Restoration of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1273—Renewal of interest in the works of Charles Tournemire—and revitalization of the oldest city in Pennsylvania
In the beginning: Colonial Era
This is a study of improbabilities, of events inconceivable, unimaginable, and unlikely, yet of those inscribed into the canon of human existence along the banks of the Delaware River in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The improbabilities are obvious, but that a performance of music by a neglected and poorly appreciated French composer on an organ built by a company once scorned by contemporary scholarship in a city once pronounced derelict1 and without hope all demand our attention.
Less than twenty miles south of today’s Philadelphia City Hall, a small group of Scandinavians established a colony on the west bank of the Delaware River and named it Upland after their homeland region near Uppsala, Sweden. The year was 1644. When William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682, he renamed Upland as Chester, already the oldest city in Pennsylvania. The small river town grew rapidly and became a major source of manufactured goods—especially machinery, locomotive engines, shipbuilding, and textiles.
As the town grew, the wealth of its merchant class and industry owners increased and provided funds for the construction of civic and religious institutions. In 1681, Penn arrived in Upland and declared it a haven for Quakers. Other religious congregations grew, too, and in 1702 Christ Church of Philadelphia established a mission in the prosperous riverfront community. On January 24, 1703, the first service was held in the new church, a modest and unadorned structure not unlike neighboring Quaker meeting houses. The rectangular building was forty-nine feet long and twenty-six feet wide and contained twenty-four pews. Named Saint Paul’s Church, the congregation struggled to survive throughout the remainder of the century and was closed during the Revolutionary War, even though Chester continued to prosper. Yet, the city of Chester was not without its own severe reversals of fortune, for in 1793 and 1798 yellow fever killed twenty percent of the city’s residents. Due to these struggles, there was no rector and no congregation at Saint Paul’s Church into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
In 1831 with the appointment of John Baker Clemson as vicar of Saint Paul’s, a long, steady period of growth brought new life into the parish, so much so that a new church building was completed in 1850. To make room for a growing congregation, the building was enlarged in 1873, and for this structure is the first mention of a pipe organ at Saint Paul’s Church. The Chester waterfront was alive with shipbuilding activity, and its capitalist leaders were awash in disposable income to spend on their community, with houses of worship being the most conspicuous display of this newfound wealth.
Not unexpectedly, the nation’s preeminent builder of pipe organs was commissioned to construct an instrument for the recently enlarged church building. Under the moniker E. & G. G. Hook, brothers Elias and George Hook built their first organ in 1829 for the Unitarian Church in Danvers, Massachusetts. Within a period of ten years, the brothers had built fourteen organs and moved from Salem, Massachusetts, to Boston, where their tonal and mechanical abilities became legendary. In 1872, Francis Hastings entered a partnership with the Hook brothers, at which time the firm was renamed E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings. After 1881, the company name was changed to Hook & Hastings. When Hastings became a partner, the company was already capitalizing on modern methods of mass production of stock models, made possible by innovations of the Industrial Revolution. In 1884, Hook & Hastings installed Opus 1223 in the enlarged and restored Saint Paul’s Church.2
1884 Hook & Hastings Opus 1223
GREAT (Manual I)
8′ Open Diapason
SWELL (Manual II, enclosed)
8′ Open Diapason
8′ Stopped Diapason
4′ Flute Harmonique
8′ Oboe (treble)
8′ Bassoon (bass)
Swell to Great coupler
Great to Pedal coupler
Swell to Pedal coupler
Forte combination, Great Organ
Piano combination, Great Organ
Balanced Swell pedal
Compass: Manual, 58 notes, C–a3; Pedal, 27 notes, C–d1
Prosperity and financial security
At the same time, shipbuilding in Chester was entering a phase of rapid growth. In 1871, the city’s largest shipbuilding company went into receivership and was purchased by John Roach, who transformed it into the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works, America’s largest and most productive shipyard through the 1880s. Altogether the company built 179 ships, including ten warships for the United States Navy.
Conspicuous display of wealth
Again, the correlation between local industry and Saint Paul’s Church is palpable. A decision was made in 1895 to relocate to a new, larger building. The cornerstone was laid on June 1, 1899, and the new building was occupied on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1900, and there, the church celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary in 1903.
