at first, Skinner settled into a pattern of placing the big quint mixture in the Swell, where it provided a successful binding color between reeds and flues, while keeping the big power under expression—always an advantage in the usual American acoustic.

Thus, Skinner inaugurated a new concept in the full ensemble of his instruments. His organs remained mostly as before, but with brighter chorus work, the new mixtures and slightly more open-toned chorus reeds. Skinner continued to conceive his instruments on his own terms, as a grand ensemble distributed among the manuals. Small instruments from this period are likely to have two 8-foot Diapasons, 4-foot Octave, 2-foot Fifteenth and a three-rank quint Mixture, but the First Diapason and Octave will reside in the Great, with the Second Diapason, Fifteenth and Mixture in the Swell. This period lasted from mid-1924 to mid-1927, during which Willis made annual consultation visits on tonal matters. In reciprocation, Skinner shared his outstanding mechanisms and specialty voices.

Having initiated the new tonal trend, Skinner solidified his commitment to the “English Ensemble” when ex-Willis director George Donald Harrison (1889-1956) joined the firm in July of 1927 as assistant general manager. Harrison had always dreamed of becoming an organbuilder, but when he offered himself to T.C. Lewis in 1914, Lewis flatly discouraged him. Instead, Harrison became a patent attorney like his father, joining the Royal Flying Corps during the First War. In 1919, Harrison decided not to return to patent work, and signed on instead with Henry Willis & Sons, Ltd. (who had, incidentally, acquired Lewis’s firm the previous year). In his new job Harrison acted as tunings manager, agent, salesman, and “right hand man” to Willis III; two years later, in 1921, he was elected a director of the firm.

Because he joined the company comparatively late in life (at age thirty), Harrison clearly did not partake of a typical English organbuilder’s apprenticeship. However, he occupied a position of command, oversaw factory work, and did a share of the minor tonal finishings, including the organ at Stonyhurst College.4 Harrison knew the important organists of the day, including Lynnwood Farnam, Marcel Dupré and England’s own Guy Weitz, all of whom were interested in progressive tonal design.

Upon coming to the Skinner Organ Company, Harrison’s specified assignment was to assist Skinner in realizing a fully-developed English-style ensemble, one in which the reeds and foundations might equal to the newly-introduced brilliant mixtures in harmonic development. Under Willis III, Harrison probably had little say over scaling and voicing decisions (and Willis took credit for everything anyway). At Skinner, he was clearly thinking on his own terms, for he did not precisely practice the modern Willis methods he came over to introduce. Instead, Harrison opted to incorporate a range of English ideas—an admixture of Willis I, Willis III, a bit of Arthur Harrison, some of Colonel George Dixon (an inkling that Great reeds might not be wanted), and a lasting impression of the work of T.C. Lewis.

Inspections of instruments built directly before and after Harrison’s arrival show a definite difference in Skinner’s tonal production in merely a few months. 1/5-mouth leather-lipped First Opens were essentially discontinued, in favor of a range of mouth-widths, replaced by 2/9-mouth models (first encouraged by Willis III), and eventually 1/4-mouth ranks. Other evidence of “brightening” could be found throughout the modified approach to flue choruses—slightly lower cut-ups, a touch of bevel on the upper lips (Skinner’s previous examples had absolutely flat upper lips), more generous winding at the toe, the inclusion of more mixtures and upperwork, and the gradual introduction of spotted metal ranks. A new family of chorus reeds based on Willis models appeared also, to be used habitually throughout Swell organs; metal harmonic flutes for the Great in place of wooden Clarabellas (possibly reflecting Harrison’s regular exposure to Cavaillé-Coll, and Lewis’ tendency to include such stops on Great organs); and bearded pedal open woods called “Contre Basse.” Most flutes, strings and solo reeds remained as before, but the ensemble effect was notably different: brighter, “tighter” and with more fire, yet retaining the sophisticated and complex full ensemble typical of Skinner at his best.5

