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Harvard’s Historic, Controversial Fisk Organ: Last Local Utterances


C. B Fisk (company archive)
C. B Fisk (company archive)

When Harvard University Organist, Christian Lane, lifts his hands from the four well used manuals of the 1967 C. B. Fisk opus 46 organ in Appleton Chapel for the final time, at 7:30 P.M., on Monday, May 3, [reviewed here] staff from the firm that built the instrument will be ready with tools, crating, and pipe trays. Dismantling and preparing it for a second stage of life in a reverberant new Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas, will be a brief interim chapter in a remarkable, and at times briskly controversial, experiment begun by the University in the 1960s.

A beautiful D.A. Flentrop organ across the way, in what was then Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum for Germanic art, had been dedicated in 1958 and was immediately propelled into national fame by organist E. Power Biggs and his high-profile series of recitals, Columbia LPs, and radio broadcasts. This Dutch organ benefited from the supportive, clear acoustic of a massive masonry structure with neither carpeting nor permanent furniture. The questing, experiment-ready University, encouraged by the Flentrop’s musical and social success, was next interested in seeking an American solution to its local acoustical challenge. All resoundingly agreed that providing a new organ for Memorial Church would present potent technical and æsthetic hurdles along the way. They entrusted the design, construction, and voicing to one of their own, Charles Brenton Fisk, ‘45.

During the concluding years of World War II, the 18-year old Charles Fisk joined Robert Oppenheimer’s crew of bright young physicists as the atomic age got under way. From Los Alamos, he went on to study nuclear physics at Harvard and Stanford. However heady the post-war science climate at Brookhaven National Labs and in Palo Alto proved, this world of the mushroom cloud and nuclear ship propulsion failed to hold his attention. Furthermore, he carried extreme guilt for his albeit limited role in producing bombs which killed hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagaski. His excruciating calculus of his own guilt came from division of the numbers who died in the bombings by the numbers who produced the bombs. Volta faccia, he became the first man in this land to devote himself to building substantial tracker organs in our era. He founded C.B. Fisk & Co. in 1961, siting his small first shop near the eastern end of Cape Ann. By the time serious discussion of an historically informed solution to Appleton Chapel’s curious acoustic situation and its ecumenical needs began, the burgeoning new firm had an opus list with fewer than a dozen organs*, though some some of them were substantial  three-manual instruments.
<p>Æolian-Skinner Organ from 1932 (Harvard Archives)</p>
Æolian-Skinner Organ from 1932 (Harvard Archives)

During the late 1950s, Charles Fisk experienced a fair dollop of the civil but increasingly frantic dissatisfaction clerics and musicians had expressed with the state of organ music in Appleton Chapel, the chancel to larger Memorial Church. Fisk had lent his considerable intellect and the organ builder’s practical mindset to improvements to the four-manual, 43-rank E. M. Skinner organ (Op. 197, 1909). The steps forward were noticeable, but they were patently inadequate. What sounded balanced and rich in the small chancel became scrawny and lacking in bass on scraping past the high rood screen into larger Memorial Church. A stop or division voiced for the remote main space was killing in the chancel. Not surprisingly, an American late-1890s architectural innovation, the buried chancel or crossing organ chamber, was effective only in spacious, high, uncarpeted rooms fashioned of hard, inflexible materials (masonry, heavy plaster, massive and carefully joined wood). The Chancel’s small volume and its weak acoustic marriage with the broad, minimally reverberant, and relatively low-ceilinged main church presented the organ team with a stiff dilemma, as did one or two decisions that  would eventually come down from the office of the University president. By the formal commissioning of a big mechanical action instrument, the first American four-manual tracker since the 19th century, it was clear that the instrument, which had to be built in the Chancel rather than on the balcony in the markedly more open and uncolored acoustics of the Church, would tread a difficult path.

Those present during the installation of the big organ and Charles Fisk’s Herculean voicing process in 1967, will, I trust, come forward to share their insight into these intriguing and exasperating, daunting years. Between the start of discussion of a new Harvard instrument and the crisis-driven acoustic evaluation by the prominent Cambridge firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman in 1981, dozens of articles and critiques in organ-world and lay publications savaged the organ, the University, and the builder. In once more reading through the low-pH verbiage expended on the subject, I am saddened by the lack of communal sense within the organ world of that time, and I am reminded that, now as then, a wide gap separates two mutually inimical camps in this field.

