The Organ at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The 1996 AGO Convention in New York City calls to mind the 1956 AGO Convention in this city and the impressive panoply of Æolian-Skinner organs it showcased. Think of all the new or recent Æolian-Skinner rebuilding work to greet the 1956 conventioneer: at Saint Thomas Church, Saint Bartholomew’s, The Riverside Church, Saint Mary the Virgin and the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine—more than 700 ranks of pipes in all. There was also the landmark 1938 Æolian-Skinner at Saint Paul’s Chapel, Columbia.

Forty years later, only one of these prestigious installations survives in its incarnation as experienced in 1956. Saint Bartholomew’s underwent major rebuilding by Æolian-Skinner in 1970-71, their last major effort prior to the firm’s closure. The Riverside Church organ has been rebuilt in several stages, most notably in 1967 by Gilbert Adams and Anthony Bufano but with significant revisions and changes since that time. Saint Thomas was entirely transformed from 1966 into the early 1970s by Gilbert Adams at the instigation of William Self. And Saint Mary the Virgin, certainly one of the most thrilling and unusual G. Donald Harrison Æolian-Skinners (developed in collaboration with Ernest White), has now been revised to the point at which little about it is recognizably Æolian-Skinner of any era.

The changing tides of fashion have been well-weathered by the Cathedral Æolian-Skinner, however; apart from the replacement of a soft 8' pedal stop, the organ remains as Æolian-Skinner left it in 1954. In turn, this instrument is a major rebuilding of the original 1911 Ernest M. Skinner organ. When Skinner secured the contract in 1906, it was unquestionably his most prestigious job to date, but, unusually for the time, he did not begin construction until four years later. By 1910 the organ was underway in Skinner’s Boston factory, and it is assumed that it was all in good working order by March of 1911 for the inaugural recital by Clarence Dickinson.

The Saint John’s organ was a showcase of Skinner’s tonal and technical innovation. Mechanically, the instrument is believed to be the first example of Skinner’s modern pitman chest, in which the pouchboards are horizontally mounted and drop down easily for repair—eminently practical and restorable today. Thick plaster swell boxes, large pipe scales, monumental construction and big thinking dominated the 1911 organ; the 32' wood diapason measures two feet square at low cccc, as does the original 32' Bombarde (still standing in the chambers but unplayable). Moreover, several Skinner “firsts” were introduced here: the purring 32' wood violone of wood, large Solo gambas whose pipe bodies flare out, and perhaps Skinner’s first genuinely high-pressure Tuba Mirabilis on 25" wind.

Today, it is difficult to know what this instrument sounded like. Comparison to other Skinners from the period fall short, since the Cathedral instrument seems to have many unusual, one-time features not found in other Skinners of that time or later. While certain stops remain, very little of the old ensemble is left in the present organ. Most significantly, the Cathedral was about one-fifth the size in 1911 that it is today (the vast nave was not completed until 1941). Although no commercial recording of the old organ has been discovered, a private 78rpm disc was recorded exclusively for sale in the Cathedral’s gift shop, featuring Cathedral organist Norman Coke-Jephcott directing his choir of men and boys in “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” from Handel’s Messiah. On this recording the organ has a rolling grandeur, but also a certain fire from the reeds that one does not necessarily expect. It may have been this characteristic that G. Donald Harrison was describing when he wrote about the Æolian-Skinner rebuild in a publicity folder on the new instrument:

The fine reputation of the organ was due to a certain nobility of effect and the “clang” of the reeds, which with four-foot couplers gave a good account of themselves.…The reeds were far from dull in tone and in many cases the quality was well-suited to the acoustical environment. This was particularly true of the 8' Tuba Mirabilis, which was voiced on 25" wind and had a dominating effect. Unfortunately, the lower end of the 16' reeds had wooden resonators and the tone was ponderous.*

The likeliest reason for the rebuilding was that a new room required a new sound. With the opening of the Nave in 1941, the Cathedral possessed an entirely new acoustic, and it is doubtful that the 1911 Skinner continued to make the kind of impact that it had originally. Had Skinner voiced the original organ to fulfill the needs of the eventual space, it would likely have been impossibly loud (a result that would have called his judgment into question just when he was beginning to establish his reputation).

