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We’ve all been invited to America for an organ-crawl, and this time we have a private jet at our disposal.

Hurry along now, there’s a lot to see and hear, and everyone is busy, busy, busy.


Get your visas and passports at the ready..... here we go!


A few hours later and we’ve landing at JFK, and where better to start than in the Big Apple itself?


Ask anyone old enough to remember what they know of organs and organists in New York, and it will not be long before a certain names and words spring to mind, such as Virgil Fox, the Riverside Church, the infamous“State Trumpet” at St John the Divine, and maybe the huge Wurlitzer organ in the Radio City Music Hall. Some will recall Stockowski’s arrangements or perhaps Florence Foster-Jenkins, who mastered microtones before anyone knew what they were.

Even to-day, all those elements exist in America in various guises, and certainly the name of Cameron Carpenter is all set to replace that of Virgil Fox, and with it, a whole new era of truly stratospheric technique such as has never been seen or heard before.


Let’s remind ourselves of the things which thrill, entertain and, even to-day, continue to tickle the senses:-









This the America which many perceive to be the reality to-day, but in fact, this big, beautiful country has always been a land of contrasts; not only in the natural wonders of huge mountains, great plains, massive canyons and boiling rivers, (not to mention vast differences in climate and temperature), but also in the cultural and political differences.


Just as there are two Americas consisting of the blue states and the red states, there are two very different approaches to playing organ-music and building organs; now added to by the advent of the digital and combination instruments.

The “grand style” of organ-building probably tracks back to the superb Walcker/Skinner organ in the Methuen Hall, Massachusetts; truly one of the great organs of the world. Although tonally altered to some extent (especially the reeds), I can vouch for the fact that the effect in the hall is just mind-numbing. The sheer outright power of this instrument, with its colossal bass registers and Germanic chorus-work, set the seal on the German romantic influence in American organ-building.


Here is a very young, (possibly 17 years of age), Felix Hell from Germany, playing Mendelssohn brilliantly:-




But even the Ford Mustang and the 1950’s Chevy had to give way to smaller, lighter imported automobiles as fashion and fortunes changed, and the philosophy of organ culture slowly shifted towards the clearer, low pressure voicing of imported neo-classical instruments. Smaller, it would seem, becoming more acceptable and beautiful; though the use of the word small in America is altogether relative.


But let’s not get too serious, because we’re here to enjoy ourselves. Instead, let’s borrow a gas guzzling 1980 Pontiac Firebird and head off to Cape Cod and the set of the film “Jaws.” It’s a long drive out to Provincetown and back....about 160 miles in fact, as we head out from the North Eastern seaboard along the cape; a curved spit of land which looks so tiny on the map, where old fishing villages have existed for centuries. Here, there are wooden houses and churches, small boats, fishermen, beautiful beaches and, above all, tranquillity.....well...maybe there’s a great white shark or two lurking in the ocean.


What’s this we’re heading towards?


It’s a little wooden, Congregational Church half way along Cape Cod, in the small township of South Dennis.

It’s a surprise to find an 18th century organ in America; especially one built by Snetzler, but here it is, delighting all who come to hear it:-



It isn’t just big which is beautiful in America.


Let’s head back along the Cape, but this time, in a helicopter to save time. Transferring to a domestic flight at Logan Airport, Boston, we’re soon high above beautiful Connecticut and heading towards Hancock International at Syracuse in New York State, at the southern perimeter of the Great Lakes. Inside the hall at the University of Syracuse, the organ presents us with a naked, functional display and a lady organist happy to demonstrate it to us:-



What a joy to hear a fine modern organ built in classical style; except that it isn’t very modern at all. This wonderful instrument, (with EP action), was built by the remarkable Walter Holtkamp and installed in the concert hall of the university in 1950; long before the Flentrop at Harvard and five years earlier than the Festival Hall organ in London. It demonstrates that the Americans were leading the organ reform movement before we got started, even though Ralph Downes and E.Power-Biggs were in at the beginning in America, and G Donald Harrison, Walter Holtkamp, Charles Fisk and others, were bringing their considerable tonal expertise to bear on the new era of classicism.


For American organists, it was the weekly organ-recitals broadcast by E Power_Biggs from the Busch Reisinger Hall at Harvard University, (played on the neo-classical Flentrop organ installed in 1958)), which had the greatest influence.

This beautiful, uncompromising instrument, (which sounds so much better live), is here demonstrated by the remarkable Frederich Hohman, in what can only be described as the most elegant and musical of styles:-


Harvard – Violin – Hohman


As in England and elsewhere, the neo-classical movement had its critics and its followers, and like America itself, the division was often political and even ugly; the love of all that was orchestral, grand and powerful, (the musical dinosaurs), sitting uncomfortably alongside all that was clear, concise and musically constrained. (Virgil Fox describes the “Tracker backers” and “Baroque Boys” who played “Museum piece shriek boxes.”)


