IN: Reviews

Jury Still Out on Harvard Organ


It truly was an academic affair at “The Dedication Recital of E. M. Skinner Organ, Op. 793,” Tuesday evening December 14 at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. A restored instrument dating from 1930 has found a new home in its Appleton Chapel, where it became The Jane Slaughter Hardenbergh Memorial Organ.

From where I was sitting, about halfway back from the pulpit — well outside the chapel — the newly installed Skinner sounded distant, never close. And why not test its sound from various places in the church? What I heard might have been quite different from what the many listeners seated in the chapel heard. One wonders if organist Thomas Murray, concert organist and recording artist who is University Organist and Professor of Music at Yale University, held in the reins. Maybe a possible harnessing of the instrument’s capabilities was a result of Murray’s choice of pieces made for the organ’s unveiling recital.

For me, the jury’s still out. It’s really too soon to make any real assessment of Op. 793. I would have to say that Murray’s programming would not win over many would-be organ enthusiasts, especially those taking a first listen to the “king of instruments,” or the “beast,” as it is affectionately called. Professor Murray’s encore, an organ transcription of Robert Schumann’s Pedal Sketch No. 4 in D-flat Major (for pedal piano) caught the ear, finally, as had little else, with the possible exception of the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (for piano, without opus number) by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the opening selection for  the one-hour recital.

What I could marvel over was the instrument’s refinement, its great delicacy. For contrast, though, I was unable to find any edgy sound, or bite. From where I sat, any brilliance there might have been in the organ’s higher register did not make it through to my pew. The big reeds at times produced more of a fat sound, and in at least two instances I believe I was able to detect relatively faint pulsations from the pedal notes, kinds you associate with orchestral-like organs. While there were a good number of crescendos that Murray showed us throughout the dedication, all of them unusually smooth and perfectly timed, the peaks and climaxes fell short of the mark. Spatial distance, repertoire, execution, or possibly some other factor might have played into this disappointing unveiling.

Hindemith’s Sonata II (1937) coupled with the utter refinement of Murray’s performance art exposed only part of the organ’s range of expression.  Symphonie I by Guy Weitz (1932) which went on and on, and its multiple passes at escalation failed to excite in the third and final movement thereby stealing attention away from Skinner potential.

Known for his grasp of the Romantic organ and its literature, recitalist Thomas Murray surprisingly redirected his programming as well as his performance from a deeper personal expression to a statement of fine-tuning. High art comes to mind. His suppleness often created the illusion that he was at an instrument that could change its touch at the drop of a hat. The pliable beat he conjured, too, was a feat in and of itself. How he knew when to move the beat this way or that, this nanosecond or that millisecond left me in marvelous mystery.

Artisans, advisors, architects, all, we were told, contributed to this “historic event.” Many hands were involved in this restoration that brings a Skinner instrument back to Memorial Church after a number of decades with a Fisk organ. Perhaps others are also asking if we will need to come back for another listen and whether, as stated in the introductory remarks, the Skinner Organ, Op. 793 will “shower us with historical sound.”

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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

  1. A missing part of the story on the Memorial Church organs is the impending installation of C.B.Fisk’s opus op. 139 in a newly prepared space in the balcony. That instrument, speaking directly into the Memorial Church nave, is meant to support congregational singing and is therefore expected to make a bigger sound in the room than the new Skinner.

    E.M. Skinner’s opus 793, which is half the size of the previous Skinner to occupy the chambers in Appleton Chapel, is meant for the support of choirs within that much smaller and more reverberant space. There its refinement can be savored. During a rehearsal on the morning of the concert I wandered about Memorial Church and Appleton Chapel to evaluate how the organ projected, and I agree with Professor Patterson that the sound could be remote in the larger room.

    Therefore I decided to experience the recital seated in the choir stalls where, along with a substantial crowd of organ professionals and aficionados, I was “…showered with historical sound.”

    Bravo to The Rev. Peter Gomes for placing the best of two organ worlds in Memorial Church and Appleton Chapel.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 16, 2010 at 1:28 pm

  2. I was seated out in the nave and I heard the entire recital quite clearly but I agree that the full sound seems a bit small. But I don’t imagine that most solo recitals will have such a large audience, so seating in the chapel ought to be adequate for most occasions.

    I remember the old Aeolian-Skinner, four manuals, with pipes in chambers behind the grillwork in the chancel, before it was removed in the 1960s to make way for the four-manual Fisk installed behind the altar. For daily services in the chapel it was undoubtedly too big, but even then I don’t recall that its full organ sound filled the entire church. I remember a big recital in 1954 by Robert Elmore, with American warhorses (Seth Bingham, J. W. Clokey) and Messiaen’s recently composed Messe de la Pentecote which still annoys me today; the small audience filled the chapel, and then the massive sound was good. The new recycled Aeolian-Skinner does seem a bit small, but it’s enough to handle most of the big 20th-century repertory, especially French romantic; there are nice reeds on the Great and Swell, and Tom Murray made the most of the soft flutes and strings. I’m not sure how well it will sound for brighter Baroque because there seemed to be less in the uppermost registers; the only 2-foot stop is on the Great, and I didn’t see a Tierce anywhere. But it will be great to hear the result when both instruments are ready for battle. It should be possible to do Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion in its original disposition, with double chorus and double orchestra in the middle of the nave, and two organs at opposite ends; as for the audience, they’ll have to take space where they can find it.

