The Historical Organbuilders

by Jonathan Ambrosino

For those American tracker organbuilders whose inspiration is the past, two threads among the many are worthy of special attention. Certain builders have fashioned either direct copies of old organs or instruments whose practically every inspiration has a concrete antecedent: Noack at Houston, Bozeman at Stony Brook, Rosales at Fremont. Such projects, however, are excursions from the house style.

Another group — among them Fritts, Taylor & Boody, Richards & Fowkes, Pasi — has revolved around the great Dutch and German work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These firms are loosely known as the ‘historical’ builders and have all produced instruments of stunning beauty and craftsmanship. Musically the results have been compelling, the process equal parts research and creation. Writes organist and pedagogue William Porter, "The making of new instruments that can contribute to this process of understanding [of how we interpret old music] requires its own special artistry and its own special engagement with the testimony of the past."

Now that this movement is reaching maturity, it is appropriate to ponder where it might be headed. For one thing, some of the ‘historical’ organists seem eager to move beyond the movement’s ‘research’ phase, if you will, to something more relevant. We are naturally past wanting a Flentrop in equal temperament with a balanced action, these players might say. And we are unwilling to sacrifice your lovely actions, superb plena and captivating sounds, they quickly add. But being not quite to the point of wanting a Fisk or a Rosales, is too much to ask for a swell box, a string and maybe a few pistons so we won’t have to go ‘outside the fold’?

In broad terms, musicians have raised this sort of question before. David Fuller at the State University of New York, Buffalo hoped to take the Fisk eclecticism from House of Hope (1979) to a place that might include assisted key action, an effective swell and pistons. Not only did Fisk provide all of this in 1991, most notably in the introduction of their finger-following Servopneumatic lever, they have become largely standard practice. Concurrently, William Owen at Christ Church Christiana Hundred near Wilmington, Delaware asked of John Brombaugh for a similar departure from his usual milieu. Here the organ would have electric-stop action, pistons, a big Swell with chorus reeds based on Willis models, some electric-action pedal stops, and a highly non-traditional layout. And be a Brombaugh!

Such musician-driven projects are hardly new in organbuilding (think of Henry Smart or Ralph Downes), and have historically resulted in unusual and new formats. For Fisk, the Buffalo organ turned out to be a crucial stepping stone to their now-entrenched eclectic approach. For Brombaugh, Wilmington may have been more of a detour, though he was to repeat the essay in distilled form at Lawrence University, Wisconsin. Concurrent with these organs, Manuel Rosales appeared, fully poised to create a markedly personal style from historically inspired elements. Rosales added a voice to the counterpoint characterised as much by intellectual comfort as by confidence and skill.

Meanwhile, the ‘historical’ organbuilders’ success has rested largely upon the very inflexibility required to respond to the canon of producing ‘old’ instruments. However, certain new threads have been explored. Richards & Fowkes’ two most prominent instruments have swell boxes and string stops; their Opus 1 has a combination action. Fritts’ new organ for Pacific Lutheran University has a large Swell, three strings and a combination action: indeed, it gives every outward appearance of being an eclectic organ. But in each case, the core of these instruments rests in the North German vein, to the point that it seems to limit these builders’ development of personal, recognizable styles. Is this as far as these builders dare go, or is there a future for historically-informed organbuilding whose style might be relieved from so great a debt to history?

Answers to those questions were to have been a goal of The Organ in the New Millennium, a symposium held in April 1999 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, co-sponsored by that institution and the Westfield Center for Early Keyboard Studies. Amidst the array of recitals, instruments, lectures and panels, the new Millennium became overlooked. Much popular expectation rested upon two panels, one reviewing the last 25 years, the other attempting to define the effect of new technologies on the chastity of ‘historical’ organbuilding.

