in: News & Features

February 9, 2011

The Case for Two Organs at Harvard’s Chapel

by

Ernest M. Skinner, organ builder.

On Sunday, February 13 at 4:00 PM, Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster, Christian Lane, will be giving a free recital at The Memorial Church, Harvard University on the new/old Appleton Chapel Skinner. His program will include works of Elgar, Jehan Alain, Schumann and Bach. The article which follows explains the arrivals of new organs at Harvard.

Music has long been central to worship at The Memorial Church at Harvard University, with choirs and congregations led by commanding pipe organs, but “Mem Church” is really two distinct spaces. The nave (called “the Church”) serves as the primary gathering space, while the chancel, called  Appleton Chapel, separated from the nave by an elegant rood screen, serves both as its own space for daily worship and as a chancel to the larger Memorial Church on Sunday mornings. This unusual configuration introduces a specific musical challenge.

Memorial Church’s original 1932 Æolian-Skinner organ, opus 886, located in side chambers above the Appleton Chapel choir stalls, had to be delicate enough to lead Morning Prayers in Chapel but powerful enough to turn a considerable corner and saturate the Church for Sunday morning service. While that Æolian-Skinner was tremendous in size and scope and embodied many “progressive” features, no organ could ever succeed under these conditions.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs existed until 1963, when the need of repairs to the organ invited consideration of a new instrument. Many hoped that a new instrument might be placed in the gallery, from where it could speak directly into the Church, with a second, much smaller organ provided in the Chapel for Morning Prayers. Such was not to be, however, and the impressive new 1967 Fisk organ, though radically different, seemed doomed to its predecessor’s fate, being once again located in Appleton Chapel. Musically and mechanically pioneering, the instrument naturally found its own enthusiastic audience, if not necessarily for its liturgical performance, certainly for its abilities to render solo organ repertoire and the unwieldy excitement it conveyed to the player.

A view of the new console and old rood screen (BMInt staff photo)

Over time, the architectural consequences of the 1967 work became clearer. To accommodate the Fisk instrument, the Chapel arrangement was reversed, placing the new organ against the east window and transferring the lectern adjacent to the rood screen. An important visual connection between Church and Chapel was now severed. Formerly, one could enter the west (main) door, gaze toward the rood screen, and behold through its portal an altar bathed in light from the east. Not only was that vista truncated at the rood screen, but services in Appleton were now cast in shadow.

As Memorial Church approached its 75th anniversary, the Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes and his staff began to re-examine the situation. The idea of a single new organ, having pipes in both Chapel and Gallery, was considered but rejected early in the process.  First, with choral sound so dramatically better in the Gallery than in the Chapel, it seemed a 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 if 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 a gallery and chancel division of a single organ section in tune with teach other would be occasional at best; constant seasonal retuning would prove formidable and costly.

The team concluded that Chapel and Church would be best served by independent organs: one in the gallery to lead the congregation, as Charles Fisk had always hoped, and another in the original Chapel location, speaking directly to those gathered for Morning Prayers without intruding upon floor space or vista. From this premise grew a straightforward plan. In the Chapel, elements re-arranged in 1967 have been returned to their 1932 configuration. With the preacher and lectern restored to the east end, the choir is located midway in the Chapel. The rood screen portal has been opened once more, re-creating the original connection between Chapel and Church. A vintage 1929 Skinner organ, opus 793, originally installed at Second Church of Christ, Scientist, in Hartford, was acquired upon that institution’s closing for installation at Harvard. At 39 stops, fewer than half the number in the original 1932 instrument, the new/old Skinner provides both subtlety and power for Morning Prayers, without any expectation that it should turn the corner and serve the Church for Sunday worship. Its console has been placed in the stalls in the location of its 1932 equivalent.

In the gallery, several structural and architectural changes have prepared the way for music there. Central to the plan is locating the University Choir in the gallery for Sunday worship. Rather than choral tone being veiled behind the rood, it will flow down into the church from the gallery, thanks to the effective acoustical transmission of the barrel vault ceiling. A new mechanical-action C.B. Fisk organ, Op. 139, is now being constructed for installation against the rear gallery wall. Installation will begin this May, with completion expected by Easter 2012. Its visual design follows a certain line of thinking from mid-19th-century New England organ-building, as well as echoing specific decorative themes found elsewhere in the Church.

For anyone seated in The Memorial Church, concerts on the Skinner organ in Appleton may sound a touch distant, since this instrument does not, nor is expected, to project its sound into the Church proper. Rather, its suave, mellifluous power and variety is best enjoyed within Appleton Chapel. Get there early to grab one of the hundred-odd seats.

JONATHAN AMBROSINO is an organ technician, consultant and journalist living in Boston. In addition to the maintenance of some of Boston’s best-known instruments, Mr. Ambrosino has carried out tonal restoration projects on important pre-War twentieth-century American organs and maintains an active consulting practice for new instruments and restoration projects such as at Washington Cathedral, Harvard University, and Saint Thomas Church in New York City). A councilor of the Organ Historical Society, he served that organization as president from 1999 to 2001.

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