Welte Organ Company

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The Welte name is synonymous with automatic music, a field that firm practically invented in the 1850s and 1860s in Freiburg, Germany. But how is that famous firm linked to the 1928 and 1931 Welte organs the OHS Convention will hear in Colorado Springs?

Welte had an active American branch prior to World War I, from which was sold all manner of automatic instruments, including orchestrions, pianos and organs. Some of the organs were exported from Germany, but mostly they were sub-contracted to American organbuilding firms. For example, in 1912 Ernest M. Skinner built nine small organs for the American Welte factory (located in Poughkeepsie, New York)[1]; it has also been suggested that Gottfried and Hook & Hastings also supplied complete organs to Welte.[2] In all such cases, however, it appears that Welte fabricated the consoles, the roll-playing mechanisms, and performed the final installation. Welte residence consoles were sumptuous affairs, usually in the form of a cantilevered terrace-jamb keydesk. Exotic woods such as bird’s-eye maple would be paired with carvings, figurines and the occasional mica-shade lamp for “accent,” all beautifully designed and executed. When Welte advertised that their organ represented “The Final Touch of Beauty for the Well-Planned Home,” they meant business.

Between World War I and the two Colorado Springs organs, the Welte company underwent a series of reorganizations. All assets were seized by the Alien Property Custodian at the outbreak of hostilities, and held until 1919 when they were sold at auction. George Gittins, owner of the Estey Piano Company in the Bronx (a separate entity from Estey organbuilders in Vermont), eventually acquired the Welte organ company along with other Welte patents and interests. As the economy of the 1920s soared ever upward, Gittins’ savvy and ambition extended to revitalizing Welte’s residence organ sales. In 1925, he decided that Welte should reach further still, taking its place in the ever-competitive arena of church, theatre and concert-hall organbuilding. To this end Gittins hired Robert Pier Elliot, then of W.W. Kimball, to establish an orgabuilding factory in the Bronx. Although Pier Elliot was no longer with Welte when the two Colorado Springs organs were built, his importance to their creation is vital and bears review.

A little-known figure today, Robert Pier Elliot was a nearly ubiquitous force in early 20th-century organbuilding. When we think of that era, the Skinner legacy tends to cloud our view of other builders’ work. But there was tremendous activity, some of considerable excellence, and at one time or another Pier Elliot had a hand in much of it. A Michigan native, Elliot was born in 1871. He went to work Granville Wood & Sons of Northville, Michigan, which was acquired by Farrand & Votey of Detroit, with the result that Elliot apprenticed to Farrand & Votey and worked with them through the mid-1890s, during which Farrand & Votey acquired the Roosevelt patents and scales. While at Farrand & Votey, Elliot got to know John T. Austin and later followed Austin to Clough & Warren, where the first Austin organs were built.

A few years later, Elliot went with Austin and helped to organize the Austin Organ Company, first in Boston and then in Hartford. There he worked to get Robert Hope-Jones over from England, going so far as to relinquish his post as company secretary in order to allow Hope-Jones to be vice-president. A year later, Pier Elliot traveled to England and obtained the American rights to build Kinetic organ blowers. Pier Elliot left Austin when Hope-Jones did in 1905, and set up the Kinetic Engineering Company in America, of which he was president. After a few years, he left that also, working in the mining and smelting business in Latin America. In 1909 he returned to serve as president of the Hope-Jones Organ Company in Elmira, New York. That company folded in 1910, being absorbed in the Wurlitzer Company, so Pier Elliot went to Los Angeles and the California Organ Company, a firm that turned out to be a lettuce leaf in the sandwich of fame: at once the successors to Johnston (who were in turn successors to the illustrious Murray M. Harris/L.A. Art Organ Co. and the precursor of Robert Morton, the famous theatre organ builders). Finally, in 1914 Elliot accepted a position as eastern manager of W.W. Kimball, transferring to the factory in 1918 as manager of the organ department.

