More than a century and a half after his birth, Ernest Martin Skinner (born January 15, 1866; died November 27, 1960) is still acknowledged to be one of the most innovative of American organbuilders. Skinner created instruments that emphasized orchestral-imitative stops (such as the French Horn and English Horn), with consoles that were models of practical design. He created exquisite and colorful soft stops, including the Erzähler, the Orchestral Oboe, and the English Horn. His innovations also include the pitman windchest, and he perfected the electro-pneumatic motor for swell shutters.1
Skinner began his career in 1886, working for George H. Ryder in Reading, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Skinner worked there for four years, and in 1890 after being fired by a new foreman, was subsequently hired by George S. Hutchings, for whom he worked for eleven years.
Skinner founded Ernest M. Skinner & Co.—the firm changed names several times before becoming known as the Skinner Organ Company in 1919—and his career lasted a good four decades, with 1910 to the early 1920s being its heyday. The Great Depression greatly reduced the market for Skinner’s instruments. Furthermore, staff changes in the company resulted in Skinner losing control of his own firm, and through a merger, a new entity emerged, the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, in 1932. The factory that Skinner opened in 1936 (when he was 70!) with his son Richmond, when the company was known as Ernest M. Skinner & Son Organ Company, was destroyed by fire on June 17, 1943. Changes in musical tastes also eventually led to a diminished market for Skinner’s instruments. By the time of Skinner’s death in 1960, his style of organbuilding had gone out of fashion, with orchestral color and tone being de-emphasized in favor of clarity and brightness.
From 1911 to 1961, news of the life and work of Ernest M. Skinner was reported in The Diapason. The announcements, advertisements, letters, and features that appeared in The Diapason illuminated the great scope of Skinner’s work and personality, along with the waxing and waning of his company and career, and the occasional glimpse into his personal life. Over the course of fifty years there were dozens of announcements and articles that documented the instruments in the Skinner opus list and traced the arrival of G. Donald Harrison in 1927, the 1932 merger with the pipe organ division of the Aeolian Company, Skinner’s establishment of his own factory and company in 1936, and his joining the staff of the Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio, in 1947.
This article offers a brief summary of Skinner’s life and history as revealed in the pages of The Diapason. By no means will it present every reference that can be found in the journal; it is intended to give a flavor of the life, times, and work of this important organbuilder.
We first read of Skinner in January 1911, when The Diapason reported on the near-completion of the new, “monster” Skinner organ at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The next month, the journal published a letter from Skinner in which he complains about inaccurate reporting in a letter discussing that organ; Skinner’s letter also touches on the question, “what makes an organ modern?”
To the Editor of The Diapason. Dear Sir:—One of the reasons why I usually decline to give information to newspaper reporters is the fact that they are not satisfied to take the facts as submitted, but have to enlarge upon them and indulge in flights of imagination, which makes a farce of most accounts of church organs.
I note an article in the January number relating to the organ being installed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in which it is stated: “The thirty-two foot pipe at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine gives the same tone because it has a sixty-four foot stop.” I do not know where the reporter got this information, nor am I able to comprehend its meaning. There is certainly no stop in this instrument of sixty-four foot pitch, nor have I heard of a stopped sixty-four in any other. The reporter is pleased to call this tone a “gusty rumble.” He vaults from this to the “shrill singing of a tea kettle just beginning to whisper to itself about boiling,” which makes a paragraph rich in metaphor, and is about as rational as the average article of this description.
I note a letter from James E. Dale, in which he says the organ for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will not be the largest and most modern ever built. I was particular to state in such information as I gave the reporter that the organ was not the largest ever built. I wish Mr. Dale would inform me upon what he bases his conclusion that the Sydney organ, built twenty-one years ago, is more modern than the organ going into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
What makes an organ modern? Is it the character of its resources or the number of stops? Also, allow me to say that the Sydney organ is not the largest in the world. The organ built by Murray M. Harris of California for the St. Louis Exposition, and being installed in Wannamaker’s store in New York city [sic], has that distinction to the best of my knowledge and belief.