Unlike many of their other collaborations, Skinner and Harrison formed part of a larger design team at Princeton. Heading up the group was Dr. Alexander Russell, Princeton’s Director of Music since 1917 and later holding the post of Henry Clay Frick Chair of Music. Russell had imperial credentials, having studied piano with Harold Bauer and Leopold Godowsky in Berlin and organ with Charles-Marie Widor in Paris. In America, he established a fine reputation as an organist and composer, but his principal fame rested on his position with the Wanamaker stores, for whom he acted as concert manager.6 In this capacity, Russell helped establish the American reputation of Marcel Dupré and Charles Courboin, among others.7

For the Princeton project, Russell may have been the one chosen to tap Helena Woolworth McCann, who anonymously donated the organ in memory of her father F.W. Woolworth. Typical of his self-effacing nature, Russell was credited with the specification but solicited the advice of friends. Primarily, he consulted Charles M. Courboin,

…the eminent Belgian-American organist widely known as one of the greatest organ architects and tonal experts in this country; Marcel Dupré, the famous French artist, formerly of Notre Dame, Paris, and now of the Paris Conservatory of Music; Henry Willis, of Henry Willis and Sons, the foremost English builders; and Ernest Skinner of the Skinner Organ Company.8

As at Wanamaker’s, there seems little doubt that Russell desired for Princeton not merely the best, but something progressive. Russell, Courboin and Dupré had already worked together on enlarging the Wanamaker instrument in Philadelphia. Furthermore, Courboin played there regularly and in 1927 became head of the Wanamaker organ shops (which manufactured all the additions to the already substantial instrument). Courboin had also designed many organs, and although not as well remembered, his recordings reveal a sublime and dramatic talent on the order of Lynnwood Farnam’s, one responsible for a healthy concert career. In one sense, it was only logical that Russell would include Courboin in the Princeton circle, and natural that he might consult Willis and Dupré. Thus the members of the Princeton design team were in no way strangers.9

The six men all seemed in favor of an ensemble-oriented organ. Dupré, already a tremendous devoté of Skinner, electric action and the American Symphonic organ, was equally familiar with Willis III’s organs in England and admired them. In his foreign studies, Russell had surely become acquainted with the great Parisian Cavaillé-Colls as well as notable English organs. And after a lengthy European tour in late 1925, Courboin recounted:

As to organs in England, I surely found some marvelous instruments, notably some built by Henry Willis. They have real diapasons. They also have high-pressure reeds, some on fifty inches of wind, loud, but never noisy or blatant ... With all this, there is always a beautiful balance, accomplished largely by big mixtures, some five, six or even seven ranks. The large English organs have an extraordinary tonal balance; instead of one or two loud diapasons they have perhaps six or seven, built in an ascending scale of tonal intensity, which, combined with the reeds and mixtures, produces most beautiful ensemble effects. ... Even yet the average English organist is not in favor of having the entire organ enclosed (neither are all Americans, for that matter); generally speaking, he wants the great organ absolutely unenclosed. He does not like the crescendo pedal; in fact, in most cases he will not have it; just why he prefers to do the self-same thing with a series of manual pistons we must wonder ... As to mechanical facilities, America, because of its great advances in things electrical, leads the world. But the idea is contagious; Willis is now copying all the latest improvements in American organs.10

The first scheme which Skinner submitted to Princeton was, with two additional stops, a duplicate of the highly successful organ in Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, Detroit, Michigan (Opus 475, 4/68, 1926). Courboin and Russell replied with a revised specification, typed up in the Skinner office on 7 June 1927 and approved by Courboin and Russell two days later. It was upon this scheme that the contract was signed on that date for $57,000. This second proposal is noteworthy for its contradiction of Skinner’s strongest premise: a separately enclosed Great organ with a celeste stop, 73-note compass and tremulant. But Courboin’s stature as a player, combined with the prestige of the job, seems to have convinced Skinner in this instance. Twenty-five days later, G. Donald Harrison sailed for the States.11

Contract in hand, the Skinner factory began production; preliminary chamber designs were laid out in the draughting room, blowers were ordered from the Spencer Turbine company of Hartford, Connecticut. On 13 August, company Treasurer George Catlin gave Skinner the standard “contract questionnaire,” which noted (Skinner’s handwriting in italics):

Is the organ to be installed in a new building, the completion of which is doubtful? No.

