1929 E. M. Skinner Pipe Organ, Opus 769
Skinner Organ Company, Opus 769 (1929)
Ernest M. Skinner (1866-1960) was born in Clarion, Pennsylvania, and began his organ building career with George H. Ryder (1838-1922) in his Taunton, Massachusetts, shop in 1886, and later with George Hutchings (1835-1913) in Boston. In 1898, Mr. Skinner went abroad in order to study organs in England, France, and Holland. While in London, he studied the work of Henry Willis (1821-1901), one of England’s most influential organ builders. Skinner was given access to study the Willis organ at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, while Henry tutored him, showing him ways of voicing pipework which up to that point were not known in America. Skinner returned and put much of his new knowledge to work at the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company. In 1902, Skinner left Hutchings-Votey and entered into a partnership to form the Skinner & Cole Company. This business lasted until 1904, when Ernest M. Skinner & Company was organized.
During the early 1900s, Skinner experimented with and successfully built beautiful orchestral voices for his pipe organs, including the Erzähler (a string-like stop whose name means “story-teller” in German), the Orchestral Oboe, English Horn, Corno di Bassetto, Flügel Horn, and Heckelphone, which are all imitative of their orchestral counterparts and remarkably convincing. Skinner also refined his string stops, such as the Salicional, Dulciana, and Gamba. His Flauto Dolce Celeste became his favorite stop. Made up of two ranks of mildly voiced flutes, one tuned flat, it produces an ethereal, undulating effect called a “celeste.” Of all Skinner’s pipework, he only ever patented his designs for his French Horn stop.
Ernest M. Skinner & Company quickly became nationally recognized in the early 20th century for building pipe organs for some of the most prominent churches, concert halls, colleges, and civic auditoriums in the United States. A few of these are The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York (1906); Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh (1910); St. Thomas Church, New York (1913); and Brick Presbyterian Church, New York (1917).
Skinner’s pipe organs were not only tonally beautiful, but through a system of specific measurements used on his organ consoles, they were built to be very easy to play. These measurements included the distances between the various manuals, pedalboard, and expression shoes, as well as other mechanical devices that became standard in 1930 by the American Guild of Organists. Skinner also refined the motors he used to open and close swell shades, which control the volume of the pipes housed in a swell box. By making them open and close smoothly, they create seamless crescendos and decrescendos. Also, before many other organ companies built their consoles with standard combination actions, most Skinner consoles had fully adjustable pistons, which would set, move, and change stops just by pressing one with the thumb.
Although an artist and mechanical genius, Ernest Skinner was not a good businessman; however, in 1919 he gained financial freedom from his company when Arthur Hudson Marks (1874-1939), former Vice-President of the Goodrich Rubber Company, re-organized the firm as the Skinner Organ Company. With encouragement from Marks, Skinner returned to Europe in 1924, where he studied and discussed new ideas with Henry Willis III (1889-1966) and met one of his best employees, George Donald Harrison (1889-1956). Skinner also visited France, meeting organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), who showed him the brilliant voicing found in French Romantic organs.
With encouragement from Henry Willis III, Arthur Marks hired G. Donald Harrison as Assistant General Manager of the Skinner Organ Company in 1927. Together, Harrison and Skinner designed several important organs, such as those at Princeton University Chapel (1927); Woolsey Hall, Yale University (1928); and the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago (1929). Skinner’s relationship with Harrison began well, but by the end of 1929 he was well aware that Harrison had been hired to replace him eventually.
In 1932, the Skinner Organ Company merged with the organ division of the Aeolian Company, forming the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company. By this time, Skinner’s tonal philosophies were going out of fashion and Harrison’s were becoming more popular. The last pipe organ that Ernest Skinner designed while still with Aeolian-Skinner was for the Chapel at Girard College, Philadelphia, in 1931. After he attempted to circumvent Harrison for a contract with Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Aeolian stripped him of any power within the company, so he attempted to form the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Organ Company with his son, Richmond (1898-1986). Instead, Arthur Marks persuaded Skinner to enter a 5-year contract, which provided him with a $5,000 annual salary for the use of his name and the stipulation that he would not build any new pipe organs. In 1936, Ernest Skinner sold his interest in the firm and never returned.
In 1937, the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Organ Company built one last, large organ for The Washington National Cathedral. However, in 1941, the company filed for bankruptcy, and in 1943, the organ shop in Methuen, Massachusetts, burned to the ground.
From the late 1930s through the 1970s, there was great interest in European organs of the 18th century in the United States. Skinner’s pipe organs sounded very different from instruments built 200 years prior; thus, he defended his tonal philosophies in publications such as The Diapason and The American Organist well into the 1950s. Towards the end of his life, he began to see virtually all of his major instruments rebuilt or tonally altered in some way. Even after his death, many of his pipe organs would either be rebuilt beyond recognition or completely thrown out in order to accommodate new tastes.
Today, very few Skinner instruments remain in their original installation and unaltered tonal state. Two of the largest are the Newberry Memorial Organ (which Skinner rebuilt in 1928) in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, and the organ at Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Thankfully a renewed appreciation and understanding of Ernest Skinner’s work has come around, and many of his instruments are being restored to be as close to their original tonal state as possible.
