Schoenstein & Co.

by Jonathan Ambrosino

In the early 1990s there appeared in America a polemical little tri-annual called the Erzähler, a serialized homage to the Skinner organ and the 1905-1940 period that produced it. Behind the light-heartedness (the letters column was spattered with savagery toward the innocent) lay a hope that serious electric-action organbuilding might experience a revival, similar to the resurgence of mechanical action from the 1950s on. In 1991, when the Erzähler debuted, high-quality American electric-action organs simply weren’t being built — at least in the view of the publication’s (one-member) editorial staff, who nevertheless confidently anticipated the day when conviction as well as current would flow once more through the electro-magnet.

In 2005, that day is closer at hand, but the journey has not been easy. Through the 1980s and early ’90s, progressive electric-action organbuilding seemed overly measured, as if taking things ‘too far’ would provoke the cause more than advance it. ‘If my organ is to be viewed seriously,’ builder X might opine, ‘it will play the literature and convince even the loftiest that I, too, am serious in my approach.’ As a result, many organs of that period exuded more self-consciousness than loveliness. While some good organs were produced, the impression remained one of reaction, not pro-action, and no truly individual voice seemed to emerge.

An honest revival might have happened with greater swiftness but for the unforeseen ascent in digital simulation. Increasing quality in all-electronic organs eroded the market’s lower end while also giving rise to the peculiar monster that is the ‘combination’ organ (part pipe, part loudspeaker); both situations affected mainstream pipe organ sales. Today, with only as many instruments being built as in, say, the early 1850s, the market pool is slender. Many builders feel lucky simply to ply their trade in challenging times. Even those who have established their concerns at a high level are infrequently given that free hand that might fulfill new visions unencumbered by outside influence.

Therefore, it was encouraging to see a group of smaller builders establish themselves in the 1980s, develop their styles through the 1990s, and arrive in the 21st century with full order books, distinctive tonal approaches and individualistic mechanisms — recalling the inventive pride of the early electric-action era and such men as John T. Austin, Robert Hope-Jones and Ernest Skinner. In today’s American group would logically be placed Nichols & Simpson and Quimby, also Charles Kegg, John-Paul Buzard and, to some extent, Lively-Fulcher (although the latter also build tracker organs).

If this group has a catalyzing figure, however, it is Jack Bethards of Schoenstein & Co. His scope has been wider, his writings more prolific, his work more provocative and controversial. Mr Bethards first made his name as a consultant, whose creative thinking and no-nonsense approach informed, and sometimes rescued, many organ situations. Schoenstein’s tonal renovation of the Mormon Tabernacle Aeolian-Skinner garnered further notice. From that job’s completion in 1989 through the mid-1990s, Schoenstein built new instruments that first flirted with French romantic ideals and later headed toward an experimentally eclectic style with orchestral overtones.

Through the mid to late-1990s, several important Schoenstein instruments took the orchestral theme along an elaborate and highly personal channel, in which practically every element had some antecedent but whose combination struck a fresh note: multiple celestes, dramatic harmonic flutes, variable tremulants controlled by swell pedals, double enclosures in which the softest and loudest Swell voices, for example, were placed behind a second set of shutters. The style was crystallized in the four-manual organ for Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church (K Street), Washington D.C., which embodied all the latest ideas ingeniously engineered into an oddly-shaped chamber, with considerable attention to detail. Handsome strings, flutes and reeds gave the organ distinctive tones; concept, conviction and execution made it one of the most noticed of its decade. For those on the neo-orchestral edge — the typical Erzähler subscriber, for instance — this was substantive, exciting progress along activist lines.

Beneath the surface of hyper-orchestralism lie elements with unexpected lineage. Schoenstein’s expansion-cell™ windchest puts the pouch some distance from the pipe it feeds, simulating to some degree the characteristics of a slider chest, and showing evidence of lessons learned from the classical revival. And yet, since the Schoenstein windchests are of the unit type, a free-love approach is possible in which small and not-so-small schemes are ‘expanded’ through extension and borrowing. Such methods are reminiscent of the adaptability of Hope-Jones, also early Skinner, where smaller organs were viewed more as giant one-manuals than as anything with strong departmental identity. In the Schoenstein work, unification falls into both the legitimate (Pedal, solo reeds or quiet celestes available in two locations) and brave categories (the occasional Nazard borrowed out of a 4ft Chimney Flute).

