Groton School

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Completed in November 1935, the Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Groton School is the prototype of G. Donald Harrison’s American Classic organ. This instrument introduced all the key features that would characterize Harrison’s mature style: an unenclosed choir organ; a 14-register independent Pedal with two mixtures; a Great culminating in three mixtures, and self-consciously omitting reeds; lower wind pressures than had been used in 20th-century; and a crusade against extension, with only one extended stop.

At Groton, Harrison’s statement was as much political as musical. Even as he worked toward a ‘Baroque’ ideal, Harrison skillfully clothed progress in a comfort sufficient to coddle even the oldest guard. However plentiful the mixtures, none was acute in pitch. Pretty strings continued to abound, though broader than their immediate Skinner predecessors. Manual chorus reeds, even with Cavaillé-Coll–type shallots, recalled early Father Willis in a mild format. Harrison’s desire for texture ahead of power produced a mild organ —revolutionarily so — in which every stop and coupler could be drawn to pleasing effect, and certainly not a shrill one. “Had the organ been over-brilliant,” he wrote, “it would have done the cause more harm than good.”

The pipes themselves speak of sophistication. Aeolian-Skinner’s first tin pipes are found here. In the Great chorus Harrison first attempted an octave larger than its corresponding unison — not to make the octave louder, but broader and thus better blending. Mixtures were likewise built with wider trebles, for a full, not shrill tone. While the Great Principals are constructed as one might expect (full scale, spotted metal, wide mouths, low cut-ups), the lesser Diapason has a narrow mouth, while the Octave has both a narrow mouth and a slight taper. The Sub Principal has a foot in all camps, with scaling related to the Diapason, but with the slight taper of the Octave and a wide mouth like the Principals. Perhaps most astonishingly for 1935, all principals were cone-tuned from 2’c, which would alone account for the several-month period of tonal finishing.

The instrument’s excellence was immediately evident; its success, and that of Boston’s Church of the Advent (completed five months later), propelled Harrison ever farther. In correspondence, Harrison always acknowledged Groton as his starting point. Even after another 15 years, and numerous supposedly more ‘advanced’ instruments, he wrote Ralph Downes in the early 1950s with the scales of the Groton chorus, saying that many had claimed it to be the finest in the country.

Groton was not viewed as a fixed statement. At the behest of organist Edward B. Gammons, who came to the School in 1941, the instrument seems to have been viewed as a laboratory: an instrument whose core was not to be tinkered with, but whose details might be periodically adjusted. As the prototype, Groton was the blank wall before any ivy could crawl, and by 1944 Harrison’s ideas had evolved to encompass thin ‘Baroque’ reeds, Great flute choruses to relate to the positiv for trio work, and a different approach altogether to positiv sections. Harrison wrote to Gammons, suggesting changes that would increase flexibility and color without really affecting the organ’s core. By 1954, most of these had been carried out; also, the console had been relocated from its nook beneath the organ to an area behind the pulpit. After Harrison’s death, Gammons had a few further changes made.

In 1975 Dan Hathaway succeeded Mr. Gammons as organist. At his direction considerable revoicing of the Great and Positif was carried out by Kinzey-Angerstein, along with loudening of other departments. The connection of firm to instrument was strong. Allen Kinzey had worked at Aeolian-Skinner from 1954 until the firm’s 1972 closing; Dan Angerstein joined much later, and has forged a significant career as voicer, tonal finisher and organbuilder.

With the arrival of present organist Craig Smith in 1978, emphasis shifted from tonal refinements to the organ’s mechanical well-being. The largest program of renovation came in the mid-1980s, again undertaken by Allen Kinzey; along with releathering, concerns for service access led to fitting schwimmers to the Swell and Choir, replacement of one pitman windchest with an all-electric equivalent, console electrification, and solid-state switching and combination action. A new five-stop Processional department was also installed. Restorative work was carried out during the 1990s by Nelson Barden, known for his restoration at Boston’s Church of the Advent.

Following the cleaning of the exterior masonry in the summer of 2000, the prospect of cleaning the interior in the summer of 2002 presented a rare opportunity. With Chapel life already compromised by building closure, a final program of organ work could be carried without undue disruption. The scope of work evolved to include outstanding mechanical details, upgrades, reinstating traditional wind to the Choir, removal, cleaning and overhaul of all the flue pipes, and finally, remedial voicing and tonal finishing. The vendors for this project were chosen at the outset in a collaborative arrangement. Foley-Baker of Tolland, Connecticut executed all removal, reinstallation, mechanical inspection and rebuilding. After acting in an initial advisory role, I took charge of the pipe cleaning and remedial voicing in my usual partnership with the voicer Jeff Weiler.

