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New Fisk Organ for Memorial Church


April marks the inauguration of New England’s most notable new pipe organ of recent decades, The Charles B. Fisk and Peter J. Gomes Memorial Organ, Fisk Opus 139, in The Memorial Church at Harvard University. Beginning on April 8th with its “first hearing” at the 11:00 a.m. Easter Sunday service (the organ prelude begins at 10:00), the new instrument will be showcased throughout the month in a number of concerts.  On April 10th, David Higgs will perform for the organ’s concert debut, and the Harvard University Choir will present a concert featuring works with two organs on April 29th. For programs of all of the inaugural events, click here.

Named in memory of two influential leaders — Charles B. Fisk, who influenced the trajectory of American organ building in the 20th century, and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who adeptly communicated through word and speech the presence of God’s love in art and music — this monumental instrument stands as a soaring testament to music’s immeasurable power in corporate worship, its place in a modern and dynamic university, and its impact on the lives of countless persons who, in the coming decades, will find inspiration and seek knowledge in its smooth voice, malleable tone, and delicate craftsmanship. One may see Opus 139’s detailed specification here and an interesting video on the planning and construction here.

Steve Kowalyshyn holds keys for final tuning (BMInt staff photo)

The installation of Opus 139 marks the completion of a multi-year period of restoration and renewal in The Memorial Church, a project that is a legacy of our late leader, the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He was a man whose genius was to not only embrace the past, as he did so vibrantly, but to envision a definable and glorious future for his beloved institution, ensuring both its viability and vitality.

The new Fisk organ is ideally suited for its space — not only architecturally, but tonally. Its 3,110 uniquely crafted pipes comprising 44 individual voices sing vibrantly into the room for which it was designed. Its placement in the gallery near the ceiling helps guide its sound efficiently into the room, allowing for an enlivened sonic experience and an eminently improved capacity for supporting congregational singing in the Church.

Three divisions of the organ — the Great, Positive, and Pedal — live comfortably inside the main case of the organ, while the substantial Swell division and the largest of the pedal pipes (which are as wide and long as an oak tree’s trunk) are housed in new construction within the attic of the church, speaking through a tone chute hidden by the upper portion of the casework. The Positive division in the main case is behind the central façade and above the organist’s head, allowing direct speech into the room; many of the organ’s “melody” stops are in this division, which is ideally suited to interact with the magnifying qualities of the barrel vaulted ceiling. The Great and Pedal divisions are spread low and wide to the sides of the main case, minimizing their interaction with the vaulted ceiling, thus ensuring that these fundamental and substantial divisions do not tire the listener’s ear.

The majority of the pipe-work is made of hand-cast sheets of lead and tin alloys. (The quality of a pipe’s sound is largely impacted by the specific metal alloy utilized.) The remaining pipe-work is constructed of wood, which in many cases gives the tone a “flute-like” quality. All of the pipe-work and its supporting mechanisms are connected to the console via an intricate system of “trackers,” allowing the organist to control the organ’s breathing and speech by manipulating the engagement of wind and pipe. (For instance, a fast key attack at the console will create a different quality of pipe speech than a slow one.) While the fundamental design of a “tracker-” (or “mechanical-”) action organ hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, our organ trackers are made of modern carbon fiber material, which is stronger than wood or metal and lighter for the organist’s touch. In addition, Opus 139 features a Kowalyshyn Servopneumatic Lever, which provides a power-assist to the Great key action and couplers, allowing the organist to manage and control large portions of the organ with relative physical ease while maintaining a fine sense of connection to the instrument. Finally, our organ lives in its own climate; a dedicated HVAC system provides air to the organ that is then cycled back by way of a circular system. The resulting environmental constancy provides the instrument with tuning and mechanical stability in a church that, on the whole, is not climate-controlled.

David Pike voicing and tuning (BMInt staff photo)
Tracker organs can have modern actions (BMInt staff photo)

Supporting and strengthening President Drew Faust’s campus-wide commitment to increasing the quality and prevalence of artistic pursuit, this project fully restored the artistic and architectural majesty of our building and allowed for the installation of two complementary instruments that will not only inspire, but will also teach. The completion of this tiered project is much more than an end; indeed, it marks the beginning of a new era in the artistic life of Harvard and Memorial Church.

Despite Harvard’s revolutionary appointment of our country’s first professor of music, John Knowles Paine, in 1875 (also University Organist and Choirmaster from 1862–1882), and its historic commitment to maintaining a music department with scholars of the highest renown (many of whom, incidentally, are organists — Adams University Professor Christoph Wolff and Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music Thomas Kelly among them), Harvard has never been known as a music school, let alone an organ school. With new-found and renewed engagement in arts and humanities across the school, and with new instruments that, through their craftsmanship and mechanism, teach more than words ever could, the university is now poised to be a center for organ study and scholarship in the decades to come. The glorious new Fisk organ ideally complements the beautifully restored 1929 Skinner Organ Opus 793 in Appleton Chapel and the 1958 Flentrop in Adolphus Busch Hall (made famous through E. Power Biggs’s countless live CBS radio broadcasts in the mid-20th century), forming a tripartite collection of significant instruments unmatched at most universities today.

Several key players in the project reflected on the men honored by this instrument and on the building of the instrument itself.

