A History of the Advent Organs
For two and a half centuries Boston has been a city of organs and organ-builders. When Thomas Brattle’s little chamber organ arrived from London in 1708 it was quite a novelty; the Reverend Joseph Green of Salem noted in his diary that he had been to Brattle’s house and “heard ye organ and saw strange things in a microscope.” (1) In those days an organ in a home was a delight, but an organ in a church was an abomination. When Brattle died and willed the instrument to the Brattle Square Church it was summarily refused, so it went to King’s Chapel. There the congregation did not refuse it, but they were exceedingly ambivalent. Cotton Mather and other dignitaries bitterly denounced the “box of whistles” and the organ remained outside the church in a crate on the porch. For seven months one of organ music’s longer debates dragged on; finally, in 1714, the Brattle Organ became the first church pipe organ in the Colonies. (2)
In 1800 there were four or five local organ builders, and in 1850 there were ten, by which time the Church of the Advent had its third organ. The first had been a little foot-pumped melodeon offered in 1844 by the Rector, Dr. Croswell, for the services on Merrimac Street and at the Lowell Street Meeting Hall. When the congregation moved to the Green Street Church in 1846, a new pipe organ was purchased for $350. After this time, the Advent embarked on an extraordinary series of new organs to match the growing needs of the congregation. The third organ was acquired in 1849, the fourth in 1865 with the move to Bowdoin Street. Nine years later this was sold (or perhaps donated by Mrs. Jack Gardner) (3) to the Groton School Chapel. A fifth instrument by the noted Boston builders E. and G. G. Hook was then installed, but it was not satisfactory to Samuel Brenton Whitney, the Advent’s famous organist, and it lasted only a year, being supplanted by the sixth organ in 1875.
In 1883, upon completion of the present church’s crossing and nave, the Advent acquired its seventh and penultimate pipe organ. It was a Hutchings-Plaisted Company instrument of considerable size, with three keyboards and pedals, costing $6,750. (4) The pipes and mechanism were located in the present organ chamber with the console directly below in the All Saints Chapel. Of course, this organ (and all previous ones) had mechanical action, that is, hundreds of wooden sticks connecting the keys and pedals to the organ chests above. These sticks (or trackers, as they are called) ran out the top of the console and straight up through the Chapel ceiling, where the outline of the passage may still be seen, now paneled over. As with many such instruments, the mechanical linkage may have been noisy and difficult to manage, for the more stops that were drawn, the harder it was to play.
There are no records of the fact, but it is quite possible that the tuning of this instrument was done by a young Hutchings employee named Ernest M. Skinner. Skinner developed into a brilliant inventor; joining Hutchings in 1890, he soon rose to rank of superintendent. Eventually he produced an electric action for Hutchings that did away with heavy-handed organ playing. One or all stops could be on, yet the light and even touch never varied.
After thirty-eight years of service, Samuel B. Whitney retired in 1908. He was honored by the title organist emeritus and, in 1909, was elected to the Corporation. Thus he was doubtless consulted in 1912 when the twenty-nine-year-old organ was rebuilt with the Hutchings’ patent electric action. (5) The new console, a gift of the Misses Sturgis in memory of Charles Russell Sturgis, (6) stood just under the pipe chamber in the chancel. (Joints in the flooring still show the position.) With a new lease on life, the Hutchings organ continued in use for twenty-two more years.
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Now let us skip to the 1920s, look in again on the ingenious Mr. Skinner, and pause to examine in detail the extraordinary events that were to culminate in the eighth and present Advent organ, a most remarkable instrument.
By 1926 the young tuner and inventor from Hutchings was an exuberant sixty-year-old patriarch, head of the Skinner Organ Company of Boston, leaders in American organ building, for twenty-five years supreme in influence and excellence. With the financial backing of Arthur Hudson Marks, a wealthy devotee of the organ, and some of the proudest advertising of the century, Skinner toured the country selling huge organs in prominent places. The two hundred men of his Boston and Westfield factories worked a double shift six days a week to keep up. On average they shipped a new organ every week of the year. (7)
It was a massive undertaking, considering the quality and complexity of the product. Skinner’s inventiveness had revolutionized the mechanism of the organ into a pacesetter for this country and equal to the best in the world. A Skinner organ was as breathtaking as a Steinway, and it was much, much bigger.
