Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)


VIII. The organ at the close of the 20th century



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VIII. The organ at the close of the 20th century


During the last three decades of the 20th century such terms as ‘Organ Reform’ and ‘neo-Baroque’ ceased to be truly applicable. The original thrust of these movements was as much anti-Romantic as it was pro-Baroque. From the bottom-heavy, widely expressive, remote-controlled ‘symphonic’ organ of the 1920s (lacking a coherent chorus and deriving its colour from a variety of unison reeds, flutes and strings), to the top-heavy, inexpressive, mechanically controlled ‘neo-Baroque’ organ of the 1950s (with dogmatically dictated choruses, no strings, and deriving its colour from mutations and antique reed forms), the pendulum of taste in the organ world has swung between extremes unmatched in any other musical area save possibly that of popular music. There have always been exceptions, of course. The French made gestures in the neo-classic direction, but could never entirely shake off the influence of the Romantic organ on their music. Builders in the ‘American classic’ style, encouraged by the work of some of the more conservative English builders, strove, if somewhat haphazardly, to amalgamate elements of several periods into a multi-purpose instrument that had influence as far away as Italy. Only in Germany and northern Europe did the neo-Baroque aesthetic hold almost total sway at the mid-century, but the influence on the composers of those countries, and on organ building in other countries, was considerable

During the late 1960s and early 70s, a new spirit of inquiry began challenging some of the dogmas of the Reform movement while taking a closer look at the historic instruments that purported to be its models. Why, for instance, did a well-preserved 17th- or 18th-century Principal pipe speak with a full ‘bloom’ and just the smallest amount of ‘chiff’ when its neo-Baroque counterpart coughed prominently before settling into a rather thin and sizzly tone? Both had similar scales and cut-ups, open toe-holes and a seeming absence of nicking, but on closer inspection the historic pipe was found to have not the chisel-edged languid of the modern pipe but one with its leading edge blunted rather roughly with a counterface, and it had a more open windway; even closer inspection revealed details of metal composition (trace elements) and treatment (hammering or scraping) which had gone unnoticed or unheeded before. During the 1970s builders such as Wolff in Canada, Brombaugh, Fisk, Noack, Bedient, and Taylor & Boody in the USA, and Ahrend in Germany began experimenting with principals and flutes made more closely to historical models. Reeds soon followed, as analysis of various historical shallot forms (including French styles and those faced with leather), tongue brass, and tongue curvatures revealed why using standardized shallots and modern tongue materials such as phosphor-bronze did not produce a desired result. The results of these inquiries found favour with many organists concerned with the requirements and interpretation of various schools of organ literature.

If the historical research of the Reform movement in the 1930s concentrated at first on stop-lists and scales, by the 1950s, as understanding of traditional instruments developed, the value of mechanical action and free-standing casework was recognized. In 1968 an article by Charles Fisk concerning wind supply was published in The Diapason which generated considerable controversy internationally over most of the succeeding decade. When this had finally died down, the role of flexible wind supply, with all that it implies relative to the size and form of bellows and wind-trunks (and even tremulants), had been accepted along with pipe metal composition and non-equal temperaments (Werckmeister, Kirnberger, Chaumont, Vallotti, Young, Fisk, van Biezen) among the last major pieces in the puzzle of the ‘historically informed’ organ, and many builders abandoned the inflexible modern Schwimmer system of wind regulation (see §II, 11(iii, v), above), that had been so much a part of the neo-Baroque organ. By the 1980s builders on the Continent (Ahrend, Flentrop, Riel, Garnier, Führer, Metzler) and in America (Fisk, Noack, Brombaugh, Bedient, Moore, Fritts, Taylor & Boody) were building organs where the wind could optionally be raised either manually or electrically. In 1981 instruments built in the 17th-century north European style by Fisk (Wellesley College, Massachusetts; fig.52) and Brombaugh (Oberlin College, Ohio) helped to confirm the validity not only of flexible wind but of mean-tone tuning and sub-semitones (split keys) in the performance of music of that period.

