If Only!

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Many a child sits up late at night at a parent’s desk — I describe myself at any rate — conjuring fantasy organ stoplists. Often they are based not on instruments one has heard but specifications one has pored over. One particular youthful goldmine was a 1929 issue of Stop Open and Reed, the Skinner Organ Company’s periodical containing the specifications of what would come to be known as Skinner’s “University Organs”: three large four-manuals for Princeton, Chicago and Ann Arbor, and the 197-rank rebuild at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall. On the back cover was a paragraph of overarching self-importance entitled “Scraps of Paper”, crisply stating that while other organbuilders might type out grandiose stoplists, only the Skinner Company could do so and produce a Skinner organ. (We won’t even bother discussing the page headed “The Penalty of Leadership”.)

Pomposity aside, Skinner was surely correct in his context, but the scraps of paper idea remains. Proposals for unbuilt organs can be highly illuminating — one more ingredient in comprehending the ways of organbuilders. Such documents allow us to glimpse the margins of a builder’s imagination, the extents of his vision or folly.

Unexecuted organ schemes bring to mind an architectural corollary. While the architectural competition seems largely a thing of the past, particularly in the period from 15o to 80 years ago, competitions were the way for a young architect to make a name without actually getting anything built. Thanks to widespread circulation of some competition entries, certain designs had just as much influence as buildings that ultimately were built. A prime example is the Chicago Tribune Tower. While Raymond Hood won the commission in 1922, the Second Prize of Eliel Saarinen ended up having perhaps even more influence on the work of other architects — even Hood’s own later work, particularly the New York Daily News Building and Rockefeller Center.

Turning back to organs, perhaps the most famous unexecuted scheme is Cavaillé-Coll’s for Saint Peter’s, Rome. For many years Cavaillé-Coll hoped to build a commanding west-end organ for the Basilica. "With the organ at St. Peter's I shall crown my career", he is alleged to have said. He drafted a stoplist in 1875 and went so far as to make a model of the proposed 32-foot case in 1887. The stoplist is a curious combination of Cavaillé-Coll’s early and mid-career thinking, fleshing out the large designs for Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame and including novel stops — particularly at the forte level. There is great discipline in the relationship of the size of each department, and yet this scheme seems to go beyond the limit of what we can imagine from Cavaillé-Coll’s existing work.

Nothing ever came of the proposal. Cavaillé-Coll’s successor, Charles Mutin, revised the scheme in 1910 and tried to put it over again. In the 1950s, titular Fernando Germani tried to get a Willis III organ the size of Liverpool Cathedral. This met with no success.

The order books of T.C. Lewis are filled with unexecuted schemes. One for Saint Dominic’s in Newcastle highlights a largely-forgotten design principle of the 1870s and 1880s: a curiosity for increasing flexibility through the ability to couple individual chests in addition to entire divisions. The root of this desire may have been the chance to play the Great reeds from the Swell manual —not the Choir, as would later become the early 20th century fashion as found in the organs of Harrison & Harrison.

It is always comforting to see Lewis being unavoidably Lewis. In this not particularly large instrument, chorus work is given pride of place, complete with two Great mixtures and a 5-1/3' Quint. The Swell is also economical in its resources, with an emphasis on the full swell effect. The Choir is the color department, with a collection of very brilliant stopped flute tone and stringy principal tone. In the 19th century mania for all things Vox Humana, even so intellectual a builder as Lewis proposed a separate swell for the Vox; and yet his placement of this stop on the Swell might have been regarded as distinctly continental. (Henry Willis eventually built an organ here in 1883.)

The notion of a Great that could be divided and re-coupled was prevalent with English-based theorists at that time. Lewis incorporated this system into his larger concert and church organs of the 1870s (all of which are now gone), and the system generated enough interest to form the basis of Audsley’s extensive writings on subdivided departments. The Lewis disciple Carlton Michell picked up this thread particularly, not only in his American work but also in his writings. The 1901 Lewis & Co. organ in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow is probably the nearest survivor of this short-lived design philosophy, where the Great high-pressure reeds transfer to the Swell.

