When Style Eclipses Quality

by Jonathan Ambrosino

From its inception this column has focused on a dynamic segment of modern American organbuilding: the second-generation reform movement tracker organ. By and large, the organs chronicled have represented the pinnacle of their craft: something of the impossible as well. How could builders working firmly within, say, a 17th-century German style gain recognition in these modern times? Through Boyd Jones’ reports you have seen how such craftsmen as Paul Fritts, Taylor & Boody and Richards Fowkes & Co. have fully realized what Stephen Bicknell has termed “The Artistic Revival,” a demonstrable late-20th century phenomenon where quality is once again accorded the same place as style. It is not merely because a given style enjoys present popularity; in one aspect or another, these builders have demonstrated an overt commitment to craftsmanship that will carry the work forward to future credibility and veneration.

There are clear signs that quality may at last be eclipsing style as a means of determining an instrument’s significance. Because of this country’s immense size, and corresponding array of tastes and musicians, our organ culture has been permitted to explore almost every historical style not once but often: from early Spanish (Harrold, Rosales) and Italian (Brombaugh, Fisk) to the more expected north and south German (seemingly every tracker builder), to early and Classical French to the late French. But have these instruments been good because they are actually good instruments or because they exemplify a commitment to a certain area of popular musicology? In some instances style has clearly exceeded quality, and has left us with “fashionable” organs not fit for the next generation, or this one.

If we look at the history of American organ debate in the 20th century, it has rested almost exclusively upon this question—style—and has far more rarely focused upon true musical quality. In America the debate began as a fairly simple war between Classical and Romantic in the 1930s. Back then it was merely a matter of tonal priorities, since the mechanism of the modern pitman-soundboard electro-pneumatic action was taken for granted in most discussion. With the re-introduction of tracker action in the 1950s and subsequent issues such as encasement, historic precedent and temperament, the choice between “Romantic” and “Classic” grew more acrid but also more superficial. Most modern trackers were branded by the “Romantics” as unison-thin, bass-deprived, low-wind, rough, raucous (fill in the pejorative of choice). On the other hand, the electric-action organ was considered the holdout of Romanticism—somewhat silly really, since by this time the sparse, restrained American Classic direction (initiated by G. Donald Harrison in the 1930s but not intelligently developed past his death in 1956) had progressed to the point that few of these instruments had the characteristics, balances or timbres of any Romantic tradition. Meanwhile the rash characterizations continued.

If we look to the players, the two obvious representations of Classical and Romantic were, respectively, E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox. What a simplistic viewpoint! Far from being Harald Vogel, Power Biggs was a Romantic who, at the end, had mastered an anti-Romantic clipped manner: the “hot-stove” style. But even into the 1950s, Biggs’ persistent legato, vocal phrasing and overall elegance was no more “authentic” than Landowska’s Pleyel. 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 success.

Meanwhile Fox was surely a Romantic, but a throwback to an older, late 19th-century Romanticism, much like Vladimir Horowitz represented a step backward from the anti-histrionic late Romanticism of Rachmaninoff, Lhevinne and Hoffman (their corollary in organ terms being the playing of Lynnwood Farnam). Yes, Fox was a Romantic, but an anomaly some fifty years late—much like his orchestral conducting counterpart Leopold Stokowski (another organist). If Biggs was a Romantic player with Classic attachments, Fox was an essentially Romantic player with ultra-Romantic attachments, but 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 success attests to diligence, hard work and a stage presence as wild as Biggs’ was austere. Who but Fox would have cried out to an audience, “Can you whistle!?”

In the 1980s the old Classic-Romantic argument was served a disarming lob. The more historically-versed American tracker builders realized that where Baroque organs were concerned, they had based many of their artistic decisions on falsehoods. The old organs were not on super-low wind pressures, nor were the pipes 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 certain extension of this general approach.

Quietly, the tables had been turned. The beefy, decibel-rich sound was now coming from the “stick” organs—can you whistle?— while the majority of the electric-action builders were still producing thin-sounding choruses with “brilliant” mixtures and near-xylophonic chiff, topped by modified “French” chorus reeds with deficient basses and small but blazing trebles. The “Classic” organs no longer fit the mold, while the “Romantic” organs rarely were. Moreover, the emergence of tracker organs that did better justice to Romantic music than most electric-action organs—the obvious example being the 1986 Rosales in Trinity Cathedral, Portland—continued to explode the false and mythological link between action type and tonal result. The exclamation point on this syndrome was the 1992 Fisk organ in the Dallas Symphony Hall. At the time, would any electric-action builder have produced a result so Herculean (producing the oft-repeated ironic comment, “This is a tracker?”)? Even if you don't care for the result—which some have termed “Victory at Last”—I think the answer is no.

Beef is not necessarily beauty, however, and there is a darker reality to this trend: few eclectic efforts have resulted in organs with a genuinely new voice. At one end of the spectrum, such instruments are simply neo-Classical organs with a nod toward the Romantic stoplist 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: harmonic flutes, strings, solo reeds and an Open Wood (a rite of passage for most big new organs). The voices are present, and individually they often do the right things. But what of the resulting ensemble? Much like an antipasto is a handful of tasty items masquerading as a proper dinner, it too often seems that in these new eclectic organs the trees dominate the forest, and the ensemble ends up as a come-what-may concatenation of disparate elements.

Many modern Baroque or Classical instruments succeed remarkably well at evoking the power and rich spirit of the originals; certainly the musical results attest to the diligence of, say, Bruce Shull and George Taylor of Taylor & Boody. The neo-Romantic organ attempts to exchange the Baroque or Classical bias for a Romantic one as its starting point, but the results are often less convincing. 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 seem to bother them, answers this point perfectly. 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, will these neo-Romantic organs be viewed as embodying a true Romantic spirit? A later generation may charitably choose to view this style as a new expression; the verdict is not ours to render—just yet, anyway.

Examining these questions through several new organs will be the focus of this column’s next five articles. Along with new tracker organs, we will investigate the present state of electric action organ-building from both familiar and unfamiliar names, including the many smaller regional builders who are now rising to national prominence (John-Paul Buzard’s work, already covered, is indicative of this trend). The milieu has been important, for these builders are re-establishing a link between the people who voice and the people who play: a critical component in the tracker revival’s success, and an essential element in the artistic revival of electric-action organs as well.
The American organ is likely to grow yet more diverse in scope before it settles down once again into a recognizable style. Such diversity is characteristic of the end of a century: a time of experimentation and indecision, tremendous freedom of spirit or what may be an artistic plateau. But the organs continue to be built, exploring styles new and old. Whether quality will continue to eclipse style is the most interesting question, and one which bears corresponding scrutiny. Stylish or not, we want organs that are first and foremost good.
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 1998 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001