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403 South Jefferson Ave.
Saginaw, MI 48607



Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Organ Tour – Installment No. 3

Historians and scholars record how Ernest Skinner developed his own treatment of chorus reeds from the observation of Willis’ instruments in Britain. Skinner’s reeds were usually voiced on high pressure and harmonic to guarantee full-compass balance. Scaling was ample.

By the late 1920s, G. Donald Harrison – a son of the Willis firm – had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and had taken a position of leadership with the Skinner shop.  Oversight of Princeton University’s organ installation became a main-initial project for Harrison. What took place at Princeton University in the late 1920s likely relates to the installation of First Congregational Church’s Skinner.  “At the time the Princeton University Skinner was finished and opened, ‘[…] it was generally understood […] that Mr. Harrison was largely responsible for decisions as to scaling and voicing, and also took part in the final regulation of the instrument […].’  According to Ralph Downes, who presided at the Princeton University Skinner for seven years, that organ ‘was the first large Skinner instrument to bear the imprint of Mr. Harrison’s personality, evident in the very English-sounding diapason choruses, and reed choruses, which were a compromise between American and English practice.” (Holden, The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner 130)  Shop notes for Opus 751 bear the initials “G.D.H” that suggest Harrison was involved with the Saginaw installation. 

Little have the reeds been altered since their installation. Per the contract with John Shawhan (1963), “the old reeds are not to be ‘re-voiced’ in the sense of altering their character with new tongues.”  Sadly, however, notes 33-73 of the 16’ Waldhorn were removed and the stop was relocated to the pedal division. 

It is also disappointing that one of the instrument's two Vox Humana stops was removed over time and that the unique Corno di Bassetto (voiced on 6” of pressure) was relocated to the swell division to assume the role of chorus reed. Notes 1-12 are new pipes from the renovation of the 1960s of different characted; 13-73 are the original Skinner pipes. 

Dorothy Holden discusses Skinner’s Corno di Bassetto in The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner: “It is described in the Skinner Company brochure as being ‘in effect a powerful Clarinet,’ with a tone that is ‘cool, authoritative and of great richness and purity.’ The Corno di Bassettto generally was included only in the Solo divisions of larger instruments, although there is one example of the author’s acquaintance, taking place of the customary Clarinet, in the Choir division of a medium-sized three manual Skinner of fewer than forty ranks.” (44)

The pedal trombone has been untouched and is voiced on 10” of pressure – it was modeled after what Willis developed in Britain. 

The quality of the reeds remains unique and “ENG” as notes distinguish.  What gems!

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