French Connection?

by Jonathan Ambrosino

In the twentieth century l’atelier Casavant has managed to command an impressive and fairly consistent reputation in the United States, with definite periods of progressive advance. An avant-garde, eclectic bent stands them well in today’s anything-goes culture; they build both electric and tracker actions, and were the first of the large firms to take casework seriously. They have built a number of concert hall organs, and are often the only one of the large factory firms asked to tender on prestigious new projects.

Progressive thought, or its appearance, has helped the company at key points. Amidst the frenzy of early 20th-century American organbuilding, Skinner and Casavant consistently emerged as the champions of serious players, with Casavant winning favor with scholarly types. To organists with traditional desires, such as no manual unification, complete choruses, mutations, and pretenses to the literature, the Canadian firm may have been the only one to grant a sincerely willing ear.

Certainly these features would have appealed to Casavant’s most impressive advocate during this period, Lynnwood Farnam. A Québec native, Farnam went to England for his musical education, returning to Boston in 1917 and ordering what was then Casavant’s largest instrument to date for Emmanuel Church, Newbury Street. With an ‘English’ chancel organ and a ‘French’ gallery organ, the combined instrument teemed with mixtures, mutations and complete reed choruses, all controlled from a compact and highly elegant terraced-jamb console. Casavant must have felt a little smug, winning such a big contract right on Skinner’s doorstep, but it is unlikely that Skinner would have been able to produce a genuine response to Farnam’s musical requirements until the arrival of G. Donald Harrison a decade later.

Meanwhile, Casavant continued to provide organs for other erudite clients. When Charles Courboin first came to Syracuse, New York from Belgium, he ordered a Casavant. The composer and journalist Seth Bingham played one at Madison Avenue Presbyterian in New York City. At Harvard University Archibold Davison was just barely persuaded by his students to buy an Aeolian-Skinner over a Casavant in 1932. And Carl Pfattcheter at Phillips Acadamy in Andover, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, decided on Casavant over Skinner in 1926 for another highly ‘intellectual’ organ. The Phillips organ contained plentiful chorus work and an independent battery of Pedal reeds 16-16-8-4 with 32’ extension and prepared-for 2’ Octave Clarion, all of which must be seen as remarkable for its day.

The ‘serious’ nature of these organs is perhaps difficult to spot with seventy years’ hindsight; certainly the oft-cited connection to French organbuilding traditions is by 1920 all but mythological. The nearest thing to these instruments might be J W Walker’s turn-of-the-century work. Casavant’s chorus reeds are neither dark nor thin, and can honestly be called ‘trumpet’. Mixtures from this period are mild but present in 1922, intensifying as the decade progresses while staying well within English Edwardian norms. And a flavor more 19th- than 20th-century can be found in the variation in unison diapasons across the manuals, with some slotted and reedy, others dark, still others keen; the resulting fonds de huit is stirring, lyrical and distinctly melodic. By contrast to the grim commercialism of standard American work in this period, it is perhaps easier to see where Casavant would have represented a ‘classical’ stronghold, although in the end these are instruments for church, transcriptions and a certain segment of the romantic repertoire. In the matter of earlier repertoire, there still existed a gulf between providing a group of stops and realizing the music intended.

What was a fresh alternative in 1926 surely seemed a bit stale by 1950, when some Casavants were still being provided with leather-lipped Great First Diapasons. Assuming tonal directorship in September 1958, Lawrence Phelps immediately began producing instruments in the neo-classical vernacular of which he had been such an articulate advocate in the pages of the trade journals. By 1960 Casavant had put together a mechanical-action department, turning out two new trackers in the following year. Practically overnight, the firm recaptured that somewhat avant-garde reputation it had enjoyed in the ’teens, and was now able to produce a broad range of instruments quickly and responsibly.

If Phelps is today better remembered for the unfortunate outcome of the company he left Casavant to form — not to mention his two decades at Allen — his tenure at Casavant should be recognized for the enormous influence it had. It placed tracker action and organ-reform instruments before an eager public at a time of few other options. Phelps’ writings made plain his allegiance to the music he hoped his instruments would serve, and the seriousness of his convictions underscored his aims for the company. Phelps’ choruses were better than most of his day, and he demonstrated a precise knowledge of where American organ reform had gone awry in searching for brilliance, a tonal goal, at the expense of clarity, a musical one. Where his organs fell down generally is typical of most American neo-classical instruments: their lack of actual historical precedent, real beauty or wide scope. However, Casavant’s ability to build a tidy and well-organized tracker action was several steps ahead of anything they had done in the way of pitman-soundboard electric action. Offering both actions demonstrated a realistic understanding of market forces, as well as an eclecticism that would serve them well in the not-too-distant future.

Phelps left Casavant in 1972, succeeded by Gerhard Brunzema until 1979. Jean-Louis Coignet assumed artistic direction in 1981. Coignet cannot be compared to Phelps, since his background in organbuilding is primarily as a researcher rather than a builder, neither has he ever made of Casavant a full-time occupation. However, his efforts have served to rejuvenate the Casavant avant-garde sentiment and reorient the firm in a more eclectic vein.

Of seminal importance was Coignet’s introduction of the Résonance concept, in which the Pedal division is also a manual division useful for augmenting the resources of the instrument. As French romantic music came back to prominence and serious study, Coignet’s voice was seen as an informed resource in matters as genreal as tonal design and as specific as compass balances. His organ for the Temple of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri is the most typical example of his thinking in this manner: a four-manual organ with tracker Great, Positif and Swell, and electric-action Résonance/Pedal.