The early Organ Reform school concentrated on its interpretation of one particular style of organ, that of the north German Baroque. By the end of the 20th century organists and organ builders had come to a deeper understanding not only of that particular model, but of myriad other styles. Foremost among these were the French classical (Clicquot) and Romantic (Cavaillé-Coll) styles, and by the 1990s a number of organs wholly or largely patterned on both were being built; in the Netherlands, the Van den Heuvel firm specialized not in classical Dutch but Romantic French instruments. The organs of Silbermann and other central German builders also began to find emulators: Fisk and Bozeman each built a Silbermann copy in the 1980s, as did Ahrend (Jesuit church, Porrentruy, Switzerland, 1985). The south German work of Riepp has inspired at least one new instrument by Hubert Sandtner (St Andreas, Babenhausen, 1987). The unification of Germany in 1989 and the restoration in the same period of important 18th-century organs such as those in Altenburg (Trost) and Naumburg (Hildebrandt) focussed attention on the typical central German organ, resulting in instruments such as that built by Noack for Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas (1995). A few builders made smaller organs in the Italian (Wilhelm, Hradetzky, Tsuji) and Iberian (Rosales, Harrold) styles during the 1990s.

In the 1980s and 90s England and America witnessed a re-evaluation of a national heritage overlooked during many years of seeking inspiration from the Continent. Although the Mander firm played an important part in the preservation of numerous 18th- and 19th-century English organs during the postwar years, the influence of these instruments did not really begin to be strongly felt in the firm’s new work until the 1980s (Pembroke College, Cambridge, 1980), when other English builders such as Martin Renshaw, William Drake, and Goetze & Gwynn likewise began to concentrate on models from the Restoration and Georgian periods; in 1989 Mander built an organ for St Andrew’s, Holborn, London, largely based on early Victorian models. In the USA many 19th-century organs have been sympathetically restored, and 18th- and 19th-century American builders such as Tannenberg, Erben, Appleton and Hook have had both visual and tonal influence on work by Andover, Bozeman, Dobson, Fisk, Moore and Noack, while renewed interest in organs of the early 20th century led Schoenstein to build organs in the Skinner style (e.g. St Paul’s Church, Washington DC, 1996). As ‘neo-Baroque’ organs also became regarded as ‘historic’, the whole gamut of organ history became open to emulation.

The proliferation of these exercises in emulating so many earlier styles led inevitably to differences in opinion among organists, and perhaps indirectly to situations where two very different organs co-exist in certain large buildings, especially in the USA. An increasing number of builders (also probably in North America at first) began cautiously combining various styles to create a new kind of ‘historically informed’ eclectic instrument. One of the first examples was Fisk’s large 1979 instrument for the House of Hope Church, St Paul. Its Brustwerk division is a virtual copy of a similar 17th-century division in Lüneburg, and the Rückpositiv is also largely German, with a hint of classical French. The Great, Swell and Pedal divisions are, however, carefully chosen eclectic mixtures of 18th- and 19th-century German and French styles (including both German and French Trumpets). Music from several periods and places can be played stylistically on this organ, but players must have a clear understanding of the registrational needs of any particular piece, as also with Brombaugh’s similar 1986 instrument at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee. A 1985 Fisk (Mt Holyoke College, Massachusetts) blended German and Italian Baroque elements; a very different blending of 18th-century German, 19th-century French and 20th-century American elements characterizes Manuel Rosales’s 1987 organ in Trinity Church, Portland, Oregon; and Mander’s large organ at St Ignatius Loyola, New York (1992), successfully melds classical elements with later French and English colours. Such instruments succeed, not because they purport to play all music indiscriminately (they do not), but because they are carefully designed and large enough to do ample justice to more than one school or period.

In the 1990s this kind of historically informed eclecticism proliferated not only in the USA but in Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and even the former hotbed of neo-Baroque design, Scandinavia. That decade also saw a renewal of interest in concert hall organs which led to the restoration of older ones (the town halls at Birmingham, West Bromwich and Sydney; City Hall, Portland, Maine) and to the building of new ones largely in the new eclectic style (Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas; Fisk, 1991). Mechanical key action became the choice of many of the younger builders and some of the older ones, but in the larger instruments of all builders the stop and combination actions were almost universally electric or electro-pneumatic, and often equipped with solid-state memory systems, MIDI capability, or both. Small organs of excellent quality (usually all-mechanical) were being built, but tended to differ tonally from similarly sized instruments of the 1950s and 60s in that they more often included an 8' Principal on the main (or only) manual, tended to have a smaller proportion of Pedal stops to manual stops, and, if they had an enclosed division, it was more likely to be a proper interior Swell rather than simply a Brustwerk with shutters. Casework of organs of all sizes tended to be classical in proportion and decoration, but a few younger builders, such as the Austrian Caspar Clatter-Götz, remained committed to exploring more contemporary visual designs.