The tonal design of Skinner’s organs was also his own production. He had developed colors based on the infinite variety and majestic power of the Wagnerian orchestra. A Skinner organ of any size contained choirs of String tone, Flutes, Oboes, English and French horns, Clarinets, a Harp, Trumpets, Brass Choruses and stirring Wagnerian Tuba effects. All these voices were invented or perfected by Skinner, save the last; the big Tubas were copied from Willis, the venerable English organ builder. In fact, the famous Henry Willis III himself made several trips to Boston on a consulting basis. Eventually, at Skinner’s request, Willis sent over his own assistant and protégé, G. Donald Harrison, as a tonal adviser. (8)
Ernest Skinner was a fine organ builder, but in the late 1920’s he hardly realized that a reform movement away from orchestral organs was budding all around him. Some organists were saying that an organ should play Bach’s music as Bach himself heard it, not in an expanded orchestral version. Skinner was contemptuous. To him, Bach’s organ was a “box of whistles”. When it was pointed out that a pipe organ is not an orchestra, Mr. Skinner’s attitude took on a certain defensiveness.
But characteristically, he would not change. Meanwhile, the enterprising company president, Arthur Marks, set about annexing another organ maker, the Aeolian Company of Garwood, New Jersey. Aeolian had produced nearly 900 pipe organs, some of enormous size, but virtually none in churches - for what Skinner was to the Church, Aeolian was to the Home. They specialized in luxurious installations in residences, as well as quite a few on yachts. Almost all had automatic roll players of surprising effectiveness - no organist was ever necessary. The Aeolian Concertola would even play a program of ten rolls in rotation, (9) and in a few installations the Steinway grand could play the harp part - at three pitches.
The refinement of the Aeolian tone was remarkable, and with only a few inconspicuous alterations, any home could house an Aeolian organ of virtually any size. Marks knew that the combination of Aeolian and his own company would be ideal, and after protracted negotiations, the merger was effected. With a proud new hyphenated name, Aeolian-Skinner, and the new tonal director from England, “Don” Harrison, at his heels, Marks hoisted all sails and charted a flamboyant course - straight into the depths of the Great Depression.
By 1932 business was terrible. The much-vaunted Aeolian Company’s residence organ business fell to nothing even as the merger went through. No one could afford a luxurious house organ now; churches felt the pinch as well. The Aeolian-Skinner factory was in the doldrums - instead of an organ a week, they were lucky to build an organ at all. Bankruptcy and factory closings were decimating the industry; the two hundred man Skinner team was halved, and shrunk further. The Westfield plant closed, never to reopen.
Marks understood that keeping things afloat meant bold thinking and a new direction. He settled on G. Donald Harrison, the new English tonal director. Harrison’s ideas were not new or especially unique; as in all things, everything in the pipe organ business is derivative. But Harrison’s designs were in line with the movement away from orchestral ideals, and by now he had the support of several well-known and highly respected organists. Perhaps Harrison as a new broom would sweep in a few much-needed contracts. (10)
George Donald Harrison was an impressive figure, with a noble British accent - forty-three years old, an artist, a diplomat, and a gentleman. Like Skinner, his personality was of great power, his presence commanding. He inspired the complete confidence of organ committees, and, even more telling, the loyalty of the factory men as well.
Unfortunately, it was difficult for Ernest Skinner to see that the ideas of a younger man could be more in step with the times. Increasingly, he viewed Harrison’s concepts as a debasement of the tried-and-true Skinner design, and worse yet, a personal affront. As early as 1930 he was openly contemptuous, seesawing between periods of reluctant collaboration and outright warfare. (11) Despite a long-standing perfection of means, the new Aeolian-Skinner Company was torn apart by a confusion of aims.
As President, Arthur Hudson Marks controlled the Company stock, and he supported Harrison. Ernest Skinner was encouraged to build his own contracts in his own way, but the dominant thrust of the Company was to be Harrison’s. The sixty-nine-year-old Skinner, annoyed by what was to him unaccountable behavior, withdrew to Methuen, Massachusetts, and there continued building the “authentic” Skinner organ. (12) Gradually the dust settled, and Mr. Skinner leaves our story here.
