Diplomatic Relations

by Jonathan Ambrosino

This series, now reaching its sixth and final installment, has attempted to take several snapshots out of the many-paged album of American organbuilding at the turn of this century. But larger flashbulbs are now needed: just prior to writing this piece, the press release arrived announcing the construction of a 95-voice 141-rank Fisk, including five 32-foot registers, for the Cathedral in Lausanne, Switzerland.

What better event to stimulate reflection upon the developing relationship of American to European organbuilding? An American organ of such size, from a firm of such prominence, being installed in any European Cathedral, is more than a banner headline: it is a goal many American organbuilders have been hoping to achieve for the entire century. Given the monumental nature of the occasion, why is there no standing ovation?

Maybe it is because American organs have been going to Europe all throughout the century? Aeolian installed organs in their concert halls and in residences, early examples being manufactured by Hutchings-Votey and later ones by Aeolian directly. In 1928 Skinner proudly installed a three-manual 21-rank organ at the Loire Valley residence of efficiency expert Charles Bedaux — an instrument famous for providing wedding music for Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor in 1937, with Dupré at the console. And Wurlitzer exported numerous cinema organs; does anyone remember Reginald Foort’s touring Möller?

Residence and cinema organs are one thing, however; ‘serious’ organs quite another. In modern times, American exports have not stopped altogether. English readers know the organ Lawrence Phelps built for Hexham Abbey, and the one he did not build for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. An 1870 Hook organ originally at Woburn, Massachusetts was packed off to Berlin several years ago for installation in a church. While a number of builders, including Brombaugh, Fisk, Taylor & Boody, Austin and Noack, have exported instruments to Japan, it is nothing short of extraordinary that Austin will soon install an organ in China, in the Beijing Concert Hall just off Tiananmen Square. On the European front, John Brombaugh’s two manual instrument for Göteborg, Sweden was a breakthrough. Equally significant are the two organs Fritz Noack is building for Reykjavík, Iceland to be installed this autumn — both won in light of strong competition from many worthy builders.

Even against this context, the Fisk for Switzerland has an air of watershed monumentality. It is tempting to wonder whether Europe might at last be placing some artistic stock in American accomplishments or if it is simply a fluke. Given the instrument’s size and the prominent client, the choice of an American over a European builder is seminal: why did this job not go to Ahrend or Grenzing, Metzler or Aubertin, much less the usual German, Austrian or Swiss factory builders? While developments in ‘historical’ organbuilding have occurred with the greatest speed and quality in the United States, did the authorities in Lausanne feel they were acquiring a superior instrument or merely something more in tune with international organ developments than Europe can now offer?

The style-versus-quality question — if we might return to the premise with which this series opened — is ultimately at the heart of the matter. The Fisk reputation was founded upon the dynamic spirit of Charles Brenton Fisk, a physicist-turned-organbuilder who apprenticed to Walter Holtkamp, Sr. Fisk was an American original, in thought, word and musical results. He was the earliest practical champion of a return to mechanical action, and his firm went on to build the largest American tracker organs in this century. Fisk’s personality combined a common-sense approach, a kindly nature and a willingness to share with colleagues. Even when certain aspects of Fisk organs seemed homespun in nature, few could deny that a musical purpose was at their core.

Naturally eclectic, Fisk built organs patterned after many different traditions, from an early attempt at a seriously pre-romantic French organ in Burlington, Vermont to the famous mean-tone organ at Wellesley College. It was when he abandoned the safety of one given style, however, that his work took on a personal, multi-national flavor. Stops of markedly different antecedents live side by side in his instruments, more co-mingled than integrated. Instead of an organ whose one overriding personality handled many things well, the Fisk experience is akin to playing several different organs from the same key-desk: engaging, stimulating, provocative, even successful. Yet there seemed to exist an unspoken faith on the part of the builder that the prudent player would not tempt fate by putting all the different curries in the same dish.