Are we committed to any free organ recital? No.

And then:

Are we committed to any commission to anybody on this contract? If so, how much and when payable? Corboin [sic] said no at first and later expects something. Wait and see what he does at Memphis [a large Kimball organ drawn to Courboin’s designs].12

Through the fall of 1927, the specification changed considerably. At some point in October, Harrison, Skinner, Courboin and Russell had a further conference on the specification, resulting in several significant changes. The modifications were outlined in a document of 29 October 1927, of which Harrison sent a copy to the firm’s New York office, since Skinner was expected there. On this document, Harrison handwrote scales for virtually every stop. The Great was now to be mostly unenclosed, shorn of its sub- and super-couplers and celeste, and incorporating a much-strengthened chorus. The rest of the organ received minor changes: a real pedal mixture in place of two unified ones, and the insertion of the 32-foot Fagotto as a manual stop in the Swell, not a Pedal extension of the Choir rank. Skinner rejected this last change, however, in favor of the original arrangement.13

After a second revision on 12 December, in which the Great gained a second mixture and some other details finally settled, the specification was set. In this last scheme, only the Great Doppel Flute, 4-foot Flute and reeds remained under expression—and in the Choir, not their own box. The Swell remained unchanged, save the deletion of the 8-foot Clarabella and the separation of the five-rank Cornet. The separated stop control was achieved with five sliders on a specially-constructed topboard, highly unusual (though not unique), and possibly indicating that at this point, the chests were far enough along in construction to prevent the introduction of separate pouchrails and pitman actions. Apart from the above, the only change made after this point was the substitution of the Great Tibia Plena with a harmonic metal Principal Flute.

Despite the great care lavished over the tonal design, the organ’s environment was to prove a greater challenge. The South chamber is deeper than it is wide, with four tiny, useless transept openings (eventually boarded up); the majority of the pipework was to reside there. By contrast, the North chamber was shallow to the point of being an engineering obstacle. Skinner’s preliminary sketch of 20 May 1927 indicates a preference for placing the Swell in the North chamber on two side-by-side chests (unfeasible, as it turned out), with the rest of the instrument in the South chamber: Solo above Choir in the rear, Great up front nearest the case. In September, Skinner visited the site with his engineer Charles Atkins to measure the chambers and finalize the layout.

It appears that these matters were not fully settled until December, when Harrison confirmed with the factory that the Solo, not the Swell, would occupy the shallow North chamber on three levels, with the rest of the instrument placed on the South side. The Swell was disposed on two side-by-side chests high on the back wall, with the Choir and enclosed Great in a similar chamber below. The Great and Pedal spoke on chests in front of it; in typical Skinner fashion, the Great manual chests were located on the lower level, with basses and Pedal units above and to the sides. The size of these divisions, plus the pedal 16-foots, crowded out the possibility of a 32-foot Violone, although Russell was particularly hoping to include one. So “Mr. Skinner devised the Contrafagotto,” wrote Harrison, “which we were able to mitre down to a height of but 12-foot.”14 Mild but with drive, the Fagotto was not unlike a Violone; placed under expression, it formed an invaluable and brilliant solution, probably more useful than the stop it intended to emulate. Skinner’s enormous 32-foot Bourdon (called “Stopped Diapason” on the factory scale sheets) was probably also another space-saving tactic; the low octave was tremendously effective and was extended from the 16’ Diapason.15

