Paul Fritts & Richards, Fowkes & Co.

by Jonathan Ambrosino


Transcending the stronghold of neo-classicism: Part 1

The last decade has seen an interesting establishment of style. Practically Any Style You Like. But even in that dazzling range, neo-classical voicing technique, and to an extent the dogma behind it, still exerts a stronghold. If you’ve read Poul Gerhard Andersen, Lawrence Phelps or Gayle Monette, you know the litany: open toes, narrow flues, absence (or near-absence) of nicking, low cut-ups, low wind-pressures. With today’s multiplicity of stylistic direction, it’s interesting to look back to a time — dial up 1960 — when so many builders could still subscribe to such similar principles, producing polemic even more strident than the tone.

While the period 1960-1985 did produce fine organs, time and research have exploded the notion that the voicing approach proceeded from the unvarnished sanction of history. Thus the style’s often considerable originality is too often masked under the justifications of a selective history. Just as American techniques of the 1880s and ’90s were extended to create the orchestral voicing of the 1900s to ’20s, and then those methods were modified for the first stage of organ revival through the mid-’50s, it is curious to witness how the ’60s neo-classic approach often forms the basis for today’s non–neo-classical tone, be it in historical tracker organs or supposedly new Romantic work.

Consider the 1960s organs produced by Casavant, Phelps, Schlicker and that ilk. Phelps in particular wasn’t interested in history as much a fresh new sound for old and new music alike. Contrast that ethic to the work of Charles Fisk and John Brombaugh, neither of whom ever really subscribed to neo-classicism. Early on, Fisk was eager to move toward a more authentic and exciting way of doing things — his own — with open toes and flues, a teensy-weensy bit of nicking, and higher cut-ups. Brombaugh’s philosophy was headed farther back than Schnitger to Neihoff and the 16th-century German school. With narrower windways and, if anything, higher cut-ups, the result was a vocale approach at once so idiosyncratic, brilliant and finely done that it became (for those into this sort of thing) irresistible. Fisk welcomed many disciples in his shop, most of whom remained to create today’s distinctly un–Charles-Fiskian organs. Brombaugh motivated men to join him, and just as strongly to depart and establish their own shops.

Like a Banyan tree, those disciple firms — Paul Fritts, Richards, Fowkes & Co., Taylor & Boody, Martin Pasi, Charles Ruggles — have dug into the ground and formed independent roots. Paul Fritts and Richards, Fowkes & Co. have a common gene in the considerable technical ability of Ralph Richards. In Seattle in the 1980s, the Fritts-Richards partnership created a handful of fine organs, particularly the hair-raising German/Dutch hybrid two-manual at Saint Alphonsus parish. When Richards departed Fritts, he joined with Bruce Fowkes as the latter was leaving the Brombaugh shop. Together they worked a few years for Schlicker, then in 1988 established their own firm in the Chattanooga suburb of Ooltewah (seduced by the name, no doubt) and began Op. 1 for Saint Barnabas Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. As with Saint Alphonsus, the Greenwich two-manual was a confident proposition hinting at a new approach; to its rigidly 17th-century core was appended a swell box, celeste and pistons. As Episcopalians and singers, Fowkes and Richards dispensed with the strictures of some of their colleagues, and, at least for an Anglican church, did not rule out those elements without which an Anglican service can falter.

Meanwhile, Paul Fritts’ early work culminated in 1999 with the large three-manual for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. This is an immensely likable instrument for player and listener alike. The action is saltine crisp, the keydesk comfortable and unfussy, the tonal result never aggressive and often interesting. The room is one of those tricky spaces with warmth and reverberation to be sure, but in which varying decibels don’t seem to change the visceral impact: the gleam-white teeth turn out to be dentures. Consequently, the piquancy of a two-foot Blockflote reaches into your ear in a way organo pleno never quite does. Any organ in such an environment would tend toward a certain anticlimax, and Fritts succeeded where others might have faltered. That the instrument is such a joy to play has won it much approbation.