The Sydney Town Hall was a natural breeding ground for visionary concepts. And yet the striking thing about Alexander Rea’s tender proposal is its orthodoxy, probably reflecting general Australian mindsets of the time. Hill, England’s most traditional builder, exported a great many organs to Australia, and the sounds of the 1850s and 1860s were still very much current thinking in the mid 1880s. While Rea’s proposal features a Lewis-like divided Great (half being transferable to the Swell), it seems a feature, not a fetish. The touchstone here is classical discipline; it cannot be coincidental that the Great and Pedal have the same number of stops, and that the nomenclature of the Pedal mixtures matches those of the Great. Like the divided Great, the inclusion of free-reed 32’ and 16’ pedal stops is a bow to German practice and ‘modernism’. To the tendering builder, other aims would surely have been in mind, not the least being a desire to build the world’s largest organ, even if in a remote outpost desiring an instrument of icon status.

If a proposal can act as a barometer of an organbuilder’s self-assurance, the Roosevelt scheme is highly significant. Of the American organbuilders Hilborne Roosevelt alone commanded international stature in the 1870s and 1880s. He traveled to Europe, fraternized with other organbuilders, and was ready to share new ideas and implement interesting things. This urbane streak gave Roosevelt organs a cosmopolitan outlook that read well on paper, thus piquing the interest of the wider organ world. The fact that Roosevelt would respond to Rea’s tender by recasting the scheme entirely in his own vernacular indicates that he was willing to build such an organ strictly on his own terms. Particularly coming from the American organbuilding establishment (at that time regarded as the stepchild of world organbuilding culture), Roosevelt’s stance brims with confidence. The organ looks much like one of Roosevelt’s large four-manual schemes taken to its logical conclusion, rather than a padded out scheme to put the number of pipes over the bar of the world record. Imagine the Choir enclosure, containing 36 speaking stops: a warehouse!

One of the most famous Aeolian-Skinner organs is found at Boston’s Church of the Advent, a 1936 instrument with no pressure higher than four inches and containing G. Donald Harrison’s second unenclosed Positiv department and an independent pedal section one stop larger than the Great. But the initial 1932 specification shows quite another instrument. Had this organ been built, and survived, it would have remained one of the solidly respectable organs from Harrison’s earlier transitional period: a stepping stone from English roots to the mature, individual style of the mid-1930s. The interesting items are few, and while it is an orthodox scheme during a time when many were not, it also reflects a time when those characteristics we associate with Harrison were not yet fully formed, even in his own heart. The one feature that strikes a significant chord is the Pedal 4-foot Flute borrow from the Great Harmonic Flute, and its implication for playing repertoire. Contrast all this with the organ as eventually built, one that changed American organbuilding history, given its central urban placement, excellent acoustics and proximity to the Aeolian-Skinner factory.

Harrison had created a sensation, and the wider world was quick to take notice. In 1937 Reginald Walker of J.W. Walker & Sons came to the States to investigate the possibility of licensing the Everett Orgatron for use. Walker spent quite a bit of time with Harrison in New York City; perhaps more than he had anticipated, Walker was highly impressed with the new style of low-pressure organ.

Concurrently, Ralph Downes, the Englishman who had emigrated to the States in 1928 to become the organist of Princeton Chapel, was now back in England and called as consultant to Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Together he and Harrison schemed up a stoplist, which combines ideas Downes would later implement at the Brompton Oratory and the Royal Festival Hall, with a lot of current Aeolian-Skinner stoplistese. For example, the Positiv and Pedal are taken almost verbatim from Harrison’s 1939 organ at Columbia University; the Great and Swell show the daring (for 1939) notion of a Great with flute mutations. Downes may have been the first person to awaken in Harrison’s ear a consciousness of early French music and its coloristic requirements, a thread that would be strengthened the following year by Joseph Bonnet’s arrival in the United States and their work together on an organ Worcester Art Museum.

At Buckfast, Walker would have built the organ, but Aeolian-Skinner would have supplied the pipes. The outbreak of war dashed hope for this project, and the end of war did not see its revival. It is easy to imagine Harrison’s eagerness to demonstrate to his native country what he had been developing in America. But to imagine the expression on Henry Willis III’s face. If only!
Reproduced with permission from the January/February 2003 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005