The organ in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine has three thirty-two foot pedal stops, an open, violone and reed, all of which are the full thirty-two feet in length at low C and are open pipes. The organ is guiltless of a sixty-four foot stop of any description.
Yours very truly,
ERNEST M. SKINNER
The June 1911 issue reported on Clarence Dickinson’s opening recital at the cathedral.
Other 1911 announcements mentioned new Skinner instruments and contracts: Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Hartford, Connecticut; Sts. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral (the National Cathedral), Washington, D.C.; and Church of the Holy Communion, New York City (April 1911); and the completion of a large four-manual organ in the Grand Avenue Methodist Church, Kansas City, Missouri (September 1911).
The October 1912 issue noted the contract and stoplist of a four-manual organ for Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, along with the dedication of a three-manual instrument in the First Methodist Church of Muscatine, Iowa—played by Mrs. Wilhelm Middelschulte.2
In October 1917, it was noted that Gordon Balch Nevin (probably best known to us as the composer of Will o’ the Wisp) had joined the company (having left his position as organist of Second Presbyterian Church of Cleveland), to arrange musical scores for the “Orchestrator”—a player organ using rolls (“which Mr. Skinner has invented and perfected after twenty years’ work”). The Diapason reported that:
The new instrument contains many of Mr. Skinner’s inventions whereby the tones of the orchestral instruments are faithfully reproduced. In addition the instrument contains a full size concert grand piano, and it is possible to reproduce a concerto for piano with complete orchestral accompaniments.
The Ernest M. Skinner company is erecting a special laboratory building for this branch of the work, containing rooms for cutting work, a studio for the head of the department, and a fine concert hall—equipped with a large “Orchestrator.”
By the way, a player mechanism using perforated rolls was also to be part of the Skinner Organ Company’s organ for the auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota, mentioned in the April 1920 issue (“City raises fund of $61,000”). This four-manual, 105-stop instrument (stoplist given in the article) would also include a concert grand piano that could be played from the organ keyboard, “as it is in the case of the Skinner organ in Carnegie Hall, Pittsburgh,” along with a new feature, a 16′ Heckelphone in the Solo division (“which will resemble an English horn, but six or seven times as powerful”), and a six-rank string division.
The Diapason’s office was located at that time in Chicago, Illinois; naturally, local instruments would certainly be noted. It was reported in March 1921 that St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in nearby Evanston would have a great organ, designed by Herbert Hyde and Joseph Bonnet:
The Chicago district is to have another notable organ—one which probably will be the largest in any church of the city or suburbs. The Skinner Organ Company has been awarded the contract for a four-manual instrument for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church of Evanston. It will have a total of 78 speaking stops. The instrument is to be completed early in 1922 and will be the crowning feature of the new edifice under construction. The present chapel organ is to be used as an echo division for the new organ. The specification is the work of Herbert E. Hyde, organist and choirmaster of St. Luke’s, in consultation with Joseph Bonnet.
The front page of the October 1921 issue of The Diapason was virtually dominated by Skinner. There was a notice of the dedication of St. Paul’s new municipal organ, with recitals by H. Chandler Goldthwaite, the city organist, who declared the Skinner instrument to be “the best in the country, bar none,” and that “visiting organists are going to discover that compositions may be played here that will be almost impossible” on other organs. The center of the page shows Skinner at the organ console, and Arthur Marks standing by the organ built for Marks’s country place in Westchester County. And the right-hand column provided details on the two “wonder organs” for the Eastman School—one an Austin, and the other a 4-manual Skinner, every division of which was enclosed, including the entire pedal, which possessed a 32′ Bombarde. This organ also featured a full Dulciana chorus (16′, 8′, 4′, 2′, and a Dulciana Cornet), and on the Great, a complete harmonic series, including a Septieme.