The church’s sixteen-year-old Hook & Hastings organ was moved to the new building and later modified by C. S. Haskell sometime before 1909. The Haskell nave façade is all that remains of that organ.
Meanwhile, a war was brewing in Europe, the effects of which would take Chester and Saint Paul’s through unprecedented growth for more than four decades. Early in the nineteenth century, Sun Oil Company needed tankers to transport oil from company fields in Texas to its refinery in Marcus Hook adjacent to the south side of Chester. The Pew brothers, owners of Sun Oil, purchased fifty acres of riverfront in Chester, where they built one of the largest shipyards in the country. From 1917 onward into the middle of the century, Sun Ship and Dry Dock Company built about 700 vessels. During World War I, the company employed more than 10,000 people; and by the time the United States entered World War II, more than 35,000 employees worked at Sun Ship.
Shipbuilding in Chester peaked mid-century, and it was time for Saint Paul’s to purchase a new pipe organ. Again, it turned to Boston, home of one of the nation’s most prestigious organ companies, Aeolian-Skinner,3 as the source of its choice. Like Chester’s industry, it might be said that the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company reached its production peak mid-century. G. Donald Harrison, its president and tonal director, was at the zenith of his prowess and fame, with major religious and educational institutions holding instruments bearing the Aeolian-Skinner nameplate.
Given that Harrison was already deeply involved with finishing organs at Saint Thomas Church, New York City, and Saint Paul’s Church, Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill), Joseph Whiteford was given responsibility for the design and construction of Opus 1273 for Saint Paul’s Church, Chester. Joseph S. Whiteford joined the Boston staff in 1948 as assistant to the president.
Born into a wealthy family, Whiteford’s arrival at the organ works could not have been more propitious, as Harrison was desperately in need of help and the company was constantly in need of capital. Arriving at Aeolian-Skinner at the age of twenty-seven, the young Whiteford was sophisticated, articulate, and personable. His love of the human voice led him to emphasize the role of the organ in choral and congregational accompaniment, although this love never materialized consistently into instruments ideally suited for that task.
After Harrison’s unexpected death in 1956, during Whiteford’s short occupancy as president of the firm, he supervised the design and construction of instruments for some of the country’s most prestigious concert halls: Ford Auditorium, Detroit; Academy of Music, Philadelphia; Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City; and Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital; yet none of these survived the test of time or public enlightenment.
Whiteford’s design for Saint Paul’s Church marks an erudition of tonal design that merits further examination as it demonstrates a knowledge of historical pipe-scaling practices, albeit limited—one might say “cookbook-ish”—but there is an undeniable safety following proven paradigms, leaving plenty of room for creativity yet to be realized. Continuing the British pattern4 of reducing foundational weight and strengthening treble harmonic development as conceived by G. Donald Harrison and at the same time by Richard O. Whitelegg at the M. P. Möller Organ Company, Whiteford soon altered the harmonic pyramid to favor mid- and upper-range domination over foundation tone. Saint Paul’s organ shows the beginnings of this shift, with the 4′ Octave being the same scale as the 8′ Principal on the Great division of the organ. Even though tucked away in a chancel chamber, the organ fills the acoustical space with voluptuous grandeur, and there is an undeniable clarity and generosity of tonal color. Whiteford was still finding his own way, as it were, since the organ speaks with a strong “Harrison accent.” Whiteford remained with the company another decade or so before retiring to California in 1966. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1978 at age fifty-six. His tenure at Aeolian-Skinner is under-appreciated and merits further study.