On paper, Princeton enjoyed three distinct manual ensembles (Great, Swell, Solo), each with a diapason chorus, mixture and 16- 8- and 4-foot reeds. Also, the Choir’s Diapason, Violina, Fagotto and Trumpet formed more of an ensemble than other large contemporary Skinners, one possibly useful as a prélude to full Swell. Several details might be traced to the consultants. Doppel flutes were highly unusual for Skinner, but one existed on the Princeton Great from the beginning of the project, and are readily found throughout the Wanamaker organ. The provision of both Gamba and Salicional celeste pairs in the Swell matches the schemes of other organs which Courboin and Russell designed, unlike the usual large Skinner Swell of the period, with its Salicional and Voix Celeste augmented by a single stronger Gamba. The cornet décomposé of the Swell was another curiosity, possibly the result of Dupré’s influence; once again, both New York and Philadelphia Wanamaker organs had separable compound stops, whereas Skinner had by now developed a penchant for soft, silvery five-rank Cornets in the Swell, but never separable. Some of the pressures were also unusual: 12 inches for the Great reeds was more Willis III than Skinner’s norm of 10-inch; placing the entire Swell on 10-inch was also unusual, opposed to the more usual 7-1/2–inch; and in turn, 7-1/2–inch was higher than the standard 6-inch for Choir organs.

After the 12 December specification revisions, Harrison sent handwritten notes to the chief draughtsman, A. Perry Martin, with the former’s scalings and descriptions of “special stops:” the First Diapason would have a 1/5 mouth bass, going to a 2/9 mouth at tenor C merging to 1/4-mouth at middle C; the 32-foot Quintaton on the Great was to have thin walls and low cut-ups; and confirming the details about the Swell and Great chorus reeds.16 Once more on 18 January 1928, Harrison wrote out scales for the Swell Cornet, which were again processed through Martin.

In addition to tonal and mechanical considerations, three additional financial agreements were made between client and builder. The first was for a remote combination action in place of an in-console system, at a cost of $3,000. With ten general pistons specified, the usual Skinner console would have been probably three times as deep, so the remote system condensed the console size considerably. However, the University opted for a $1,500 reduction in the contract by deferring the installation of the Harp and Chimes ($1,000 and $500, respectively). The Harp was to have been in the Swell, the Chimes in the Solo; though prepared in the relays, neither was ever installed. The third agreement was for the English Oak console case, costing $600.

These details settled, construction proceeded rapidly, so that installation was underway in late March 1928, according to an article in The Princetonian:

The actual work has been under the supervision of Donald Harrison, who was formerly connected in the same capacity with Willis and Sons and supervised the installation of the Liverpool Cathedral organ. Thus, says Dr. Russell, he brings to Princeton unquestioned knowledge based on long and successful experience. All details of tonal balance, voicing and general musical qualities rest with Courboin and Dr. Russell.17

At this point, the factory shop notes mostly contain writing from head flue voicer Fred Goodman and Harrison, the latter gentleman adding comments as the voicing process developed. The Swell Cornopean was originally to have been of the “English variety,” but it was made up as a standard Skinner version. This was installed at Princeton, apparently found lacking, and an “English” trumpet was made, thus matching what had been specified for the 16- and 4-foot. (The Cornopean was then inserted in Opus 634, a sister instrument at the University of Chicago.) And Skinner raised the pressure for the lowest thirty notes of the Great double, and then upped the Choir pressure from 6 to 7-1/2 inches, and the 32-foot Fagotto from 7-1/2 to 10 inches —perhaps after visiting the installation and seeing firsthand the deep North chamber.

With Skinner’s ten voicing rooms, seventy-nine ranks of flue voicing was completed on 12 May 1928 after less than one month’s work (during which time, the voicers probably saw to other work as well). The twenty reeds were finished three days before the flues, on 9 May. The dedication took place on Memorial Day 1928, though the organ was not yet finished; a formal inauguration was played by Courboin on June 17.