The Skinner Organ Company’s New York office, located at 677 Fifth Avenue in New York City, also had an organ studio. The December 1925 issue of The Diapason lists the 36 “noted men” who would play a series of “great artists” Friday evening recitals at the studio, to be broadcast on radio station WAHG. The list is worthy of a Who’s Who: Lynnwood Farnam, T. Tertius Noble, Albert William Snow, Hugh Porter, Edwin Arthur Kraft, Palmer Christian, Charles Heinroth, Harold Gleason, W. A. Goldsworthy, Maurice Garabrant, Marshall Bidwell, Louis Potter, Gordon Balch Nevin, Guy C. Filkins, Rollo Maitland, John Priest, Chandler Goldthwaite, Alexander McCurdy, George Rogers Pratt, Alfred Greenfield, Arnold Dann, Walter Hartley, Warren D. Allen, Allan Bacon, Walter P. Zimmerman, Herbert E. Hyde, G. H. Federlein, William E. Zeuch, Henry F. Seibert, Edward Rechlin, and Clarence Dickinson. A photo of six of the recitalists gathered around a Skinner console graces the top of the issue’s front page.
The lead news article on page 1 of the April 1931 issue of The Diapason was the signing of a contract by the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles for “a large four-manual Skinner organ.” William H. Barnes, the consultant, and Stanley W. Williams, Skinner’s Pacific coast representative, prepared the stoplist for the sixty-rank (plus Harp/Celesta and Chimes) instrument.
The April 1931 issue also mentions the dedication recital of the four-manual, eighty-nine-stop Skinner organ at Severance Hall in Cleveland, played by Palmer Christian, noting that, “In spite of the fact that the event was held on Friday—a rehearsal night for church choirs—many organists and other church musicians were present. It is presumed that a number of choir rehearsals in town were curtailed to enable interested members to attend.” The organ’s console had three terminals for the cable—one so that it could be in the center of the stage, a second so that it could be at the side, and a third so that it could be in the sunken pit. “The tone is characterized by great beauty of individual solo registers. The ensemble is of the English type, with great prominence of chorus reeds and brilliant mixtures. These features were sufficiently outstanding to cause comment from the musical critics, one calling it a present-day ‘fashion’ in organ design.” (The stoplist was published in the February 1930 issue.)
The front page of the January 1932 issue featured a large portrait of Arthur Hudson Marks, “head of new organ company,” which is to say the new Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, Inc., the combining of Skinner with the pipe organ division of the Aeolian Company. Marks was president, with W. H. Alfring, Aeolian president, and Ernest Skinner as vice-presidents, along with George Catlin of Skinner and Frank Taft of Aeolian. It was noted that 85% of Skinner’s business had been for churches, colleges, and institutions, and 15% for residences, while Aeolian’s was almost the reverse—80% residential and 20% institutional.
One early deal that resulted for Aeolian-Skinner was the 1933 order for a four-manual organ for the W. K. Kellogg Auditorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The instrument and the auditorium were to be a gift to the Battle Creek public schools from Mr. Kellogg, “the breakfast food manufacturer whose products are known throughout the world.” The February 1933 issue’s front page gave the announcement and listed the specification, of sixty-five ranks plus Harp/Celesta and Chimes; an Echo organ was playable from the Solo manual. The specification included a 16′ Ophicleide (Great), 8′ Flugel Horn (Swell), 8′ Corno di Bassetto (Choir), and in the Solo division, 8′ Orchestral Oboe, French and English horns, and a heavy-pressure Tuba Mirabilis.
In February 1936 we read Skinner’s announcement that he established, with his son Richmond, his own organbuilding plant at Methuen, Massachusetts, under the name of Ernest M. Skinner & Son Company. The announcement is brief; Skinner “will engage in the designing and construction of instruments that are to embody his principles of tone and that are to be like the large organs in America on which his reputation is based.”
From this point on the number of new Aeolian-Skinner instruments far exceeded those of Skinner’s company. New organs were few and far between: First Church of Northampton, Massachusetts (three manuals, November 1936); First Baptist, Jackson, Mississippi (four manuals, 1940); St. John’s Lutheran, Allentown, Pennsylvania (April 1940); the reconstructed/enlarged organs at Brick Presbyterian (June 1940) and First Presbyterian, Englewood, New Jersey (three manuals, October 1946).
