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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!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Organ Tour – Installment No. 2

The first installment of the tour explained how First Congregational Church’s present sanctuary instrument has evolved and grown larger since its birth in the late 1920s as a three-manual, thirty-six rank pipe organ that spoke warmly into the sanctuary at mostly 6 and 7 ½ inches of wind pressure.

Some successful elements have remained unchanged from the initial Ernest M. Skinner Company design.  Consider for example the instrument’s location: all but four ranks – or, said another way, “rows” or pipes of a similar tonal quality and manner of construction (usually) – are located behind the front, center grillwork.  The sound’s egress is not hampered by the screen.

The antiphonal horizontal trumpet, built by Casavant Frères Ltée, was installed by John Shawhan in that late 1960s.  Three additional ranks of pipes were added by Wheeler following the fire – the rationale for these final pipe additions is uncertain.  Wind supply for these ranks is sadly leeched from the trumpet’s supply.

The original Skinner patented “whiffle-tree” swell engine (1913) is still in use and mechanically reliable.  Coupled with the thick shutters of the two enclosed divisions, portions of the instrument have a great deal of dynamic-expressive flexibility.

On the other hand, Orgelbewegung additions of the 1960s were conceived in no way to offer expressive flexibility, but [rather] to offer brightness, “transparent” sonorities, and supposed historically-informed tonal options.  A new low-pressure unenclosed great division replaced the eight ranks of Skinner pipes and chests that once formed the instrument’s (gt.) backbone.  Another similar unenclosed division, which speaks at 2 ¼ inches of wind pressure, was added at the same time.

Brittle bone (or tone) disease has in a way impacted an organ that once spoke with pronounced warmth, richness, mellowness, and fullness of tone.  Does this organ suffer from a kind of multiple personality disorder?  Was this simply a result of academic fads? 

Better yet, can anything be done now to encourage the tonal unity of an instrument that is used daily?

In coming weeks, expect to learn about the deterioration of the 1970s console and the uniqueness of Skinner reeds. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Organ Tour – Installment No. 1

The pipe organ is played throughout the week at First Congregational Church.  Its sounds are heard leading hymns, playing in recital, accompanying guest choirs, and inspiring music lovers in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region.

Even Virgil Fox performed on Saginaw’s mighty organ in the 1960s.

Members of the congregation and guests often ask questions about FCC’s sanctuary organ. From where does the sound come?  How big or small are the pipes?  How many pipes are in the organ?

The organ – containing almost four thousand pipes – is located in the large chamber behind the choir and in the real gallery, where four ranks of pipes are situated on a chest beneath the east window.  The sound travels optimally down the central axis of the nave. 

Some of the organ’s metal pipes are smaller than a child’s little finger.  Others are made of wood and look like giant crates flipped on end.  The organ’s largest pipes are greater in height than a regulation basketball hoop.

At times questions can be more difficult to answer.  “Why does the organ need to be maintained? It sounds so beautiful on Sunday morning.”  Does an organ need a singular tonal goal?  What is so unique about a Skinner organ?  How much will an organ project cost?

These are the twenty dollar – or, rather, the hundred thousand dollar plus – questions.

Some people know that FCC’s present sanctuary instrument began its life as a modest three-manual organ built by the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston in the late 1920s. Over the years – in keeping with the Orgelbewegung fad – it was determined to enlarge Op. 751.  John F. Shawhan oversaw this task in the 1960s, and installed nearly thirty additional ranks of pipes built by Casavant Frères Ltée (Op. 2809).  Following the tragic fire of the 1970s, a new console was built, pipes were cleaned, and three flue ranks were added in the rear loft.  Local builder Scott Wheeler completed this maintenance. Other than MIDI additions and minor console repair, a steady diet of “routine” maintenance has been the organ’s norm since the late 80s. 

Now, decades later, staff and guest organists face the challenge of an unreliable instrument pieced together over many decades: it is their task to cope with a combination action that does not operate consistently; it is their task to cope with a number of stops that do not work full-compass due to problems with wiring, magnets, or chests; it is their task to try to make music in a situation when music takes back burner to malfunction.  

The purpose of this online tour series is to allow Friends of Music to become acquainted with the pipe organ at First Congregational Church, to show off elements of superb craftsmanship and organ building, to point out areas where maintenance is needed, and to encourage support of the project.   Posing and answering questions along the way is necessary!

Might this organ once again speak with a beauty similar to what Ernest Skinner envisaged in the 1920s? Might this organ return to its former cultural, liturgical, and educational role in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Friends of Music Visit - Clips Posted

On Saturday, May 14, eight Friends of Music travelers from First Congregational Church in Saginaw, Michigan, made the 640-mile roundtrip to Youngstown with the specific purpose of touring the auditorium facility and its organ. We were delighted by our visit and thankful for the hospitality of Mr. William A. Conti and our hosts.

The instrument at Stambaugh Auditorium is – in itself – a study of detailed and beautiful organ building.  It can be marked as special in the United States because it is located in a municipal auditorium, because the pipework from the 1920s is in such fine physical condition, and because the restorative efforts by the Thomson-Allen firm allow the genius of Ernest M. Skinner to perdure.

The stoplist of Opus 582 is complete with stunning balanced choruses, distinctive solo voices, and beautiful-subtle-refined individual ranks.  See photos and sound clips from the Friends of Music trip online [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgIoCB7fomM].