In the wind . . .

February 28, 2011

John Bishop is executive director of the Organ Clearing House.

Whenever I’m demonstrating, playing, selling, or moving an organ, people ask, “How did you get into this?” I’m pretty sure every organist and organbuilder has fielded a similar question.

I got interested in the pipe organ as a pup. When I sang in the junior choir as an eight-year-old kid, the director was Carl Fudge, a harpsichord maker and devoted musician. When my voice changed and I joined the senior choir, I sat with other members of Boston’s community of musical instrument makers. I took organ lessons, found summer jobs in organbuilders’ workshops, studied organ performance at Oberlin, and never looked back. It’s as if there was nothing else I could have done.
As I’ve gone from one chapter of my life to the next, I’ve gathered a list of people who I think have been particularly influential in the history of the pipe organ, and who have influenced my opinions and philosophy. I could never mention them all in one sitting, but I thought I’d share thoughts about a few of them in roughly the order of their life spans. This is not to be considered a comprehensive or authoritative list, just the brief recollections of their role in the work of my life.
Arp Schnitger (1648–1719) was a prolific organbuilder active in Germany and the Netherlands. He was involved in the construction of well over a hundred organs—more than forty of them survive and have been made famous through modern recordings. As a modern-day organbuilder, I marvel at that body of work accomplished without electric power, UPS, or telephones. Schnitger’s work burst into my consciousness with E. Power Biggs’ landmark Columbia recording, The Golden Age of the Organ, a two-record set that featured several of Schnitger’s finest instruments. I was captivated by the vital sound, especially of the four-manual organ at Zwolle, the Netherlands, on which Biggs played Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s D-minor concerto from L’estro armonico. His playing was clear, vital, and energetic, and I remain impressed at how an organ completed in 1721 could sound so fresh and brilliant to us today.
Schnitger’s organs all sport gorgeous high-Baroque cases and some of the most beautiful tonal structures ever applied to pipe organs. Many of the most influential organists of his day were influenced by Schnitger’s work, which was a centerpiece of the celebrated North German school of organbuilding and composition.
In my opinion, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811–1899) is a strong candidate for best organbuilder, period. No single practitioner produced more tonal, mechanical, or architectural innovations. Among many other great ideas, he pioneered the concept of multiple wind pressures, not only in a single organ but also in a single windchest. Big organs in large French churches had the perennial problem of weak trebles, especially in the reeds. That’s why the Treble Cornet was so important to Classic French registration—if you wanted to play a dialogue between the bass and treble of a reed stop, accompanied by a Principal, you used the Trompette for the bass and Cornet for the treble (remember Clérambault 101!). Cavaillé-Coll used one pressure for bass, slightly higher pressure for mid-range, and higher still for the treble. This required complicated wind systems that would be no problem for us today, but remember those were the days of hand-pumping. Imagine that for more than half of Widor’s career at St. Sulpice, the 100-stop organ had to be pumped by hand. Those poor guys at the bellows handles must have hated that wind-sucking Toccata!
Cavaillé-Coll’s organs created vast new possibilities for composers through tone color and snazzy pneumatic registration devices. It’s safe to say that without his work we wouldn’t have the music of Franck, Vierne, Widor, Dupré, Tournemire, Messiaen, Saint-Saëns, Pierné, Mulet, or Naji Hakim, to name a few. A pretty dry world . . .
Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was a Scottish-born industrialist who built great companies in nineteenth-century America for the production of steel and many other products. The rapid expansion of the railroads formed a lucrative market for Carnegie’s products, and he built a vast fortune. He once stated that he would limit his earnings to $50,000 a year and use the surplus for the greater good. He gave millions of dollars for the establishment of great universities, notably Carnegie-Mellon University and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and countless library buildings were built throughout the United States with his money. He loved the pipe organ and was a loyal customer of the Aeolian Organ Company, commissioning several instruments for his homes. His love of the organ did not carry across to religious devotion—he was cynical enough about organized religion that as he gave money for the commissioning of new organs for churches he said that it was his intent to give the parishioners something to listen to besides the preaching. In all, Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Foundation contributed to the purchase of more than 8,000 pipe organs. During the time I was a student at Oberlin and for several years after my graduation, I was organist of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, where there was a large Austin organ donated by Andrew Carnegie.
Dudley Buck (1839–1909) was born in Hartford, Connecticut, educated at Trinity College, and studied organ at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. He was organist at Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York, for many years, was a prolific composer and an active concert artist. His studies in Europe formed him as one of a group of American musicians who brought European virtuosity to the United States. This in turn inspired the transition of the nineteenth-century American organ from the simple, gentle, English-inspired instruments of the early eighteenth century with primitive Swell boxes and tiny pedal compasses to the instruments more familiar to us, with significant independent pedal divisions, primary and secondary choruses, and powerful chorus reeds. The first American organ Renaissance was under way.