Skinner’s own writings appeared throughout the years in The Diapason, from letters to the editor to feature articles. In 1919 Skinner was elected president of the Organ Builder’s Association of America. The September 1919 issue noted: “Ernest M. Skinner of Boston was elected president of the association, as the successor to John T. Austin, the first president. W. E. Pilcher of Louisville was made vice president; Farny R. Wurlitzer was re-elected treasurer and Adolph Wangerin was chosen again to be secretary.” At the organization’s first annual meeting, a motion for the association to declare itself in favor of the eight-hour day was voted down. In 1920, along with his report, Skinner gave an address on the importance of such an organization, noting how it could build respect and collegiality, in “a field that offers no one an easy road to success either artistically or financially.” The year 1920 looked rosy indeed. Note Skinner’s optimism (and mourn the passing of this era):
It looks to me as though from now on the organ builder were to become a decidedly necessary citizen. The organ is becoming immensely popular. The church no longer appears to have an exclusive ownership of the instrument. The auditorium, residence, motion picture theater and even the great municipal art museums are finding it worth while to give the king of instruments a place of honor in their activities. Let us make the most of our association for whatever it may do to insure the future for us.
At this meeting, the association drafted a uniform contract for purchase of new pipe organs, with a payment schedule set at 10% down, 55% at shipment, and the balance upon completion.
Also in 1920, in October, The Diapason printed Skinner’s lecture, “The Organ in the Home,” delivered before the National Association of Organists in New York. It offers an entertaining look at Skinner through his whimsical writing:
When the handle is turned on to let on the water for the morning tub, what is more fitting than Handel’s water music played on the unda maris? A little later we are led to the breakfast table and hear sweet discourse on a stop voiced smooth and round, to picturize a grapefruit, or a bald head.
But the essay focused on player organs:
. . . The present popularity of the residence pipe organ was brought about by the application of the perforated roll mechanism . . . . It satisfies an inherent craving for self-expression common to every living music lover.
Skinner was addressing organists, and he was discussing the organist who would be employed to play an organ in a wealthy home, noting that sometimes the performer would not be listened to:
The client and one or two friends carried on an animated conversion and paid no more attention to the organist than they would have paid to a yellow pup—in fact, I think the pup might have had the best of it. An artist will in this case be hammered into a mere mercenary . . . . The client knows there is, apart from the sound heard, more class to an actual organist than to a machine, and the organist undoubtedly wears this halo, whatever it amounts to.
The organ in the home necessarily has a much smaller public than elsewhere, but it certainly presents, particularly with the perforated roll adjunct, wonderful opportunities for an intimate acquaintance with whatever kind of music one is interested in . . . . The future for the organist looks wonderful to me . . . . But you can do more than anybody else to better the conditions of public music. A given plane is raised from a higher one, never from below.
The early 1920s were prosperous for the Skinner company. The April 1921 issue of The Diapason reports that the Skinner Organ Company would combine with the Steere Organ Company, to handle a large amount of new work. The Steere plant would operate as a unit of the Skinner organ company:
The two factories have been consolidated, but the plant of the Steere Company at Westfield, Mass., will be operated and the entire staff of that concern will be retained. The addition of the Steere forces to the facilities of the Boston plant of the Skinner Company will make it possible to take care of the large amount of new work, orders for which have been received by the Skinner Company. The deal therefore does not actually remove any factor from the organ business, but serves to make for better results through a combination of interests.
The announcement includes Skinner’s letter to the editor, detailing the consolidation, noting that George Kingsbury, Steere’s president, and Harry Van Wart, superintendent (who had previously worked for Skinner), supported “high standards of excellence.” Skinner had written that:
There has been a tremendous demand for Skinner products during the past year, which can be satisfied only by an organization expert in organ building and familiar with the technique and rigid inspection requirements of the Skinner Company. The Steere plant will operate at capacity as a unit of the Skinner Organ Company making standard Skinner parts under our standard specifications and inspection.