Screen Seprates Organ from Knave (Christopher Greenleaf phot)
Screen Separates Organ from Nave (Christopher Greenleaf phot)

On the one side, we have early, brilliant American innovation and the necessarily radical technical solutions required by our national penchant for building and remodeling the non-reverberant, sonically unsupportive rooms in which we place organs. Out of this climate of chameleon adaptation to national architectural realities came consoles of tremendous sophistication, radiating and curved pedal-boards to enable easy playing of complex chromatic music, and electro-pneumatic wind-chests and registrational devices to afford the organist precise, flexible control over substantial tonal resources. Exactly as happened in the piano world, the high wind pressures enabled by these technical innovations so transformed the task of organ pipe voicing that even the most sophisticated organ builders could no longer deliver principals and flutes with easy, articulate speech. Reeds, as well, became difficult to voice for richness and blend, becoming instead fast-speaking, stable ranks of pipes to complement or contrast with the diapasons, flutes, strings, and mixtures. Electro-pneumatic swell shutters across the fronts of masonry chambers or heavily built free-standing divisional chambers allowed nearly seamless control over relative divisional volumes, and the very fast valves in the wind-chests admitted air to all pipes, regardless of their possibly remote locations, at the same time.

The tracker action is the original mechanical system whereby wind from wind-chests is admitted to those stops chosen for playing. The action of a good tracker organ is very responsive, but it can also be dismayingly revealing of a player’s technique and his expressive wherewithal. Good mechanical-action organs are capable of a degree of registrational and touch expressivity that take years to hone. The generally low wind pressure encourages sensitive, vocal tonal design. Manuals can be coupled to other manuals and down to the pedals. The mid-19th century saw the introduction of high-pressure pneumatic levers to assist the organist in playing an action rendered heavier by increased organ sizes and by composers’ ever more frequent call for couplers, octave couplers, and sudden registrational adjustments. Most original trackers were not particularly large, of course, so the radical mechanical solutions necessitated by symphonic organ repertoire and high-pressure winding were a trying factor in organ design between 1840 and the demise of the market for mechanical actions as the 20th century loomed. Large, modern trackers call on advanced software for stop choice and fast registration, but each key is still physically linked to the pipes whose sounds it causes.

Opus 46 before its Dedication (comany image)
Opus 46 before its Dedication (company image)

Historically, neither side of this organ world divide has had much sympathy for, or interest in, what the other has to say; and no discussion of organs, here or in Europe, has quite rivaled the roiling controversy surrounding the success or otherwise of Charles Fisk’s instrument in Appleton Chapel for sheer bile, leveled accusations, and confused æsthetics. Suffice it to say that, merely by coming into existence, a four-manual mechanical action instrument in a prominent venue, badly crippled by both location and comparison with the nearby Flentrop organ on the same campus, became a lightning rod for invective. It also afforded Charles Fisk and those who were sufficiently mature (there, I’ve said it) a floodlit forum for the opening, the mere beginning, of a conversation about beauty, architectural integrity, and a performer’s needs that continues into our time.

Neither the first version of the Harvard Fisk nor its 1983 reworking created an entirely successful organ, nor did its placement in Memorial Church’s Chancel —Appleton Chapel — augur well for its effectiveness. And yet the conversation was begun, a wealth of solutions evaluated, tried, discarded, and — importantly — instructive. This has been a national forum. The amazing integrity and intellect Charles Fisk focused upon the process extended to involve E. Power Biggs, Daniel Pinkham, the towering figure of Anton Heiller, and others in the who’s who catalogue of the best musicians.

So, off goes the Harvard Fisk organ, its first 43 years rewarded with a suitcase full of press-inflicted and highly publicized Purple Hearts. It has been, and will continue to be, a vital partner in a conversation without end, in which we learn humility in the face of the perspective of centuries of shared, not easily parsed history. Its two successors, a Hartford E. M. Skinner electro-pneumatic in the old chambers and a sizable, eclectic Fisk tracker in the rear balcony, will go their own ways down the path of musical evolution. This they could not have done without the vision of a nuclear physicist (and fanatical Mahler adorer) who exchanged a film badge for an organ voicer’s hand tools. Hats off to Charles Fisk for the vision and persistence to have given us the Appleton Chapel organ, and the profoundly illuminating discussion that came with it.

