Fisk-Rosales Opus 109/21

by Jonathan Ambrosino

To the casual observer, it may appear highly unusual that two prominent organ builders would collaborate on an instrument, especially one that would otherwise stand as the magnum opus of either firm. But to those who know the long-standing association between Rosales and Fisk, joining forces to build an organ for the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University is a logical culmination of a long and significant relationship.

The first project that drew the firms together was for Stanford University, when Manuel Rosales acted as consultant for Fisk’s Op. 85, the dual-temperament organ in the University Memorial Church, completed in 1985. In 1982, during the planning stages, Manuel Rosales, Charles Fisk and Harald Vogel made an extended trip through Germany, solidifying the Fisk-Rosales relationship.

Since that time, technical data has flowed freely between the two workshops, and the shared experience has led to greater refinement in the work of both companies. Moreover, each firm has welcomed input of other builders. Rosales has regularly invited others to his workshop, while it is important to recall that C.B. Fisk’s earliest triumph was itself a collaboration: Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore in 1961, a groundbreaking two-manual organ built in connection with D.A. Flentrop. In one sense, the Rice experience recognizes a new era in American organbuilding, where the old trade secrecy has given way to collegiality and sharing in the pursuit of ever better organs.

To give some background to the Shepherd School collaboration, Rosales Organ Builders entered into contract for a new three-manual organ in 1992. The stylistic orientation was primarily French, in the manner of a classical French organ that might have been thoroughly rebuilt in the 19th-century. Concurrently, Rosales Organ Builders was in the process of completing its Opus 16 for the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, the firm’s largest effort to date and a rewarding but very taxing project. When it appeared that the Rice organ was to grow larger than its original conception, to a scope exceeding that of the Oakland organ, Manuel Rosales set about exploring the possibility of involving Fisk. Although he would retain a central artistic role, the goal would be to produce a truly cooperative creation between the two firms.

Clyde Holloway knew the Fisk team from serving as consultant to Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston (Fisk Op. 99, 1991) and admired their many successes. His endorsement and enthusiasm, coupled with Fisk’s proven ability at building complex organs in diverse styles, led to a redefinition of the project in March 1993, with Fisk as prime contractor.

By then, the Rice organ possessed an emphatically French specification of 75 stops, while incorporating a desire to address other areas of the repertoire convincingly and with authority. Detailed planning began in the Spring of 1994, when David Pike of C.B. Fisk and Manuel Rosales began to decide pipe materials and initial scaling. Preliminary discussions were based upon each firm’s individual research in France, coupled to the practical experience from their own instruments.

As the process developed, it became clear that, where each builder had visited French organs individually, it would be invaluable for the design team to study them together. A two-week tour of France in September of 1994 provided this opportunity. Among the instruments examined were those of Louis Alexandre Clicquot (1734) at Houdan, Claude Parizot (1739) at Dieppe and François-Henri Clicquot at Poitiers (1791). Well-known 19th-century instruments studied included Cavaillé-Coll organs at St. Etienne in Caen (1889), St. Ouen in Rouen (1890), and St. Sulpice (1862), Notre-Dame (1868 and later), and Sacré-Cœur (1899) in Paris. In particular, many reed pipes were taken apart and measured, then put back together and auditioned.

Such detailed and varied study was an essential aspect of planning for Rice. Given the extremely live acoustics yet diminutive size of the Edythe Bates Old Grand Organ Hall, the scaling of the organ would be critical, depending on many factors for success. In France, the Grand Orgue is customarily situated high on the west wall, and in buildings many times larger than the Old hall. Pipes of ample scale blown forcibly are ideally suited to such large spaces, but could they succeed at Rice? Would an attempt to reduce scalings, pressure and volume lead to an appropriate miniature, or merely an unstylistically emasculated result?

After much deliberation, it was decided to build an organ of relatively “normal” scales and somewhat gentle pressures behind a fairly dense and roof-less case—directing the tone not so much forward but up toward the ceiling. The tightly-spaced façade pipes and restrictive casework are a result of this philosophy, and assist in creating an illusion of distance and breadth. Lacking not only a roof but also a back and sides, the case represents a break with much of French tradition. With formidable masonry at three sides, however, it was felt that the building structure itself would provide ample reflection of tone. The Grand-Orgue and Pédale are located at impost level, with Positif below and Récit above. The Honduras mahogany casework, designed by Charles Nazarian, rises nearly 50 feet and echoes the four-tower format of many 18th-century French organs.