Skinner commented on whiffle-tree swell shade action in The Diapason Forum of the February 1922 issue. He explains his preference for it: “The whiffle-tree engine will move the shades about twice as fast as in the old mechanical action without slamming.” Skinner was responding to a previous letter that had criticized the whiffle-tree, and did not spare feelings in doing so: “Except for the fact that M. E. Hardy has overlooked everything of importance relating to the whiffle-tree swell shutter action, his article on the subject is very well expressed.”3
In a letter in May 1945, Skinner explained why organ pipes go sharp when temperature rises, what a temperament is, and what a “wolf” is. The first: As temperature rises, pipes contain less air than formerly, as some has left, due to expansion. Thus less air is excited by the same amount of force. The second: The wolf is the dissonance remaining in one interval of a perfectly tuned or untempered octave. Setting a temperament consists in tuning an octave so that the wolf is distributed equally throughout its twelve intervals.
Later that year, Skinner defined a “classical” organ: “Generally I have regarded it as the type represented by the French organs in Notre Dame and San [sic] Sulpice, and perhaps by the Roosevelt, Johnson and Hutchings organs in America . . . .” He felt that the “so-called romantic organ is the type developed here in the United States” and that its characteristics were “strings of warmth and prompt speech, the new orchestral voices, and unfortunately the Philomela, heavy claribel flutes and fat diapason.” He concluded by saying that since Webster defines classical as “a work of the highest class, of acknowledged excellence,” then the organs of Washington National Cathedral, Girard College, or Bruton Parish Church should be considered so.
In July 1949, Skinner complained about William H. Barnes’s Contemporary American Organ. Barnes claimed, based on letters he had received, that Skinner was not the inventor of certain stops. Skinner’s letter to the editor disputes this, demanding some proof: “Will Mr. Barnes please give in these columns a single instance where any one of these stops was placed by another organ builder, of a character authentic to an equal degree with those designed by the undersigned, and where they were placed, previous to the dates named?” The battle of letters continued, with Mr. Maclean of Toronto and Edwin D. Northrup joining in (September 1949). Skinner clarified that his contribution was the stop’s tone, not merely a stop name.
Please tell Mr. Maclean of Toronto that I did not refer to engraving the name English horn or cor anglais on a stopknob. I have seen many such, but the authentic English horn tone was not heard when the stop was drawn. I have been in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany several times, but never once heard the tone of an orchestral English horn, regardless of the name. Also in my sixty-five years as an organ builder I have seen organs of all makes in every state in the Union, but never once heard an authentic English horn, except my own.
. . . I invited Willis to America and gave him my French horn, personally, likewise men from Cavaille-Coll of Paris. I also gave many builders my pitman windchest and whiffletree swell engine; so now I suppose the logical thing to do is to try to do me out of their invention. I invented a contre bombarde and other stops. That doesn’t prevent others from designing other forms of the same name, does it? . . . Cancel “inventions” to please Mr. Maclean, substitute “developments.” Moral: To avoid criticism, do nothing.
In 1951, when the organbuilder turned 85, the journal published “Ernest M. Skinner recalls the past” in the March issue. Later that year, Skinner’s wife Mabel died, and the grieving Skinner stayed with his daughter Eugenia in Reading, Massachusetts. In this article, Skinner summarized his life, beginning with a description of his limited education—“high school for a while”—and his on-the-job training, beginning with George H. Ryder, for whom Skinner swept the shop and wound trackers. He taught himself tuning (both piano and organ). He worked at George S. Hutchings in Boston, moving up to foreman, and then struck out on his own.
Skinner cited his organs at City College in New York, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Washington National Cathedral, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Girard College Chapel, and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He described operatic and symphonic inspiration for his French Horn (Strauss, Salome), Bassoon (Zarathustra), and Orchestral Oboe and English Horn (Wagner, Parsifal), noting that “every improvement I ever made in the organ was opposed by somebody.” He concluded noting that Hutchings turned down a half-interest in Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone—for $50.
In July 1952, Skinner’s “Principles of Tonal Design” was a feature article. Skinner began by explaining that the electrically driven fan made subsidiary wind pressures possible. He suggests five-inch pressure “satisfactory for general purposes, except on large organs.” The article presented the characteristics of different stop pipes, where to locate their ranks in the organ, and tuning.
