In the wind. . . .

April 5, 2017

Swing, style, and stops

The Museum of Science in Boston is a venerable institution housed in an imposing building at the head of the Charles River Lagoon. It spans the river between Boston and Cambridge and is easily recognizable from almost any angle because of the distinctive profile of the Hayden Planetarium near the Boston end. As you enter the museum’s main lobby, before you reach the admission desks, you encounter a simple and elegant exhibit offering an eloquent statement of a fundamental truth, the rotation of our planet, the Foucault Pendulum.

The first such eponymous pendulum was introduced by French physicist Léon Foucault in Paris in 1851, a heavy bob suspended by a long cable that swings back and forth over a circular field. A row of pins or markers is set up around the perimeter of the space. As the earth rotates under the pendulum, the markers are knocked over, demonstrating the motion. The length of time for completion of the circle varies depending on the latitude; there is a complex series of equations that define that phenomenon.

In Boston, the circular field is a mosaic representation of an Aztec calendar with the Sun God in the center, and the cable suspending the bob is five stories high. I haven’t visited the museum for many years, but as grade-school student, and later as the father of two children, I’ve been there many times and was always impressed by the grandeur of the motion. It takes more than ten seconds for the pendulum to complete each passage (one chimpanzee, two chimpanzee, three chimpanzee . . . ). It’s ominous, it’s majestic, it’s mesmerizing, and it’s inevitable. I loved it whenever I happened to be there within range of a peg being knocked over. Standing there for forty or fifty swings seemed like an eternity, and there was a little thrill when the pendulum bumped a peg enough to wobble it, and then returned to finish it off.

I find it strangely reassuring to have that visible proof of the earth’s rotation, as if the endless procession of sunsets and sunrises wasn’t enough.


It’s around fifty-five years since I first saw the Foucault Pendulum, and over that same period, I’ve witnessed and participated in a pendulum motion of even grander amplitude and period. The history of the pipe organ has swung back and forth in a repetitive arc. In rough terms and broad strokes, the introduction of electric and pneumatic actions in pipe organs in the beginning of the twentieth century led to the renaissance of the ancient, classical styles of organbuilding, which in turn led to the current reawakening of interest in symphonic, expressive instruments, and the styles of playing they engendered.

When I was a student at Oberlin in the mid-1970s, we celebrated the installation of a large new Flentrop organ. It’s still a gleaming centerpiece of the campus, painted lovely hues of red and blue, with generous gold enhanced elaborate moldings. It’s an ideal vehicle for the music of the Baroque era and before, and it was a privilege to have access to an instrument like that for lessons, practice, and study. As we celebrated that organ, the Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ in Finney Chapel was moving into its golden years. Freshmen used it for some lessons, and I played my freshman jury on it, but it was not a high priority for the conservatory, and its condition was deteriorating. It was replaced in 2001 by a new 75-rank instrument built by C. B. Fisk, Inc., following the tradition of Cavaillé-Coll.

During my time as a student, and for six years following, I worked for Jan G. P. Leek in Oberlin. He was the organ and harpsichord technician for the Conservatory of Music for the first few years of my time with him, and then left the school to establish his own firm on the outskirts of town. He’s a colorful guy, and a first-generation Hollander who came to the United States in the early 1960s to work for Walter Holtkamp. In the summer of 1977, following my junior year, he was engaged to assist a crew from Flentrop installing the new three-manual organ for Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio.  

That was a dream summer for a fledgling organbuilder. I was thrilled to be part of that project, working high on the scaffolding, hoisting magnificent case pieces to the ceiling of that great vaulted church. I was young and strong (oh, for a taste of those days!), and in the thrall of the art that would dominate my life.  

There was one grueling, stifling day when we hoisted the 16-foot tin façade pipes into the organ case. As we were leaving at the end of the afternoon, we turned to admire our handiwork, and I was moved to tears as the late afternoon sun poured through the rich stained glass windows, flooding the façade in blue and red light.

That project started when the organ was delivered to the sidewalk on Euclid Avenue in shipping containers on the back of semi-trailers. The shipment had come across the Atlantic from Rotterdam and up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Port of Cleveland on a ship aptly named Calliope. We had a powerhouse of a day hauling the instrument, piece-by-piece and crate-by-crate, up the many steps from the sidewalk into the cathedral. I was a naïve organ guy at the time, twenty-one years old, bearing the weight of magisterial knowledge, but I knew enough to take notice of a box of pipes I was carrying marked “Celeste.” Hmmm. A little later, there were bundles of swell shutters. Again, hmmm. The pendulum was swinging. Never throw out a necktie.


