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In the Wind: Youthful fantasies

April 16, 2024
Organ, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Stockbridge, MA
The altered Roosevelt organ, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Stockbridge, Massachusetts (photo credit: John Bishop)

Youthful fantasies

Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Westwood, Massachusetts, was founded as a mission in September 1953, and services were first held in the Deerfield Elementary School at the end of Deerfield Avenue. A new church building was dedicated next to the school in March 1955, and my father was appointed the first full-time rector in October 1956. I was seven months old. We lived in a rented house nearby while the rectory was built adjacent to the church. I know from personal memory and family lore that we were ensconced in the new rectory before I was two years old. My earliest memories of those days included the bulldozers that were grading the lawn and building the driveway. My wife and sons would quickly agree that must have been the genesis of my fascination with heavy equipment, admittedly alive and well today as my sixty-eighth 
birthday approaches.

The Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts established Saint John’s as a parish in 1959, and that year the church acquired C. B. Fisk Opus 31 (then the Andover Organ Company), a one-manual, six-stop, mechanical-action organ mounted on a platform with a detached, reversed console. I learned later (!) that the organ was planned as the Rückpositiv of a larger two-manual instrument that could be completed if the new parish succeeded. At three years old, I did not yet know about detached consoles, but my child’s eyes remember where it was placed in the simple new A-frame building, itself designed to accept future enhancement.

Ten years after its founding, the parish mounted a campaign to build a parish hall and complete the church interior with formal decorations and furniture. Two towers and a rear gallery were added. A full-height stained-glass wall was installed behind the altar, a chancel with steps and altar rail was added, and hardwood pews were installed replacing the metal folding chairs.

Having spent a lifetime moving pipe organs, I am amused by the memory of my first organ relocation—that tiny Fisk organ hanging from a crane, pipes and all, being lifted from the front of the original sanctuary to its permanent home in the new rear gallery before the roof was closed. If I saw that happening today, I would run toward the crane operator, arms waving like a semaphore, shouting “Stop!,” but there it was, an organ hanging from a hook on a sunny day. I was seven. That same year, when my parents were not at home, I thought it would be fun to climb the scaffolding surrounding the seventy-foot tower under construction. It was a lovely view from the top, showing my parents’ car turning on to Deerfield Avenue, heading home. I got back down before they reached the driveway, but the guilt on my face was enough to spill the story.

Saint John’s organist’s name was Donald McFeely. He had the parish on the cusp of the tracker revolution, buying an organ from Charles Fisk and the Andover Organ Company before the founding of C. B. Fisk, Inc., in 1961. The Andover Organ Company completed the twenty-three-rank instrument in 1991, including the original six-stop organ as the Rückpositiv as planned by Charlie Fisk.

I remember several of the families of Saint John’s as friends of my parents, and as I write I realize what a heady time that was for them. It must have been thrilling to start with meetings to incorporate a mission, transforming it to a parish, and taking on two building programs in ten years. Through their commitment, effort, and money, they created a church that continues to thrive over seventy years later. My father was a young priest in his second appointment, and it must have been mind-boggling and life-altering for him to be at the helm of that rocket ship. Dad has been gone almost ten years, so I will never get to chat about that with him, but the notion adds to my admiration. By the way, I attended the Deerfield School, next door to our house, from first through third grades.

§

Since my first organ was a quasi-experimental dip into the early years of the Organ Reform Movement, it is ironic that the second organ in my life was built in 1905 by the Ernest M. Skinner Company at a time when Robert Hope-Jones (who grew into the genius behind theatre organs built by Wurlitzer) was working with Skinner. Dad was called as rector of the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1966, when I was ten years old. I was instantly pressed into the Junior Choir led by harpsichord builder Carl Fudge, the parish’s organist and choirmaster. As I think about it, the further irony is that Mr. Fudge as an early practitioner in the esoteric world of harpsichord building in the 1960s was saddled with an aging, wheezing, cadaver of an organ in such poor condition that my friends and I as ten-year-old choristers where well aware of its precarious state.