The following October, Skinner invited the Philadelphia and New York organ communities to Princeton, hiring special train cars to transport them. Three hundred and fifty influential organists and enthusiasts attended a so-called “informal demonstration,” which was anything but. Chandler Goldthwaite, Charles Courboin, Lynnwood Farnam, Rollo Maitland, Fernando Germani and Ralph Downes—musical giants all—played for almost two hours. To American ears, the organ clearly made a distinguished statement in the late-Symphonic/“English Ensemble” style. Well-known organist and composer Gordon Balch Nevin wrote that the Princeton organ was “a monument to artistic taste, knowledge and skill,” continuing, “There is a complete change in the diapason quality . . . the quality is so pungent, so incisive, so downright clean, that contrapuntal passages take on a new meaning.”18 This compliment may have unconsciously reflected an unavoidable conclusion: Princeton had one of the first non-leathered Great First Diapasons to be found on any American organ built in the past two decades. Emerson Richards wrote to Willis III in July of 1928, “Harrison has done a very fine job at Princeton. I am quite sure you would like the organ.”19 Also noteworthy was the praise of G.D. Cunningham and Marcel Dupré. After his American tour, Cunningham wrote of Princeton in Musical Times on 1 June 1929, “In blend, ensemble and general effect it is thrilling, full of brilliance, and yet dignified. The solo stops are also beautiful, and this, combined with the perfect action and the fine environment, made it the most enjoyable recital of the tour.” On 13 December 1929, Dupré wrote personally to Ernest Skinner: “It was such a thrill to play on your wonderful organs again and to open my tour with a recital on that recent masterpiece of yours, the Princeton organ. Let me, once more, express all my profound admiration for your great art.” Skinner was somewhat concerned that Dupré failed to mention Harrison:

I feel some embarrassment when Marcel handed me that testimonial so personal to myself regarding the Princeton organ, and I can imagine you may not have been without some feeling of being left out of it, so I want to say right here that I hold your contribution to the quality of that great instrument to be such that my opinion of you as an artist publicly and privately expressed, is more than justified.

Cordially, and with great admiration,

[Signed,] Ernest M. Skinner20

Indeed, one of the few dissenting voices was that of the first organist, Ralph Downes, and even he conceded

“it could not be denied that exquisite effects and tone-colours could be found; and with the aid of the very responsive pitman actions and plentiful supply of combination-pistons (all instantly adjustable), it was possible to give brilliant sensational performances of all kinds of modern and Romantic music, and some major Bach works. The main defects only became seriously obvious when accompanying voices.”21

When Downes wrote this in 1983, he may have felt more strongly in retrospect, having later designed organs more to his musical tastes.

Obviously, to judge the precise effect of the 1928 installation now involves some conjecture, coupled to a familiarity with other Skinner organs. But while a prominent installation with interesting novelties, the Princeton Skinner was in fact typical of Skinner’s work in that period. What set the Princeton organ apart was its prestigious setting and its completeness: an organ large enough to realize what everyone had in mind. The firm built fifty organs in 1928 alone, another fifty in 1929, and almost that number again in 1930, during which time the corporate tonal outlook showed little significant change until that third year. Thus, even with the alarming ravages of time, rebuilds, replacements, it is possible to audition many untouched Skinners of this period and piece together how Princeton might have sounded.

The larger Skinners from this era usually contain Great organs with strong, bright unisons, octave and fifteenth; singing, thin-scale but mellow mixture work; and smooth, square-tone Trombas not quite so dark as Durham Harrison organs. Certain greats contain extremely powerful 4’ principals, which lend both a greater animation to the unison work, and a higher “charge” to the mixtures. By contrast, the Swells are characterized by less emphasis on the eight-foot flues, bright octaves and fifteenth, heroic five-rank quint mixtures and full-toned trumpets. Where present, the Solo chorus is marked by a big unison, pungent octave, an even stronger, brighter quint mixture than in the Swell, and clean, ringing Tubas with equal weight and “glow.” The Skinner company was uncanny at making such disparate elements blend, and these big Solos are reminiscent of the best of Arthur Harrison’s work. The Pedal divisions of these larger instruments are big, united by a bearded open wood which balances weight with point, and tends to focus the pedal, but never boasted independence. Skinner’s 32-foot Bombardes vary in strength and color; the darker ones are quite foundational, and yet some were allowed to “rip,” resulting in a deep and commanding brawn. The 32-foot Fagotto at Princeton proved so effective that Skinner used it with wonderful miniature effects in a number of moderately-sized three- and four-manuals from 1930 to 1934, and then extensively in his work from 1936 onward.