    In all these years I’ve never been able to find out what happened to the original Aeolian-Skinner! Maybe, like the Aeolian-Skinner at Christ Church (Episcopal) on the Common, it was sold to Texas.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — December 16, 2010 at 9:27 pm

  3. Mark-

    Here’s a link to the history of the Æolian Skinner opus 886 which you used to hear:

    The current organ is the work of Ernest M. Skinner. Its stoplist includes a III rank chorus mixture on the great manual as well as a V rank mixture in the swell and a 2 2/3 nazard in the choir. It also has super-couplers for all the manuals which can add a great deal of brightness. Thomas Murray used them liberally. From within the chapel there was sparkling brightness when called forth.

    Here is a link to the stoplist of E. M. Skinner opus 793

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm

  4. Unable to attend Tom Murray’s opening recital on the Skinner Tuesday evening because of a conflict, I did not see the printed program, but perhaps there should have been in it a disclaimer about the relative functions of the new/old Skinner and the new Fisk, which is currently under construction in Fisk’s Gloucester shop. Monday evening at the Harvard Carol Service, I sat in the “chapel,” which to be clear is the what would normally be called the “chancel” area of the Memorial Church (the name of Appleton is used to preserve the memory of the chapel which was torn down and replaced by Memorial Church in 1932.) Certainly the Skinner fills the space of the Chapel eminently, and luckily also does quite well (as evidenced by the carol singing Monday evening) in accompanying the hymns. With the building less than full it also provides much more sound in the Church itself than did the 1932 very-large Aeolian-Skinner. I barely remember the original organ but for one impression: singing carols at the annual Carol Service in 1965, when I was out in the Church itself, about the only sound which made any impact was the 32′ pedal reed, which shook the floor intriguingly. When the 1932 organ was tossed for the 1967 Fisk, the original intention was to place the Fisk in the gallery, but for various reasons it ended up in Appleton Chapel in front of the large west window at the apex of both rooms, so as to–it was hoped–fill the whole church with sound. That did not work, and now an important decision has been made to admit that two organs are necessary to function effectively in the space of Memorial Church and Appleton Chapel.
    Most importantly for last Tuesday evening, it has little or nothing to do with Tom Murray’s brilliant artistry that the sound did not reach the farthest corners of the building.

    Comment by Brian Jones — December 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

  5. From post-concert conversations with professional organists in attendance in The Memorial Church for this Dedication Recital, the cognoscenti were in agreement in admiration for a masterful performance by Thomas Murray. That Professor Murray’s former students at the Yale School of Music occupy leading church and collegiate posts across the U.S. is a tribute to his artistic excellence and the effectiveness of his pedagogy. This concert treated listeners to the ultimate in expressive sounds that a restored and refurbished E. M. Skinner organ can produce when served by a mature artist of ultimate talent, technique, and refined musicianship. For those who cherish the romantic sounds of the symphonic organ — in contrast to the style of the organ it replaces at Harvard but like that of the church’s original organ of 1932, though a third its size — the performance of Frank Bridge’s Adagio in E Major provided compelling aural satisfaction. Prof. Murray’s program was tailored to the ear of the organ music sophisticate and regrettably may not have captured the awe of the general public who yearn for more familiar fare, e.g., Widor’s Toccata from Symphony 5 vs. the programmed Symphonie I of Guy Weitz. One envies the congregants of Christ Church, an architectural jewel in masonry in New Haven where Prof. Murray engages in his heavenly calling and regularly augments the beauty of the traditional Anglican liturgy on the superb Lively-Fulcher organ from 2006 that utilizes the Clarinet and lush strings of the church’s earlier E. M. Skinner instrument heard in a reverberant acoustical setting.
    Even so, in the far less resonant Memorial Church building, the rebuilt E. M. Skinner organ, relocated from the former Second Church of Christ, Scientist in Hartford (Connecticut’s loss) does supply rapturous pipe choruses of celestial winds and shimmering strings. All this auditory beauty now is matched by the visual treat of experiencing the sacred space that is the restored Appleton Chapel, coming close to a return to Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott’s distinguished design, although one wishes funds had been available to re-create the original glorious organ case that graced the façade of the north grille work. Thank God and The Memorial Church’s leadership and the donors to the recent fund campaign that the architects’ inspired aesthetic vision at long last is given the respect it is due. The removal of the celebrated 1967 Fisk tracker instrument, the definitive representative of organ building tastes of its time, now permits enjoyment of light streaming from the east-facing Palladian window. And thanks to the reopening of the portal between chapel and church, the reunited spaces allow the building to serve as the proper collegiate-style church it was intended to be.
    That Professor David Patterson was seated so far back from the organ explains his frustration with the remoteness of the sounds and aptly pinpoints the dilemma of how to handle an organ installation that would respect the building’s classic architecture and yet fill the space with round balanced tones all the while maintaining clarity. No wonder the reviewer opines that the jury is still out. It was just this quandary that the 1967 Fisk valiantly attempted to resolve and that the new Fisk tracker slated for installation in the rear gallery next year will seek to address. Alas, however, it will be independent of the Skinner organ in the chapel. A far better solution would have been to install a new single instrument with divisions of organ pipes placed in front and back, flexibly playable from either of two organ consoles located in chapel and rear gallery. Such an arrangement would offer the congregation the foundational support requisite in leading the singing of hymns, yet still permit the organist and choristers to be up front where the action is. One suspects a tragically missed opportunity to create a world masterwork in our home town, wondering if the church’s organ consultants ever gave such an approach the thoughtful consideration it merits. America is most fortunate that today the San Francisco organ builder Schoenstein & Co., working in the style pioneered by Ernest M. Skinner, repeatedly has demonstrated the capabilities to solve such vexing predicaments. Schoenstein’s recent highly praised installations include such notable venues as St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue, New York, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City, the world’s largest theater auditorium. Harvard deserves no less.

