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In the Wind: a new generation of organ builders

December 22, 2022
Organbuilders under age 40
Organbuilders under 40 at the 2022 convention of the AIO (photo credit: The American Institute of Organbuilders)

Lost arts

The stone carvings in an ancient cathedral, the sparkles of light on Rembrandt’s tunic, the deep colors of a Tiffany lampshade, the intricacies of a Renaissance tapestry. These are all experiences available to us as we travel to ancient sites and visit museums. They are living testaments to the skills of artists and artisans, expressing their visions, observations, and thoughts in physical media. Did Rembrandt mix his paints from gathered materials as observed in artworks already old when he viewed them? Did he know that his paints would retain their colors and stay on the canvas for 350 years? Visit a modern artists’ supply store, and you will find rack upon rack of tubes of pre-mixed paints from different manufacturers. Do they expect that their products will last on canvas until the year 2352? Do the artists who buy and work with those paints trust that a glimmer of light on the nose of a subject will beguile viewers three centuries from now?

We play and listen to centuries-old organs, experiencing the same lively sounds that musicians and congregations heard over 600 years ago. We marvel at the monumental organ cases, knowing that they were built without the aid of electric milling machines. Perhaps some of us have tried to saw a board from a log by hand. I have. I can tell you it is hard work; it is tricky to produce a board that is anything like straight; and it takes a long time. We read that eighteenth-century organs took eight or ten years to build. Even so, Arp Schnitger (1648–1719) produced ninety-five new organs, forty-eight of which survive. Multiply that by the number of boards sawn by hand—case panels, toeboards, rackboards, keyboards, stop action traces, and hundreds of thousands of trackers. That many organs is a significant life’s work for a modern organ builder. And remember, delivering a pipe organ in those days involved oxcarts and rutted dirt (or mud) roads. Or did Mr. Schnitger set up a workshop in each church, casting metal and soldering pipes on site? That would simplify the logistics.

Something like 2,500 “Hook” organs were built between 1827 and 1927 by E. & G. G. Hook, E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings, and Hook & Hastings. Organs were shipped from the workshops in Boston to churches below the Mason-Dixon Line before the Civil War, to California, and throughout the Midwest. By then, steam ferries and railroads were available to make shipments easier—the tracks ran right into the workshop. During the same period, builders like Henry Erben, George Hutchings, George Stevens, and George Jardine, among many others, combined to build thousands of organs across the United States. With the introduction of electricity to pipe organ keyboard and stop actions, Skinner, Möller, Austin, Schantz, Kimball, and others combined to build as many as 2,500 new pipe organs a year in American churches during the 1920s.

Here’s to the crabgrass, here’s to the mortgage . . . .

So sang Allen Sherman in his 1963 smash hit recording, My Son the Nut, the same album that included “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. . . .” The song was about the migration from cities to suburbs in the 1950s: “walk the dog and cut the grass, take the kids to dancing class, Jim’s little league got beat again.”1 During the 1950s and 1960s, suburban churches blossomed. The populations of towns surrounding Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and countless other cities exploded. Twenty years ago, I served a church as music director in a suburb of Boston that never had more than 2,000 residents until the circumnavigating commuter highway Route 128 (now I-95) was built around 1960. Within ten years, there were 15,000 residents, and the little country Congregational church built an impressive new sanctuary with an extensive parish house and a three-manual organ.

Many if not most of those powerful suburban congregations commissioned new pipe organs. Where I grew up, the ubiquitous New England town square had two or three competing churches. One town near home had two three-manual Hook organs built in 1860 and 1870. Another had three Aeolian-Skinners. And by the time I graduated from high school, my hometown had two organs by Charles Fisk, one of which has its fiftieth anniversary this year.

A new wave

Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, hundreds of American churches committed to commissioning new organs built by “boutique” builders of tracker organs, many of which replaced impressive and valuable electro-pneumatic-action organs. Of course, many of those organs had in turn replaced impressive and important nineteenth-century organs. The Andover Organ Company, then led by Charles Fisk, was among the first of the new wave of organ companies. Charles Fisk spun off to start what became C. B. Fisk, Inc., along with the founding of, in no particular order, eponymous organ companies such as Noack, Roche, Brombaugh, Bozeman-Gibson, Bedient, Taylor & Boody, Dobson, Visser-Rowland, and Jaeckel. Casavant started building tracker organs and firms like Wilhelm, Wolff, and Létourneau spun off from there in the following years.

