Last week, I had the privilege of attending the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, which included twelve organ recitals, three lectures, and a master class. These events were centered around three pipe organs, built in the middle of the 20th century by the Aeolian-Skinner Company under the leadership of British-born G. Donald Harrison, and they are often described as “American Classic” organs. They were all voiced (tonally finished) by Roy Perry, a man with exceptional understanding of pipe organ tone. Two of these instruments are located in Kligore, Texas – the epicenter of the festival – and the third is housed in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana. (Kilgore, by the way, was the birthplace and childhood home of the legendary American pianist, van Cliburn.) In addition to our time in Kilgore and Shreveport, we traveled to Dallas to hear five organs by various builders, including a smaller organ by Aeolian-Skinner.
What is an American Classic organ?
The term “American Classic” probably originated with a quote from Senator Emerson Richards, in which he described G. Donald Harrison’s eclectic tonal philosophy. (Senator Richards was largely responsible for the installation of the world’s largest pipe organ – a huge instrument at the Atlantic City Convention Center.) Harrison’s goal was to build organs that would allow organists to play the widest possible body of organ literature with a certain degree of authenticity. His designs and tonal concepts drew from two or three centuries of organ building practices in English, French, and German traditions.
I feel very connected with this style of organ building. My three years of high-school organ study at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and my four years serving as Assistant Organist at Columbia University provided me with the opportunity to spend countless hours with two of the flagship Aeolian-Skinner organs, built in 1937 and 1938 respectively. And, in 1981, I had the privilege of playing my senior undergraduate recital (Manhattan School of Music) on the luxuriant Aeolian-Skinner of The Riverside Church (with five manuals and over 210 sets of pipes – known as ranks.)
That having been said, I will now inform you that River Road does not house an Aeolian-Skinner organ, much less an organ designed by G. Donald Harrison, who passed away in 1956 during the completion of an organ at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan. We have a Möller organ. When River Road was taking bids for pipe organs in the late 1960’s, Aeolian-Skinner was reaching its final days due to impending financial insolvency. Their firm was under consideration here, but their future was a matter of concern, so River Road turned to Möller, the largest pipe organ builder in the world at that time. Our Möller organ is also designed in the American Classic style – some German flutes, fiery French-style reeds (trumpet sounds), and other sounds reminiscent of British organs. I am grateful to Carl Freeman for overseeing (with uncompromising exigence!) the installation and tonal finishing of our instrument, and I am also grateful to Steve Emery, who so lovingly tunes and maintains our organ.
What does this all mean?
The River Road pipe organ is an invaluable resource to a worship service that includes classic hymns, anthems, and responses (such as the Gloria Patri and the Doxology). It is a wonderful instrument for the rendition of music from many countries, written through several centuries. Without a doubt, our organ has its own special ministry here. I am happy to have had the opportunity to visit great organs in East Texas and Louisiana last week, but I also rejoice in the fact that we have a superb “American Classic” pipe organ here at River Road.
Written by Bob Gallagher