1956 Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1273*
GREAT (Manual I, 3″ wind)
8′ Principal 61 pipes (45 scale, 1⁄4 mouth, 1⁄2 on 17)
8′ Gedeckt 61 pipes (“exactly as op. 1254”)
8′ Flûte Conique (Swell)
4′ Octave 61 pipes (57 scale, 1⁄4 mouth width, 1⁄2 on 17)
4′ Rohrflöte 61 pipes (“exactly as op. 1254”)
2-2⁄3′ Twelfth (68 scale) 61 pipes
2′ Fifteenth (70 scale) 61 pipes
11⁄3′ Fourniture III–V 244 pipes (special–Stinkens)
8′ Hautbois (Swell)
SWELL (Manual II, enclosed, 4″ wind)
16′ Quintaton (44 scale) 68 pipes
8′ Rohrbordun (“no. 4”) 68 pipes
8′ Viola Pomposa 68 pipes (50 scale, tapered 2 pipes)
8′ Viola Céleste 68 pipes (60 scale, then as Viola)
8′ Flûte Conique (48 scale) 68 pipes
4′ Spitzflöte (60 scale) 68 pipes
2-2⁄3′ Nasat (“no. 7”) 61 pipes
2′ Zauberflöte (“common”) 61 pipes
2′ Plein Jeu III (“common”) 183 pipes
16′ Contra Hautbois 68 pipes (A-S op. 1110)
8′ Trompette (“no. 4”) 68 pipes
8′ Vox Humana 61 pipes
4′ Rohrschalmei (“common”) 68 pipes
PEDAL (4″ wind)
16′ Contre Basse 32 pipes (“exactly as op. 1272”)
16′ Bourdon 32 pipes
16′ Quintaton (Swell)
8′ Spitzprincipal (ext) 12 pipes
8′ Bourdon (ext) 12 pipes
4′ Choral Bass (ext) 12 pipes
2-2⁄3′ Fourniture II 64 pipes (22⁄3+2, 66 scale + 68 scale)
16′ Contre Hautbois (Swell)
8′ Hautbois (Swell)
4′ Hautbois (Swell)
Great to Pedal 8
Swell to Pedal 8
Swell to Pedal 4
Swell to Great 16
Swell to Great 8
Swell to Great 4
Compass: Manual, 61 notes, C–c4; Pedal, 32 notes, C–g1
* The contract bearing the signature of G. Donald Harrison was signed on February 10, 1954, with an anticipated delivery and completion on or about May 1955. Actual installation occurred in January 1956. Annotated pipe construction details are taken from Joseph Whiteford’s handwritten notes on the organ contract. [MS 52 E. M. Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner Collection, Library and Archives of the Organ Historical Society, Villanova, Pennsylvania.]
Now well past the economic might of an earlier Chester, the Aeolian-Skinner organ at Saint Paul’s needed restoration. Improbably, not only did the congregation choose to remain within the city during a long, devastating decline of civic fortunes, but it also placed great historical and utilitarian value on its Aeolian-Skinner organ. Based on an established commitment to preservation, Stephen L. Emery, Inc., of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, was chosen to restore the organ at Saint Paul’s Church. Beginning in the summer of 2021, the instrument was removed for cleaning, repairs, and replacement of leather components. Restoration was completed a year later, but tonal finishing was postponed until the arrival of cooler weather in early autumn of 2022. On Sunday, October 30, 2022, Richard Spotts played the inaugural recital on the restored organ; and with his all-Tournemire recital, we near the end of our tale of improbabilities.
Charles-Arnould Tournemire (1870–1939) was a brilliant but now largely forgotten French composer, and history has not been kind to Tournemire in part because of the intimidating intellectual content of his music. Thus, his musical legacy is known but to a privileged few. After receiving a copy of Trois Poèmes, Olivier Messiaen wrote Tournemire:
The harmonic and modal richness of the first poem, and the alléluiatique and glorifiante of the third, make them very beautiful pages. I particularly like in the second movement how the flowing stream of the 8′ Bourdon and the admirable choice of the timbres bring out the freedom of counterpoint and the extreme external and internal emotion of the music. If all modern musicians had faith like you, they would perhaps not have the quality of your music, but at least their work would have more of the grandeur of life.5
Further commenting on Trois Poèmes, Norbert Dufourcq wrote in La Revue musicale, “The plainsong passes here and there from the pedal to the upper parts of the manuals, often as a simple pretext for flamboyant arabesques or warm harmonies. Through a single Bourdon, or an 8′ Flûte, or a Voix humaine, Charles Tournemire knows how to elicit seductive poems.”6
In January 1927, Tournemire began work on L’Orgue Mystique, his magnum opus completed in February 1932. Consisting of over 1,000 pages of printed music, the score took eight years for the publisher Heugel to complete. In the foreword to L’Orgue Mystique, Joseph Bonnet wrote:
A great musician was needed for its accomplishment, a master of organ technique and composition, having a great Spirit of Faith, loving the supernatural beauty of the Liturgy and of Gregorian melodies . . . .