As with much about Fritts’ work, astounding brilliancy of execution often compensates for occasional gaps in originality. Here is a man whose religion is craftsmanship, beginning with sublimely well-built pipes, casework, keyboards, windtrunks — everything, really. Visually, PLU is again derivative, again magnificently executed. The sum result is one of exquisite constriction. Clearly Fritts knows what he does well, and does it to perfection, but there is the sense that the organ suffers a confusion of aims. It has a complete Swell attached to the familiar 17th-century stuff, but almost as an actor without a role, as if the home turf all along has been the big two-manual organ handling music up to Bach with economy and aplomb. If it’s hard to pinpoint what’s missing, the breathtaking pipe shades by Judi Fritts (Paul’s sister) clue you in: they bristle with relevance and originality in a manner the organ itself never quite manages.

We don’t fault artists for not having reached their peak; we look forward to the promises their work foretells. At PLU, the larger issue is how to resolve the past with the present — in this case, the work of Arp Schnitger with the demands of a modern teaching instrument. Herein lies a further echo of the neo-classical era, a period engrossed with credentials, the builders that had them, and the instruments that exemplified them most faithfully. Our present era, in particular this subset of organbuilding, has only intensified the premium placed on ‘the knowledge’, often at the cost of a builder’s originality. After all, is there not a certain safety in pursuing the 17th-century style? The music these organs play well is some of the best ever written for the instrument. But having poured yourself into building a landmark that measures up, how on earth do you live it down in the attempt to distinguish your own voice?

PLU concluded a chapter for Fritts, who himself grew restless with the state of his own art. The past five years have seen a renegade trend away from the Schnitger hegemony, revisiting the work of central and southern 18th-century German traditions as a more appropriate basis for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And this, ironically, brings us back to those principles that most informed 1960s neo-classicism: more tin, brilliance and edge than the high-cut mostly lead pipes of Schnitger and before.

Fritts’ first essay in fusing the two centuries was a large two-manual for the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, completed in 2000. An interesting departure, the Princeton organ is undoubtedly a Paul Fritts organ. Compared to, say, Taylor & Boody or Richards, Fowkes & Co., the Princeton Fritts is less obviously refined: not in its execution, which continues the linear Fritts perfection, but in its voicing. It would be a stretch to say that herein lies a neo-classical organ; too much is going on for so simplistic a label. But between its unavoidable articulation and the increased brilliance (the 18th-century central/southern German thing), the effect is incredibly lively, almost scratchy. The flutes remain voluptuously pure and colorful, and the string tone has that certain carbonation to remind us how crispness, not lushness, is the point here. The reeds are gorgeous in their evenness and tone; any antecedent seems irrelevant.

But the good plenum is somewhat vexing, in that it recalls those electrifying choruses of the 1970s that were more brilliant than clear, all of which seems a curious and daring juxtaposition of retrogression and progression. Is this, in fact, an organ for Bach, its tone an advance in the pursuit of beauty? Or is this an organ of the 1970s, simply done that much better? To these ears, the Princeton essay seems one degree more experimental than conclusive. Fritts has completed several organs since then, and it would be interesting to see where this stylistic fusion has led him.

You want a seminary to have a serious, high-minded organ, acknowledging one micro-trend while launching another. At this point, Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes seem more serious than ever that their work blend music with beauty and daring with whimsy. If organs indeed have souls, then the firm’s recent opus at Christ Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey is one of the happiest imaginable. While the casework owes much to the Dutch, the curves, color and sumptuous water-gilding speak of sheer exuberance.

The voicing here is as distinct from earlier work as Fritts’ Princeton organ is from Tacoma, but the direction is different. Gone are the ultra-quick gulp and fixation with overt promptness, erasing the last vestiges of the late neo-classical. While these principals are hardly Lewis-slow, they are relaxed, elegant, and getting on for a suavity that attends the beautiful tone of any age. There is a swell, but no celeste; given the buoyant acoustic, good tremulant and sheer warmth of tone, who cares? When the chorus is this cohesive, the elements so tightly connected, you wonder how far the whole edgy brilliant central/southern German thing will go, at least as far as the voicer Fowkes is concerned. This organ not only knows its style but likes it, and the result surpasses anything this firm has done before.

The important thing about style is to have one, and that’s not easy these days. In an age where we are saturated by the overpowering examples of the past, it’s harder than ever to be distinctive without crossing over to the shocking or the unenduring. Either you become bored and revolutionize your ways, or you subtly reinvent what you loved all along. In transcending the predilections of a previous age, these two companies are doing just that. Sweet epiphany.
Reproduced with permission from the November/December 2004 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005