Lawrence Phelps, a retrospective

by Jonathan Ambrosino

In the 1985 festschrifft commemorating Charles Fisk, David Fuller contributed an essay entitled “Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolution in organbuilding, Emerson Richards”. Fuller’s esteem enjoys history’s sanction: if American organ reform has been a stage drama, the Lord Goring of the first act was unquestionably Richards. More than anyone else Richards motivated the public, animated the debate and energized a dormant dissatisfaction into an unstoppable movement.

By the early 1950s, a new dissatisfaction had surfaced, as some began to wonder whether reform hadn’t gotten sidetracked. The clearest voice of that dissatisfaction was Lawrence Phelps, one of the century’s brightest minds in organbuilding. He soon assumed Richards’ role and did the job with better scholarship, objectivity and language.

Voicer, builder, theoretician and journalist, Phelps carried on several simultaneous campaigns. Grounded by uncanny accuracy of perspective, he was one of the few people of his time who could step back and take broad stock in an impartial manner, as in this observation from 1954:

Much confusion has accompanied the progress of the last twenty years. The label “Baroque” has been persistently and most inappropriately attached to the work of contemporary builders. The Baroque was not an era of exposed and naked pipe work, as some seem to have supposed, for no period in history ever lavished such effort on the construction of organ enclosures …. The term “Baroque,” as applied to organ building, should never have been thought to imply overbearing brilliance, stridence or power — nor on the other hand does it mean petite, delicate, fragile or quaint. The baroque builders did things in the grand manner and any instrument worthy of being called an organ performed its duty with authority and dignity, though with appropriate restraint. It should be remembered, however, that the period knew the art of building well-developed Kleinorgels and Positivs, and the irresistible charm of these intimate and enticing diminutives has fallaciously persuaded many an investigating American, and not a few curious Europeans, that they were the Baroque ideal. Harpsichord enthusiasts have been most prone to this delusion. 1

Phelps grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts and attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Soon he was helping the Conservatory organ technician, which led to summer work at Aeolian-Skinner, whose factory was only a few miles down Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Dorchester section. In 1944, after three at the Conservatory, Phelps joined Aeolian-Skinner full-time as voicer and tonal finisher. Much important work moved through the shop during this period, including the rebuild of the 1863 Walcker for the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, and the Mormon Tabernacle organ. In late 1948 Phelps moved to Cleveland to work for Walter Holtkamp, specifically to assist with setting up a mechanical-action department. In 1967 he wrote, “Through the following year there was much discussion and much planning, but there being very little interest in mechanical-action instruments among those for whom contracts were in hand or pending, none of these plans actually materialized.” 2

Less than a year after his arrival at Holtkamp, Phelps moved back to Boston to work as consultant for The First Church of Christ, Scientist. The Mother Church (this religion’s world headquarters) was in the process of acquiring two new organs, one each for the Church’s Original Edifice and large Extension. The Extension organ was Aeolian-Skinner’s largest, with eight divisions, 238 ranks and more than 12,000 pipes. At the Mother Church Phelps’ influence is considerable, and can be seen in many areas: precise attention to detail in chorus structure, mixtures, mutations and cornets; double-rise reservoirs for certain divisions (with which both Harrison and Holtkamp had already experimented); his own voicing in the beautiful and lively Positiv; and the use of expansion-chamber upperboards on the pitman soundboards of the Great and Hauptwerk choruses to approximate the gentler wind delivery characteristic of slider soundboards. Certainly the adoption of narrower scales for the upperwork of certain choruses departed from Harrison’s standard practice, and helped point the way to Phelps’ own later work, and even some of Harrison’s very last work in 1955 and ’56.

History records little of the dynamic between the by-now 60-year-old G. Donald Harrison and the 26-year-old Phelps; while there must have been at least a few tensions, the act of collaboration was probably fused by Phelps’ sincerity and purpose, Harrison’s very generous nature, and the fact that each man shared a very strong love of Baroque music.

Through the 1950s Phelps’ voice was increasingly an active proponent of further organ reform: crusading for a return to slider slider soundboards and arguing for mechanical key-action. He also worked briefly for the Allen Organ Company in the field of electronic tone generation. His return to the active stage of organbuilding came at Casavant Frères, Canada’s well-established organbuilding concern. Hired initially as a consultant, he was brought on full-time as tonal director in September 1958. Almost immediately Phelps headed towards reform with two encased electric-action organs in 1959 and the organisation of a mechanical-action department in 1960. In this endeavor several German-trained craftsmen were brought over, including Karl Wilhelm and Hellmuth Wolff (who later established their own firms).

