Friday, November 16, 2007

A Life in 250 Pages

Just finished with The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner by Dorothy J. Holden.

Skinner (1866-1960) was perhaps America's best-known organ builder, and the greatest practitioner of the American Classic Organ. From his shops in and around Boston he produced something shy of 1,000 instruments (both those entirely of his design and those bearing his name before he left his company) and had a profound influence on the course of organ building in this country and around the world in the first half of the 20th Century.

Holden's book covers the larger aspects of Skinner's personal life, and hits the high points of his career designing and building organs. She covers the important instruments, and details his work inventing new stops and mechanical innovations. After the fact of his ascendancy to the top rung of the American organ building ladder, the key unfolding for me was the ouster of Skinner from his own company in the early '30s. Already by this time the tide of organ design was shifting away from orchestral imitation and toward some connection to the organ of Bach's time. Skinner, who thought much of Bach's music was of interest only to academics, despised this trend. He had brought the American organ to a magnificent state of mechanical perfection and tonal flexibility, and he was understandably reluctant to say that his life's work should be abandoned and that what was needed was to step back a hundred years or more and start over.

In the late 20s he invited into his shop a young man from England who previously worked for the Willis Organ Company, one G. Donald Harrison. Skinner and Willis were fast friends, and Harrison arrived with the imprimatur of Willis; Skinner could hardly have said no, and seemed to have no desire to. Harrison came to America with more modern ideas of tonal design which Skinner allowed Harrison to demonstrate and to sell, with the result being that very quickly the paying public wanted Harrison's instruments and not Skinner's. The money side of the firm was quick to see the writing on the wall, and soon Skinner himself (who had no head for finances) was told that his only value to the firm was as a figurehead. And shortly afterward he was seen as a liability even in that role. The tide of public taste was shifting rapidly.

The worst part of the tragedy is that Ernest Skinner lived on for another 30 years, long enough to see the trickle of disapproval in his life's work become utter disparagment; he even had to sit idly by while organ after organ which he built--including many he felt were absolute artistic masterpieces--were discarded and replace with quite different instruments. Or worse, his masterworks were often gutted and re-made by the firm from which he had been ousted, the firm which bore his name. Far from helping to preserve any of his former boss's and mentor's work, G. Donald Harrison seemed to be leading the charge to correct the "defects" in Skinner's ideas. Ernest spent his final years in a kind of ongoing despair at the malicious invalidation of everything he had worked to achieve, and he died too soon to see a resurgence in interest and appreciation that almost inevitably followed. Though so many of his great instruments have been scrapped or altered beyond recognition, there are still a number in existence, and there are now several firms which specialize in restoration and preservation specifically of Skinner's work.

But the question of what the organ is meant to be is a fair one, and it's a question which arises inevitably when faced with the extremity of Skinner's philosophy (relative to the organ's long history). Skinner was building organs at a time when they were providing music for silent films, and when people attended organ concerts to hear transcriptions of the orchestral and operatic music which they would likely not hear otherwise. So the link between the organ and orchestral music was quite present in the early 20th Century, and this is an aesthetic which informed much of Skinner's innovation, both tonal and mechanical. But this tendency was a departure from the organ's history, if only in degree. Skinner's predecessors in England and France did have some orchestral-imitation stops in their organs, and indeed these instruments were often referred to as "symphonic" in character. But it's not difficult to see how a person might pursue this course and lose the historic essence of the organ in the process. Did Ernest Skinner cease building organs at some point and begin building one-person orchestras? It's a question of a degree along a scale, and many people felt that yes, he had. (It's worth noting that, whatever you called them or however you labeled, Skinner's organs worked very well and sounded all of a piece. We look at the stoplists now, especially the early ones, and see rank after rank after rank of eight foot pitch and the complete absence of mixtures and mutations, and think the sound must have been one-dimensional and block-ish, a wall of monotonous blare. But he voiced his stops for this environment, and things blended well together and produced a satisfying ensemble. Fashionable or not, he was an expert organ designer and builder, and his instruments worked very well and were the toast of the organ world for several decades.)

Another thing. I think the number of instruments he built says something important about the nature of organ building in the Machine Age. While Skinner organs were known for absolute quality of construction--he was known to lose money on occasion because he would not compromise on his materials--the assembly-line aspect of these instruments is a departure from historical practice, and there seems no way for most installations to have the kind of personal attention and detailed finishing that would traditionally have been the case. This is just an opinion of mine, an observation not backed up with any factual information. Many of these organs were quite large, and the placement of the extensive necessary machinery was often accomplished wherever there was space. This had to result in a lot of variability in how the pipes were heard, and in the focusing and aiming of the sound. Everything about these instruments was different from a North German organ of Bach's day: size, stoplist, placement, tuning, mechanics, everything. With such extensive stoplists as found on the typical Skinner organ, it's hard to believe that the voicing of individual stops amounted for much, since the pipes were often buried in swell boxes and mingled with a zillion other stops. On an historic instrument, one can often audibly distinguish individual ranks of pipes, and grasp the contribution of the sounds drawn; there is virtually no hope of this kind of intimate interface with a large symphonic organ.

There doesn't need to be a value judgment here. But there is surely a difference, and it's not absurd that these differences would come to matter to people who love the instrument and its repertoire. As one of those people, I found this a fascinating and sad book. I've had a little contact with Skinner's work in my past life, but mostly from the Aeolian-Skinner firm. And while my tastes have always run toward baroque and baroque-derived instruments, my exposure to Skinner's work caused a deep respect for all that he achieved. Holden's book has helped me to better understand the scope of that achievement.

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