As some of the “older” new firms began “aging out,” a new wave of impressive companies came along such as Juget-Sinclair, Richards, Fowkes & Co., and Paul Fritts, and companies like Nichols & Simpson and the revitalized Schoenstein & Co. started building new electro-pneumatic-action organs of high quality inspired both by the electric-action masterpieces of the early twentieth century and by, I believe, the increasingly high standards of the boutique organ movement. Toward the end of the twentieth century, American organbuilding was a vital, if small industry producing beautiful instruments of all descriptions at a rapid rate.

American organbuilders gathered in Washington, DC, in September 1973 to discuss formation of a new professional organization that would take the name American Institute of Organbuilders. This purpose statement was published in the program book for that gathering:

• to be the first such convention in recent times in North America and to be a model for future conventions of this type to be held regularly;

• to promote the exchange of principles and ideas among established organbuilders to aid in the improvement of the instrument while lowering its costs and ensuring the security of our future;

• to educate ourselves in potential new technologies and construction procedures, some of which are being employed by other industries and arts but perhaps not yet fully realized and exploited by organbuilders;

• to provide the many suppliers of organ parts and materials, many of which are new to our field, with the opportunity to display and demonstrate their developments and ideas where many builders may jointly view and discuss these products;

• to study some general business problems of concern to the organ industry, and to propose courses of action that might be taken by organbuilders, both individually and collectively, to alleviate these concerns;

• to enable social exchanges between organbuilders and their families; to provide families of organbuilders with the opportunity to share in the appreciation of the greater glories of the profession through mutual enjoyment of a convention environment and its program of entertainment designed for all.

The last decades of the twentieth century were very productive for American organbuilding, and we must not forget the vast number of European organs imported to the United States. E. Power Biggs famously purchased an organ from Flentrop that was installed in the Busch-Reisinger Museum (now Busch Hall) at Harvard University in 1957. He made it instantly famous with his fabulously successful series of recordings, Bach: Great Organ Favorites. Many of my friends and colleagues, myself included, cite those recordings as influential to devoting a lifetime to organbuilding. That organ was followed by a flood of Flentrops crossing the Atlantic, a wave greatly advanced by Fenner Douglas, professor of organ at Oberlin in the 1960s and early 1970s, whose influence led to at least dozens of Flentrops installed in American churches and universities, notably those at Oberlin College and Duke University. Also in 1957, Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, installed a four-manual, sixty-five-rank Beckerath organ, three years before the monumental five-manual Beckerath organ was installed at Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.

As the twentieth century came to a close, a significant decline in church attendance was well underway. Churches continue to close at an increasing rate. And toward the end of the last century, there was a dip of interest in playing the organ. When I was a student at Oberlin in the 1970s, there were over fifty organ majors in four bustling studios. Fifteen years later, there were fewer than ten. Several colleges and universities closed their organ departments, churches with traditionally active music programs began having trouble filling empty jobs, and for a while things were looking pretty grim for the American pipe organ.

I am carving time into rough blocks for my own convenience, but as the twenty-first century got underway, a fresh wave of brilliant young organists appeared. Stephen Tharp and Ken Cowan, now in their late forties and early fifties, led the pack forging virtuosic concert careers. They were followed in no particular order by Paul Jacobs, Isabelle Demers, Nathan Laube, Katelyn Emerson, and many others, raising the art of organ playing to unprecedented heights. Concurrently, especially following economic lows following 9/11 and the near collapse of the American economy in 2008, noticeably fewer churches embarked on expensive organ renovation or new organ projects. Many of us in the organbuilding trade wondered silently and increasingly out loud if we were heading toward the end of the pipe organ industry.

Convention

The American Institute of Organbuilders held its annual convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, October 8–12, 2022. More than 300 members gathered in a convention hotel there to be immersed in the work of the Historic Organ Restoration Committee that is more than halfway through the herculean task of restoring the legendary Boardwalk Hall organ with seven manuals and 449 ranks. Built by Midmer-Losh, Inc., between 1929 and 1932 (Opus 5550), the Boardwalk Hall organ is the largest in the world, not by ranks (The Wanamaker Organ has more), but with 33,112 pipes. Many of the ranks have eighty-five pipes or more. The committee is about eight years into the project and anticipates completion in 2030. I will bet we will have another convention there then. (See the cover feature for this organ in the November 2020 issue.)