Where’s the beef?

Except for the nine years I spent in Ohio, I’ve lived in Boston all my life, as my family has since before the American Revolution, so it was quite a step when Wendy and I moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan four years ago. We’ve had a wonderful time building our new life in the city, and an important part of the excitement is our new membership at Grace Church, a grand Episcopal church on lower Broadway, kitty-corner from our building. I was first introduced to Grace Church in 2008 when I was asked to list the church’s 1961 Schlicker organ for sale through the Organ Clearing House. The Schlicker was a double organ: the main instrument was in the rear gallery with tall pedal towers reaching up on either side of the rose window, and the smaller chancel organ was in side chambers. The organ was playable from two identical three-manual consoles.

As I surveyed the organ, I realized it was something of a house of cards. Although the gallery case looked grand enough, it turned out that the organ actually crouched—cowered—near the floor of the gallery under the rose window. The Pedal towers each contained five large pipes, only those five pipes. There was a thin plywood panel immediately behind the pipes. It reminded me of the 1984 advertising campaign for Wendy’s™ hamburgers that had a little old lady squinting at a competitor’s burger, and barking “Where’s the beef?”

Though the organ was only 47 years old, many of its pipes had fallen in on themselves and lost their speech. The collapse of the largest façade pipes was so pronounced that we feared the supporting hooks were in danger of failure. In the interest of public safety, and because there was no other place to store them in the building, we turned the pipes upside down and lashed them to the racks with ropes. It sure was strange looking, but they didn’t fall!

The Schlicker organ was replaced in 2013 with a new organ of 87 ranks by Taylor & Boody, a joy to all who play and hear it, and a meaningful boost to the life of the congregation. It’s an extraordinary organ because it includes all the features of the finest classically inspired mechanical action organs, including brilliant, balanced choruses, colorful reeds, gorgeous casework, and a strong presence in the room. But it’s a big departure from Taylor & Boody’s usual vocabulary, as it has a detached console, organ cases on both sides of the chancel, Solo and Pedal divisions in the remote chamber near the chancel, high-pressure reeds, and even an antique 32 Double Open Wood Diapason, a hangover from the earlier Ernest M. Skinner organ in the rear gallery. There’s a tunnel full of tracker action under the floor of the chancel connecting all those rooms, and a sophisticated electric stop action with solid-state combinations.

The Schlicker organ followed a succession of instruments by Skinner including a four-manual, 89-rank double organ (gallery and chancel) built in 1902, a four-manual, 84-rank chancel organ built in 1912, and a four-manual, 48-rank gallery organ built in 1928. The 1928 project included a spectacular new four-manual chancel console with 167 knobs, 70 tilting tablets in two rows, five expression pedals, and two crescendo pedals.


Passing batons

The Grace Church Skinner organ in its final form was one of the great masterpieces of a great master. By contemporary accounts, it was immensely colorful and powerful. Study the specifications ( and you can imagine the range of expression possible, not only because of the multiple expression enclosures, but the sensitive and creative array of stops. For example, there were twelve 16 flue voices between the two Pedal divisions, many of them borrowed from manual stops that were under expression. What a wealth. The massive chancel organ had two choruses of Trombones in the Pedal, one borrowed from the expressive Solo, which included an exceedingly rare 1023 Trombone. Wow! The Chancel Swell had ten 8 flues. There were a total of 32 ranks of reeds, and twelve 8 Diapasons scattered about six manual divisions. That’ll do you. That’s just a quick list of highlights of the content of that monumental organ, but there’s another fact about its creation that piques my curiosity.

Ernest Mitchell (1890–1966) was the organist at Grace Church from 1922 until 1960. The final rebuild of the Skinner organ happened on his watch, and it’s fair to assume that he had plenty to do with its tonal design. Mitchell’s great and good friend was Lynnwood Farnam, the genius organist who was central to the creation and development of the “symphonic style” of organ playing. I imagine that Mitchell and Farnam spent many evenings together discussing the special features of that organ, especially the details of the console.

Years ago, I got to know another console that had been designed by Farnam, that of the massive double 1912 Casavant organ (Opus 700) at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, Boston, where Farnam served briefly as organist. I was studying the instrument in 2002, as it was being offered for sale, and was fascinated by the ornate and intricate console,1 which was festooned with unique gadgets that could only have been requested by an organist of Farnam’s sophistication. Here are a few examples:

• Swell octave couplers to cut off 2stops

• other manual 2 and 16 stops not to be cut off by octave or sub couplers

• one piston “throwing off” all manual 16 stops, as well as Quint 513 and Tierce 315

• one piston throwing off all sub couplers.

