Eclectic Approach

by Jonathan Ambrosino

To anyone looking at the American tracker organ revival between 1955 and 1980, the headlines are easy to spot. First came the imports, primarily from von Beckerath and Flentrop. Next sprang up tracker organ builders in the Northeast, most prominent among them Noack, Fisk and Andover. Concurrent with this phase was the manufacture of mechanical-action instruments from factory builders such as Casavant and Schlicker, as well as the reawakening of interest in 19th-century American organs, whose tracker action was by no means a coincidental bonus of rediscovery.

As the 1960s wore on it became clear that American builders were putting their own spin on the European formats. The Fisk organs at Kings Chapel Boston 1963) and Harvard University (1967) were at once more eclectic and more ‘American’ than the Flentrops and Beckeraths that had inspired the new American work. John Brombaugh’s efforts as early as 1969 in Lorain, Ohio, demonstrated that he was an entire generation ahead of anyone else in the world in sorting neo-classical myth from truth, resulting in an instrument as valid and arresting today — visually, mechanically and tonally — as it must have been thirty years ago.

Most of the current tracker-revival headlines are made by the descendants of either Fisk or Brombaugh. If the Brombaugh legacy has resulted in a greater number of organbuilder offspring (Taylor & Boody, Paul Fritts, Richards & Fowkes), it can also be said that the Fisk legacy has seemed to have a greater effect on the players. The late Charles Fisk’s contagious curiosity and persuasive writings about old music led to commissions for instruments patterned in many styles.

In turning to Lynn Dobson, the Lake City, Iowa builder who opened his shop in 1974, it is important to point out that his work descends from entirely different roots. Though greatly influenced by E. Power Biggs, the early imports of Flentrop and the Orgelbewegung, Dobson was not a first-hand participant in the tracker revival, as were Schlicker and Phelps on the one hand, Fisk, Noack or Brombaugh on the other. As a consequence, any builder of Dobson’s generation had a greater pool of examples to emulate, a greater fund of philosophy from which to draw inspiration, and a larger catalog of mistakes to avoid.

While undoubtedly influenced by neo-classical dogma and practice, the Dobson interpretation was first and foremost Midwestern, placing stability and durability on an equal plane with any point-proving or scholarship. Influenced by prominent Midwestern church musicians and their institutions (St. Olaf College, Augsburg College), tonal design and voicing fell into the spirit of that milieu, with stoplists developed along werkprinzip lines but with voicing somewhat more refined, even restrained, than other examples of the period.

In the 73 organs built to date, aspects that might have been considered extreme have been avoided (Quintadenas, cone tuning). The innate practicality that characterizes the Midwestern spirit afforded a willingness to deal with less-than-ideal situations in a practical way; Detached console are common, controlling sensitive and simple key actions, often with splayed tracker runs. Dobson has built organs in chambers, and has used electric action for off notes and the occasional remote pedal department. More recently, they have embarked upon full-scale electric-action rebuilds, the most visible being Hermann Schlicker’s 1959 landmark at Valparaiso University. Mechanically, the fit and finish of Dobson’s work is unimpeachable.

To have achieved such success in a relatively short span of time is not unusual in the history of American organbuilding: Roosevelt, Skinner and Fisk were all famous in the first ten years. But Dobson reflects an additional peculiarly American element: being able to enter the business with almost no formal training or experience in organbuilding. A product of art schooling, Dobson has brought to his work the discipline of an engineer artisan. Uninterested in merely perpetuating either the multi-box case style of the 1950s and ’60s or borrowing heavily from historical example, Dobson has been at the forefront of creative visual design in his time. In a business where few people can agree on anything, most of Dobson’s colleagues concur that Dobson’s genius for inspired casework is undeniable.

The second-stage tracker revival on the one hand, and neo-romanticism on the other, have helped provide aspirin for the fever of neo-classicism. Few builders in America have not responded to recent trends, and in line with this movement Dobson has gradually adopted a broader outlook with more, and more obvious, influences. Given the firm’s clear disdain for historical literalism all along, refinements to the house style draw upon eclectic tendencies that have always been in place. In developing new ways forward, Dobson has been assisted in the last four years by long-time employee John Panning, an unusually thoughtful organbuilder capable of doing most anything involved in the craft. More recently Panning has been appointed tonal director, assuming full responsibility for scaling and voicing.

The instrument for Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, Opus 70, tackles a more difficult situation than may initially be apparent. Though it provides an on-axis organ placement, the chancel is unusually deep relative to the length of the nave. An unduly low chancel arch creates additional acoustical isolation. The unresponsive nave makes matters worse still. Therefore, the organ is on high wind-pressure for mechanical action (100mm or about four inches for the manuals) and is voiced boldly.

Visually the organ displays the usual Dobson flair. Although the point of departure is clearly the French choir organ, the result is original, with an elegance deriving not from the distraction of any one outstanding feature but with the care taken in the scale, proportions, program and execution. The scale of the outside towers allows those elements to frame without overpowering the interior flats, responding to the basically horizontal nature of the enclosing space. The rounded, chamfered tower bases are beautifully done, as are the tower caps and panel work. Mouldings are strong and in no way emasculated, being allowed to assume both their definitive and decorative roles. The use of accent color — another Dobson trademark — provides a playful final touch, peeking out in bits of green from behind the window-paned panels.

The tonal design at Minneapolis has now come into the mainstream of American thought. Taking the Manhattan, Kansas organ as a reference, it is interesting to note the distance traveled in fifteen years. Core concepts have remained the same: a large, complete two-manual organ in place of a skimpy three; each manual grounded in a flue chorus surmounted by chorus reeds; a swell box and a combination action in each case. Minneapolis has sacrificed certain elements perhaps considered essential in neo-classical thinking (a Pedal Mixture, a Great principal tierce register to form the Sesquialtera, a cylindrical solo reed) in order to provide different colors. Here the expected large 16’ chorus on the Great now is topped with a double-choired mixture; eight unison flue registers take the place of five, there is a healthy exploration of string tone and harmonic flutes, and the ensemble develops in a now-familiar fusion of Germanic, French and American elements from across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

The result is strong, appropriate and distinguished; it is also manifestly American. Take, for instance, the reeds, which some observers have found "wonderfully French." They are actually hybrid in style, with closed shallots in the bass and open ones in the treble. If this characteristic color defines the right hand, the balances betray the more usual American practice of fairly even regulation from bass to treble (unlike real French reeds with their sweet trebles but roaring basses). The authority in the Pedal comes less from the Trombone, despite its weightiness, and more from the leviathan Open Wood — not inappropriate to the dry acoustics.

So where is Dobson heading? Despite a high volume of good work, it is hard to point to a definitive Dobson instrument that has caused a sensation. However, with the ascendancy of Panning’s tonal work, married to Dobson’s superior visual concepts and the firm’s solid craftsmanship, the position of Dobson within the organ field may be ripe for change. One indication is the firm’s recently-signed design contract for an organ for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This massive, 3000-seat edifice, designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, will be the most important new church on the West Coast in some decades — an auspicious platform for a landmark pipe organ. Stay tuned.
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 1999 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001