An organ built by John Snetzler in 1773-4 for Wynnstay in Denbighshire, now in the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff. It is housed in the only surviving organ case by Robert Adam. Could instruments as lavish and beautiful as this ever be made again?
|The Artistic Revival
Organs and organ building in Britian today (No.6 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1997 under the heading 'Raising the Tone')
A lightning tour of late twentieth century organ-building leaves much unsaid, and in the five articles that have preceded this one it has been impossible to do full justice to the many successes the craft has enjoyed.
What I hope to have suggested is that the Classical Revival of the past fifty years has been pertinent, timely, and ultimately valid. There has been a huge concentration of organ-builders' efforts on prompt, sensitive, mechanical actions, on the provision of good casework, on the re-thinking of tonal assumptions, on a new philosophy of design, and on the general re-assessment of the methods of the craft. All this is good, and will have its place in the future. An exact contemporary of the Modern Movement in architecture and design, the Classical Revival has emphasised form and function, within a framework of traditional principles - and, historically speaking, has been anti-romantic.
That anti-romantic stance has caused a division in the organ world, perhaps most notably in Britain and North America where the lively romantic traditions simply refused to be ignored. In the English-speaking world there has been a profound sense of unease about the future of organ-building, simply because of this polarisation of opinion.
There is, additionally, an argument to suggest that the Classical Revival compromised the art of voicing. A line of thinking on this subject was presented in the article previous to this. The problem has been this: to the careful listener few of the new organs really seemed as beautiful as the old ones. Some of them, indeed, came across with all the brash, hard intrusiveness of a concrete slab.
The great organs of the past are not like that. Some of them are utterly bewitching in their total tonal beauty. Instruments like Klosterneuberg, Hamburg Jakobikirche, Alkmaar, Ottobeuren, and Poitiers represent past peaks of the Art of organ-building. To anyone who has the sense to make no pejorative distinction between classical and romantic, that beauty exists in nineteenth century organs too.
The neo-classicists would not hear of such a thing. In 1957 Norbert Dufourc wrote(1):
"It now appears to us, after mature reflection, that the romantic organ of our great Cavaille/-Coll took the wrong path and broke with tradition."
Some of Dufourc's contemporaries were inclined to agree with him. In France many great works by one of the finest organ-builders of all time were lost forever. In other countries the masterpieces of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also either removed, altered, or effectively ignored. This attitude was not good, and one hopes that it should not prevail in the future - which makes it all the more important that we should now assess which instruments of our own time have been the most successful and why. These will be our legacy to the world's collection of fine organs, and should be preserved intact.
That some modern builders really were fully able to capture the beauties - as well as the principles - of the past has only gradually become clear. For an Englishman the lovely 1965 Frobenius at Queen's College Oxford should have been indicative, and the 1976 Metzler at Trinity College Cambridge a splendid confirmation (despite the rather neutral quality of its reed stops). By the 1970s, a company like Metzler had already moved from modernism towards a determination to follow historic principles more closely (under the tutelage of Bernhardt Edskes), and the musical results seemed to justify the means. Such attention to detail and total musical success are also a feature of the work of Ju"rgen Ahrend, also working in a strictly 'historical' manner.
The majority of neo-classical organ builders did not actually spend much time looking at the old organs themselves, but copied each other. The links between the early (pre- 1970) organs of Flentrop, Frobenius and Marcussen are clear, perhaps clearer even than their similarity to anything genuinely 'early'. In Germany, the repetitive familiarity of modern organ-building has actually become quite depressing, with only the rather idiosyncratic large organs of Klais sounding with real individuality. In France, Britain, Italy and Iberia the situation has been, until recent years, chaotic.
In North America, however, the musical vacuum left by the gradual prevalence of neo-classical organs has been very effectively and interestingly filled. The great intellect of the new movement was the late Charles Fisk, although the need for a radical new turn was perhaps most pungently expressed by Fritz Noack in 1976(2):
"We feel that the trackers of the last twenty years, in other words the 'screaming Neo-baroque boxes', with their inflexible wind, low cut-ups, waste of tin, and rattling metal actions are not serving our musical needs. Even an old 1880 tracker is often musically superior to those Neo-baroque organs."
Of course he was right. The pages of this magazine have, since it started publication, featured many examples of American instruments built by those who basically agreed with Noack and wished to go one stage further than the 'Neo-Baroke' [sic]. For most of these builders the starting point was a very early historical style. Under the important influence of the pioneering John Brombaugh, a whole generation of young American organ builders have become absorbed in copying and learning from the sixteenth century instruments of Hendrik Niehoff, Jan van Covelen, their contemporaries and their successors.