    Comment by Raffi Berberian — December 17, 2010 at 11:47 am

  6. There is, of course, no technical obstacle to making the Skinner playable from the Fisk…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm

  7. David Patterson’s review of Thomas Murray’s December 15 concert in Harvard’s Memorial Church reflected understandable disappointment: the Skinner organ in Appleton Chapel does not sound forth in the Memorial Church with marked brilliance or power. To those familiar with the principles behind the Church’s recent renovation and organ plan, these conditions are not only understandable but desirable, as the Church proper is to receive its own organ in due course. Meanwhile, the Skinner is meant for Chapel and not for Church, and thus any ability to hear it in the Church is of incidental concern.

    Prof. Patterson’s review shed light, however, on the fact that, however fine a job the Church has done in articulating the project to its own circle, a statement or explanation of musical goals is not readily found online. The following may therefore correct some impressions.

    After an initial decision in late 2004 to explore musical options in The Memorial Church, a year of study and acoustical experimentation commenced. It was concluded that the two spaces, Chapel and Church, would be best served by two discrete pipe organs: one in the gallery, to lead the Sunday morning congregation, and another in the Chapel for daily Morning Prayers. Having two organs stood at variance with history, since from 1932, and again in 1967, a single organ within Appleton Chapel has been expected to serve not only its immediate listeners in the Chapel but those in the Church for Sunday worship. Neither previous organ was successful in this latter task.

    In the Chapel, architectural elements re-arranged for the 1967 Fisk organ have been returned to their 1932 configuration. With the preacher and lectern restored to the east end, the choir has taken a central location in the stalls. Also, the rood screen portal has been re-opened, recreating the original vista from west to east and reconnecting Chapel to Church in an important architectural dimension. The vintage Skinner installed in the pipe lofts above the pews is intended for the accompaniment of daily Morning Prayers. For those seated in the Chapel, the Skinner speaks directly and with a compelling range of subtlety and power.

    Meanwhile, the gallery renovations of summer 2010 prepared that space both for Sunday choral singing from this location and the new C.B. Fisk Memorial Organ, Op. 139 (to arrive June 2011, completed by Easter 2012). Having the choir sing from the Chapel for Sunday services in the Church has always been a compromised affair. Now, rather than choral tone being veiled behind the rood, the sound of voices will float naturally down from the gallery. Located centrally and high, the new Fisk will lead the Church congregation with a clarity and directness unprecedented in that space.

    The idea of a single new organ, having pipes in both Chapel and Gallery as suggested here by Raffi Berberian, was considered and rejected early in the discernment process. First, with choral sound so dramatically better in the gallery than the Chapel, it seemed a tragically missed opportunity not to relocate singers there for Sunday morning worship. Given the choir’s essential invisibility behind the rood screen on Sunday mornings, Prof. Gomes felt that any lack of visual engagement would be more than compensated by the choir’s increased clarity and power as heard from the gallery. Second, a single large organ seemed too narrow in scope, when two different instruments of moderate size could expand the range of styles and actions available on the Harvard campus. Finally, Appleton Chapel and the gallery of The Memorial Church exist in considerably different climates. The tuning of organ pipes is mercurially sensitive to temperature. Having each section in tune with the other would be occasional at best; constant seasonal retuning would prove formidable.

    For anyone seated in The Memorial Church, Thomas Murray’s concert may have seemed an anachronistic affair. Such are the conditions of the occasion, when in the zeal of wishing to celebrate the organ’s arrival, the limited seating in Appleton Chapel meant that many would be denied the intended vantage. Thus, any assessment of this organ’s effectiveness needs to occur squarely in the proper jury box: the collegiate Georgian splendor of Appleton Chapel.

    Jonathan Ambrosino
    project advisor to The Memorial Church, Harvard University

    Comment by Jonathan Ambrosino — January 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

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