Ernest Skinner (1866–1960), one of America’s most famous organbuilders, was a pioneer in the development of electro-pneumatic keyboard and stop actions, and in the tonal development of the symphonic organ. His brilliantly conceived combination actions gave organists convenient, instant, and nearly silent control over the resources of a huge organ. Those wonderful machines can fairly be described as some of the first user-programmable binary computers, built in Boston starting in about 1904, using wood, leather, and a Rube Goldberg assortment of hardware. Mr. Skinner devoted tremendous effort to the creation of the ergonomic organ console, experimenting with measurements and geometry to put keyboards, pedalboard, stop, combination, and expression controls within easy reach of the fingers and feet of the player. He was devoted to the highest quality and was immensely proud of his artistic achievements. He lived long enough to see his organs fall out of favor as interest in older styles of organbuilding was rekindled, and he died lonely and bitter. He would be heartened, delighted, and perhaps a little cocky had he witnessed the reawakening of interest in his organs some twenty-five years after his death.
E. Power Biggs (1906–1977) was central to the second American organ Renaissance. He was born and educated in England and experienced the great European organs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before coming to the United States. Disenchanted with mid-twentieth-century American organbuilding and empowered by the introduction of the long-playing record (remember those black discs with the holes in the center?), he traveled Europe with his wife Peggy, recording those venerable instruments, handling the heavy and bulky recording equipment himself. He produced a long series of recordings of historic European organs, each of which focused on a single country or region and featured performances of music on the organs for which it was intended. This vast body of recorded performances brought the rich heritage of the European organ to the ears of countless Americans for the first time. Biggs’s recordings were an early example of the power of the media, made in the same era of fast-developing technology in which the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race was so heavily influenced by that mysterious new medium, television.
The response from organists and organbuilders was swift and enthusiastic. Dozens of small shops were established and important schools of music shifted the focus of their teaching to emphasize the relationship of organ music and playing to those marvelous older instruments.
In 1956 Biggs imported a three-manual organ built by Flentrop, which was installed in Harvard’s Germanic Museum, later known as the Busch-Reisinger Museum, now known as Busch Hall. Using that remarkable instrument, Biggs produced his record series released on Columbia Records, E. Power Biggs Plays Bach Organ Favorites, which became the best-selling series of solo classical recordings in history. Especially through the wide distribution of his recordings, Biggs was enormously influential, introducing a new world-view of the organ to the American public.
Virgil Fox (1912–1980) was a contemporary of Biggs, equally widely known and respected, who represented a very different point of view. He was champion of a romantic style of playing, celebrating organs with symphonic voices, lots of expression boxes, and plenty of luscious strings. His virtuosity and musicianship were without question, his lifestyle was flamboyant, and he was outspoken in his opinions, especially as regarded his artistic rival Biggs. Fox was determined that the “new” approach to organs and organ playing as borrowed from earlier centuries in Europe would not overshadow the romantic symphonic instruments that he so loved.
The rivalry between Biggs and Fox formed a fascinating artistic portrait and could well have been a healthy balance, but at times was vitriolic enough to become destructive. We had tracker-backers and “stick” organs on one side and slush buckets and murk merchants on the other. Those members of the public who were not interested enough in the organ to know how to take sides often simply walked away.
Jason McKown (1906–1989) was a right-hand man to Ernest Skinner, born in the same year as Mr. Biggs. It was my privilege to succeed Jason in the care of many wonderful organs in the Boston area when he retired, including those at Trinity Church, Copley Square (where Jason had been tuner for more than fifty years) and the First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church) that is home to an Aeolian-Skinner organ with 237 ranks. We overlapped for six months at the Mother Church to allow me a chance to get my bearings in that massive instrument. With forty-one reeds and more than a hundred ranks of mixtures, that organ was a challenge to tune. Jason had helped with the installation of several Skinner organs in the area in the 1920s that he maintained until his retirement, leaving me as the second person to care for organs that were sixty years old. He had prepared organs for concerts played by Vierne and Dupré, and though he never drove a car, he dutifully cared for dozens of organs throughout the Boston area, taking buses wherever he went. Jason’s wife Ruth was a fine organist and long-suffering key-holder. She had been a classmate and lifelong friend of former AGO national president Roberta Bitgood. I attended Jason’s funeral at his home church, Centre Methodist Church in Malden, Massachusetts, home to a 1971 Casavant organ. When that parish disbanded, the Organ Clearing House relocated Jason’s home organ to Salisbury Presbyterian Church in Midlothian, Virginia. Jason was a gentle, patient, and humble man who spent his life making organs sound their best.
