Past Tense

by Jonathan Ambrosino

We cherish the work of our grandparents while rebuffing that of our parents, or so our parents and grandparents tell us. Each cycle of 20th-organbuilding style hasn’t been so conveniently generational, since organs evolve less like family and more like fashion or architecture. In 1925, the early electric-action organ of 1905 was obsolete and experimental. In 1945, the ultrasymphonic instrument of 1925 was hopelessly decadent and unmusical. By 1965, the early-reform electric-action example of 1945 was seen as having occurred too early to embody true historical principle. But in 1985, it was the organ of 1965 that had come too early to embody true historical principle. No less than our own time, the 20th century has proven a fickle beast.

In 2005, at least in America, we have largely come to terms with the 20th century, its radical shifts and sweeping harvest. We view the organ of 1905 as a curious, if limited relic; that of 1925 as a symphonic masterpiece (but whose console isn’t worth preserving); that of 1945 as an American Classic possibly worth retention; and the early tracker from 1965 sometimes brilliant, sometimes unlovely and yet troublingly principled.

How we view organs built from that time until our own is a less obvious matter. Style and variety have evolved so rapidly that we find ourselves in a present of unprecedented breadth. Our view of the recent past is equally unparalleled, both in its tolerance and its understanding. Certainly we seem less judgmental than our immediate forebears, more observational and reverent. In 1965 Lawrence Phelps wrote of the 1868 Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste. Clothilde (the organ of Franck, Tournemire and Langlais): ‘To me it is amazing that César Franck could have had this instrument in mind when he wrote the three chorals. They certainly represent a much higher standard in musical composition than the plan of this instrument represents as an example of tonal design. It would be next to impossible to play any of the traditional [i.e. pre-Romantic] French literature on this instrument.’ 1

In 2005, it seems difficult to summon this kind of animosity towards an organ of 1905, let alone toward anything of such (now-) obvious quality as Cavaillé-Coll. Certainly we have moved away from the view that each era’s originality automatically destroyed the prevailing traditions. In our heady modern pluralism, it is sometimes bewildering to absorb the singular idealism that rooted second stage organ reform, and the uncompromising sharpness of its rhetoric.

And yet, such wonderfully strident polemic goes hand in hand with the period’s jagged modernism, paradoxically born out of a deep sense of honor to the ‘inviolable traditions’ (Phelps’ words again) of the far past. When we regard the organs from the 1960-1985 era — Phelps’ efforts at Casavant and later on his own, C.B. Fisk and Fritz Noack (covered in past columns), mid-period Herman Schlicker, Robert Noehren, Robert Sipe — we are dealing with work that defies judgment of the solely instrumental nature by which the 20th century often appraised its organs. Today, in the minds of some younger players and historians, these very serious organs are taking new hold.

Last summer’s Organ Historical Society convention was held in Buffalo, New York, a few miles from Niagara Falls and an hour from Toronto. Once a great industrial seat, Buffalo was home to both Wurlitzer and Schlicker. The OHS convention treated the work of both firms with reverence and seriousness. Since the roster of pre–World-War-II organs was slimmer than has traditionally been thought ideal for an OHS Convention, the inventory was filled out with the region’s many interesting examples from the 1950-1980 period.

Two Buffalo instruments deserve special notice, one of Schlicker, the other of Noehren. Born in 1904, Herman Schlicker trained at Steinmeyer in Germany, coming to the United States in 1925. He briefly worked for Wurlitzer, then Tellers-Kent prior to establishing his own shop in 1932. His early work was in the mainstream American vernacular of the period. Schlicker Opus 2 remains unaltered in Saint Francis Xavier Church, and would have gladdened conservative ears with its gentle upperwork and buttery Vox Humana.

The 1966 organ in Schlicker’s own church, First Trinity Lutheran in Tonawanda outside of Buffalo, neatly sums up just how far the post-war Schlicker ethic evolved. Already by the early 1950s Schlicker had established himself as an engaging counter-subject to Aeolian-Skinner and Holtkamp, gaining publicity through a portable organ E. Power Biggs used on tour. Schlicker’s neo-Baroque tonal schemes and voicing were in advance of his contemporaries, following more closely developments in Europe. He was one of the earliest builders to return reeds to the Great organ after G. Donald Harrison had cast them away, and was the first to put reflective housings around the pipes, leading eventually to the use of actual casework — notable alongside Holtkamp’s trademark exposed designs and Aeolian-Skinner’s late arrival to matters of display and arrangement.