Since the death of Charles Fisk in 1983, the firm has carved out an unusual high-profiled niche. No longer a small craft shop (there are almost thirty employees) but hardly a factory, Fisk is nevertheless beginning to adopt the attributes of a larger operation, where an established style is pursued and recognizable patterns develop. Unlike the days of Charlie Fisk, when many jobs embarked upon uncharted terrain, the successors have continued to refine both the successes and curiosities of the Fisk eclectic ideal without substantial alteration of the basic premise. The most prominent example has been the 84-rank four-manual organ for the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, a formidable instrument of sheer power that has defined, certainly in basic effectiveness, what a modern symphony hall organ should be.

For some, the reputation may be outpacing the results. A Fisk organ has much to admire: excellent key actions, clever technological advances in expression control and pneumatic key assist, and skillful adoption of modern materials. Casework and interior finish, however, do not approach the exalted level of some of Fisk’s colleague firms (Fritts and Taylor & Boody come to mind). Voicing, especially of reeds, often reaches a very high level of polish. Compromises in musical results seem to occur not so much from actual voicing as from peculiarities of tonal design, such as large organs with massed French romantic ensembles that lack corresponding pedal reed batteries (the current Lausanne specification being one example).

That Fisk should represent America in this momentous instrument for Europe calls to mind a bit of reverse history: the arrival on American shores of the 1863 Walcker for the Boston Music Hall, a curious instrument that forever altered American organbuilding. The Walcker was the result of American organists’ having gone to Germany and their hope that American organbuilding might begin to adopt the features and tonalities they knew from their foreign study. The contract was a slap in the face to Boston builders: indeed, only European builders were considered.

Contracted in 1857, the Walcker was completed in 1863 and was certainly unusual, from its sliderless ventil windchests and multiple enclosures (including part of the Pedal), to its console with slider bar register crescendo and pneumatic action on keys and stops. The magnificent Renaissance Revival case, however, was designed by Boston architect Hammatt Billings and built by Herter Brothers of New York. As Barbara Owen dryly noted, “Judging from the Germanic stodginess of most Walcker cases of the period, we should be thankful.”

The Walcker had a reputation entirely in keeping with its curious nature: no one lavished any outright praise, yet no one could deny the instrument’s technological and tonal novelty. Inevitably, some of its more noteworthy features began to crop up in American instruments. The native builders' desire to be in step with modern developments, the increasing number of immigrant German organbuilders and the influence of progressive organists and teachers all joined to lead American organbuilding away from its English roots and toward a distinctly Germanic character from the 1870s onward. (One can only speculate what might have happened had a Cavaillé-Coll, Willis, Hill or one of the unusual large concert-hall Lewis organs come to America instead…)

One hundred and thirty years after the arrival of the Walcker, the parallels to Lausanne are intriguing. Though furnished with a sketch from Fisk, the authorities in Lausanne have opted all along to retain central control over the case design — just as the Bostonians did in 1857. Like the Walcker, the Fisk will have technological advances, chief among them the firm’s Servopneumatic Lever, a finger-following Barker machine that makes for a far more sensitive assisted action. The stoplist is not in its final form, but in draft it displays the typical Fisk eclecticism. In addition to the early German, early Dutch and both early and later French stops has been added a complement of Spanish voices and also an exploration of the German Romantic. Just as the Walcker represented a sideways development of its style, the Fisk will be an exploded example of its firm’s eclectic ideal: an all-inclusive atlas of tone.

In America, our history tells us what occurred when a large, quirky organ arrived from a foreign land, excellent in some ways and peculiar in others, hailed by few but known to all. Its modernity resonated with the temper of the times and, in spite of flaws visible almost immediately, it ushered in a new era. The imported organs of the 1950s and ’60s, answering to the same basic description, energized American organists and builders in a similar manner. Since that time American organbuilding developments may have eclipsed those in Europe and England, but it would be crass to presume they have been automatically positive. Whether the Lausanne Fisk will be the best organ to offer in diplomacy remains to be seen. The miraculous occasion of its existence, however, demands a heartier round of applause from all parties.
Reproduced with permission from the May/June 1999 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001