In contrast to this standard tonal goal, Princeton encountered two tremendous obstacles. The first was clarity: bottled from the Great and Swell, certainly buried from the Choir, and yet all too powerful and present in the Solo. Furthermore, this deep chamber produces a vowel all its own, coloring all within it. Therefore, the organ probably required care, sensitivity and an extra pair of ears in registration, to achieve the desired smoothness in build-up and overall balance. The second obstacle was acoustics. By American standards of the ’20s, the Chapel was acoustically “perfect”—or in more simple terms, perfectly dead. Much of what appeared to be stone was actually Akoustolith tile, a highly-absorptive material employed to eliminate reverberation. Cram had pioneered such materials as Akoustolith (patented in 1916 and produced by Rafael Gustavino) and Akoustolith plaster (patented in the 1920s, also by Gustavino).22 Acoustician Robert Newman (of the well-known American acoustical firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman) has wondered:

One might be tempted to ask why thought was even given to building such dramatic religious spaces so clearly modeled after European precedents if it was intended that the “cathedral sound” be muffled at the outset. The answer, of course, lies in the importance given to preaching in the United States as compared to Europe. One does not typically hear 30-minute sermons at Bourges and Chartres. Perhaps the medieval architects were more clever than we imagine! By the same token, the primitive state of public address systems in the 1920s and ’30s demanded the suppression of reverberation if the clergy were to be heard. Hence Akoustolith—patent #1,197,956.23

At the time, most American organists believed that good acoustics meant little reverberation. They were more concerned with other factors: Did sound carry evenly throughout the building? Were there annoying slaps, uneven reflections or disturbing echoes? These questions took precedence over the creation of beautiful, prolonged decay. When Palmer Christian, Organist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, wrote in 1926, “I have, naturally, the utmost sympathy for the man who has to fight bad acoustics all the time, for I have that problem to meet in the recitals at the University of Michigan,” he was discussing a room with six seconds’ decay, albeit one with reflective peculiarities.24 So when Gordon Balch Nevin praised Princeton Chapel for having a “fine resonance with no disturbing echo effect,” he was probably saying that tone carried well enough without oddities and long reverberation, as well as summing up the general thought of the time.25 In reality, it was another typical Gustaveno room, with some bass roll but extremely little high-end decay. Thus any interpretation of public reaction to the 1928 organ must be reviewed in this light: to many, the room was not a disappointment.26

Upon final reflection, there can be little doubt that the original Princeton chorus work and reeds were representative of Donald Harrison’s earliest ideals of tonal production while with Skinner. The specification may not have been in complete accord with his ideas (which were highly embryonic in 1928 anyway), but it clearly showed his influence. The Harrison hand can be seen in certain flutes and mutations—cork-stoppered rohrflutes like Willis III, the Great Principal Flute, the curious Swell cornet, the Great 5-1/3 (a rohrflute, like the Liverpool Cathedral manual 10-2/3) and 3-1/5 and certainly the diapason structure and mixtures, Swell chorus reeds and Solo flue chorus. Comparing the Princeton scale sheets to contemporary instruments shows that forty-three of the instrument’s seventy-four voices followed habitual Skinner practices dating from before Harrison’s arrival, or else were recent developments clearly of Skinner’s own motivation (Flauto Mirabilis, Orchestral Flute, double-bell English Horn). The remaining thirty-one voices follow practices found only in instruments built after Harrison’s arrival. William King Covell, enthusiast, organ writer and one of Harrison’s first friends here, wrote of Princeton in 1944, “it was generally understood...that Mr. Harrison was largely responsible for decisions as to scaling and voicing, and also took part in the final regulation of the instrument.”27 To assert that Princeton was not a typical Harrison organ would be quite true, but a bit irrelevant; Harrison’s individual efforts did not, indeed could not materialize until years later. But the strength of his influence is sure; had Skinner built the organ himself, the outcome would have been decidedly different.


1 Charles Callahan, The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters (Richmond: The Organ Historical Society, 1990), p. 151.

2 It may be that Willis was unconsciously espousing the ideal of Michell and Thynne, as represented in the 1885 Inventions Exhibitions organ, now in Tewkesbury Abbey, a magnificent hybrid of Willis and Schulze ideals.