Despite the exigencies of the Depression and with a healthy cash reserve, Aeolian-Skinner remained surprisingly intact. Even in the depths of the Depression, enough contracts trickled in to maintain a corps of the finest artisans, and the splendid Aeolian-Skinner quality never varied. With the encouragement of such luminaries as Dr. Albert Schweitzer and E. Power Biggs, Harrison began to design radically different tonal schemes - organs that incorporated historical as well as modern voices, organs that could play Bach just as well as 19th century music. Instead of Skinner’s voices of the orchestra, Harrison instituted a return to the traditional practice of pure organ tone in choruses of many pitches, capped by stops of great brilliance called mixtures. (13)
For Harrison to put all his tonal eggs in one basket meant a flurry of mechanical redesign at the factory, as well as extended tonal experimentation in the real acoustical setting of a church building. It became necessary to find a progressive organist and a church close to the factory that would welcome the new and largely untried ideas. So far, Harrison had only one example (and that incomplete) to show of his new work - Saint John’s Chapel at Groton School. (14) Would it be as effective in another setting?
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Meanwhile, the Church of the Advent was having water problems. As early as 1927, water leaking through the roof of the organ chamber had damaged the mechanism. (15) The Hutchings organ was now 52 years old, and despite a sizeable gift in 1933 for repairs from Corporation Member Frederick Moseley, the old organ was failing. Frederick Johnson was organist, a service player par excellence and a boy choir director of great accomplishment. He also had an unswerving devotion to G. Donald Harrison and the Aeolian-Skinner Company.
Talk of a new Advent organ had surfaced as early as 1932, without result. In 1935 the disposition of a generous bequest from Harold Jefferson Coolidge evoked considerable discussion. Many members felt the pews should be replaced with cathedral chairs. Johnson thought the funds should defray the expenses of a new organ, as did Wallace Goodrich, a member of the Corporation, director of the New England Conservatory, and an organist himself.(16) Eventually everyone agreed, including the Rector (coincidentally named Harrison): the flooded and failing Hutchings-Plaisted organ would be replaced with the eighth Advent organ, a new Aeolian-Skinner costing $24,000. (17)
The new Advent organ was polished like a diamond. Harrison himself took charge of the final voicing, (18) and devoted every effort to building a perfect instrument. For the Advent was a perfect church - handsome architecture, stunning appointments, a liturgy of compelling beauty and acoustics that angels would love. It was rumored that certain sets of pipes in the principal chorus - over a thousand pipes, and the backbone of the organ - were repeatedly shipped back to the factory for revision, a staggering undertaking. Apparently the voicers made adroit alterations to match the acoustics of the building.
Finally, Harrison was satisfied with the outcome. Clarence Watters played the dedicatory recital in April 1936; everyone was there. All agreed it was an impressive instrument and an organ that one liked to sing with. As usual, the Old Guard heard too much brilliance, the reform organists, just enough. But few who attended realized the enormous significance of the event. Harrison’s work was so novel that it took months, even years, for the full impact to be felt.
In general, pipe organs change slowly. The best of them add but little to the evolution of the instrument. To change the whole course of American organ building with a single instrument is a rarity indeed - scarcely a handful of organs have done this in two hundred years. Boston has been the happy site of two such events: the first was the opening of the Boston Music Hall organ in 1863; the other was the Advent organ in 1936. Not surprisingly, it became the Aeolian-Skinner showcase, and as time passed the impact on organ-building became more impressive and more profound. Harrison’s influence soon eclipsed all his contemporaries, and the genesis of his world-famous American Classic Style was in the Brimmer Street Church. The American Classic Organs, with their resplendent and instantly recognizable tone, were universally imitated in this country for 35 years. Thus the Advent organ was soon considered a pivotal organ of the 20th century.