There was the Sunday when I heard my first cipher in the middle of a service. Mr. Fudge left the bench, crossed the chancel, reverenced the altar, returned with a ladder, reverenced the altar again, set the ladder against the impost, climbed up and pulled a pipe. He repeated the process to return the ladder, reverencing the altar twice more, wearing a black cassock through the entire sequence. I expect that his pious performance as the service progressed was calculated to draw attention to the organ’s failings, and it was only five or six years later that my father was involved in purchasing another organ from Charles Fisk, Opus 65, which was completed in 1973.

When I was twelve, I had my first organ lessons on the gleaming ten-year-old, three-manual Holtkamp organ in Saint John’s Chapel of the Episcopal Theological School (ETS) in Harvard Square, later the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), now defunct. Though it has electro-pneumatic action, that organ was in the vanguard of experimental design with low wind pressures, classical choruses, and a Rückpositiv division (on a pitman chest) along the gallery rail. But my first experiences playing the organ during worship were on that home Skinner when Mr. Fudge allowed me to “noodle” a bit while he left the bench to receive communion, and later to play an occasional prelude or postlude.

It was not long before I went out on my own, taking a six-week gig playing on a three-manual Estey (long gone) at the Baptist church in Winchester, and then after Vatican II at St. Eulalia Catholic Church in Winchester on a Conn Artist. (You can’t make these things up.) My last high-school church organist position was at the First Congregational Church of neighboring Woburn, Massachusetts, where I played a three-manual, thirty-three-stop E. & G. G. Hook organ built in 1860, a very grand organ with real large-organ stops like 16′ Double Open Wood and 16′ Trombone with wood resonators.

Nostalgia

I am wallowing in childhood memories today because Wendy and I recently moved from Greenwich Village to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where my grandfather had been rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, just at the time when my family moved from Westwood to Winchester and I started to take organ lessons. It has been both fun and eerie to merge into life in Stockbridge, walking past the rectory on Main Street where my grandparents lived, counting the windows, and remembering the rooms that were so familiar when I was a teenager.

Saint Paul’s first building was a wood Gothic structure designed by Richard Upjohn and consecrated in 1844. The present stone building was designed by Charles McKim and consecrated in 1884. The organ was Hilborne Roosevelt’s Opus 127, also built in 1884, but it was drastically altered in the early-1960s, a project that included the addition of mixtures and mutations, the replacement of the original principal stops with ranks of tapered pipes, the addition of a pedal division and a couple unified reeds including a Krummhorn with electric action. I wonder if Hilborne Roosevelt ever heard a Krummhorn? Today I call it a scandalous treatment of a lovely venerable instrument, but when I was twelve and thirteen years old and allowed to practice on the organ, loud and shrill as it was, I thought it was the bees’ knees. I do not remember if I ever played a service there, but I know I played a recital or two—I’m sure my grandparents were very proud.

When I was a kid, we had family holidays in Stockbridge. Thanksgiving dinner in the rectory was a great treat, and my grandparents nurtured my nascent love of music by treating me to weekends at Tanglewood, just a few miles away. Those were my first solo trips away from home—my parents put me on buses and trains in Boston and grandparents picked me up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, quite an adventure for a thirteen-year-old.

Since I retired as a church organist when I joined the Organ Clearing House in 2000, we have not attended church regularly, but when we first moved to Stockbridge, we were quick to show up at Saint Paul’s. We went to the early service at 8:00 a.m. and were part of a congregation of five or six people. It was fun to meet a woman whose wedding had been performed by my grandfather and who had wonderful memories of him, but it was a pretty quiet affair. Shortly after, we learned that the rector had just received a call to move elsewhere, and after our first visit we went dormant.

A new rector was installed at Saint Paul’s eight weeks ago, and Wendy and I went to church there last Sunday, attending the 10:00 a.m. service along with more than forty others. It was great to hear the organ being played, though it is in terrible condition, and we were pleased with the good vibes, the singing of the hymns, and the fact that there were some people present who were younger than us. Maybe we will go back this time.

Altered states

I imagine we are all familiar with organs that have been altered, receiving new identities for better or for worse. Some are great successes. There are many organs built by the Skinner Organ Company and later modified by Aeolian-Skinner under G. Donald Harrison’s direction. Ernest Skinner hated that, but Harrison was able in many cases to retain the gravitas of the original organ while adding well-balanced choruses and mutations.

