IN: Reviews

The Mighty Fisk Speaks at Harvard


The new Fisk organ (opus 139) in The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard gave its first public performance on Sunday as a lengthy prelude to the Easter Service. Christian Lane, Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard University, played a one-hour program selected to show off the many voices of this fabulous instrument. At the end of the hour, the University choir under the direction of  Gund University Organist and Choirmaster in The Memorial Church Edward E. Jones, joined Lane for a performance of Alfred V. Fedak’s “Spring Bursts Forth,” commissioned for the occasion.

The inaugural concert series will start this Tuesday, April 10th, and will be reviewed by Peter Sykes for the Intelligencer. I will give only a first impression here. I was a member of the University Choir when the four-manual Fisk opus 46 was installed in 1967 in front of the Palladian window of Appleton Chapel, so I was fortunate to get to know – and love – Charles Fisk as he bustled around listening, adjusting, and explaining his ideas about the new organ. I worked with him and many fine organists as recording engineer. Charles’s taste in players and playing was infallible, his comments on the editing invaluable.

Opus 47 was the largest tracker organ Fisk had built at that time – perhaps the largest in the country. It was full of wonderful sounds and put the small firm of C.B. Fisk firmly on the organ-building map. But Appleton Chapel is an acoustic cave of a room, and the organ’s position in the far end was unfavorable. By the time the sound passed through the rood screen into the main church it had already lost the immediacy and clarity good organ music demands. One of the legacies of the late Rev. Peter Gomes was his ultimately successful effort to replace opus 47 with two organs, one for Appleton chapel, and a brand-new, magnificent three-manual Fisk in the back of the main church. On Sunday we finally heard what Gomes’s vision and the legacy of Fisk’s skill wrought.

The result is fantastic, providing a great improvement in strength and clarity of sound in the body of the church. I came early enough to get a seat in the middle of the nave with a clear view of the whole organ, at least if I turned around in my pew. I liked the sound better when I faced the organ, but the position is uncomfortable, and may be a bit frowned upon. When facing the front of the church with the organ behind the sound was still very good – the height of the organ above the listener’s head compensates for some of the loss of treble. (This is a phenomenon of binaural hearing.)

Opus 139 is capable of an enormous range of voices. The opening Fanfare (1952) by John Cook demonstrated the organ’s principal stops, mixtures, trumpets, and pedal reeds, and this quickly silenced the crowd! The trumpets and reeds can be immensely powerful, cutting into the church like knives. The position of the organ against the back wall and the construction of the case focus the organ sound outward into the church, giving the sound a sense of closeness and presence that is usually welcome, although sometimes overwhelming.

Fanfare was followed by several quieter pieces, by Widor, Messiaen, and Gabrieli, in which the organ really shone; a huge variety of quieter sounds, chirpy sounds, nasal sounds, beautiful strings, and a fabulous swell register were all in evidence.

The Buxtehude that came next was a disappointment. I grew up listening to recordings of E. Power Biggs playing Bach on the Harvard Flentrop and Buxtehude through the recordings of Alf Linder on the church organ of Vårfrukyrkan in Skänninge, Sweden. These recordings have a sound that allows each line of the composition to be heard with complete clarity. The registrations chosen by Lane were lovely in the high registers, but the pedal reeds overwhelmed the middle registers. The sound was loud, but not clear. I am sure these problems will be worked out in future performances.

A very pleasant surprise was Cambridge Passacaglia, written for the occasion by Carson Cooman, composer in residence at Memorial Church. This is a great piece and showed off the strengths of the organ well.

After a fine performance of the “Final” from Symphony No. I of Louis Vierne, Jones and the choir got the opportunity to show their stuff in the world premier of Spring Bursts Today, composed for the occasion by Alfred V. Fedak, a well-known composer of sacred music. The choir sang the piece, which beautifully combines the colors of the organ with the singers, with unusual power and was a delight to hear. But… during the year opus 46 was installed, the choir sang in the rear balcony, just as they do now with the new organ. A  two-manual tracker against the back wall was a bit too small for leading the congregation in hymns, but perfect for balancing the choir. The new organ is immensely more powerful, and it will take some time to find the right stops to use with the choir. In this performance the balance strongly favored the organ, and the beautiful words of the poem were often inaudible.

All in all, the new organ is an enormous improvement to the sound, hymn leading, and musical opportunities of the Memorial Church and a great tribute to both The Rev. Peter Gomes and Charles Fisk.

A very interesting article by Christian Lane on the new Fisk is here.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.


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

  1. I’d be interested to know the impressions of the choir. Can they hear each other singing? Can they hear *anything* after they leave? Do they get ear plugs? I used to enjoy sitting in the balcony during services that would be crowded, e.g. Easter, but I suppose now that’s just the choir’s territory.

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

  2. Thanks to Mr. Greisinger for a good account of a splendid event. It was a truly glorious occasion, and a prodigious feat of musicianship by both the choir and Mr. Lane.I would add these comments, however. The organ seemed to me much more flexible and effective as an accompanimental instrument, supporting both choir and (very full!) congregation with distinction.  I had no problem hearing the choir’s timbre or diction at any time. The solo repertoire was more disappointing, featuring few individual stops of distinction nor provocative choruses in any division. The instrument seemed bland.  Whatever Op. 46’s faults, it wasn’t dull!The real high point of the morning was Horatio Parker’s “Light’s Glittering Morn” which seemed the perfect combination of occasion, place and forces. The organ sounded truly at home for the first time.Every organ is a work in progress, and as Op. 139 lives into its setting I am sure it will be refined into the marvelous instrument Memorial Church demands.

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — April 13, 2012 at 8:14 am

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