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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, April 17, 2005

All the Stops by Craig Whitney

All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters by Craig R. Whitney. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. ISBN: 1-58648-173-8

This book makes a valiant attempt to place the pipe organ, "the king of instruments," into its rightful role in the American musical scene over the course of the past century. And while the author argues passionately for the organ as a musical instrument, unfortunately, he is probably preaching to the choir, for the most part. That is to say, his book is likely to be read mostly by organists and organ aficionados, themselves a dedicated and passionate group. But the organ seems destined to remain a niche instrument, mostly relegated to the church, and occasionally to large concert halls.

Nevertheless, the author tells a fascinating story, one that should be of interest to social historians and other musicians and music lovers as well as to organists. It is nothing less than the story of the American organ in the 20th century. Admittedly, Whitney focuses on the high points, and selects only a few iconic figures and highly influential trends for thorough attention. But in so doing, he not only outlines the key movements that have influenced the highly skilled, if arcane, craft of organ building in America during the past 100+ years, but also tells a story replete with fascinating characters and heroes, both sung and unsung.

He begins with Ernest M. Skinner and the orchestral organ of the early years of this century. This was not only the era of silent movies, and theater organs to accompany them, but a period in which the organ often functioned as a one-man orchestra, bringing great music to the masses. The second chapter, "Monster Organs, Mammoth Audiences," describes some of the colorful excesses of this period, including the gigantic Wanamaker organ installed in a Philadelphia department store.

As is typical of most history, the pendulum begins to swing back with the next chapter, devoted to G. Donald Harrison, who gradually pushed the old-fashioned Skinner aside, developing the "classic" American organ in the process. Two of the biggest names among American organists, E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox, polar opposites in many ways, each receive two alternating chapters.

The second Biggs chapter also focuses on the organ reform movement, which finally reaches the U.S. decades after its debut in Germany and Holland. Titled "The Way God Intended Organs to Be Built," it focuses on the rage for a return to traditional organ building techniques: mechanical "tracker" action, even non-equal temperament. Unfortunately, many of these organs went too far, alienating many ordinary church and concert goers with their sometimes harsh and shrill tones.

Virgil Fox represents the opposite extreme, organ music taken to the level of Liberace, sequins, glitter, and capes. Nevertheless, Fox had one of the finest techniques of any organist who ever lived, and played the great masterpieces of the literature with uncanny accuracy and speed, even as he flamboyantly ignored any semblance of historical authenticity.

The final two chapters explore the pendulum as it swings back again, towards a more comfortable middle ground. Authentic organs can be built in all styles, and organs from all periods are worthy of preservation and restoration.

Written in an eminently readable style, this book is highly recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in the esoteric world of the pipe organ. And even for those not so inclined, it provides a fascinating look at one unique corner of the American experience spanning the 20th century.

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