It is with Kimball that people most often associate Pier Elliot’s work, for he helped to revolutionize their mechanical methods into one of the most refined examples of pitman-chest electro-pneumatic organbuilding. Gittins knew exactly what he was doing; in hiring Pier Elliot, he was purchasing not only experience but sophistication, and perhaps the person who best had his finger on the pulse of American organbuilding. Elliot’s correspondence of the late 1920s reveals a rich string of insight, wisdom, sensibility, scandal, intrigue and first-rate gossip — just the sort of person who could skim the cream of American talent into a fresh organization, and then work to create a polished impression and generate initial key sales.

Pier Elliot spent a year making over the Welte factory into one of the finest ever, using key Kimball men to help him. In setting up a pipe shop, Elliot hired another old friend and affiliate from Hope-Jones days, James Nuttall. An Englishman, Nuttall was an extremely gifted voicer who had helped Hope-Jones develop the first diaphone and later went on to develop many of the specialty Wurlitzer flues and reeds. Having retired to California, Nuttall was hired by Welte to install and finish all West Coast Welte organs. Finally, Richard Oliver Whitelegg, a Willis-trained voicer, left England in late 1925 or early 1926 to join Welte. Whitelegg’s name is usually associated with his years at Möller from 1932 until his death in 1944, during which created his own version of the “English Ensemble” organ, the prevailing style of 1925-1940.

That the new Welte organs resembled Kimball work would be an understatement; one could scarcely be told from another. Tonally, Kimball organs had always concentrated more on individual effects rather than overall ensemble, with particular excellence in strings and reeds. With Whitelegg as head voicer, and Elliot’s knowledge of market forces and coming trends, the Welte organ set out for greater heights: to be a leader in the integration of the English Ensemble style.

Where does Whitelegg fall in the scope of the English Ensemble style? Whitelegg’s work at Welte and later at Möller beg the closest comparison to that of his comrade G. Donald Harrison. Both men trained at Willis and both worked on the Liverpool and Westminster cathedral organs, the jobs that almost single-handedly sustained the Willis name during the otherwise Harrison & Harrison-dominated 1920s of English organbuilding. But Whitelegg and Harrison played very different roles at Willis. Harrison came in without having apprenticed, almost as a dilettante with good taste and fine ears, while Whitelegg was a normal apprentice who ended up in the voicing shop. Where Whitelegg would have had a more hands-on familiarity with the details of voicing, he may have lacked Harrison’s overall edge in matters of tonal concept, balance, and familiarity with the repertoire. From Elliot’s correspondence, it is possible that Whitelegg had coaching or collaboration from Elliot in this regard, but it is difficult to determine to what extent.

Thus the two Welte organs in Colorado Springs—both completely unaltered tonally—offer a matchless comparative illustration of Whitelegg’s emerging version of the English Ensemble style.

The 1928 organ for Grace Episcopal Church is of a style more normally associated with Whitelegg: at heart a straight organ with chorus elements and an overall ensemble concept, but with a fair degree of unification. The unification falls into two basic categories: quiet registers and solo voices (Great Bourdon, Swell Gedeckt, Choir Viola, Solo Cello) are found at many consecutive pitches; chorus registers are generally unified at sixteen- and four-foot only (Great Double Diapason and Principal, Great Double Trumpet and Clarion). The exception to this principle is the Swell Fagotto-Cornopean-Clarion; perhaps the presence of an additional unison Trumpet makes this unification more plausible within the builders’ logic.

Enclosure of all departments is a Kimball standard that came through into Welte practice. In this concept, pedal ranks are distributed where they can fit and be most logically winded (or, in the case of the Pedal Violone and Trombone, simply located with their manual derivations). Surely the intelligent placement of divisions is no accident here, with the Great and Solo within a transept case in the crossing, the Swell just inside the chancel arch, and the Choir farthest east. This clever arrangement places the divisions in descending order of power and presence, keeping the Swell and Choir near the choir for accompanimental purposes, but leaving the Great and Solo to anchor the ensemble within the main body of the church.

