The Tastemakers

by Jonathan Ambrosino

While sensibility is probably a safer word, ultimately ‘taste’ informs the result and character of the progress of organ culture. With so elusive a subject as the organ, it is not enough to listen and play: we rely on the impressions of others, and hold tight to whatever is early thrown at us. Long before I had listened to many organs or owned many recordings, my taste was defined by three points of reference: the inclinations and repertoire of my mentors; immediate attractions to certain organ tones; and key writings.

The writings, however, created a context exposure alone could note.

As a teenager, I marveled at the unfolding of a friendship between G. Donald Harrison and organ journalist William King Covell (through a cache of letters generously copied for me by Thomas Murray), which made human the act of organbuilding. Too, I fretted with William Barnes in The Contemporary American Organ as he defended the provision of such ribald things (for 1955) as a Great tremolo. Later on, the words of Lawrence Phelps would provide both insight and confrontation, as he dissected with precision and perception the problems of mid-1950s organbuilding as they unfolded, and later spelled a potential path to the future, one he ultimately did not explore. The words of Charles Fisk, disarmingly approachable yet groundbreaking, would provide further illumination on such topics as flexible wind (perhaps more than any of Fisk's organs).

Words have this power, and organbuilders know intuitively that if they want to build the organ of the future, they had better write about it first. Certainly English readers in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries lacked not for written opinion, from the robust inventiveness of Hope-Jones to the more refined commentary (and occasionally shameless self-promotion) of a Carlton Michell. Later authors would have either considerable impact (think of Col. George Dixon on the work of Norman & Beard and Harrison & Harrison) or hardly any at all (even so prolific a writer as Noël Bonavia-Hunt became the authority who, in the end, no one ever really seemed to consult).

It is no less true in America. Each important development in 20th-century American organbuilding has been either so subtle or so revolutionary as to require considerable written explanation. Indeed, much of the journalism surrounding early electric-action organs amounted to a kind of owner’s manual the organs themselves lacked. Certainly this was the view of Ernest Skinner, who wrote easily and colorfully, and saw every need to supplement the work itself with regular disquisitions upon its remarkable nature. Taking his cue from Mark Twain, Skinner adopted a wry, colourful and decidedly downhome approach, with such articles as ‘Shall the Swell Box Swallow the Organ Whole?’

Skinner’s successor, G. Donald Harrison, took the opposite approach – ‘work like hell and stay out of print’, according to his son Michael -- and let a band of propagandists promote his emerging style. The topic was so contentious that Harrison cultivated all the good press he could get. The result was a mixture of reporting and campaigning, both of phenomenal effectiveness. In talking about one large 1937 Aeolian-Skinner of Harrison’s, the ‘progressive’ organist Ernest White’s summed up perfectly what Harrison himself never quite seemed able to:

The most striking feature of the stoplist is the number of mixture ranks. Heretofore in describing tone from many ranks of mixtures the expression in vogue was “the organ has a blaze of mixtures.” That expression here would be misleading, for the mixtures do not provide aggressiveness and sparks in the form of top tone: they are in the truest sense the organ. The three great mixtures sound as if their combined tone were of 8-foot pitch, but of exceptional clarity and intensity.

From cogent description, it was a small step to outright campaigning, not merely for tonal issues but for the more elusive topics of style and taste. In speaking of the same instrument’s low-pressure Positiv section (a very great novelty for 1937), Ernest White knew exactly the sort of game he was playing, and aimed his spear with care:

…it is an orchestral-sounding solo organ. We have been accustomed to thinking of the orchestral type of tone as coming from sets of pipes made exclusively for that purpose. Here the Krummhorn is a double for the Wagnerian English Horn; yet it was developed as a chorus reed. The positiv nasat and terz together with the gedeckt make a truly orchestral oboe… Aside from its original purpose this positive organ is the equal of any twenty-stop solo organ. The division is unenclosed, but the tone is so clear that it can be phrased and molded by the key-touch so that were a box provided it would remain unused.

The proposition here is so bold, so high-fiber, that it stops the reader dead. A division so colorful that it upends one’s notion of color and expression? An enclosed department where one wouldn’t use the swell box? What reader wouldn’t be mystified by this description, and what more of a reaction could a good propagandist hope for? As articles like this continued to appear through the 1930s, particularly as penned by Senator Emerson Richards (the designer of the world’s largest organ, at the Atlantic City Convention Hall), even someone who had never heard an Aeolian-Skinner would have had much to contemplate. (The careful reader would even note the change in nomenclature, as such names as Trumpet, Clarinet and Mixture gave way to Trompette, Krummhorn and Cymbel. What’s in a name? Everything, it turns out.)

Harrison’s great contemporary in organ reform, Walter Holtkamp Sr., was a fresh and clever writer. Moreover, with his work striking out along lines so much more individual, it was perhaps best that explain them directly. Holtkamp’s early specifications were the most advanced in all pre-WWII American organbuilding. He argued persuasively and urbanely for his new, exposed designs, adopting a tone not uncommon to architectural writings of the 1930s describing Modern Movement work. In mentioning such music as the Bach trios, Holtkamp cited the organ’s need for coordinated colors and balances as akin to the synchronization of a ‘good dancing team’. His attitude was just what the times required: if the organists were to make the leap from the English Horn to the Sesquialtera, how more helpful (and relevant) than to throw in an image of Gene Kelly?

In similar ways, later American builders such as Lawrence Phelps, Robert Noehren, Charles Fisk and John Brombaugh each harnessed language to assist an eager audience ot greater understanding. Particularly with Fisk’s writings, we have been able to understand with far less ambiguity his goals and motivations.

Today, it seems we are not hearing enough from the builders on such matters. We already familiar with the common profile, in which an organ is built to play hymns, accompany the choir and interpret five centuries of repertoire, all with only twenty stops.

Surely there’s more to the story? While every instrument should tell its own tale, still it would be nice to hear what the builder is after — without guesswork, and while he is still able to send e-mail. We live in a curious era in which many wonderful new organs are built but little distinguishes them, the sorts of instruments from which one leaves thinking ‘How lovely! But I’ve heard this organ several times before.’ Before we listeners shrug and move on, builders might wish to clue us in, in terms both clear and direct, to things we might never have dared to notice.
Reproduced with permission from the September/October 2002 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005