Organists talked of little else; there followed a parade of prominent artists. When Dr. Schweitzer toured this country in 1949, he chose three organs to play, one of them the Advent.(19) Virtually every book and article on organs of the period describes the instrument, frequently at length.(20) Many who play it have echoed Thomas Stevens’ remarks in the British journal The Organ: “It will be obvious that I was very much struck with this instrument . . . the Advent organ was probably the finest modern organ that I have heard…” (21)
In the years since 1935 a succession of exceptional organists have presided at this instrument: Frederick Johnson, George Faxon, Alfred Patterson, Emory Fanning, John Cook, Phillip Steinhaus, Edith Ho and Mark Dwyer.(22) They have seen organ-building change radically in the intervening years. G. Donald Harrison died in 1956, and the Aeolian-Skinner Company, after achieving the ultimate height of fame and prestige under his direction, gradually lost it all.
Several men attempted to take over his role, but there was no one with the strength of character and clear vision to replace him. Faced with an attrition of working capital, a gradual loss of the older artisans, and the increasing difficulty of building quality musical instruments of enormous size and complexity, the great edifice of Aeolian-Skinner slowly crumbled into bankruptcy.
Many large and important instruments have been erected in Boston since 1935. The philosophy of Harrison’s American Classic has been carried further, and into new channels.(23) But for the visitor and the local enthusiast alike, the Church of the Advent is still the place where the American Classic Organ was born. It remains one of the finest jewels in the sparkling Aeolian-Skinner crown - highly unusual in its day, by now a venerable and majestic instrument; a stunning example of artistic American organ building at its very best.
(8) Willis’ version is interesting. After describing Harrison as “my right-hand man” he goes on to say: “Following my comparatively short annual visits as consultant to the then Skinner Company in 1924, 1925, and 1926, it became obvious that if progress was to be effectively made it was necessary for one with the right technical knowledge and ability to be appointed to carry on the good work. On my recommendation Don Harrison joined the Skinner Organ Company in 1927, rising from the position of assistant technical director to president in a few years.” Musical Opinion LXXIX p. 672.
(9) Bowers: Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments p. 298-300 Vestal Press, NY 1972. The Concertola was a triumph of design, but never in the slightest degree reliable. Nonetheless, as an Art Form, the multi-roll ferris wheel changer was so beautiful that original owners (as well as present-day collectors) were said to have experienced “lascivious sensations” watching it rip their last ten rolls to shreds.
(10) The history of Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner is both complex and colorful. For further detail, consult Jonathan Ambrosino, “A History of Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner,” www.jonathanambrosino.com.
(13) Mixtures were not new; the Continental and early American builders had long used them in profusion. But emphasizing them was new to the 1930s, and they created a storm of protest. In the light of Harrison’s later popularity it is easy to forget his early battles with the Old Guard. These malcontents never used the word “mixture” without one and the same pejorative adjective in front of it, and Screaming Mixtures became the war cry that united them in an unbroken front against Aeolian-Skinner.
(15) Gammons took lessons at the Advent from Frederick Johnson 1927-31, and remembers the water damage to the Hutchings organ. (Notes by Gammons and William King Covell on the Hutchings Organ, 1930)
(16) Goodrich was, for instance, the organist at the opening of Symphony Hall in 1900. According to Gammons, he took a “disguised” outline of Harrison’s Advent specification to Carl McKinley, organist of Old South Church, Copley Square for his opinion. McKinley, who must have known the builder by the amount of upperwork, had only one suggestion - the addition of the full Great & Pedal and Swell & Pedal pistons. When the console arrived, Johnson, somewhat piqued, taped them over and never used them.
(17) According to Gammons, Groton School (Opus 936) cost $25,000 and was built at the same time as the Advent. While slightly larger, Groton was so far from Boston that visiting dignitaries were invariably taken to Brimmer Street.
(22) Frederick Johnson was organist until shortly before his death in 1946. George Faxon 1946-49, Alfred Nash Patterson 1949-1960, Emory Fanning 1961, John Cook 1961-68, Phillip Steinhaus 1968-77, Edith Ho 1977-2007; Mark Dwyer 2007-present.
(23) Gammons quotes Harrison’s comments on mixtures: “Mixtures are like taking dope. Your tolerance goes up, and you have to increase the dose until at last you don’t want substance any more.” In the two decades following the death of G. Donald Harrison, the use of upperwork at times approached the irrational.