The Skinner company was a regular advertiser in The Diapason. Skinner’s advertisements provide a view of the progress of Skinner’s business, and also his philosophies. Those from the 1930s after his separation from the company that he founded decades earlier are particularly telling.
One of the earliest advertisements appeared in August 1917, simply stating that “It isn’t what you Pay; it what you Get for what you pay. Buy by the tone, not by the ton.” The advertiser is the Ernest M. Skinner Company, Church Organs, Boston, Massachusetts.
An advertisement in February 1936 announces that “Ernest M. Skinner is established at Methuen, Mass., where organ building, as exemplified by the instruments at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Thomas’ and St. Bartholomew’s churches, New York City, and similar examples elsewhere, will be continued. The traditional ensemble, enhanced by Mr. Skinner’s orchestral and tonal inventions . . . will ensure the character of these instruments. Their beautiful tone and uncompromising fidelity to quality are acknowledged by American and foreign artists alike.” This advertisement emphasizes what Skinner would be forever remembered for: orchestral and tonal inventions in the ensemble, with beautiful sound quality in a well-made instrument.
An April 1936 advertisement with the title “A Personal Word from Ernest M. Skinner” emphasizes that “Tone production, of distinction, is as individual and personal as handwriting, and even more difficult to copy. It is the product of personal musical experience, taste, research, technical skill and sense of hearing” and that Skinner’s company is the only one from which one can purchase instruments having “tonal characteristics of breadth and splendor.”
In another 1936 advertisement, this from May, Skinner writes that an organbuilder must have a musical imagination, so that the tone he creates would have “an artistic character, of poetic implication. . .”
and that “tonal charm is a fundamental requisite of every musical instrument.” In July, Skinner’s advertisement reaffirms that his work in Methuen, with his son Richmond, produces “beautiful orchestral voices, original and eloquent colors of the Erzahler type, the Trumpets, Diapasons and Mutations . . . all . . .
in just proportion.” Skinner explained in October the workings of his electro-pneumatic key action.
It consisted of a high resistance magnet, operating at a low voltage and controlling an armature of fixed movement. This armature commanded a pneumatic key action having a double motor—a primary and secondary—which operated at great speed, making it the most responsive and reliable of all organ mechanisms, which it remains to this day.
In December Skinner touted his ability to improve an existing instrument through “a few judicious touches:” “Skinner experience will find and eliminate the weak spots and for some of the present indifferent stops, the old organ may be improved to an unbelievable degree.”
In his 1937 advertisements, Skinner took to including testimonials. An ad that appeared in April and July quoted Louis Vierne, from a letter to an unidentified third party:
When you shall see Mr. Skinner tell him that I should be delighted if my opinion of his organs could be of any use to him. It is already ten years since my American tour, and . . . I still have, in my ears, the memory of those magnificent timbres and in my fingers that of the marvelous touch of the instruments of this very great builder. I have retained an unforgettable joy in them, and he can proclaim this publicly in reproducing this passage of my letter.
Vierne also was quoted remarking after hearing a Skinner organ, “If I had had an organ like that when I was a young man, it would have changed the whole character of my compositions.”
In September of that year, The Diapason published an advertisement that contained a letter from Virgil Fox to Skinner. The letter was dated July 21, and one wonders whether Skinner actively solicited the letter:
Dear Ernest, How proud you must feel about your organ we played Monday—the one just completed at Northhampton! Your action will take any tempo, however fast, and any phrasing. And, you’ve built pipes that sing! The ensemble is clarity personified.
Though only a three-manual organ, the real 32-ft tone in the pedal makes it a distinguished one.
Your new 4-ft Swell Flute deserves to stand with your other contributions to the pipe organ. Don’t ever doubt that the world is grateful to you for the beauty you have given thru your invention of the Flute Celeste, French Horn and those other well-known voices.
Congratulations on Northampton! Congratulations because you are even more interested in music than you are interested in organ.