The organ for Saint Louis King of France in Saint Paul, Minnesota, just completed in May, represents Coignet’s ideas in their latest form, and is fully indicative of the sort of between-the-lines contract that Casavant excels at winning—a continutation of their avant-garde reputation that never comes forward into the cutting edge market. At Saint Paul, the price tag is too low to have been considered by, say, Fisk or Taylor & Boody; its casework and tracker action are likely beyond the in-house capabilities of the other big factory firms still active in the United States. Yet the pretensions of its casework and the interest of its disposition tend to invite comparison with the finest.

High in a west end gallery of a modest but elegant church with superb acoustics, the organ could not enjoy finer placement. Here is eclecticism in almost every form: the organ is tracker to the Grand-orgue, Récit and Positif, electric to the Pédale and Choeur. An enclosed Grand-orgue dialogues with a Positif de dos, while the Choeur is really a supplement to the Récit; the two departments together read like the stoplist of a big French swell. The manner in which the divisions have been pared down to the essentials hints at a larger organ (and concept) than actually exists. Take the Swell of but ten stops: an Octave but no Fifteenth, an Octavin but no Flûte octaviante, a full complement of chorus reeds, with Hautbois, Clarinette and Voix humaine placed instead in the Choeur. All in all, the concept generates a strong enthusiasm for its cunning balance of new and old territory. It also adroitly skirts the usual economies that seem to befall big factory organ specifications: here we are refreshingly without such items as tenor c mutations or having every manual 16’ stop extended to 8’ pitch.

Once again, the organ is nicely built; pipes well-made; solidly-framed oak structure; engineering well done, with excellent access, clever ladders and doors, and a straightforward internal layout. Although not traditionally disposed, the organ has its own symmetry, with Grand-orgue and Récit in mirrored positions left and right, Choeur tucked down low in the centre, and the Pedal placed about as it will fit.

With so much going for it, the organ is ultimately a bit perplexing; in the final equation real finesse is suggested more than it is achieved. The casework is more gilded than guided: a collection of carving in place of any reasonable composition, whose wild-grain oak and sprayed commercial finish mock the elegance of the leaf application and the good chisel work. The elegantly-curved extremities of the console stop terraces and finely-turned drawknobs are graced with government-issue plastic stop faces and polymeric keys.

Tonally the story is not much different. For example, the delight of the multiple expressions is attenuated by the fact that none of the enclosures is very effective. Perhaps most unexpected — or disappointing, depending on your viewpoint — is that the voicing style of the principals is remarkably similar to that of Phelps’ time: wide-open toes with extremely narrow flues, little if any nicking and modest cut-ups. Given the generally higher pressures and different approach to balancing, the effect is louder but not nearly so good or intelligent, with the aggressive, keen mixtures defining and generating much of the chorus’s drive (recalling Phelps’ point about brilliance versus clarity). In an unashamedly eclectic organ, it is surprising not to hear something more rich, warm and cohesive to suit the range of music this organ seems eager to address.

Aside from a handsome harmonic register on the Grand-orgue, the flutes are uniformly bland; the best are in the Positif, with a quaint-sounding 8’ and more lively 4’. The mutations are nicely handled and strong, both in the Positif and in especially the Cornet of the Grand-orgue. The attractive strings nevertheless do not develop much actual string tone; moreoever the two pairs are insufficiently differentiated. Given the chiffy quality of the principals, and the lack of character in the unison flutes and strings, the massed foundations add up to quite a good deal of sound but little actual tone: responding to the letter, but not the spirit of romantic ideals.

The construction quality and voicing of the reeds is greatly improved over 1960s practices. The Grand-orgue Trompette is brassy, developed to the point that it almost sounds as if a Clarion were also drawn. Perhaps too bright, it is nevertheless quite in keeping with the nature of the chorus work. The Swell reeds employ a specialized “Coignet” shallot, plates with à larme (tear-drop) openings soldered over parallel shallots. The result is intriguingly dark and throaty, hardly Trompettes at all but approaching closed horn tone. With tremulant, the Trompette is entrancing. The Pedal reed is good as far as it goes, but is insufficiently powerful or melodic. (Is it not embarrassing that the electronic 32’ reed has greater fundamental and tone?)

The color reeds are uniformly good. The Hautbois is the expected 19th-century French voice, while the Clarinette is a husky, fruity tone of real interest. The Cromorne is typical, perhaps a bit thin in the bass but with a sweet treble. The Voix humaine will find itself at home more in Couperin than in Franck. The chamade trumpet is extremely bright with very little fundamental, at a volume that makes the rest of the organ appear soft by comparison. Its appearance on the Grand-orgue at two pitches invites its use in ensemble, although the tutti is more cohesive and pleasant without it.

Perhaps this is too much carping, for here is a good organ at heart. It presents the player with many possibilities for performing a lot of music plausibly and effectively, and the tutti amply excites the room. It is merely that despite the genuine creativity of the disposition, the solid engineering and the obvious talent in force, the instrument rises only a few notches above the commonplace: it is another American neo-Classical organ with romantic attachments, none of which aims the organ in a particularly new or old direction or offers much beauty in the process. With so much potential in almost every area of its execution, this organ seems to beg for careful quality control and someone to take it a little more seriously. Perhaps the issue is not one of ability, but of will?
Reproduced with permission from the July/August 1998 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001