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Mightier than a Wurlitzer

A century ago, no instrument had the power, majesty or popularity of a pipe organ. A writer chronicles the instrument's rise and fall.

July 27, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Even before a note is played on a massive pipe organ, the imagination is stirred by the sight of three, four or more broad keyboards stacked one above one other, panels of 20, 40 or more pullstops alongside to control an amazing variety of sounds, and a row of 30 or more foot pedals at the base of the console.

And when such an organ begins to resonate through the architecturally dazzling space of, say, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, the experience can be thrilling. Seeing that instrument, and its unconventional new counterpart -- a French-fry splay of pipes installed in Walt Disney Concert Hall -- it's not difficult to imagine the excitement that pipe organs once regularly inspired in America, attracting massive audiences.

That period is evoked in sumptuous detail by Craig R. Whitney in his book "All the Stops" (Public Affairs), a fascinating, contentious history of the organ.

A New York Times editor and longtime pipe organ amateur and enthusiast, Whitney builds his tale around the personalities of the 20th century Americans who took into new realms what Mozart had dubbed the "king of all instruments." Each innovator had a different vision of the ideal instrument, and they fought each other tooth and nail as their ideas came into and passed out of fashion. "These are poignant characters who had real sad clashes, both personal and professional, and that lends a human drama to the story," Whitney said recently from his desk in New York.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Organist's name -- Belgian organ virtuoso Charles-Marie Courboin's last name was misspelled as Courboim in a July 27 Sunday Calendar article on Craig R. Whitney's book "All the Stops."

It may be hard to believe now, but as Whitney shows, the pipe organ was once an incredibly popular instrument in the United States. It had moved out of its traditional home in the church and into concert halls and municipal auditoriums where, in the early decades of the last century, people flocked by the thousands to hear native and European virtuosos play original works, marches, patriotic songs, opera and symphony transcriptions and virtuoso improvisations.

Why? Because music was nowhere near as readily available as it is today. Radio was in its infancy, recordings were primitive, and live orchestra concerts were confined mostly to the elite. Organ recitals, on the other hand, allowed a single musician to imitate the sounds of a full orchestra, and at an affordable price.

It became a point of civic pride to install "monster" organs -- with multiple keyboards and thousands of pipes -- in auditoriums across the land. Entrepreneurs didn't hesitate to capitalize on the enthusiasm.

John Wanamaker began installing large organs in his department stores in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and after business hours, the Philadelphia store, in particular, became a prestigious concert site.

About 12,000 people sat on chairs placed on the marbled floor of the Grand Court and the six balconies surrounding the atrium to hear Leopold Stokowski conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra and Belgian organ star Charles-Marie Courboim play Bach at the inaugural concert in 1919.

Organs are built with one pipe for each of the 56 or 61 notes on a keyboard (called a manual). The pipes are arranged in sets of similar tone color, called "ranks," which are controlled by stops. Theoretically, all the pipes could be played at the same time by "pulling out all the stops," but it would take a tremendous amount of wind pressure to support this fortissimo sound.

Yankee ingenuity responded to all this, and as efficiency of scale came into play, prices began to come down and organs got bigger.

The rich -- but not always just the rich -- installed organs in their homes, mansions and even yachts, where they or hired organists or even player-mechanisms could entertain assembled guests.

In that fabled pre-income-tax era, Detroit auto builder Horace E. Dodge, for instance, didn't need hesitate to raise his yacht, the Delphine, after it burned and sank at a pier in New York City in 1926, taking its two-keyboard, 16-rank pipe organ right to the bottom. He simply refit the ship with an even better organ.

Symphonic sound

As Whitney shows, one of the geniuses behind these large instruments -- dubbed "orchestral" because of their aim to imitate the sounds of a modern orchestra -- was Ernest M. Skinner.

A strong-willed if not impossible New Englander, Skinner created new stops and helped perfect electrical methods of transmitting the player's keyboard touch to the pipes, making the instrument easier to play than the earlier mechanical or "tracker" transmission methods.

Even more significantly, Skinner worked his whole life to perfect a blended, warm sound that could mimic all the resources of a real symphony orchestra, from distinctive solos all the way up to fortissimo ensembles. This was the rich, fat, romantic sound that 19th century composers and organists coveted.

But the economic climate changed after the stock market collapse of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The demand for the instruments began to dry up.

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