I had a long relationship with a 1906 Hutchings-Votey organ rebuilt by Kinzey-Angerstein in 1973 at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Holliston, Massachusetts. I joined the reorganized workshop of Angerstein & Associates in 1984, and the organ at Saint Mary’s was one of the first I tuned after taking that job. The occasion was a recital by Daniel Roth, then titulaire of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, celebrating the appointment of Saint Mary’s longtime organist, Leo Abbott, as director of music for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and the end of his tenure at Saint Mary’s. The organ retained its original 8′ and 4′ principals, wood flutes, manual reeds, and pedal stops. Daniel Angerstein had added upperwork to the Great and Swell creating two fine choruses and a smashing 16′ Pedal Trombone. It is a grand organ with lots of pizzazz, and the new tonal scheme added wonderfully to the original foundation of the organ.

The Holliston organ was so successful because the new stops were scaled and voiced to complete choruses based on the original foundations. The added pipes were purposefully constructed to exacting specifications based on the scales of the original stops, so all voices blend as if the entire instrument had been built at once. Too often, organ technicians of lesser skill add voices to an organ based on the notion of an ideal stoplist without considering the scales, construction, or even wind pressures of the new pipes.

Earlier this year I visited an organ in Texas that has small-scale Baroque choruses added in the 1960s to a nineteenth-century organ with broad scales and heavy fundamental tone. The differences in harmonic structure between old and newer pipes is striking. The tonal effect is jarring, confusing, and difficult to sing with. The firm that added the high-pitched stops must not have made any effort to create a blend between old and new. The stoplist looks fine, but the organ sounds terrible.

When the revival of classic organbuilding was getting traction in the early 1960s, many of the new organs were focused on high-pitched voices as were the “Baroque-izations” of older organs. It is ironic because the great classical instruments of Europe on which our revival was based are typically not shrill instruments. Their stoplists show fully developed choruses crowned with multiple mixtures, but their foundation stops are rich and full with thrilling harmonic development to support all that upperwork. When twentieth-century organbuilders began building new mechanical-action organs with low wind pressure and open-toe voicing, the challenge they faced, whether they knew it or not, was to figure out to deliver lots of air, not pressure but volume, to the largest pipes in the organ, and to voice those pipes so they could really sing.

§

It is fun to think about the first organs I knew, how my youthful impressions compared to my current thinking after playing, working on, and listening to hundreds of organs. As a thirteen-year-old, I was enthralled by the idea that I could play music on those keyboards and fill a church building with sound. I have been around organs with serious intent for about fifty-six years, and the evolution of my understanding of organ tone is still in process. I have learned slowly how scale (diameter) and wind pressure affect what an organ pipe can do. I have learned how the shape of a pipe’s resonator (the long part) affects the harmonic structure of its tone, so it stands to reason that two stops that emphasize the same harmonics will blend well together—that is a simple glimpse of the complex structure of a Cornet, especially when a reed stop is added to it. (Think d’Aquin noëls.)

I sat in a pew at Saint Paul’s last Sunday, delighted that the organ was being played, but critical of its collection of unrelated stops, however much I enjoyed playing it fifty-six years ago. (Oof!) The church has had some hard times over all those years, but it is fun to think that we might breathe some new life into it. Wendy and I live a fifteen-minute walk from Saint Paul’s. Maybe I could help?

There have been many organs in my life that were altered from their original state and transformed into something different. Some are marvelous successes, some are unmitigated disasters, and some (perhaps most) are the transformation of a fine instrument into one that is mediocre and uninteresting. A well-intentioned local organ technician may have terrific skills, but may not have the knowledge, wisdom, and experience to “out-Skinner Skinner.” If the organ you play most regularly does not have a trumpet, you probably could add one, but it should be as close as possible to the trumpet the original builder would have included if the organ was to be one stop larger. The added stop must be heard as part of the original organ and not as irrelevant braying. It is not the stoplist that makes an organ, it is the tonal structure.

I was at dinner recently with two beloved and admired colleagues who are collaborating on an important new organ. I asked them what they hoped to achieve with that organ. One replied, “I want to make an organ that sounds beautiful so lots of people will be happy to hear it.”

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