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5.0 out of 5 stars Two remarkable sagas in one book. And then some., 4 July 2004
This review is from: All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters (Hardcover)
Craig R. Whitney, a superb writer (his "day job" with the N.Y. Times has included assignments as correspondent, foreign editor and now assistant managing editor) and an enthusiastic pipe organ expert (and, one would expect, performer as well) has written what I believe to be the authoritative book on the history of organs and organists in America. And he's written it so well that it can't fail to interest both pipe organ aficianados and the general public as well.
There are two stories interwoven together here, set against the cultural milieu that gave rise to the popularity of pipe organs in America in the first third of the 20th century, then a slow decline in interest with the advent of alternative forms of entertainment ("talkies," the phonograph, and radio and television), and, quite recently, a renewed interest in the design and installation of new instruments and the preservation and restoration of older ones.
The first story is that of the instrument itself, and of the people "who made it happen": the organ designers/builders who were central to the development of the pipe organ in America. Whitney singles out the three most influential 20th century practitioners - Edward M. Skinner, G. Donald Harrison and Charles B. Fisk - without ignoring the influences of either their domestic predecessors (George H. Ryder, E. & G.G. Hook) or their international competitors (Cavaillé-Coll, Casavant Frères, Flentrop, Ruffati). The efforts by these three, affecting the sounds of pipe organs in all sorts of installations (places of worship [obviously], but also concert halls, museums, theaters, and even retail stores and private residences), can be summarized as the search for "eclectic" organs, i.e., organs of sufficient versatility that they are "at home" playing music written for the instrument from virtually any historical period (and certainly from the baroque period of Bach, through the French romantic period, and on to the current repertoire).
The organ part of the story leaves out nothing of importance, including changes in musical taste over time, and how that taste was affected by the instrument's practitioners and composers, as well as bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions (the most famous of which was the joining of the E. M. Skinner Company with the Aeolian Company to form Aeolian-Skinner, perhaps the largest 20th century force in the industry). Whitney leaves us at a point in history - now - where eclectic organs utilizing both baroque-era tracker mechanisms and modern-day electropneumatic actions are largely the "norm" and where new instruments incorporating such hybrid features are finding their way back into the concert hall.
The second story is that of the two instrumentalists who, over a period exceeding three decades, defined organ performance for most of us and who most directly affected organ design and performance style: E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox.
It is hard to imagine two people more different than Biggs and Fox, and their differences were only exaggerated wtih the passage of time, with Biggs becoming more and more the "purist" (with his interest in historical instruments and performance practices) and Fox becoming more and more the "showman" (to the point where he became a self-promotional caricature of himself).
Was one better than the other? Was one "right" and the other "wrong"? Whitney writes about Biggs and Fox in a non-judgemental way, using overlapping chapters to tell the story of each, leaving us to decide for ourselves how to assess their contributions. Personally, I think we'd be the poorer if the efforts of either man were lost. Without Biggs, we might not have heard Charles Ives's "Variations on America," sent at his request for "something by Ives" by Mrs. Ives in 1948, with a note from her that Ives hadn't composed anything for the organ in over 40 years. And without Fox, we'd have never heard his organ transcription of Bach's "Komm Susser Tod" ("Come, Sweet Death"), performed on the John Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia. Although Fox evenually went "over the top" in his "Fillmore East electric organ" phase, his very last recording, made not long before he died, on the then-new Ruffati organ at the Garden Grove Community Church, remains as testimony to his staggering technique.
Whitney writes with infectious enthusiasm for his subject. One hardly needs to be an unrepentent pipe organ nut, as I happen to be, in order to enjoy this book. I think that anyone with an interest in music - and especially music in America - will find the book to be a delight.
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention a small point that reached me directly (perhaps more directly than they would most readers). This is that Whitney, because of his origins, is very familiar with pipe organs in my geographical area, particularly in Worcester, MA, where there are two fine instruments. One of them - an 1864 E. & G.G. Hook organ in Mechanics Hall - is of historic importance because it was the first "grand civic" organ in the country. I've admired its (now-restored) appearance for many years (as a concert-goer), but have yet to hear the instrument. Perhaps one of these days someone will perform a recital on it.
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