The design and voicing of the choruses is typical of the emerging thought of the period. In this era of rediscovery, the chorus was not viewed so much as a traditional chorus of very like-scaled and -voiced elements, but rather as a rich and ringing chordal effect for the overall ensemble. The notions that “mixtures equal brilliance” and “mixtures should be treated as a stand-alone element” are concepts peculiar to the late-Romantic Anglo-American organ, and can be found from Audsley forward in the work of Hutchings, Harrison & Harrison, Willis, Willis II, Willis III, Skinner and G. Donald Harrison’s work up to 1934. Mixtures were looked upon almost as a separate species requiring great care in preparation, scaling and voicing. This kind of thinking, coupled with the continued desire for rich and stirring unison tone, led to choruses whose elements are highly variegated, with the individual elements conceived as much from the standpoint of how they will act as inoffensive members upon entry into the overall build-up as to their role as hearty chorus members.

If the excellence of the Grace organ suffers any downside, it is from the compromised balances that inevitably result from the unification of the chorus reeds, and perhaps less courage in voicing the chorus as brilliantly as the design would seem to imply. In every other way, however — the superb string and solo flute voicing, colorful stopped flutes, excellent high-pressure reeds and a thirty-two–foot Bourdon in the best Kimball earth-moving tradition — the Welte can stand proud against any other builder’s work of the day.

Returning to the chorus and ensemble question, the smaller 1931 Welte at Shove Chapel, Colorado College, shines brightly. The Shove organ at first seems smaller than Grace’s, but this is misleading, since it is only by seven stops. The entirely straight manuals lends a greater sense of conceptual cohesiveness and order. The Great chorus is now a more blended yet more brilliant sound, with no lack of warmth and weight. The effect is still “English” (big 8’, keen 4’, penetrating 2’) but is ably managed and quite clear. Another feature is the cunning variegation of the unison diapasons across the three manuals, with some slotted, some dark, others keen. The resulting massed foundations are engaging, lyrical and distinctly melodic, in some ways reminiscent of Casavant’s best work in this period. The excellence of the flutes, strings and reeds remain, now paired to a climactically large Pedal reed unit and a superb Tuba.

Norman Lane reports that the chief installer on this job, local Denver organbuilder Fred Muniere, received his final payment from Kimball, making Shove Chapel one of the last organs to be built by Welte. It is surprising the company even made it that far. From 1925 to 1931, Welte suffered three crippling financial setbacks. The first came in 1927 over a drastic drop in their stock price due to outside forces; acquisition by their creditors kept the company afloat for the duration. In 1929, the lack of operating capital forced liquidation, and the company was purchased by Donald Tripp and renamed Welte-Tripp. By this time the organist Charles Courboin had become involved with Welte (the death of Rodman Wanamaker, and cessation of organ-expansion activities at the famous Philadelphia store, had left Courboin without an organbuilding association). Courboin’s affiliation is important, but hard to document; did he possess any organbuilding knowledge, or was he merely a salesman and writer of stoplists? At any rate, he left Welte in April 1931, switching his allegiance to Kilgen. A few months later Tripp sold the Welte assets to Kimball, who dryly noted in their September 1931 Diapason advertisement:

The modern Kimball and the modern Welte are scarcely to be distinguished, one from the other. They are alike in system and details of construction and in console appointments, voiced to the same ideals of balanced ensemble and individual beauty of tone. It was eminently fitting that they should be combined—or, let us say, re-combined—in the security of Kimball ownership.

By this time Robert Pier Elliot was long-gone from the Welte organization. In late 1927 after the first financial panic, Elliot left to work for Aeolian, who wanted to expand out of the residence market just as Gittins had done for Welte. Once again, Elliot brought key personnel with him, notably the chest-builders, in order to effect a changeover from Aeolian’s longstanding ventil chest to one of pitman design. After just one year, Elliot left to work at Wurlitzer for a year, which he referred to “the most depressing” he had ever worked. In 1929 he returned to Kimball in an unspecified position, essentially to act as salesman and in-house advisor on all matters. He left Kimball in 1933, worked for Möller very briefly, and then worked at the radio station WQXR where his son had gotten him a job. He died in 1941.

Of the many threads that weave together into the tapestry of early 20th-century organbuilding, Pier Elliot’s was one of the strongest and colorful. If you are hearing Whitelegg’s work in Colorado Springs, it just as surely rests on a mechanical and aesthetic foundation that only Robert Pier Elliot could have created.

[1] The E.M. Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner Opus List.

[2] The Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ, Volume II.