Project 2000: The Diapason Index enters Y2K

January 16, 2003


“Project 2000” was chosen as the name for the compilation of The Diapason Index—an electronic database of articles, general information and historical trivia found in the pages of The Diapason from 1909 to the present. This information was gleaned from index cards and yearly annotations from the magazine’s inception in 1909. When the project was initiated, it was expected to take five years to complete, hence the goal of “Project 2000.” However, the enthusiasm of volunteers who gathered the data was so great that it was all done in only two years. All that remained was to keep the database current until Y2K.

When one looks over this voluminous data which comprises some 15,000 records, the reader is struck by the nature of “newsworthy” events, particularly in the early years in the publication of The Diapason. A trip down memory lane proves to be extremely colorful and full of human interest. The nature of organ recitals and concertizing was profoundly different from our present day.

The art of organ building, while supposedly “decadent” by current standards, was extremely vibrant if one looks at the size and enthusiasm of audiences. For example, in 1912, the Estey organ company of Brattleboro, Vermont, sold an organ to the Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. In 1928, Earnest Skinner hired special trains to take New York and Philadelphia organists to the dedication of his new organ at Princeton University. The organists who dedicated that organ had huge followings. They were Lynnwood Farnam, Chandler Gold-thwaite, Charles Courboin, Rollo Maitland and Ralph Downes.

Even the dark side of human events had no lack of interest. Here are some events that are outrageous even by present standards.

February, 1912: Four parishioners attacked Philadelphia organist Rudolph Loskat in the loft of St. Matthew’s Slavic Catholic Church when his rector refused to replace him with an organist of their choice. They threatened to throw him over the gallery rail and turned violently on the rector when he tried to intervene. Mr. Loskat exited quickly.

June, 1913: Militant British suffragettes set fire to the organs in several churches, presumably to draw attention to their cause of  “votes for women.” The organ of St. Anne’s Church at Lastborne was burned May 15 and that at the parish church of Penn, Buckinghamshire on May 14.

Some reported “crimes” were trivial, such as an event in July of 1914 when organist Edward Kreiser was “freed in municipal court in Kansas City from the charge of speeding when he proved he had driven his car 35 miles an hour in order to reach Independence Boulevard Christian Church on time to play for a wedding service.”

Other events were disturbing, desperate and dark. Or curious. Or funny.

June, 1938: A.B. Davis defrauded organ men in various parts of the country. He was a clever swindler whose activities had received publicity in the columns of The Diapason. He was trapped in the Chicago office of M.P. Möller, Inc., and later sentenced to jail for six months. He had served eight prison terms.

February, 1913: Former organist Thomas Griglak, of St. Michael the Archangel Church, Chicago, sued the church’s pastor for $20,000 for slander for calling him “a liar, swindler and drunkard” from the pulpit after demanding his resignation.

May, 1913: Retiring organist Ernest Jores sued a steward of the Grand Avenue Methodist Church of Kansas City, Missouri for $20,000 charging slander. Meanwhile the Ladies Aid Society adopted a motion to withhold the payment of money into the general fund until Mr. Jores’ dismissal was reconsidered.

Indeed, they were the Ladies “Aid”!

Some organists were incredibly selfless, as in the case of Fred Maurer, who was reported in October of 1913 to have played the organ in Zion Lutheran Church of Wilton, Iowa for 50 years, without pay. In honor of this anniversary, he was given a purse of fifty one dollars, one for each year and one for good measure!

Meanwhile some other organists got into terrible trouble.

April, 1942: Organist Courtney Rogers was executed in Los Angeles for the murder of his father and mother. He also confessed to the murder of his grandmother in 1935.

Employers, of course, were up to their usual shenanigans, measured by the social mores of the day.

March, 1914: An editorial quoted and excoriated a news story about an organist playing “ragtime” on the organ in the public auditorium at Topeka, Kansas.

October, 1914: W. H. Donley, a Seattle organist, was given the alternative of abandoning his playing in the Colonial Theater or resigning from his post at the First Methodist Church; he chose to continue at the theater where he was a featured recitalist and did not accompany the movies.

Traveling recitalists set new standards across the country. In 1911, Edwin Arthur Kraft made an extensive tour with a group of 70 programs which included some 700 pieces (September, 1911). By 1920, Charles Courboin was traveling the country by airplane. This was not surprising, since he was also known for his love of fast cars.

If their professional positions turned sour, organists did not take well to sitting on the “back bench.” In 1914, the famous organist-composer Harry Rowe Shelly sued the secretary of the music committee of new York’s Calvary Baptist Church when its merger with Fifth Avenue Baptist cost him his job. On the other side of the coin, there are many tales of  unflappability, such as one in 1913 when Lynnwood Farnam played without missing a beat when a windstorm blew down a church tower and shattered windows.

Crowds of thousands were described at the recitals of the star organists. Exhibitions featured enormous pipe organs. In the absence of civic orchestras, it was organ recitalists who introduced the populace to the symphonic repertoire. This brought fame and fortune and if one may read between the lines, the human side of organ playing was never more prominent.

As the century progressed, articles and events in The Diapason highlighted the evolution of the organ as a musical instrument with scholarly insight and in-depth study. The “Two Manual” issues were classics, and fascinating subjects were researched with articles such as Frank Owen’s series on Boy Choirs and English Cathedrals. Organ builders’ announcements took interesting twists and turns, and wartime shortages had a pronounced effect on organ building. A description of these articles and events will be the subject of Part II of this series on The Diapason Index. However, one can only marvel at the depth of the human condition of organists and their mentors in the first thirty years of the publication of The Diapason.            n


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