A convention of the AIO typically includes a lot of time riding buses to see organs throughout an area. Because of the huge attraction at the center of this convention, we had just one day of bus travel to visit three marvelous organs in the Philadelphia area: C. B. Fisk, Inc., Opus 150 (2016) at Christ Church, Episcopal, Philadelphia; Aeolian-Skinner Opus 948 (1936) at St. Mark’s Church, Episcopal, Philadelphia; and the instrument by Kegg Pipe Organ Builders (2014) at Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. These are three very different and very distinguished organs, all beautifully demonstrated, and all terrific examples of the art of American organbuilding. At the convention hotel, perhaps the only large hotel in Atlantic City that does not boast a casino, we heard lectures about the history of the Boardwalk Hall organ, the economics of refurbishing rather than replacing damaged old organ pipes, and the art of structuring a contract to define an organ project, among others. Nathan Laube, the brilliant recitalist and teacher I mentioned earlier, lectured organbuilders about his ideal of the modern organ console—his conclusion, keep it simple.

In the past, I have written in detail about the organs we heard after attending a convention. This time, I want to celebrate the trade. I have related an off-the-cuff bird’s eye view of American organbuilding over the past century to put in context what I am observing now. In addition to our work aiding the sales of vintage pipe organs and dismantling those organs to be delivered to workshops for renovation, the Organ Clearing House is privileged to work with many of our admired companies, assisting with the shipping, hoisting, assembly, and installation of their new organs. This allows us intimate exposure to the methods and practices of a variety of firms and close associations with their largest organs.

While varying styles of worship and the proliferation of digital instruments has consumed much of the market for simple pipe organs, it is clear that we are in an age of monumental new instruments. Noack, Fritts, Fisk, Schoenstein, Richards, Fowkes, Létourneau, Buzard, and Parsons, among others, have built exceptional new organs in the last five years. All of them carry forth the 500-year tradition of organbuilding, many aided by Computer Numerical Control (CNC) routers. These expensive but efficient machines use computer programs to interpret an organbuilder’s drawings to produce repetitive parts automatically, to drill windchest tables, to make toeboards, rackboards, skyracks, and countless other organ parts with precise perfection. Ten years ago, only a few shops had them, now some have two that grind along in the corner of a shop while the organbuilders are free to do the interpretive work that a machine cannot do.

A couple important firms have recently closed. After a century of work and producing more than 2,500 organs, the Reuter Organ Company in Lawrence, Kansas, stopped most operations on December 1. While they remained profitable until the end, as the senior staff reached retirement age, other administrative staff chose not to step in to continue the business. The closure of August Laukhuff GmbH, a huge and important organ supply firm in Weikersheim, Germany, is having a profound effect on American companies. Many organbuilders have long relied on Laukhuff for organ blowers, electric parts like slider motors and pull-down magnets, keyboards, polished façade pipes, action chassis, and countless other widgets essential to the trade. Other firms are working to fill in the gaps, but this remains an important loss.

The AIO has a relatively new tradition of having a special dinner for members under thirty years old. Since the conventions in 2020 and 2021 were postponed because of covid, this year’s dinner included all members under forty, and there were more than thirty in attendance. I was thrilled to realize that in a trade heavily populated by older people, more than ten percent of those attending this convention were under forty. I had wonderful conversations with many of them and was heartened by their excitement and commitment to continuing the art.

This year’s AIO Convention was particularly high-spirited with enthusiasm for our trade abounding. Nathan Bryson, convention chair and curator of the Boardwalk Hall organ, was an enthusiastic and welcoming host. His excitement for his job is evident in the attitudes of the members of the Historic Organs Restoration Committee, both staff and volunteers. My many conversations with our younger colleagues were highpoints of the week for me. I was happy to hear their enthusiasm about their work. Some newcomers to the trade expressed to me their amazement at the rich history of the organ and the complexities of building, restoring, and repairing them. A couple of the younger participants were in the process of starting new workshops, and their excitement was infectious. Many of the younger members are women, bringing lively diversity to our gathering.

Whenever I am with colleague organbuilders, I hear stories of how they got interested in the organ when they were kids, how the first years of learning piqued their interest enough to devote their lives to the trade. I love comparing notes about solving problems. I love hearing about new materials, methods, machinery, and tools that save time and money, and I love the comeradery of spending time with like-minded people.

Above all, I celebrate what seems to be a bright future for American organbuilding. Churches are investing in large expensive projects, and many of our colleague firms have years of contracted work spreading ahead of them. Perhaps most important, I believe that American organ playing is the best it has ever been. As long as there are brilliant, compelling musicians to play on the instruments we build, there will always be new organs to build. Keep working hard, my friends. ν

Notes

1. In fact, the couple singing that song winds up fleeing the suburbs to return to the city: “Back to the crush there, hurry let us rush there, back to the rat race, don’t forget your briefcase, back to the groove there, say, why don’t we move there, away from all this sweet simplicity.”

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