After all, this was not just the land of Virgil Fox, but also of Stokowski, Clarence Eddy, Lemare transcriptions and grand orchestral playing, with organs to match: the old guard not relinquishing their dominance without a fight.


Of course, we now know that both styles of instrument, in special ways, were entirely compatible with beautiful music-making, and there can be little doubt but that what Ernest Skinner achieved, was no less musically significant than anything achieved by Silbermann and Schnitger, yet towards the end of his life, he was ignored by most and even despised by some.


I am alone in thinking that the organ at Yale, (the Newberry memorial organ), is a masterpiece that ranks alongside anything to be heard in Haarlem, Paris or anywhere else in the world?


Let’s take a leisurely 200 mile drive across the minor roads from Syracuse to Yale University, (north-east of New York), through unspoiled forests displaying breathtaking colours amid gentle mountain scenery; dropping down to the coastal area of Long Island Sound.


The technique of Thomas Murray is nothing if not secure....notice the fingers and thumbs effortlessly traversing three manuals simultaneously. He makes it look so easy......



The grand style hasn’t died out by any means, and nowhere is this more apparent than the Rufatti re-building and conjoining of two Aeolian-Skinner organs into a single entity, at the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove. As the following powerful and energetic video demonstrates, this is a seriously large instrument, and with so many broadcasts, we can watch it on TV in a hotel room rather than fly down to California, 2400 miles away!




Refreshed by a sizeable breakfast, we can hop back on a plane again and waltz down to Tennessee, to hear the remarkable organ built by John Brombaugh for the Campus Church, Southern Adventist University; Collegedale.




Fantasia super: Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott BWV 651

J. S. Bach Fantasia super: Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV 651 performed by Adrienne D. Olson.

Incidentally, the State of Tennesee is, at the widest point, about 425 miles east to west, where the border is marked by the great Mississippi River.


Anyone who doubts the depth of serious American scholarship, would do well to read the Wikipedia article about John Brombaugh; one of the great baroque specialists of modern times, and known, (I believe), to our host, John Pike Mander, from his study years at Von Beckareth in Germany.


Two of America’s finest organ builders are represented by the late Charles Fisk (and his son “Chick” who took over the company) and the Rosales company. Charles Fisk was at the forefront of the neo-classical movement in America from the earliest days, and his organs have an unmistakable tonal sheen which marks them out from most other instruments. I have played the Charles Fisk organ at the Memorial Church, Harvard, and can vouch for this tonal quality from first hand experience.


Perhaps tonally on a par with Fisk, are the organs of Manuel Rosales, who has established himself as among the finest of American organ-buildersAt first apprenticed to the Schlicker Organ Co., Manuel Rosales has worked and gone on study tours of Holland, Germany, France and England (studying Schulze), with Charles Fisk and Harald Vogel. With a remarkable grasp of all matters tonal, it is not surprising that he was awarded the contract for the new organ of the Disney Concert Hall, with its wild and wacky appearance.



Not a million miles away from Tennessee, we can quickly fly from Tennessee, over the vast Mississippi River, across to Houston in Texas to hear for ourselves two remarkable organs. What a pity we couldn’t have made the journey on the Chatanooga Choo-Choo for the 720 mile journey, but time is money! (The State of Texas is a staggering 720 miles or so east to west, and about 770 miles north to south).


The following video is of the organ in the Shepherd School of Music, Houston, Texas, and it is the result of a very successful combined effort between C B Fisk and Manuel Rosales. Note the French qualities in the voicing, which steps away from the more normal German/American tradition:-



The Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas


Fritz Noak is another organ-builder who has studied extensively in Europe; working with Rudolf von Beckerath in Germany alongside such respected names as Klaus Becker, Jurgen Ahrend and Charles Fisk. The company was established in 1960.

For those who want to hear a modern re-creation of a “Bach Organ,” this is about as good as it gets, and this organ is also in Houston:-



Claudia Dumschat plays the Fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, S564, on the Noack organ at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas USA.


All good things must come to an end, and after a few thousands of miles flying around, it’s time to head back North, with just a last 48 hours of free time to enjoy a few sights and sounds around New York and beautiful New England; perhaps reminding ourselves that there have been considerable musical ties between us and them for a very long time....Edwin Lemare, Tertius Noble, E.Power-Biggs, John Scott, Gerre Hancock (US) etc etc. If we started with Virgil Fox and the “Grand tradition,” and the enjoyable but distinctly dubious world of organ “entertainment,” we can now see things differently, because America is a big country with a rich kaleidoscope of musical contrasts.


Let’s have a wander around and see what else we can find to round off the organ-crawl, not just to see organs, but to hear brilliant musicians making brilliant music.









It’s time to fly home, knowing that we have only scratched the surface of a country which, even from the limited perspective of organ-music, never ceases to amaze and revive even the weariest of hearts.




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