G. Donald Harrison’s initial concept for rebuilding was a straightforward mechanical overhaul, plus a few changes to the chorus work of the Great organ. This eventually blossomed into drastic remodeling and enlargement of the instrument’s tonal scheme. Some of the 76 original stops remained essentially as they were; others were altered (in some cases considerably) and in all 58 new stops incorporated. The number of ranks increased from 88 to 141. The ornately-carved console shell was retained, fitted with an entirely new interior and remote-control combination action; much internal mechanism with retained, with several new chests and relays added.

Amidst the flurry of work and famous jobs being rebuilt at that time—among them Saint Bartholomew’s and the Riverside Church—Harrison spent considerable effort experimenting with scales and voicing techniques for the new Cathedral organ. This was facilitated by Harrison’s divided existence between New York and Boston. Although the factory was in Boston, Harrison’s wife and home were on Third Avenue in New York City. Taking the train up to Boston Monday morning, he would usually return Thursday night. Lawrence Phelps recalls being in the Æolian-Skinner factory (he was serving as consultant for the mammoth Æolian-Skinner instrument for the Mother Church Extension) and Harrison’s showing him a trumpet pipe in a small box, a special model for use at the Cathedral. Harrison boasted how superb he thought it would be. When Harrison returned the following Monday, Phelps asked him how the pipe turned out. Harrison glumly replied, “It’s the best Orchestral Oboe in the world.” As he wrote in the descriptive booklet on the organ:

An interesting peculiarity of the building concerned the opposite effect produced upon reed as against flue tone. The fundamental tone of the flues was found to be increased, while in the case of bright-toned chorus reeds, the acoustical environment seemed to develop the upper harmonics at the expense of ground tone. For this reason it was discovered that the varieties of French-type trumpets (which the firm had developed in the past) were unsuited to the Cathedral. Special scales of both resonators and shallots were developed together with a new type of voicing.**

By early 1953, the rebuilding on the South side had been mostly finished, with the Great, Solo and some Pedal essentially completed. Delays in construction, coupled to tremendous backlogs in the Æolian-Skinner factory, may have kept the rest of the job from being completed until a year later, around Easter of 1954. By this time the Swell and Choir organs were overhauled and rebuilt, as well as the additions of the Bombarde division and chests for additional Pedal stops. Also by this time, the most famous reed in the organ had been installed—the legendary State Trumpet. Unquestionably the most powerful stop ever to be voiced by Æolian-Skinner, the Trumpet speaks on fifty inch wind-pressure from a commanding location beneath the Cathedral’s Great Rose Window. The lowest twelve pipes are actually dummy resonators emulating a sixteen-foot octave, as the 8' pipes alone would look diminutive amidst the proportions of the Cathedral nave.

All manner of folklore has developed around this stop, much of it apocryphal: the pipes are made of silver (quite false; the resonators are spotted metal with aluminum leaf), the pipes are welded to the back wall of the building so they won’t fly off the chest (patently untrue), the pipes are aligned in place with steel aircraft cable (true, in conjunction with traditional wooden racking), that when the stop was first heard, old women went screaming in all directions in fits of hysteria (who knows? It’s certainly possible); and when the stop was first played, one un-hooked pipe did fly off the chest and, after a short airborne excursion crash-landed quite on the nave floor. By several accounts, this last tale would unfortunately appear to be true; a replacement pipe was made post-haste.

After forty-two years, why has this instrument remained unaltered? The Cathedral organ is one of those rare instruments that is at once a brilliant example of its style and creator, an enduring example of the art of organbuilding, and has an unmistakable signature sound. Harrison’s rebuild not only retained most of Skinner’s characteristic sounds, but expanded on them; for example, Harrison doubled the number of celestes (four to eight). And while keeping original ensemble effects such as the English-style Swell reeds and Tuba, Harrison integrated these sounds into an ensemble that is characteristically Harrison yet suitably heroïc for this majestic space. Perhaps most astonishing is the organ’s clarity, a considerable accomplishment given its disadvantageous configuration and placement.

The present condition of the organ is lamentable. Any organ played round-the-clock constantly amidst the sootfall of New York City ages poorly, and the Cathedral instrument is no exception. The Great Organ Restoration Fund, spearheaded by Cathedral Organist Dorothy J. Papadakos, has been successful in raising enough money to restore the State Trumpet and begin restoration work on the wind system of the main organ. Much more fundraising and work remains, however. For more information, contact the Cathedral at:

Great Organ Restoration Fund
c/o The Music Office
Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, New York 10025

* From the Æolian-Skinner publicity booklet about the instrument, published at some point during 1953.

** Ibid.