Twenty-six years ago, Leo Abbott, the organist of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, gave a benefit recital to raise money for badly needed repairs to the cathedral’s legendary 1875 Hook organ. The organ was big — some claim it to have been the largest American-made organ in the country when it was built — and the maintenance needs were big as well. With few other sources of funding in sight, Abbott made his benefit recital an annual tradition.
This fall, Abbott, now Organist Emeritus, will give the 26th annual benefit recital on Sunday, September 15, 2019 at 3 p.m.. This one, however, will be different in one important respect: not only is the organ in better shape, buts its acoustical environment has been restored to a state very near that for which the organ was voiced.
The pipe organ benefits enormously from the resonance of the room it occupies. Thus the recent restoration of the cathedral interior, which included removing carpeting in favor of a light-grey marble floor, is as meaningful to the sound of the organ as it is to the architecture.
Abbott’s unbroken string of 26 annual recitals is remarkable enough, but it’s not all he has done to overcome decades of deferred maintenance and bring back to instrument to good playing condition. He assembled a dedicated band of volunteers and carefully supervised them as they helped with various tasks. He sought and found other sources of funding. And he tirelessly drew attention to the organ’s unique character.
The instrument’s bold voicing and colorful tonal variety marked a turning point in American organ design. Today it not only remains an inspiring complement to the soaring interior of P.C. Keely’s Roxbury puddingstone building but also an amazingly effective vehicle across a wide range of the organ literature. And in fact, the years of neglect ended up serving a valuable purpose: unlike most other large 19th-century organs in prominent ecclesiastical buildings, it avoided being replaced or modified as fashions in organ sound swung from “orchestral” to “neo-Baroque”. Though much of the organ became unplayable, the mechanics and pipework survived just fine, allowing modern audiences to hear the instrument almost exactly as it sounded in 1875.
When Abbott assumed the post of Cathedral Music Director and Organist in 1986, the organ’s original console had been replaced with a dilapidated theatre-organ console, and the entire instrument had not functioned well for many years. Recognizing just how remarkable an instrument it was, Abbott was determined to bring it back. With a free-will offering taken up at the 1976 National AGO Convention, and donations in memory of his late father, Arthur J. Abbott, he was able to begin making minor repairs. Working with Dick Lahaise, the cathedral’s faithful organ maintenance man of many years, the giant wind reservoirs (11′ x 17′) were re-leathered and volunteers begin washing the grime off of about 2,000 of the 5,292 organ pipes.
In 2003, a $90,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission provided core funding to have a replica console built by the Andover Organ Company and to replace the old wiring. Missing pipes from the Great Doppelflöte and Choir Rohrflöte were replaced, and an organ humidifier was installed to counter the humidity-lowering effects of central heating. During the recent cathedral renovation, and the Great reeds and Tuba and thousands of flute pipes were removed, cleaned, and replaced. The windchest for the Tuba – the stop that truly lifts the sound of full organ into another realm – was restored and its booster reservoir re-leathered.
Keely’s 1700-seat nave has always been impressive in its dimensions — 364 feet long and 120 feet high — but it too had endured its share of deferred maintenance. With the recently concluded $26 million renovations, which took two years to complete, the sanctuary has been transformed into a brighter and more welcoming space, one whose full splendor no longer has to be imagined but can be directly experienced. A slideshow is HERE.
During those days of dust, demolition and renewal, many pipes were removed and stored offsite for protection and the organ went mute. On September 15th, when Abbott marks the 144th anniversary of the organ’s installation with benefit recital number 26, those in attendance will be treated to sights and sounds never available before our lifetimes.
Over the last 30 years, the cathedral has been privileged to present many international artists in recital, including Thomas Murray, Naji Hakim, Olivier Latry, Daniel Roth, Marie-Bernadette Dufourcet Hakim, and Martin Baker. Numerous local organists have volunteered their services for our Annual Organ Benefit Concerts and Birthday Concerts.
On the occasion of the announcement of Abbott’s retirement last October the Boston Pilot reported that during his long tenure, Abbott had played for a number of major Masses and events, including the installation of Seán P. O’Malley as Archbishop of Boston in 2003.
“It is with deep appreciation that the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross community congratulates and thanks Leo Abbott for his faithful service of thirty-three years as Director of Music and Organist of the Cathedral,” said Cardinal O’Malley in a statement. “Leo has led the choir for many important liturgical celebrations including my installation as Archbishop in 2003 which I remember fondly. From ordinations to weekly Masses, Leo brought the same level of energy and commitment to providing the liturgy with music that lifted spirits and praised God. It is an honor and privilege to recognize Leo Abbott with the title Director Emeritus at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.”
While Abbott will no longer be heard regularly at the cathedral, he is far from giving up playing. He has a piano at home — an instrument he has been playing since he was eight years old — and plans to continue practicing at local churches and filling in at Masses, which he says will help keep him prepared for the recitals he plans to hold. Over the years, Abbott has given recitals all over the world, performing for audiences in Ireland, England, France, Belgium, and in venues across the U.S.
Abbott’s successor, musician and composer Richard J. Clark, now serves as the director of music of the Archdiocese of Boston and director of music and organist of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Previously, Clark oversaw the parish music program at St. Cecilia Parish in Boston.
Leo Abbott is a graduate of the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School, Cambridge, and the Chaloff School of Music, Boston. His teachers include Theodore Marier, George Faxon, Clarence Watters, and Flor Peeters in organ; Naji Hakim in improvisation; and Julius Chaloff in piano. He holds the Fellowship and Choirmaster certificates of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), has won first prize in several international and national competitions, and was a finalist at the Grand Prix de Chartres in 1984. In 1986, he was appointed music director and organist of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston. He has performed throughout the United States and in France, Belgium, and Ireland, and for conventions of the AGO and the Organ Historical Society. He is an active member of the AGO, the Organ Historical Society, and the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musician. In 2010, he performed at Notre-Dame and Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Leo D. Abbott, FAGO, Ch.M., Music Director Emeritus of the Cathedral, will perform the first organ concert on E. & G.G. Hook and Hastings Opus 801 following the recent cleaning and repairs, on Sunday, September 15th at 3 p.m.—the external, patronal feast of the Cathedral. Details here.
Hakim “Vexilla Regis”
Franck, “Choral III”
Bach “Fantasie in G”
Suggested donation: $25; seniors and students, $15.