All hail the organ and its rich history

April 13, 2003|By Victoria R. Sirota | Victoria R. Sirota,Special to the Sun

All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, by Craig R. Whitney. Public Affairs. 352 pages. $30.

It should come as no surprise that the world's most complicated musical instrument is also the focus of gossip, intrigue and factionalism. An introduction to the organ world in all its glorious (and not so glorious) aspects, Craig R. Whitney's All the Stops is superb. From any perspective, musician or novice, this book is informative, well-written and downright fun.

The organ, more than any other musical instrument, has a history that puts it in tension between the sacred and the profane. Religious institutions, concert halls, movie theaters, retail stores, private mansions, baseball parks and roller skating rinks have all at one time been venues for the organ. The shifts in organ building and design mirror its use. Congregational singing requires one kind of instrument; accompanying silent movies with bells and whistles another.

Whitney, a New York Times editor and amateur organist, paints a huge canvas with two different stories that interconnect -- one follows divisions and factions in organ building and design, the other in performance. The "musical divide" between the more romantic, orchestral organ and the search for a truer Bach-style organ led to rifts between organ builders such as E.M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison. "Eclecticism fell out of fashion," Whitney writes. The romantic sound was replaced by a leaner, purer sound. This musical war turned off the huge audiences that had once flocked to expositions and concerts.

But other forces were at work. The great heyday of the theater organ in the Roaring '20s ended with the advent of talkies. And the New Deal income tax capped the excesses of the wealthy, some of whom had kept an organist on the payroll to entertain guests on their private-residence organs. Two performers eventually emerged to recapture the crowds, each in his own way. The flamboyant Virgil Fox and the patrician E. Power Biggs both became concert performers, organists who actually made their living without relying on income from a church position.

Well, Fox was actually "retired" from his job at Riverside Cathedral. Even John D. Rockefeller complained about how loudly he played. Fox's heart was in showmanship. The all-Bach concert he held in the Fillmore East in 1970 complete with a psychedelic light show was performed on a Rodgers electronic touring organ, the bane of pipe organ purists. Today he would be on MTV.

E. Power Biggs claimed the new listening audience with radio broadcasts from the Harvard Busch-Reisinger Museum and records played on historic instruments with a more authentic technique. Fox sneered at Biggs' approach to the organ, saying to friends it was about as interesting as "dried owl [dung]."

In writing this book, Whitney talked to a good sampling of organists and builders. The gift is his clarity, enthusiasm and passion, as well as his care to define words in layman's terms.

What's missing is the third big component of the canvas -- the music. Whitney leaves living composers behind, and only fleetingly refers to mid- to late 20th-century organ repertoire. Without new pieces being written, the organ has no future. He mentions the Saint-Saens and Jongen pieces on the inaugural concert of the huge new Fisk organ for Oberlin College, but neglects to mention the third piece, a new work by Baltimore composer (and my husband) Robert Sirota. But maybe I'm biased.

The Rev. Victoria R. Sirota, national chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, is currently vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity (Episcopal) in Baltimore. She recently received the 2002 Ecumenical Service Award from the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council and the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Fourth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts.

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