In light of the varied repertoire the organ would be expected to play, much deliberation centered around an appropriate wind system. Since the organ contained the resources for an heroic tutti, an ample, stable wind supply was deemed most suitable. Double-rise bellows at the base of the organ feed wooden trunks; from there, the wind is conveyed to the pallet boxes, with Rosales-style wind stabilizers adjacent. Drawing the Vent flexible knob disengages the stabilizers, exciting the natural resonance of the wind system and imparting a gently flexing quality appropriate to certain repertoire. The Grand-Orgue and Positif tremolos approximate the tremblant doux characteristic of the 18th-century French organ. In addition to the customary Swell Trémolo, the Trémolo rapide gives the characteristic fast and shallow vibrato expected for the Voix humaine.

Following general Fisk and Rosales practices, the key-action uses a minimum of bushing cloth for a crisp, direct action. In the case of the Récit and Positif, the front-to-back chest arrangement dictated the use of horizontal roller-boards mounted directly underneath the chests in the Cavaillé-Coll style. (Both Rosales and Fisk have used this system in other organs with excellent results.) The windchests themselves employ modern materials—Delrin™ slider seals, Lexan™ sliders, best-grade voidless plywood—and rest on steel bearers, all to ensure climatic stability.

A uniquely Fisk contribution is the Servopneumatic Lever, which combines the ease afforded by the Barker Lever with a perfected servo-control. Developed by Stephen Kowalyshyn of Fisk, the Lever faithfully communicates all the subtleties of key motion to the pallet valves, even when full organ and all the couplers are drawn. The Lever is optionally applied to the Grand Orgue and its couplers, including the Octaves Graves, which can sub-couple all three manuals for moments of climactic grandeur. Disengaging the Lever regains direct mechanical control.

Also of note is the presence of two complete enclosed divisions—a first for both builders. A Fisk hallmark is the graded expression system. Each two-inch-thick swell box has shutters on three sides. Through a system of levers and cams, only a few shades operate at first; the rest are carefully calibrated for a gradual opening, distributing the dynamic range evenly over the travel of the expression shoe. Taken together, the range and control of the expression is breathtaking.

The console design is another Fisk-Rosales first, integrated into the case and laid out en amphithéâtre. While recalling the three celebrated such consoles Cavaillé-Coll built, the design departs from precedent by being attached (not detached and reversed), containing only three manuals, and introducing coupler and ventil controls in the nameboard. With its 61-note manual and 32-note pedal compasses, the design follows most closely the four-manual console now at Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The manual keys are of bone and ebony, paired to a straight pedalboard with keys of maple and ebony. At the extremes of the compass, the pedal keys rise in height while the accidentals grow longer. The arcs of the stop terraces are echoed in the gentle sweep of the toe-terrace returns. Gold-embossed leather borders and turned drawknobs of cocobolo and ebony complete the distinctive appearance.

The usual multi-level combination action, complete with programmable piston sequencer, is further specialized by different modes of operation. Mode americain allows the organ to be controlled in the usual manner, leaving the ventils inoperable. Mode français I brings the ventils into operation, while Mode français II prevents the ventil knobs from being affected by the combination action.

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Especially from the tonal standpoint, Opus 109/21 combines the talents of all those involved in its planning and construction. The result is an indivisible artistic achievement. Not only has the combined knowledge of each firm been fully exploited, but together they have covered exciting, new ground: a dynamic experience for all future work.

If the Grand Orgue chorus represents for Rosales something of a departure, it is for Fisk even more radical. In recent work, Fisk’s choruses have followed closely upon that of Schnitger, using hammered lead pipes with generous cut-ups. Although earlier Rosales choruses also employed hammered lead pipework, more recent work has used tin, though retaining hammered lead for the mixtures to obtain better blend.

In the Shepherd School organ, the choruses needed to provide the appropriate plein jeu while being versatile enough to be taken in other musical directions. To obtain both breadth and clarity, hammered tin, scraped tin and hammered spotted metal were employed, coupled to generous but not overly abundant scales. Another departure came in the Diapason and Prestant of the Récit, which feature narrow slots in the French tradition. These stops produce a controlled but distinctive horn-like timbre, evocative of 19th-century organs in France, Germany and America, and lending an unmistakable vowel color to the fonds.