It is a splendid evocation of the architecture of our cathedrals, of the rich color of their stained glass, of liturgical splendor revealed to us in the Monastery of Solesmes as we would like to find in every church of the Catholic world. Our contemporary musical language possesses astonishing aptitudes to paraphrase Gregorian melodies. So without sacrificing anything of his rich imagination, of his brilliant originality, Charles Tournemire has succeeded in creating such a mystical frame for the liturgical melodies.7
In an encyclical of 1903, Pope Pius X wrote that
Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the Liturgy, and in particular, sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality. It must be true art, for otherwise, it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy that the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her Liturgy the art of musical sounds. These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian chant, which is, consequently, the chant proper to the Roman Church.8
We are faced with the conundrum of performing Tournemire’s organ music out of liturgical context, for indeed, it is not concert-hall music. Intellectual challenges aside, his organ music is “church music,” and until the improbable return of Gregorian chant to the Catholic Mass, it is unlikely that Charles Tournemire’s organ music will ever enter the mainstream of organ repertoire. But for some, this is a mere distraction. Among his peers—Norbert Dufourcq, Maurice Duruflé, Joseph Bonnet, Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize, and Olivier Messiaen—his music was ne plus ultra. In present times, Richard Spotts carries the revival mantle passed onto him by Marie-Louise Langlais, Robert Sutherland Lord, Ann Labounsky, and Stephen Schloesser, S.J.; and more recently, Tournemire’s opera, La Légende de Tristan (1926), received its worldwide premiere performance ninety-six years after its completion.9 Further, the publication of a massive study of Tournemire and L’Orgue Mystique is imminent.
The path to revival for the city of Chester has been much more arduous. While billions of public and corporate dollars have been invested in the renewal of Chester, it ranks as the seventh poorest city in Pennsylvania. With a population of about 34,000—less than half that of the 1930s and 1940s—thirty-seven percent of its citizens live in poverty.10 Political corruption and organized crime continue to harm the city, as does the lack of public safety. According to a recent report, Chester ranks twentieth on a list of the top one-hundred most dangerous cities in the United States, with a chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime at one in twenty.11 Yet, renewal on the banks of the Delaware River is not dead, as public and private investments in the city continue to grow; but ignominiously, the City of Chester declared bankruptcy less than two weeks after being introduced to the mystical universe of Charles-Arnould Tournemire and the classic timbres of the restored Aeolian-Skinner organ at Saint Paul’s Church. Vita brevis, ars longa.
1. At one point in its history, Chester earned the name “Saloon City” because it had more bars than policemen.
2. A devastating fire destroyed much of the church interior in 1884. During repairs, the congregation met at the Presbyterian Church, which has now been destroyed by an arsonist.
3. During the tenure of G. Donald Harrison, the spelling of Aeolian was changed to incorporate the Æ ligature, which is found on the Saint Paul’s, Chester, organ contract. Æolian-Skinner’s use of the spelling was casual. Even with the Chester organ, the ligature is not found on the printed contract nor on the console nameplate, yet it is on the title page of the organ stoplist and specification, as well as on related correspondence.
4. G. Donald Harrison and Richard O. Whitelegg were British.
5. Brigette de Leersnyder, L’Orgue Cahiers et Mémoires: Charles Tournemire (1870–1939) (Paris: l’Association des Amis de l’Orgue, 1990), 87–88.
6. Norbert Dufourcq, “La Musique d’orgue français au XXe siècle” (from La Revue musicale, 1938 and 1939) (Paris: Secrétariat général des Amis de l’Orgue, 1939), 19–23.
7. Charles Tournemire, L’Orgue Mystique. 51 vols. (Paris: Heugel et Cie., 1929–1936), preface to each volume.
8. Pius X, “Tra le Sollecitudini,” http://www.adoremus.org/MotuProprio.html (accessed November 23, 2022).
9. December 15, 2022, Ulm, Germany.
10. Candy Woodall, “The 35 poorest towns in Pennsylvania,” https://www.pennlive.com/news/2018/01/the_35_poorest_towns_in_pennsy.html (accessed November 24, 2022).
11. “NeighborhoodScout’s Most Dangerous Cities–2020,” https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/blog/top100dangerous-2020 (accessed November 24, 2022).