Thursday, July 7, 2011
Organ Tour – Installment No. 4
Ernest Skinner’s reputation for mechanical ingenuity and attention to detail was outstanding. His organs were designed to be played with ease: they included reliable combination actions, melody couplers, solid ivory drawstops, and a recognizable consistent touch.
“The exterior of Skinner consoles was usually made of oak, although at least one console was constructed of solid mahogany, stained light to complement its high-gloss, dark, wine-colored mahogany interior. These exceedingly attractive Skinner consoles were designed with more in mind than mere beauty. E. M. Skinner maintained that ‘the convenience of the organist should be made the first consideration of the organ builder, regardless of fads, hobbies, or economics.’ The distance between keyboards, the position of the pedal board, the placement of the drawknohs, and the location of all mechanical devises (expression pedals, combination pistons, etc.) on the Skinner console were designed for maximum convenience, and the manual keys of most of these consoles were now equipped with ‘tracker touch.’” (Holden, The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner 45)
Such was the case with the design of the original console built for First Congregational Church in the 1920s.
Following the disastrous fire of the 1970s that destroyed the church’s roof and much of the sanctuary, it was necessary for the congregation to purchase a new organ console. What replaced the original Skinner console (modified by John Shawhan in the 1960s) was crafted of hardwoods in the French-terrace style. Drawstops were made of plastic.
A number of minor additions made over the years have compromised the console’s aesthetic integrity. Many organists find it difficult to achieve proper balance on the mini-bench. Some stops have been disconnected or have broken entirely.
In addition, malfunction and problems with the “revised” combination action date to 1975 when some stops set regardless of what piston was used, when others would not cancel on any manual piston, and when others would not set on any piston.
How might the organist or guest to First Congregational Church find mechanical reliability and convenience in the console? Ernest Skinner certainly knew the answers!
Orpha Ochse praises the craftsmanship of Skinner in her 1975 text The History of the Organ in the United States (when doing so was perhaps against certain academic trends): “From about 1910 to about 1930 Ernest Skinner was at the peak of his popularity, and his position as one of the leading American builders was well deserved. He was a master craftsman, and his organs were refined expressions of his concept of tonal beauty. Skinner could achieve a remarkable degree of unity and cohesion in his organs, and attempts to ‘modernize’ them seldom leave one in doubt about where Skinner left off and the revisions began.” (328)