Bon voyage to you both.

* According to C.B. Fisk President, Steven Dieck, “When Charlie started C. B. Fisk, Inc. in 1961, he continued the Andover Opus list numbering.  Mt. Calvary in Baltimore was Andover’s Opus 35 and Charlie continued the C. B. Fisk list from that point.  So you can see that Opus 46 was less than a dozen organs after his start.”

Eight other sizable Fisk organs in diverse academic settings, each with its own highly individualistic character, are at:

• North Carolina School for the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, Op. 75 (1977)

<p>Fisk's early sketch for console (company archives)</p>
Fisk's early sketch for console (company archives)

• Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, Op. 72 (1981)

• Memorial Church, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Op. 85 (1984)

• Abbey Chapel, Mt. Holyoke Chapel, So. Hadley, MA Op. 84 (1986)

• Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, Op. 116 (2001)

• Auer Hall at Indiana University will dedicate Opus 135 presently

• Opus 121  Furman University

• Opus 117 at Pomona College

An interesting video excerpt of a new film on Charles Brenton Fisk is here.

More on opus 46 is here.

More on its Memorial Church successor is here.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Nice piece. I was at Harvard when the organ was installed and, as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Organ Society, can attest to the controversies. When E. Power Biggs let it sound, there were many long faces in the audience. The best place to listen to it was in the empty organ chambers of Appleton Chapel, as I did once. It was Lionel Rogg who suggested that it be voiced down.

    When the Fisk was being built, the little organ in the gallery sounded well, which bodes well for the new Fisk. I also applaud the decision to install a smaller Aeolian Skinner organ in Appleton Chapel.

    Comment by Larry Phillips — May 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm

  2. I was a student and frequent attendee at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel and Sunday worship services at Mem Church from 1948-1956 and 1958-1960. Having taken organ lessons and even been a recitalist on a wonderful E M Skinner at Independent Presbyterian in B’ham AL (chamber openings into the choir and not on the transept walls facing the nave – a favorite arrangement of Mr. Skinner) during high school I remember not once wishing for more sound in the nave at Mem Church.
    It was absolutely wonderful. And I heard such a wide variety of offerings – even Aaron Copeland!- from G Wallace Woodworth, organist and director of the choir and the Harvard Glee Club. Nor do I remember hearing or hearing of Woody’s wish for more. The Skinner in Mem Church was quite adequate and most musical. This “controversy” is more abhorrent historical revisionism rather actual facts reporting, in my opinion.

    There was no need for removal/disposal of the Skinner, even with the Fisk unfortunately placed at the east end of the Chapel. It has been my understanding that CBF himself wanted it placed in the balcony. My suspicion is that the forces heading the move for a “North German” descendant instrument for Mem Church, led by E P Biggs (for certain the newly arrived John Ferris was not at all a pusher) simply dictated that the most economical thing to do was to dispose of the Skinner rather than re-leather and refurbish it – and the money changers in the administration jumped aboard – so off went the beautiful Skinner to California. And EPB had his new toy on center stage without the adjacent, and potentially negatively distracting contrast for the newcomer. (In answer to my query not long before he died, President Pusey, likewise a faithful attendee at Sunday worship services, wrote to me all he remembered was that a new organ was installed while he was president!) It is ironic that Mr. Biggs became such a major factor in the de-fashioning of Skinner organs, particularly since it was his long enduring CBS Sunday morning live broadcasts during the 40s and 50s on the small “demonstration” Aeolian-Skinner in the location of the present Flentrop at Busch-Reisinger which played such a significant role in his becoming so famous and influentual.

    With the magic being worked by Mr. Jones and the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, perhaps we shall finally have the best of the two pipe organ worlds in/for Memorial Church, though whether it will match the wonder of the Aeolian and the Flentrop in the Chapel at Duke University remains to be seen. I am ever hopeful.

    A hearty thank you, best wishes and congratulations to all involved, Firmon Hardenbergh AB ’52, MD ’56

    A PS for Larry Phillips. As I understand it, the replacement for the Appleton Chapel chanbers is an E M Skinner, not an Aeolian Skinner. Aren’t we all the more fortunate?! feh

    Comment by Firmon E Hardenbergh — May 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

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