Strings and celestes are developed to a greater degree than in any previous Fisk or Rosales organ. The Great Violoncelle is a modified version of stops found in other Fisk work: a small principal voiced as a broad string, employing the freins harmoniques typical of Cavaillé-Coll. The Récit Viole de Gambe and Voix céleste are derived from familiar Cavaillé-Coll stops. Their fast tuning gives an ethereal yet animated effect, especially at home in the atmospheric moments of Messaien and Tournemire. The Voix céleste also undulates agreeably with the Diapason as an alternate color. The broader Positif Salicional and Unda maris specifically take into account the desirability of providing an undulant for the Principal. Accordingly, the Unda maris lies mid-way in scale between the Salicional and the Principal, drawing either for its partner. With its flat and slow tuning, the Unda maris lends a variety and warmth in contrast to the Voix céleste.

The lavish array of flute and mutation stops provides every requisite color for the French repertoire, as well as German and even Spanish music. Of special note is the grand jeu de tierce, one of a handful of such combinations to be found in this country. At the unison level, the full, melodious Flûte harmonique of the Grand Orgue, and mellower Flûte traversière in the Récit, are by now familiar stops to both builders. As this was the first organ by either to include a third unison harmonic flute, something fresh seemed in order for the Positif. Experimentation led to the insertion of a tapered metal rank, an unusually clear and penetrating voice of moderate power. In addition, chimney flute tone has been developed to a high degree, especially in the Grand Orgue. This concentrated, bell-like timbre is a signature of all Rosales organs.

Of the organ’s lighter reeds, several deserve special mention. The Positif Cor anglais is an entirely new stop developed by Fisk, using a Basson bass. The Récit Clarinette has been kept on the woody side, bearing in mind its indicated use in the scores of Franck, Widor and Vierne. The Grand Orgue 16’ and 8’ Bassons represent new territory for the two companies, a tone color of the French romantic organ that seemed ripe for exploration in this country. The pipes have slotted spotted-metal resonators and make use of à larme (tear-drop) shallots. The mild, smooth and incisive tone—not unlike that of old German trumpets—is especially useful in the pedal under a classical plenum.

The particular effectiveness and beauty of the chorus reeds encapsulate two decades of experience on the part of each builder. In this regard, the 1994 study trip yielded particularly valuable insights into tongue curvatures and subtle revisions of shallot scales and depths. In these reeds is captured the particular drama of the French organ: a sweet, sonorous treble which descends with a steady and majestic crescendo in the bass.

The Pédale represents a synthesis of design objectives, expanding the customary palette of the typical French pedal stoplist with additional principal tone. The Contrebasse unit provides gravity at 16’, the necessary unison bass at 8’, and the solo voice at 4’ implied in the music of Widor, Vierne, Duruflé and Messaien. The Violonbasse, the first such stop in a Fisk or Rosales organ, reflects a desire for an alternate and incisive pedal voice; this particular stop is patterned after those of Edmund Schulze, the celebrated 19th-century German organbuilder. The 8’ and 4’ Octaves offer chorus and solo possibilities, while advantageous borrowing from the Grand Orgue provides additional flexibility.

If in its flues, the Pédale forms the foundation of the organ, in its reeds lies the final climactic drama. One interesting departure is the Pédale 32’-16’ Bombarde, with its marriage of Bertouneche shallots to wooden resonators for the lowest 32 notes. Here, the use of wood creates additional fundamental and helps eliminate irregularities in the tone. The Trompette and Clairon complete the battery, and possess unmistakable authority even in full organ.

The organ was built entirely in Fisk’s workshop during 1995. The organ arrived in Houston on January 15, 1996; the voicing began March 4 and extended to 13 months. The actual work was accomplished by the team of five voicers: David Pike, Michael Kraft, Casey Dunaway, Stephen Malionek and Manuel Rosales. A signature plate inside the organ commemorates all those involved in the organ’s construction and voicing.

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What is most remarkable, perhaps, is how this joint effort still reflects the core concepts of both firms’ work. Here is an instrument with a responsive, enjoyable action; varied and distinct flue choruses; an exceptional range of flute mutation color; compelling string tone; ample foundation tone at the unison and sub-unison level; new colors; a sensitive development of brilliant reed tone; and finally, a wind supply which responds, and can be tailored, to the music it serves.

Clearly, the collaborative process has important lessons for organbuilders at the close of the 20th-century. It has proven itself as a discipline that can draw the best from those who submit to it, removing even the most perceptive artisans from the unavoidable insularity of their individual firms. Moreover, it transforms the common experience into one which is shared, a small but vital point. This endeavor has been, first and last, inspired work.

(This article was prepared from from interviews with David Pike and Manuel Rosales.)