Gregory R. Bover, Fisk project manager for the design and construction of Opus 139, wrote of the instrument’s genesis:

When initial discussions about the possibility of a new organ in Memorial Church began in 2005, they presented C. B. Fisk, Inc. with a complex set of challenges and opportunities. Charles Fisk, the founder of our company, was a Cambridge native and a Harvard alumnus. In 1967, his then six-year-old firm built a large four-manual organ in the Church’s Appleton Chapel, in front of the grand Palladian window. It was not the location that he would have preferred, and caring for this instrument over the intervening years had given us, his followers, an appreciation for the reasoning behind his preference and an intimacy with the splendors and foibles of the acoustical environment into which it spoke.

The decision to build a new organ in the gallery, to move the choir there for Sunday services, and to install a separate instrument in the original chambers of Appleton Chapel frees both instruments from compromise. The tonal design of Opus 139 is an eclectic choice of historically based voices that authentically reflect the best examples of French, German, and English organ sound from the last four centuries. With the Swell and the Positive divisions under expression, a plethora of colors at eight-foot pitch — including the powerful Tuba mirabilis — is available at all dynamic levels.

In the Fisk tradition, the visual design of the new organ was carefully created in a precise scale model of the building to ensure harmony with the Georgian Revival interior. The dark oak case, ornate carvings, and gold-leafed front pipes were all concepts developed in consultation with the Reverend Gomes and the musicians of Memorial Church. The position of the organ in the gallery, the arrangement of the divisions within the organ, and the decisions made during the nine-month voicing process all reflect our long-term study of the acoustical properties of the room and the roles the organ will play in the life of the church, first and foremost as choral accompaniment and in support of congregational singing, but also in solo recital and as a teaching instrument.

The men and women of C. B. Fisk, Inc. have spent more than 40,000 hours to create Opus 139 as a tribute to Charles Fisk and the Reverend Gomes, whose friendship and guidance we valued so highly. We commend this organ to the present and future students and faculty of Harvard University as a memorial to these two sagacious men who cared so deeply about this church.

Steven Dieck, current president of C. B. Fisk, Inc., added,

Charles Fisk always dreamed of building a major pipe organ for his alma mater. As a young physics major at Harvard College, he could often be found tinkering with organ pipes in his dorm room, and it was this passion for the pipe organ and its music that ultimately compelled him to abandon a blossoming career in physics to become an organ builder. With the installation of Opus 46 in Memorial Church in 1967, his dream of building an organ for Harvard was realized.

Charlie loved to keep ideas flowing and to “stir the pot,” as he would say. Opus 46 was a daring instrument that not only represented his then most notable to date, but it also influenced American perceptions on how organs could and should be built for decades to come. With profound thanks for the ideals he instilled in us, we, his successors at C. B. Fisk, Inc., gladly continue his relationship with Harvard through the installation of Opus 139, dedicated to his memory.

Edward Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard, said of the Rev. Gomes,

He was a formidable preacher and minister whose oratorical skills were legendary. Less well known, perhaps, was that Peter was also a very gifted musician: the son of an organist, he grew up playing the instrument in local churches. While his own musical tastes lay firmly rooted in a quirky combination of English Victoriana and American Baptist hymnody, he encouraged a diverse church music program that represented the gamut of musical styles. It was a privilege and honor to serve under such an extraordinary figure for almost a decade.

Professor Gomes often lamented the architectural consequences of the 1967 installation of Fisk Opus 46 in Appleton Chapel: the reversal of the chapel’s orientation — thereby blocking any link between chapel and sanctuary — and the complete obstruction of the beautiful Palladian window at the east end, which deprived the chapel of its natural light source. So his vision for Memorial Church was twofold: to restore Appleton Chapel to its original design and to formulate an organ plan that would serve the very different needs of daily chapel services and weekly worship in the main sanctuary.

The restoration of Appleton Chapel and the installation of two magnificent pipe organs are his great legacy; he would have relished the sight and sounds of the new Fisk majestically residing in the rear gallery. Though he did not live to see the completion of the project he worked so tirelessly to achieve [he died in 2011], it is a blessing he was able to hear and play the Skinner organ and to see his beloved Appleton Chapel bathed once again in radiant light. We give thanks for the opportunity to honor his wonderful legacy through the ministry of music.

Until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ represented the pinnacle of human engineering and craftsmanship, and it retains the broadest repertoire of any commonly used instrument today. While no organ can claim absolute authenticity across six centuries of compositional style, Fisk Opus 139 comes very close, eminently capable of performing repertoire of all styles with aplomb and easily fulfilling its quadruple mandate as choral accompanist, congregational leader, soloist, and teacher. This 16-ton musical machine will outlast many of us, inspiring and teaching generations to come. We welcome your participation and attendance in our inaugural activities this month as we celebrate the lives of two great men and anticipate a very bright future for the pipe organ at Harvard and in Boston.

Christian Lane is Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard University. He recently won the Canadian International Organ Competition.
Opus 139 in situ (Dana Sigall photo)

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  1. It’s odd that Lane would go out of his way to stress that “Harvard has never been known as a music school” when not a few world-famous composers and performers could readily chime in to the contrary. But the “let alone an organ school” swipe deserves some qualification. From 1967 on for over a decade, Harvard was known in the organ world at least for having a truly pathbreaking instrument, which leading organists came to recital on, with sellout crowds overflowing Mem Church many times. The siting of that famous Fisk was wretched for sure, but in the organ world the instrument was responsible for considerable excitement for a good period of time. (Some of the power, excitement, and superlative playing of those occasions can be heard on the Heiller at Harvard CD box set Si Fisk and I produced, available at, with extensive documentation of those events available online at [Heiller student reminiscences are at

    Comment by david moran — April 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm

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