Beyond the organ shop, Phelps regarded himself as an educator, writing and lecturing about organ design, the history of tonal design, and the organ’s relation to its music. In an era that saw musical focuses narrowing, he almost seemed to pride himself on a broad outlook; his championship of unfashionable organs (those of Cavaillé-Coll) and romantic music (particularly French) was enlightened. Having previously concentrated on the German Baroque repertory, through organists Melville Smith and Frank Taylor Phelps came to champion the French Baroque, lecturing on the organs of that school and the tonal architecture that made such literature spring to life.

The Phelps Casavant organs form a substantial body of work that, if possibly out of fashion today, is still warmly revered. Phelps’ fundamental respect for balances demonstrated a clear understanding of polyphonic and trio writing, and a generation of musicians found in them plausible instruments for exploring older repertory. The exploration of mechanical action laid the foundation for the large and well-engineered tracker organs Casavant continues to build today. According to Phelps’ biographer Burton Tidwell, the organbuilder was especially proud of the three-manual 1968 Casavant tracker in Deer Park United Methodist Church, Toronto, a particularly cohesive low-pressure tracker organ in a dry acoustic.

Earning a place in organbuilding history requires not only a stimulating result but also the knack of timing. In forming his own company in 1973, Phelps may already have been too late in establishing his own marque. By this time Charles Fisk and John Brombaugh had come on the scene with their much-heralded work, leaving Phelps to look like a leftover apostle of organ reform’s last chapter. These other builders refused to build anything but tracker organs, and were experimenting with unequal temperaments and further researches into historical organbuilding methods. By contrast, Phelps was still willing to build electric-action organs, seemed uninterested in anything but equal temperament, and was more committed to a personal ideal borne of modern aims.

Demand for his work was strong, however. With a number of contracts in hand Phelps headed for Erie, Pennsylvania in 1973 to assume the quarters of the old Tellers Organ Company under the name Lawrence Phelps & Associates. The Phelps Casavants and Phelps’ own organs differ markedly. The latter are milder, more refined and deeply committed to what Phelps termed ‘a functional sound’ produced by low pressures, open-toe voicing with narrow flues, and a general absence of nicking. On paper, tonal design presaged a good deal what would prevail in the mid 1980s, but with neo-classical leanings in keeping with the spirit of the day. The Hexham Abbey organ exemplifies this philosophy in a compact form, and Gillian Weir’s early recording of this instrument did much to take English ears one step beyond the Downes-based reforms prevalent up to that time.

Unfortunately, Phelps & Associates was plagued with difficulties from the outset, due to a shortage of working capital. Possibly the greatest trial came in the firm’s magnum opus for Oral Roberts University, a large four-manual organ beset with delays due to building construction. After the firm folded in 1978, Phelps spent the remainder of his career at the Allen Organ Company in Pennsylvania, supervising custom jobs. In retirement, he moved back to Boston to supervise the restoration and rebuilding of the Mother Church organs in Boston (carried out mechanically by the Foley-Baker Co. of Connecticut and tonally by Austin Organs Inc.).

If Phelps accurately pointed out Harrison’s role as a partial reformer, he may also have ironically forecast his own role: a crucial stepping stone on the way. Stylistically, it would be too soon to accord his instruments an objective place in history. The current mindset echoes much of what one observer wrote about a Phelps & Assoc. organ in California: “In its musical design, the Phelps organ is a stepchild of the organ reform movement, and very typical of tonal approach of the 1960s. Indeed, it embodies many very solid design features like slider chests with schwimmer wind regulators. The scales of the pipework are good, based upon solid research on the organs of Schnitger and Silbermann. The voicing, however, represents a misconception of what those historic organs were about, and is far more strident and academic than what it is trying to emulate.”

That very misconception was hardly unique to Phelps, but by 1970 it was so much his own style that any historical precedent had given way to a fully personal expression. With hindsight, it gives the inverse effect of Phelps’ writings being more gripping than his organs. Another observer commented, “Phelps' writings are his strongest point and are relevant today in a way that even Charles Fisk’s are not, doubly interesting because of the current ascendancy of Fisk's philosophy and the abasement of Phelps’. Certainly our generation is congenitally incapable of assessing [his organs] objectively.”

The sphere of Phelps’ influence will doubtless undergo revision as history unfolds. But as a journalist and agent of reform in the 1950s and 60s, Phelps’ voice led the way in clarity of thought and sincerity of purpose. Where many organbuilders can leave us guessing at their motivations, Phelps was kind enough to elaborate. And in the end he showed himself passionately concerned about the instrument:

If the organ is to survive as a musical medium, at least some of the instruments being built today must not only be adequate to tasks outlined by an existing literature — a prerequisite of any instrument — they must also look to the future. They must present a challenge, they must inspire, they must hold the promise of things as yet untried, of things yet to be imagined. The organ now needs new literature to survive. With the challenge ever present, ever beckoning, we can hope that the call will be answered, perhaps many times. Without the challenge, there will be no answer, no new literature, and one day, perhaps, no organs.
Reproduced with permission from the November/December 1999 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001