The panels were inconclusive and circular — perhaps not surprising. Few are likely to dwell on The Great Beyond when Right This Minute is so satisfying. It was odd to hear some panelists revert to the tired old theme of Isn’t All Electric Action Just Ghastly, in tones reminiscent of 1950s anti-Communist rant. (Apparently no one has told them that, while the electric-tracker cold war may not be dead yet, it is has become largely irrelevant.) Genuinely touching was a John Brombaugh love-in, staged unintentionally by the panels’ younger builders: each gave wringing testimony to the importance of Brombaugh’s example. One suspects this paean embarrassed the venerable Brombaugh only to a point. His work has perhaps moved away from the center stage in the last decade, so due remembrance of his pivotal role was considerate and appropriate.

The topic from which sparks had been hoped — is a combination action ineradicably evil? — sounded so ridiculous once spoken out loud that no one bothered to develop it. Instead, Bill Porter dared to venture that builders are making actions too light, thus introducing a discontinuity between the seeking of historical effect and playing method. A massive sound, he argued, ought to feel as massive to the fingers as to the ears. While provocative, did this mask a deeper theme: that we still aren’t copying well enough, that the only right way is the old way? The multi-faceted players Peter Sykes and Robert Bates went to the heart of a larger, darker truth: we have become expert at playing old music (and building ‘old’ organs, they might have added), and playing it well (and, again, building them well). But we still aren’t teaching or encouraging people to make their own music, either through improvisation or through that kind of interpretation and performance that fuses information with genius to set old music (or any music) ablaze in a new way. People agreed: after all, a cardinal aspect of popular reaction to the 20th-century organ has been real dissatisfaction with most playing, even of ‘popular’ players. As Porter wrote in the notes to his own program, "If the kind of historical knowledge that is available to us can be experienced as formative upon musical intuition [italics mine] so much the better. It has not always been so."

About the future, little was said. Harald Vogel and Lynn Edwards are beginning to hint about, as they done before with such success, and this time it points to the mid-eighteenth century example. Whether Hildebrandt, Trost, Müller, König, Wagner, Riepp or Holzhay, these organs indeed may offer far more of the variety a modern organist requires. The Noack in Houston is an early indication of where such thoughts might go, while still erring on the safe side of Silbermann and not the daring aspects of Hildebrandt.

However, can’t there be a genuinely fresh style from the old elements? It would be, after all, the far more creative step. If the younger builders were praising Brombaugh, they may have been tacitly acknowledging that Brombaugh has in fact never built anything but his own, unmistakable instruments, however indebted to the past they may superficially appear. The difference is small but vital. A trip to Brombaugh’s 1978 instrument at Christ Church Tacoma showed that the two subsequent decades of research and development that has led, say, to Fritts’ magnum opus at PLU has advanced understanding more than anything. The Fritts is an instrument of considerable refinement and polish, placed in a room that hinders more than helps. The Brombaugh is in a better room to be sure, and is an innocent-seeming and modest instrument. But it hangs from a cliff by its fingernails — and so does the listener. To hear the Fritts is to understand what the builder was after; to experience the Brombaugh is to confront what the builder could not help but create.

In this dimension, Pasi and Richards & Fowkes begin to stand out. Pasi’s visual designs are compelling and appropriate; his tonal designs are intriguing. His dual-temperament for the Catholic Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, now under construction, may be the first truly new vision of what a ‘historical’ organ might be since Brombaugh himself or the Stanford Fisk. In a sense Pasi reminds one of Rosales, a likeness of style more than method. Pasi is an individualist bent on making his mark. Like Rosales, he has a serene confidence in the voice of his own work. Both Pasi and Rosales speak without apology such statements as ‘my organ’ or ‘my sound’. Meanwhile, Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes, both devout Episcopalians, have responded in a personal way to liturgical realities far removed from the core style of their organs. Their introduction of strings and swell boxes seems bent not upon client-pleasing but rather upon aligning their work with matters that are of seminal personal importance.

Stay tuned. This remarkably gifted group of builders is bound to surprise us, perhaps themselves most of all, with where their talent and will has yet to lead them.
Reproduced with permission from the September/October 2000 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001