3 From conversations and correspondence with Ian Bell (N.P. Mander, Ltd.) and Bruce Buchanan (J.W. Walker, Ltd., and formerly of Henry Willis & Sons, Ltd.)

4 From a conversation with Harrison’s son, J. Michael Harrison, 24 February 1993. Aubrey Thompson-Allen, who succeeded Harrison, confirmed this in conversations with his son, Nicholas Thompson-Allen and Joseph Dzeda. An interesting detail is that at the time, the Willis factory owned just one car, which Willis and Harrison shared.

5 Factory specification notes and records from the head reed voicer’s log, courtesy of Allen B. Kinzey with deep gratitude.

6 For a full background of the Wanamaker organ, the reader is referred to the superb trilogy of articles by Raymond Biswanger in The American Organist, September, October and November of 1988.

7 Whereas others took out smaller advertisements in The Diapason and The American Organist, Russell purchased page after full Diapason page in his promotions of Dupré and Courboin. Under Russell’s guidance, the Wanamaker concerts became tremendous affairs, often with organ and symphony, always filled to capacity.

8 “Huge Skinner Organ, including 6,000 Pipes, Being Installed For Music Of New Chapel,” The Princetonian, 29 March 1928.

9 Furthermore, in December of 1927, Harrison supplied a Skinner scheme for the proposed “Stentor” Organ at Wanamaker’s, a high-pressure ensemble department employing pressures up to 100 inches; it was never built, but it also had a manual 32-foot Fagotto, as he had tried to insert in the Princeton Swell. Finally in 1948, Harrison was able to include such a stop in the Swell at the Mormon Tabernacle in Æolian-Skinner Opus 1075. See Biswanger.

10 Ralph A. Harris, “Don’t Sacrifice Ideal, Says C.M. Courboin,” The Diapason, January 1926.

11 Callahan, op. cit.

12 From the engineering file, 13 August 1927, Catlin to Skinner.

13 Revised contract dated 29 October 1927, from the engineering file; and also the company’s copy of the contract, from the contract archive. Both contain Harrison’s handwriting, along with Skinner’s elimination of the 32-foot Swell Fagotto.

14 T. Scott Buhrman, “A Comparison,” The American Organist, Vol. 15 No. 10 (October 1932), p. 610.

15 Skinner often had to build organs for Cram’s churches, and the two apparently did not get along well. In one church, Cram provided a space forty feet tall yet only four feet deep, which prompted Skinner to curse, “Cram, God damn it! What do you want me to do?! Paint the organ on the wall?!!” Cram felt similarly, later recalling, “Oh, that man Skinner—he was impossible!” See Holden, page 57.

16 Engineering file document, 9 December 1927.

17 The Princetonian, op. cit. J. Michael Harrison, son of G. Donald Harrison, correlates that his father spent a great deal of time at Liverpool Cathedral, evidently straightening out mechanical difficulties with the installation of this immense organ, as well as carrying out finishing work.

18 Gordon Balch Nevin, “Organists as Guests Hear Princeton Organ,” The Diapason, November 1928, p. 2.

19 Callahan, op. cit.

20 Letter courtesy of the Organ Literature Foundation.

21 Ralph Downes, Baroque Tricks (Oxford: Positif Press, 1983), p. 28.

22 “Gothic Sound for the Neo-Gothic Chapel of Duke University,” Robert B. Newman and James G. Ferguson, Jr., a paper presented at the 98th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Salt Lake City, Utah, 30 November 1979.

23 Ibid.

24 Palmer Christian, “Modern Phases of Organ Playing,” The Diapason, January 1926, p. 28.

25 Gordon Balch Nevin, “Organists as Guests Hear Princeton Organ,” The Diapason, November 1928, p. 2.

26 Many years later, Ralph Downes wrote to G. Donald Harrison in thanks for some recordings which Harrison had sent, saying, “I cannot reciprocate, for none of the recording firms will look at the [Royal] Festival Hall because of its lack of reverberation! (How times do change; it doesn’t seem long since it was the other way ‘round!)” Callahan, op. cit., letter from Downes to G. Donald Harrison 10 December 1954.

27 Holden.