Yours in all sincerity,
Letters in 1938 include an announcement that the temporary organ in the choir of Washington National Cathedral was for sale at “about half its cost.” The instrument was of nineteen ranks and included a 32′ Fagotto (optional). Other advertisements announced work booked, in progress, and on hand; others reprinted more letters, from satisfied customers or those who had just approved a contract. One charming advertisement from the August 1938 issue beckons travelers, in those pre-Disney World days, to consider Skinner’s workplace as a vacation destination.
The completion of the organ in Washington National Cathedral was a landmark in Skinner’s career, and he continually trumpeted it, calling it a “masterpiece” that “will stand as a supreme example of the art of organ building for the next century.” He quotes Robert Barrow, organist and choirmaster of the cathedral, who calls the new organ “the greatest instrument as yet produced in this country, and one of the really great organs of the world . . . an organ designed by a musician, for musicians.”
Another advertisement quotes the Washington Herald’s article reporting on the dedication recital. Three thousand attendees “heard one of the greatest instruments in the world today in so far as its capacities, ordinary and unusual, could be demonstrated in a program of less than an hour’s duration . . . .”
In January 1939 Skinner’s advertising quoted T. Tertius Noble, the organist of St. Thomas in New York City, who praises the “superb instrument” there and to the new Washington instrument, with its full and rich Diapasons, which “may be compared with the finest to be found in the great English cathedral organs,” the reeds—“rich in tone, brilliant where needed, and full of character,” and above all the voicing of the mixtures, “so full of sparkle and clarity, without the horrible harshness which seems to be so much the fashion today.” In the following year Skinner printed testimonials from Clarence Dickinson regarding the organ in the Brick Presbyterian Church.
Other advertisements in 1930 and 1940 mentioned new instruments that were being built, and what Skinner could do for an old organ—that is, a slider chest tracker organ, a Johnson, Hutchings, or Hook & Hastings: electrification, curing sticking slides, guaranteeing steady wind and pitch integrity, a silent and instantaneous stop action, a silent high speed key and pedal action. And “by substituting a few stops we can give a substantial factor of modern tonal beauty. All the above under control of a modern Skinner console, at something less than half the cost of a new organ.” (June 1939)
Some of Skinner’s advertisements were pithy, such as May 1940: “Faith without works is dead. A like condition attends theory without ears.” Or March 1940: “Stradivarius, Steinway, Skinner obviously have something in common. In all three, beauty of tone is the first objective.”
While some of the letters quoted in The Diapason give one a sense that they were actively solicited, a letter from Thomas H. Webber, Jr., writing from Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis (January 1941), has a personal and friendly tone:
I am very sorry the rush of the Christmas time has kept me from writing you before this in regards to the beautiful organ you recently finished in the First Baptist Church of Jackson Mississippi. It was a joy and privilege to play the dedicatory recital on this magnificent instrument . . . .”
[The writer goes on to praise the responsive action, diapason chorus, and especially the 32′ Fagotto.]
I am delighted that there is another fine Ernest Skinner organ here in this section of the South. The Idlewild organ is a constant joy to me in every respect. . . . More than ever, I am convinced that people want beauty in tone as well as beauty in other things and you surely create that beauty in these fine organs.
It was very nice to see you and Richmond again. I think he did an excellent piece of work in the Jackson organ.
In March 1941 Skinner’s advertisement was headlined “The Original Skinner Quality Still in Demand!” as though he felt the need to convince the reader of such. The advertisement listed “recent installations and work in process”—16 instruments, of which one was a rebuild, a second received a new console and electrification, and a third new pipes. All were on the Eastern seaboard, except for one in Mississippi and one in Ohio.
The entry of the United States into World War II at the end of 1941 did not immediately affect organbuilding, but it was inevitable that the industry would see changes. The July 1942 issue of The Diapason reported on the order from the War Production Board, which required that the entire organbuilding industry be converted to defense work after July 31. This order forbade the manufacture of musical instruments containing more than ten percent by weight of “critical materials”—metals, cork, plastic, and rubber. The report explained that “the part assigned to the organ manufacturers is to produce blowers for link trainers used in ground training of pilots.”