All this in 1912.

The 1928 console of the Grace Church Skinner is preserved in the church’s music office, and it’s easy to pick out a couple features that could well have come from Farnam’s fertile symphonic imagination. There are two crescendo pedals. Above that for the Gallery organ, there are two toe pistons marked “Regular” and “Orchestral.” But the Chancel crescendo was a real tour-de-force. Concealed in a drawer under the bottom manual, there’s a “User Interface” crescendo setter, a semi-circle of electrical plugs neatly labeled with the names of stops and couplers, and an array of wires bearing tags that identify the positions of the Crescendo pedal. The organist could create his own setting while seated at the console—in 1928! Sadly, the original “guts” of the console were removed, so there is no record of the content of those crescendo settings. Happily, the console was returned to Grace Church as a gift following the death of its subsequent owner.

Another feature that could well have come from Farnam is the expression selector switch to the right of the music rack that allows the organist to assign the various expression enclosures to specific expression pedals. That and the programmable crescendo are precursors to some of our most complex modern consoles.

From 1920 until his death in 1930, Lynnwood Farnam was organist at Church of the Holy Communion on 6th Avenue at 20th Street, just over a mile from Grace Church. His proximity with Ernest Mitchell surely enhanced that friendship. Farnam was also head of the new organ department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his influence spread quickly. His students included people like Ernest White, Carl Weinrich, and Alexander McCurdy.

Ernest White studied with Farnam  and went on to an illustrious career including a fruitful tenure at St. Mary the Virgin in New York City. He played over 1,000 recitals, was a champion of new music, and released the first recording of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur. In addition to his career as an organist, he was also tonal director for M. P. Möller, designing and supervising the installation of many new organs.

Carl Weinrich was organist and choir director of the chapel at Princeton University for 30 years. He also taught at Westminster Choir College and Columbia University. He championed contemporary music by playing premieres or early performances of works such as Vierne’s Symphony VI, Samuel Barber’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative. And in the 1950s and 1960s, he was at the vanguard of the rebirth of the classic organ, recording the organ music of Bach on Holtkamp organs.

Alexander McCurdy was one of the first graduates of Lynnwood Farnam’s organ class at Curtis, graduating in 1931, just after Farnam’s death, and was head of the Curtis organ department from 1935 until 1972, and concurrently at Westminster Choir College. McCurdy passed his devotion to the symphonic organ on to his students, many of whom later participated in the 20th-century renewal of interest in the classical organ. His incredible roster of students included Richard Purvis, David Johnson, David Craighead, James Litton, John Weaver, Keith Chapman, Gordon Turk, and Joan Lippincott, who joined the faculty at Westminster at McCurdy’s invitation. Lippincott will soon be honored by the American Guild of Organists for her lifetime of service to the organ and its music. That’s a big chunk of the history of the 20th-century American pipe organ in a nutshell.


Ernest Mitchell’s tenure at Grace Church ended in 1960, and the Schlicker organ was installed there in 1961. I haven’t dug into that history yet—when I do, I’ll come back to report. But I can only imagine that it would have broken Mitchell’s heart to see that magnificent instrument replaced. The irony is increased by the temporary nature of the Schlicker. Grace Church’s architecture is Gothic in style, but the walls and vaulted ceiling are made of plaster, which is less advantageous acoustically than stone. With low wind pressure and an emphasis on upperwork rather than fundamental tone, the new organ never had the power for real presence in the room.

The swing of the pendulum is clear in the history of the three most recent organs at Grace Church. The mighty, innovative, symphonic masterpiece by Skinner was replaced by a neo-Baroque instrument, so much the style of day in the early 1960s. The present instrument by Taylor & Boody is the modern statement of a heroic pipe organ in that venerable sanctuary. It includes the best features of both previous organs, with the clarity and presence for playing Baroque literature, and the lungs and flexibility to play the most complex Romantic literature.

Renovating Skinner Opus 707 would have been a huge undertaking in 1960, both technically and financially. Many similar organs, notably the Skinner in Finney Chapel at Oberlin, were renovated by Aeolian-Skinner, which converted them in the neo-Baroque style. It was not stylish to restore a symphonic masterpiece in 1960. If the Skinner had not been replaced, we wouldn’t have the Taylor & Boody, which is a magnificent statement of 21st-century organ building. But the inner me would sure love to take that Skinner for a spin. . . .



1. The Emmanuel Church Casavant organ was sold to a musical museum in China. More than 15 years after it was shipped to China, it’s now being prepared for renovation and installation by Rieger.