By the mid-1960s the Schlicker style had covered yet more reform ground. First Trinity Lutheran has a main case plus a functionally-exposed Rückpositiv, electric-action, slider windchests, nickless, open-toe voicing and cone-and-scroll tuning. It is well constructed, a factory product in the best sense. Pipes are given pride of place, with principals of 75% tin, carefully voiced, racked and expertly trimmed and cone-tuned. Not a loud organ, and quite a clear one, the Schlicker has a clean, rational sound geared for musical utility. It is seemingly unconcerned with its own sheer attractiveness, and possesses no obvious instrumental grandeur. With knowledge of the thought behind it, a sensitive musician will approach the instrument through the music it was primarily intended to play.

Paul Manz, Paul Bunjes and Clarence Mader all became strong supporters of Schlicker, helping to spread the ethos nationwide.

But Schlicker’s earliest ardent advocate was Robert Noehren. As musician-pedagogue-builder, Noehren has few American equals. He was first of all a phenomenal player, winning the Grand Prix du Disque in 1953 for recordings of Bach and early music on a 1948 Schlicker. As University Organist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Noehren commanded one of the country’s premier teaching positions. As a builder from 1955 to 1979, Noehren projected an individual outlook with the force of personality to command national attention.

Particularly as an organbuilder, Noehren was another bold voice in a time of prolific discontent. Like Phelps, Noehren soured on early organ reform and became determined to find a new path, seeking a fusion between the schools of Schnitger and Cliquot. Unlike Phelps and others, however, Noehren was too interested in modern French music to subjugate the role of Cavaillé-Coll. Through many articles devoted to music and the organ, Noehren pursued the intellectual harmony of having one person be author of theory, sound and musical interpretation.

His instruments were provocative, defying the polarization of the period. Employing all-electric action and considerable extension, these instruments fell well outside the purity of either the tracker model (Beckerath, Flentrop, Fisk) or the electric-action (Holtkamp, Schlicker). Nor was Noehren’s exension work rote; adopting ideas from such divergent influences as John Compton and Edward Gress, Noehren used extension toward ends he considered musical. Features such as solid-state circuitry and card-reader memory combinations showed an awareness of technology and a proclivity for innovation.

Especially for 1970, Noehren’s organs are notable for the breadth of music they hoped to play ‘authentically’, not to mention the strides he was trying to make with voicing practices based on historical models. Organs of that era simply did not have multiple (if unified) harmonic flute choruses. His use of high-cut ups for principals (adapted from von Beckerath) was at variance with Phelps and Schlicker, more in line with the burgeoning trends of the Fisk and Brombaugh schools, in themselves pioneering. While Noehren’s action and quality of construction would have put such instruments outside the regard of those two builders, Noehren’s work nevertheless presaged the emerging eclecticism of Fisk and Rosales in a manner that Schlicker or Phelps never did.

The difficulty came in the fact that, despite his boldness and creativity, too often Noehren’s skill and patience as a voicer did not afford the care necessary to sculpt a work of lasting beauty. Coupled to all-electric action, Noehren’s instruments seem more like working examples of a philosophy than a builder’s lasting testament.

For whatever warmth or scholarly fascination we may affect, can our era look upon these organs with real ardor? It seems the public has a similarly restless attitude toward architecture of the same period. Several bold modern buildings are now gaining a foothold in public awareness. In New York City, the famous Seagram Building of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (1958) has just been restored, its stark mid-century modernism now fashionable again. But in Boston, the cast concrete Brutalist-Modern City Hall of Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles (1968) — a building at once hailed as triumphant and hideous, and copied widely in its day — is still often derided as a horror.

Of it, architect Gerhard Kallmann wrote, ‘We distrust and have reacted against an architecture that is absolute, uninvolved and abstract. We have moved towards an architecture that is specific and concrete, involving itself with the social and geographic context, the program, and methods of construction, in order to produce a building that exists strongly and irrevocably, rather than an uncommitted abstract structure that could be any place and, therefore, like modern man — without identity or presence.’ 2

Kallman could well have been a reform movement organbuilder. For us, the lesson probably comes in attempting to understand a style too young to have retro appeal and not old enough to have gained the proof of seniority.

1 Lawrence Phelps, ‘Toward a rational tonal design,’ 1962-’65.

2 Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America, p. 260.
Reproduced with permission from the May/June 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005