In July 1943, The Diapason reported that the Skinner factory in Methuen, Massachusetts, was destroyed by fire on June 17.
The origin of the spectacular blaze has not been established. The three-story wooden structure was razed, only the frame front remaining. Serlo Hall, adjacent to the factory and nationally famous because it houses the great organ that originally stood in the Boston Music Hall, being later acquired by Ernest M. Skinner, was saved from the flames by a fire wall . . . . The factory was operated by Mr. Skinner and his son until organ manufacture was suspended and the property was under the control of a bank.
Following this event, Skinner was largely absent from mention in the pages of The Diapason.
About Skinner’s life
Skinner was of sufficient importance that he and his family were worthy of note. The September 1914 issue quotes an article that appeared in the Boston Post in August, of how eighteen-year-old Eugenia R. Skinner saved her “chum” from drowning, “nearly a mile” (!) off shore at the beach. The journal also reported on Skinner’s own health. A February 1915 announcement mentions that Skinner broke a rib in a collision of his automobile with a tree in Cambridge.
In March 1951, The Diapason published a piece in which Skinner reminisced, by the editor’s request; this was on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Skinner tells the story of his life, how as a twelve-year-old he attempted to build an organ of wooden pipes—they did not speak—and how he began working for George H. Ryder, sweeping the shop and winding trackers. He designed a machine that could wind the trackers better and faster than by hand. He next taught himself tuning and moved on to work with George S. Hutchings. Skinner eventually went out on his own. He mentions his landmark instruments, and cites operatic and symphonic works as the inspiration for his French Horn, Orchestral Oboe, and Contra Bassoon.
The May 1951 issue reported on page 1 of the death of Mrs. Ernest M. Skinner (nee Mabel Hastings) in her sleep on April 14. The Skinners had been married for 58 years. “Mrs. Skinner had not been ill and she enjoyed a chess game with her husband the evening before her death. She is survived by her husband, two daughters and a son.”
In January 1956, The Diapason reported that Skinner, “who still enjoys good health and takes a lively interest in musical matters,” would turn 90 on January 15. It also reported his home address, presumably so greetings could be sent. (How times have changed!) It noted that Skinner was “a household word in the organ world,” that Skinner “built many of the notable organs in this country,” and that “he is credited with inventions which have become standard equipment on modern instruments.” This notice was followed by a reprint of Skinner’s autobiography, first presented five years earlier.
Skinner fell in the spring of 1957, as reported in the June 1957 issue, tripping over a small podium in a church aisle, resulting in a broken right shoulder. He spent ten days in the hospital and then was moved to a nursing home, “where he will be staying for at least the next month.” On the front page of its January 1961 issue, The Diapason reported the death of Ernest M. Skinner, “America’s most widely known builder of pipe organs,” age 94, on November 27, 1960, in Duxbury, Massachusetts. The headlines called him a “renowned organ builder” and the “most influential designer of American instruments in first half of the century.” The journal reprinted Skinner’s reminiscence article of ten years prior, noting that “Though most of his best known organs have been rebuilt and greatly changed in the last two decades, many of them retain some of the stops which he originated and perfected and which were most characteristic of the great Skinner organs of a generation ago.”
1. For a fine summary of Skinner’s career, see Craig R. Whitney, All the Stops (New York: Public Affairs, 2003). For more on Skinner instruments, see Dorothy J. Holden, “The Tonal Evolution of the E. M. Skinner Organ,” The Diapason, July 1977, February 1978, June 1978, March 1979, January 1980.
2. Wilhelm Middelschulte married Annette Musser on June 29, 1896. Prior to their marriage she was a prominent organist, pianist, and teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. In Chicago, Illinois, where they resided, she served as organist at St. Paul’s Universalist Church. See www.wilhelm-middelschulte.de/biographie.htm (accessed August 22, 2017).
3. For a brief definition of the whiffle-tree and a photograph, see John Bishop, “In the wind . . .” in The Diapason, June 2008, page 14.