Other distinctive elements include rigidly steady wind and a degree of chiff in some of the principal voicing for which no precursor exists in romantic or symphonic work. Most quint- and tierce-sounding ranks begin at tenor c, perhaps happily precluding any exploration of certain corners of organ repertory and leading one to surmise a desire to liberate the ensemble of strong off-unison tone, particularly in the bass. Finally, few Schoenstein organs have true independent great doubles, more often a keen string; no Great has a sub coupler, though many have octave couplers. (Apparently even for Mr Bethards, a dedicated anti-classicist, the business of substantial manual depth may still await deregulation: does not the string double remain a constant for those who fear excess gravitas?) Taking the above together, one senses a logical extension of the 1970s reaction against the starchy choruses of the 1940s and 50s (the twelfthy G. Donald Harrison style), desiring a ‘clean’ ensemble without muddiness or overt complexity.

Looking more closely, in the Schoenstein chorus one finds ideas from 19th- and 20th-century English and American examples put through a new filter. One often finds a nicely-scaled unison (cut up a third, voiced fairly quick, nicked to the point of eliminating most, but not all, the chiff) paired to a dramatically different Principal, scaled several notes smaller (cut up far lower, at a quarter, with finer nicking and similar articulation). From there, the chorus tends to be voiced like the Principal, further diminishing in scale as pitches ascend. Such scaling echoes both Willis and Skinner work, but the voicing and balancing is quite different: articulate, more melodic even than Willis, with the small pipes being much more prominent throughout and the chorus quite bright.

Sometimes this produces 2fts and mixtures unavoidably standing apart from the chunky foundation beneath. Other times, particularly in the smaller schemes, the mixtures are warm, mild and clean, like an independent color, lending an everything-goes-together churchly flexibility (the giant one-manual idea) reminiscent of late Skinner organs. Variation in the unison diapasons (some ‘standard’, some slotted, others stringy) lends real texture to massed foundations. In one instance (Towson, Maryland) an Antiphonal is comprised of two mild diapasons placed either side of a gallery rail, subtly drawing forward the sound of the main organ without calling specific attention to itself. Both the effect and the thinking behind it are exceedingly good.

Schoenstein consoles are nicely stylized, with burled stopjambs (think old Rolls-Royce dashboard here) and hardware (swell pedals, toe studs) unique to this firm. In an age where too many consoles are plagued with excessive buttons and indicator lamps, it is refreshing to see a tasteful number of pistons and plenty of blank keyslip space. Even complicated consoles are designed such that the unwary can ignore the special features.

However, one shouldn’t be misled by such ‘retro’-themed features as the ‘Rotonunciator’ combination memory selector or the ‘Thermonunciator’ house-made chamber thermometers. These are not traditional organs: they are, in fact, Bolshie-radical. Practically every element has been re-examined, rejected, developed, filtered, and as a result the organs make you reconsider romanticism, orchestral nature, and the intersection of both with organ tone.

Extreme styles tend to produce extreme reactions. Some players have little time for double enclosures, variable tremulants, and the sanitized winding and chorus methods. Others rejoice, not only in these same features but also the conviction behind them. Above all, here is strong personality and fantastic follow-through. Under the hands of a Thomas Murray (an unapologetic Schoenstein supporter who has eulogistically written up the approach elsewhere in the English press) these organs can be quite persuasive. With immense instruments in the new LDS Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City, Saint Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston, First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and others on the way, Schoenstein has plenty of admirers and customers. And, if the Anglo-American style is perceived to be the height of the accompanimental realm, these organs respond with inventiveness, color and clear thinking. Moreover, they show that an extreme approach need not involve irrationality or melodrama on the part of the builder.

Perhaps that is why it is hard to consider these organs either romantic or symphonic, despite outward appearances and the builder’s rhetoric. The unusual, brilliant chorus work and ultra-steady wind alone account for too novel an approach to be characterized by those earlier terms. Moreover, Mr Bethards is deliberately aiming for a result that proclaims a factory feel, a manufacturing ethic — organs that are the product of a systematic method in which functionality and order prevail. Even at their most logical, romantic organs have sublime moments of irrationality, be it the scorching Pedal reeds of Cavaillé-Coll or the exquisite orchestral voices of Skinner; those builders betrayed their souls in the unnecessary pursuit of loveliness. The Schoenstein work may yet get there, but it almost seems beside the point. Jack Bethards is already too interested, and too successful, at doing things a radically different way. His will be a sufficiently distinctive contribution without reliance upon older definitions.
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005