Many factors converged to make this effort different from normal tonal work. There is first the overriding pressure of working on an icon: this is one of the best-known of all American organs and has been revered at most every stage of its existence. I had worked at Nelson Barden’s in the late 1980s, and knew the instrument from service work. Revisiting the organ for the first consultation in 2000 renewed my conviction that the instrument had strayed beyond Harrison’s intentions, and that he would not have known the organ he considered among his two or three best. Increasing and repeated exposure to other significant 1930s Aeolian-Skinners (particularly Saint Mark’s Philadelphia and Columbia University in New York) left a strong desire to recapture, insofar as possible, an organ Harrison himself might recognize. Given the remarkable lack of understanding Harrison’s work has been subject to in recent years, here was a rare opportunity in a context perhaps more deserving than any other.

On the other hand, this has never been an unsuccessful instrument. Though housed in a tall, narrow and deep chamber, the organ transcends its location. The acoustics are excellent. In addition to a graceful reverberation period, tone is reinforced across a wide range with admirable evenness. Extreme treble is not particularly reinforced or reverberated, however, greatly promoting clarity (a feature Harrison would have prized). In its altered condition, the organ was still unquestionably handsome, noble and effective, an instrument Craig Smith had come to know and love for a quarter-century.

By developing mutually agreeable guidelines for what was and was not acceptable in speech, tone and effect, and then taking cues from how the pipes themselves responded to various treatments, an ethic evolved — uncertain at the outset, but soon gaining clarity as the process moved forward. For it could not be denied that many pipes did not speak well. Either they chiffed in a manner Harrison would have sanctioned only in the occasional stopped flute, or they had been loudened (though not actually revoiced) beyond the point of comfortable attack or tone. Some pipes, including those of the Great and Positif choruses, had been radically revoiced.

When considered from the standpoint of speech, most stops had only two logical remedies: further revoicing (cutting up) to stabilize speech at the louder volume, or softening back into a range of acceptable speech. All parties agreed that further modification was unacceptable, so softening was judiciously attempted. In so doing, it was revealed just how much of the organ’s voicing remained in original condition; toes had merely been opened. Rather than seeming softer, the tone gained fullness as the pipes returned to greater efficiency.

It was with real relief that Craig Smith gave us increasing encouragement in this uncertain process. After smoothing out the Great Rohrflote in its existing condition, Craig Smith questioned the appropriateness of its tone and speech. After setting samples for study and approval, conservative revoicing, as far as possible along the lines of the original yielded tones and balances both pleasing and believable. The same pattern occurred with the Blockflote, and increasingly other changed stops.

From there, the work unfolded in an unorthodox order. After façade pipes, most site voicing begins with the Great 8 Principal, to which the rest of the organ can be logically referenced. In this instance, we began with the ‘unchanged’ (i.e. merely loudened) material: the Great Diapason and Octave; the entire Swell, Choir and Pedal; and portions of the Positif. With these stops complete — and the benefit of a Christmas break for perspective — many clues had surfaced about how the revoiced stops might best be resolved, not necessarily in an ‘original’ manner but in a ‘plausible’ one.

Experiences such as these increased our confidence to return to the Great chorus at job’s end. The original 21-rank chorus (16-8-8-6-4-4-3-3-2-1-IV-IV-III) comprised a statement of the highest intellectual and musical purpose, regardless of era. William King Covell wrote of it:

The chorus of the Great is one of real distinction. So complete is it that reeds are dispensed with, being considered not only unnecessary but actually undesirable. It consists of two choruses, one within the other. The principals constitute the major chorus, the diapason, octave and superoctave the minor. There is actually little difference in power between the ranks, as the 8ft principal is only moderately powerful, and the diapason 8ft is only slightly softer. But the ranks are so treated that each has its own accent: hence the major chorus has an effect by itself separate from that of the minor chorus; and, what is more interesting and unusual, the minor chorus adds appreciably to the strength of the major … [the mixtures] form a complex texture in which breaks are imperceptible.

This chorus had been the object of the greatest revoicing, some of it inconsistent, none of it particularly well documented. Even if the chorus in its present condition is but a shadow of what Harrison himself knew, it becomes easier to understand why he was so taken with his own work. It contains all the qualities he sought: clarity, cohesion, flexibility, a full rather than shrill treble, and the complexity of many ranks of similar power - a chorus voiced along late-romantic lines to be sure, but conceived and balanced in the classical tradition.

The author wishes to thank everyone who contributed to this project, most notably Mike Foley and Phil Carpenter of Foley-Baker; Jeff Weiler; and Craig Smith, who made the entire project possible.
Reproduced with permission from the May/June 2003 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005