The attention to detail exhibited by these builders - of whom there are now many - is phenomenally exciting. The results are musically convincing in ways that few neo-classical instruments could hope to rival, and elevate the organs of today into the same stratospheric climate of musical beauty inhabited by some of the great organs of the past. I shall cite only a couple of instruments as examples: space prevents me illustrating a wider range of instruments or mentioning more makers by name. Some have been described previously in this magazine.
The organ built as Opus 9 by George Taylor and John Boody in the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, completed in 1985, became an instrument of pilgrimage as soon as it was unveiled. With four manuals and fifty-three stops, it reproduces in virtuosic detail the aesthetic of North Brabant organ building in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is not a copy of any organ or of any one builder's work, it is rather an imaginary instrument that might have existed in the past, but never actually did [ital].
The case of this organ announces the complete restoration of the Artistic standards of the pre-modernist age. It is fully crafted and decorated in every reasonable way, and is stunningly beautiful. The fluework, bold and ringing, is as good as in any of the ancient organs of Europe. The reeds, made in various quirky (and technically difficult) ways, are better (of their type) than those of any modern European builder except Ahrend. This is an instrument of supreme Artistic quality. There has been an Artistic Revival.
The Worcester organ is, of course, archaic and limited. Not so the organ built as Opus 11 by Manuel Rosales for Trinity Episcopal Church, Portland, Oregon and completed in 1987 - another instrument that became famous at once and is still much admired ten years later. With three manuals and fifty-two stops, this organ has a reputation for doing full justice to the wider repertoire within an entirely personal style owing something both to the authentic Baroque and to nineteenth-century France. This too is an instrument in which the full Art of organ-building has been revived - not just the craft - and yet it is, in many ways, romantic.
Several American builders have also laid to rest the old claim that pipes 'mellow' with age; that the beauties of old organs somehow cannot be recaptured today. There will still be controversy on this issue and I will state a personal view: -
Any organ builder who cannot make his new organ sound as beautiful as his favourite old one needs to start to learn the Art of voicing and site finishing - just as it was so assiduously practised both in the nineteenth century, and in all preceding generations. The dissection-slab functionalism of modern analysis is not enough to make a musical instrument. Craft, skill, taste and inspiration are essential to the recipe.
Is Britain fully up to date with the latest trends? William Drake's essays in English classical taste suggest one path, and other builders have made contributions that move beyond the neo-classical towards a new versatility and artistic excellence. More needs to be done. I would suggest that there is more to be learned from the best of modern American organ building than from the organs imported from continental Europe in the last twenty years.
The Artistic Revival exists regardless of style. It proves Peter Williams' hope that the future of the organ lies in the past(3), and yet tests it. What Williams may not have anticipated is this: the restoration of standards of Artistic Quality means that choice of style is no longer controversial. That style may be classical, romantic, futuristic, or experimental - but must be carried out at the highest level of conscientious detail for success to be assured. We are entering a period where excellence may soon eclipse style entirely, and when it does a new style is likely to emerge as a matter of human nature.
The organ-builders who met in Cambridge in the summer of 1996 (see the first article in this series), and who pondered the future of the craft as they ambled across the Bridge of Sighs in the summer sunshine, are now experiencing a further revolution in their industry. Many are aware that it is likely to be a period as dynamic and exciting as any in the history of the organ. Some are already fully acquainted with the highest standards of artistic revival; others are making every effort to join the leaders. There are sadly some who will gradually fall to the gradual encroachment of the electronic: at the bottom end of the market, where competition is stiff, artistic quality is not an issue, but value for money is, and numbers of stops may count for far more than numbers of pipes.
There will still be attempts to re-state the now outdated modernist position (the British Isles are sadly peppered with several expensive recent attempts at under-researched and amateurishly eclectic organ schemes. These make little positive contribution to our stock of really good instruments.) There will still be bad organs - there always have been bad organs - but the character of the best to be built in the years following our millennium celebrations is gradually becoming clear.
The Art of Organ-Building is Revived.
(1) 'La Musique Sacre', special number of 'La Revue Musicale' (Paris, 1957) p.201; translated S.B.
(2) 'Trends in American Organ Building in 1976', 'ISO Information' no. 15 (1976), p.26.
(3) 'A New History of the Organ' (London, 1980), pp. 207-11
next series of articles for Choir & Organ