Where does All Hallows’ Skinner organ figure into all of this? In the aftermath of the fire in January of 1929, a committee made up of Messrs. A. B. Parvin, William T. Pringle, and William H. Rohrer, set about to purchase a new pipe organ for All Hallows Church. The Skinner Organ Company was chosen and was able to rush the installation, not something they often did, so the organ could be used on Christmas Eve of that year.
From the Skinner Organ Company history, it is clear that All Hallows’ pipe organ is a typical Skinner, bearing the influence from his fruitful trip abroad in the late 1920s. There appears to be only subtle influence from G. Donald Harrison, even though he and Skinner were building several important organs together around the time of its completion. The organ includes examples of imitative reed stops such as the Clarinet, Oboe, and Trumpet, flute stops like the Concert Flute, and Rohrflöte, two very realistic narrow-scale string stops, the Salicional and Voix Celeste, and two Diapasons, the one on the Great division being rich and sonorous, while the one on the Swell division provides foundation and can be used as a solo string voice as well. The pedal 16’ Open Diapason or Contrabass, as the pipes are labeled, adds gravity to the instrument with its purr. Though few in number, the higher-pitched voices add clarity to the unison voices, and a Mixture III on the Swell provides brilliance in full combinations. Overall, the organ exhibits all of the tonal characteristics, attention to detail, and mechanical ingenuity that a Skinner would have, making it quite useful and pleasant. It is these qualities that made Skinner’s instruments the “Duesenbergs of pipe organs.” In addition, there are known to be four different opus numbers of pipework from other Skinner contracts in All Hallows’ instrument, most likely pulled from other jobs to speed up the building process in the shop; something rather uncommon. It is very apparent that great attention to detail was made during the tonal finishing of this organ because it is highly successful. This process was most likely not personally managed by Mr. Skinner, but it could not have gone unnoticed by the firm that this organ would play as a “weekly” sales pitch, as it were, to one particular pipe organ aficionado/philanthropist; Cyrus Curtis!
In 2004, Patrick J. Murphy & Associates of Stowe, Pa. re-leathered the organ console’s leather components. The chests were re-leathered in 2007, and two new ranks were added where space had originally been prepared for a Second Open Diapason on the Great and a Dulciana on the Choir. A Grave Mixture II and a 2’ Piccolo were added to these divisions, respectively. The blower and motor were restored in 2011 after flooding. Although it was proposed to re-voice some pipework (such as the Choir Concert Flute to be re-voiced as a Quintadena!), and replace the organ console in the 1960’s, neither occurred, although the reed stops were cleaned by TRIVO Company, Hagerstown, Maryland in 1967.
In 2014, as part of chancel remodeling, All Hallows elected to have Opus 769 re-wired for safety and reliability, focusing special attention on the console, which caused ciphers, dead notes, and other occasional problems, even very strangely, electrocution to the organist! Despite a mostly working combination action, it was quite limited in its capabilities and decidedly replaced with an Opus-Two control system. The console is now state-of-the-art and aesthetically and mechanically in excellent condition, and the organ (and organist!) have an immensely wider range of registration capabilities necessary for the liturgy and recitals. In 2019, a 4-year project to restore each of the organ’s reed ranks back to their 1929 splendor was begun starting with the Clarinet in 2019 and the Trumpet in 2020.
In 2020, the Choir Piccolo was removed due to its lack of tonal cohesion with the rest of the organ, and a Dulciana, as originally intended for that division, was offered to the church with its matching Unda Maris. These two ranks were from Skinner’s Opus 762 (only 7 Opus numbers away from 769!), which is now the nucleus of Nelson Barden’s masterpiece at the Community of Jesus in Orleans, Ma. Kehoe & Company, LLC added these two stops to the Choir division, which is now complete (and then some) as specified in 1929. Because the lowest 12 pipes of the Dulciana were missing from the Skinner pipework, those very same notes from the same stop of the original Curtis residence organ were restored and substituted. These pipes are stamped as the Aeolian Company’s Opus 784, but built by Farrand and Votey in 1896, the same year All Hallows’ first pipe organ was built by the very same firm. It can only be surmised that these pipes, which have not “sung” in Wyncote since 1935, were identical to those from the original organ.
3 manuals, 20 ranks, 1,590 pipes
16’ Bourdon from Pedal
8’ Open Diapason
8’ Principal Flute (wood, marked Clarabella)
8’ Rohrflöte from Swell
Grave Mixture II (12th and 15th) *
8’ Geigen Diapason
8’ Voix Celeste
4’ Flute Triangulaire
Mixture III (15th, 19th, 22nd)
8’ Oboe d’Amore
8’ Vox Humana
8’ Dulciana †
8’ Unda Maris †
8’ Concert Flute (wood and metal)
4’ Flute (harmonic, metal)
16’ Diapason (wood, marked Contrabass)
8’ Octave (wood, ext. of 16’ Diapason)
8’ Gedeckt (ext. of 16’ Bourdon)
4’ Super Octave (top 1½ octave open metal, ext. of 16’ Diapason)
Includes most standard couplers save for the 5-1/3 Choir to Great Quint which makes the Choir’s stops available on the Great at the 5th above unison pitch.
*—Indicates pipework added in 2007
†—Indicates pipework added in 2020