Sidney Eaton (1908–2007) was an organ pipe maker and the last living employee of the Skinner Organ Company. He was Jason McKown’s co-worker and a long-time resident of North Reading, Massachusetts, where I lived for about ten years. I got to know Sidney when he was very old and quite crazy—I think he lived alone long enough to stop disagreeing with himself, and when he lost himself as his final filter he could say some outrageous things. One day I stopped by his house on my way to say hi and he came to the door in his birthday suit. Nothing weird, he had just forgotten to get dressed. Sidney told me about working next to Mr. Skinner as he dreamed up the shimmering Erzähler, the beguiling English Horn, and Skinner’s most famous tonal invention, the French Horn. Though it was often a challenge to find the line between fact and fantasy, I felt privileged to have had an opportunity to hear first-hand about some of our most famous predecessors. In his last years, Sidney road around town on an ancient Schwinn bicycle with balloon tires, a wire basket on the handlebars, and a bell that he rang with his thumb. He would lift his right hand and give a princely wave and a toothless smile to anyone driving by, whether or not they were an organbuilder.
Charles Fisk (1925–1983) began his musical life as a choirboy at Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where E. Power Biggs was the oft-truant organist. He studied physics at Harvard and Stanford, worked briefly for the Manhattan Project in New Mexico under Robert Oppenheimer, and rescued himself to become an organbuilder. He apprenticed with Walter Holtkamp in Cleveland, Ohio, became a partner in the Andover Organ Company, and later formed the venerable firm of C. B. Fisk, Inc. My father, an Episcopal priest now retired, was involved in the purchase of two organs by Fisk. When I was growing up, we lived equidistant (about three blocks) between two Fisk organs, one in my home church and one in the neighboring Congregational church, where I had my lessons and did most of my practicing through high school. I didn’t know Charlie well but I did meet him several times and attended workshops and lectures that I remember vividly. I consider him to be the Dean of the Boston School of revivalist organbuilders—that fascinating movement that was well underway as my interest in the organ developed.
Brian Jones (still very much alive and active!) was director of music and organist at Trinity Church in Boston when Jason McKown retired and I took on the care of the complicated and quirky organ there. Complicated because it is in fact two organs in three locations, with a fantastic relay system and sophisticated console, quirky because it was first a Skinner organ, then an Aeolian-Skinner organ, and then continuously modified by Jason in cahoots with George Faxon, long-time organist there, and much beloved teacher of many of Boston’s fine organists. Brian understood the central position of that church in that city—a magnificent building designed by H. H. Richardson, decorated by John LaFarge, and home to some of the great preachers of the Episcopal Church—and the music program he created reflected the great heritage of the place. He brought great joy to the church’s music as he built the choir program into a national treasure. Otherwise polite-to-a-fault Back Bay Bostonians would draw blood over seats for the Candlelight Carol Service (now famous through the vast sales of the twice-released Carols from Trinity), and the 1,800-seat church was packed whenever the choir sang. I remember well the recording sessions for the second professional release, which took place in the wee hours of stifling June and July nights, the schedule dictated by the desire for a profitable Christmas-shopping-release. It was surreal to lie on a pew in 90-degree weather, tools at hand, at two in the morning, listening to the third take of I saw three ships come sailing in.
My Trinity Church experience included tuning every Friday morning in preparation for the weekly noontime recital. The opportunity to hear that great organ played by a different musician each week had much to do with the evolution of my understanding of the electro-pneumatic symphonic organ that I had been taught to consider decadent. And the weekly communal lunches that followed each recital at the Thai place across the street introduced me to many of the wonderful people in the world of the pipe organ.
My wife, Wendy Strothman, was organist of the Follen Community Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Lexington, Massachusetts, and chair of the organ committee when we met. I was invited to make a proposal to the committee for the repair and improvement of the church’s homemade organ for which there seemed to be little hope, but whose creator was still present as a church member. A spectacular 14-rank organ by E. & G.G. Hook fell from the sky as a neighboring U.U. church closed and offered the organ. With lots of enthusiastic volunteer help, we restored and installed the organ. I marveled at Wendy’s commitment to her weekly musical duties as she managed the rigors of her day job—executive vice-president at a major publishing house in Boston. When the organ was complete, the church commissioned Boston composer Daniel Pinkham to compose a piece for this wonderful organ. He responded with a colorful and insightful suite called Music for a Quiet Sunday, published by Thorpe Music. It includes about a half-dozen tuneful, attainable pieces and a partita on the tune Sloane. Daniel had sized up Wendy’s dual life and produced a marvelous collection of pieces aimed at the skillful dedicated amateur who worked hard to squeeze out enough practice time from a life filled with pressing professional responsibilities, not to mention raising a family. I write often about the brilliant big-city organists who I am privileged to know—their deep dedication, and virtuoso skills. Daniel’s reading of Wendy’s situation was a third-person insight for me into the joy of playing the organ in church as a sideline to a professional career.
There are dozens of you out there who know you’re on my list. Stay tuned. We’ll do this again.

Related Content

August 28, 2019
Walter Holtkamp and the American Classic At the Organ Clearing House, we have been working on a Holtkamp organ these days, which has spurred me to…
March 31, 2019
Connectivity It does not seem that long ago that packing a briefcase for a business trip meant gathering file folders and notebooks. Today, all my…
March 02, 2019
Music as community . . . When I was offered the opportunity of joining the Organ Clearing House during the summer of 2000, I faced a critical choice…