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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Glenn Gould recordings”

May 16, 2006

Dear Michael,
You will have to pardon my ignorance as I am fairly new to the Pipe Organ world. (I’m only 17) And if you could also pardon the fact that I have a lot of questions, it would be most appreciated. One of the most amazing things about Pipe Organs is that each one of them is different, making each recording particularly unique (let alone the organist). Each time period has its own sound; each maker has his own sound; each country has its own organ sound as well. Yet every American organ that I have encountered has been a European “wannabe.” Are there any distinctly American Pipe Organs?

Is it a rumor that Glenn Gould recorded on a Pipe Organ?- If so it would be a treat to hear it on your program. My local, INDEPENDENT!, Classical radio station (KING FM) is having a HaydnFest this month, including some recordings of Michael Haydn (brother), whom I have found to have a particularly refreshing style, often youthful. Did he ever write anything for the Organ?

And, finally, just a comment: I have heard quite a few recordings of Rock Music (you will recall my age) and it is sort of “funny” that a lot of artists like to get as loud and as “hard” as they can, yet none has discovered the power and glory of the Pipe Organ. I guess that will be our little secret.

Micah Schmidt
Tacoma, WA


Dear Micah,
Tacoma/Seattle is a wonderful place to live if one is interested in pipe organs. You have some exceptional instruments (the Flentrop at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the Fisk at Benaroya Hall, and the Hutchings and Rosales organs at Saint James RC Cathedral, all in Seattle; the Fritts at Pacific Lutheran University, the Paul Fritts Organ Company shop, and the elegant Brombaugh at Christ Episcopal, all in Tacoma…plus many, many others) and organists (Carole Terry, Joseph Adam, Melvin Butler, David Dahl) and one great promoter of organ music…manager of the Loft and Gothic Records catalogs and host of his own radio program on KING-FM…Roger Sherman.

So, you have many local resources to turn to in getting answers to questions (and live listening experiences).

As for the ‘wannabe’ aspect of the pipe organ in America, perhaps this is because our culture is such a mix of various European cultures…so our organs are sometimes quasi-English or quasi-German, etc. In recent years, some builders have gone ‘back to the classics’
in designing modern instruments in a manner similar to one or another European model from the 19th or 18th or 17th century. Nothing wrong with that, as there is plenty of music from those periods to play on them…and new music works well, too.

Our builders have evolved their own ‘Americanizations’ over time…the Hook organs of the mid 19th century are different from similar English or German organs of that period. Instruments by the Austin Organ Company (of Hartford, CT, a firm still alive) featured a special wind chest and very prompt electro-pneumatic action. The Austin organ at Balboa Park in San Diego (installed in an outdoor pavillion) is a unique testament to American ingenuity.

In the mid 20th century, organs by Holtkamp, Schlicker pioneered the neo-baroque/classic revival, and Aeolian-Skinner’s American Classic designs blended classic and romantic voices in a noteable way.

Today’s best American builders, inspired by history and attentive to detail, are creating organs which are distinctly “American” in their quality and thoughtful design. It is argued that the best organs today, regardless of ‘style’, are made here in the USA.

So, yes, there are “American” instruments…just not easy to pin down the definition. Though perhaps the most ‘American’ of all organs is the theater organ, evolved here in the United States (the Wurlitzer factory was in Elmira, NY), an evolution of an idea brought over by Englishman Robert Hope-Jones, then applied to the band-organs the Wurlitzer company had been making to create an all-purpose sound source for the accompaniment of silent films.

Yes, Glenn Gould did record the first nine fugues from Bach’s Art of Fugue, using a Phelps-Casavant electro-pneumatic organ at a church in Toronto. The album is issued by Sony Classical, part of a complete Gould discography. I think I’ve played a bit in an Art of Fugue broadcast some years ago…best you search for the album on your own rather than await a rerun.

I believe that Michael Haydn wrote a charming concerto for organ and violin (I cannot find reference to it at the moment), but beyond that I draw a total blank. His brother Franz Joseph composed numerous organ concertos and a large number of very brief pieces for flute-clock (often played on organ).

Happy listening.



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