Organ-building firms became greater in number but smaller in size. In the USA two of the largest firms (Aeolian-Skinner and Möller) closed after 1970, and the only remaining firms of comparable size were Schantz, Reuter, Austin and Wicks, all makers of electric-action organs; in England the large Hill, Norman & Beard firm closed in the 1990s. Large European firms such as Klais, Schuke and Ruffatti diversified, offering organs in many styles, sizes and action types, and east European builders such as Jehmlich and Rieger-Kloss began to compete for export trade. Other older firms retrenched, including Willis, Walker, and Harrison in England, Walcker in Germany, Casavant in Canada and Rieger in Austria. Medium-size firms (30–40 employees) began to execute the large and prestigious contracts that would once have been the province of the larger factories, and some important instruments were commissioned from even smaller and younger firms, such as Fritts in the USA, Wolff and Letourneau in Canada and Jones in Ireland.

The last decades of the 20th century also saw the growth of organ-building establishments outside Europe and the Americas. Despite a large number of imports, mainly British, organs have been built since the middle of the 19th century in Australia and New Zealand by builders such as Fincham, Hobday, Richardson, Fuller, Dodds, Jones, Pogson and South Island, but it was not until Ronald Sharp built a mammoth five-manual organ in 1979 for the new Sydney Opera House that an Australian-born organ builder gained prominence. A Western-inspired organ culture also took root in Asia. Ever since the 19th century small numbers of organs have been exported to Hong Kong, Korea and China, but Japan emerged as the major Asian organ centre. During the final three decades of the 20th century a large number of organs of all sizes, chiefly all-mechanical or with mechanical key action, were exported by European and North American builders to Japanese colleges, concert halls, private houses, Christian churches and Buddhist temples. Organ playing began to be taught in many colleges and conservatories, organ recitals were well attended, and an active Japan Organ Society founded a scholarly journal. Excellent organs began to be constructed in Japan by several native builders, among whom Hiroshi Tsuji and Tetsuo Kusakari were the earliest to establish workshops.

Late 20th-century developments in organ research and design did much to further understanding of the repertory of all times and places. But the ‘historically informed’ organ also attracted the attention of a growing number of composers who, unlike many in the previous generation, were more interested in exploring its potential as a musical medium than in treating it as a sound-effects machine. Other trends, however, were more disturbing to some and challenging to others, especially the encroachments of electronic technology. Solid-state switching gained widespread acceptance in larger organs as a compact and reliable alternative to all-electric or electro-pneumatic systems, and computerized ‘memory’ in combination actions was welcomed with enthusiasm by organists. MIDI can be applied to most organs, even those with mechanical key action, and offers access to synthesizer effects for some kinds of contemporary music, as well as playback options (in which it is simply duplicating the function of the early 20th-century roll-players). More controversial to many players and builders has been the incorporation of electronically produced tone into otherwise traditional organs, although some builders had already been doing this in order to add 32' Pedal tone in situations where finances or space precluded using real pipes. By the end of the century, however, whole divisions were being added electronically: an organ might have one or two divisions of (mostly) pipes, a second or third of electronic tone-generators, and a Pedal division combining both. The greatest appeal of such frankly hybrid instruments is to smaller churches with limited space and funds, although a few larger ones have been manufactured. Developments such as this have, predictably, encouraged polarization between the proponents of historically influenced traditional organs on the one hand, and those who regard organs more from a technological and commercial standpoint on the other. However, the long history of the organs tells us that this ‘large wind instrument’ (as the builder Metzler has described it) has faced many other cultural and technological challenges in past centuries, and all that is certain is that yet more intriguing chapters in its continuing saga will open as the future unfolds.



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