Charles Fisk met David Fuller, noted harpsichordist, organist and musicologist, in the 1950’s, beginning conversations that would culminate twenty-three years later in a new organ for The University at Buffalo.
Nearly half a century has elapsed since my first contact with Charles Fisk. I was organist of Dartmouth College, presiding over an instrument with pipework dating back to 1887 but more or less newly built in 1918 by Austin, and in 1929 enlarged in a haphazard manner by a builder better left unnamed. When I arrived in 1954 it had 41 ranks of pipes on four manuals and pedals, seven 8 diapasons, and eight apologetic ranks pitched above the unison. Fortunately it stood in an open gallery in a fairly live room typical Romanesque college chapel of the 1880s. In these enlightened preservationist days the organ would doubtless have been lovingly restored to the blessed state in which Austin had left it in 1918, but I had been deeply bitten by Church of the Advent, Boston and All Saints, Worcester in their glory days and had spent the preceding four summers in Europe, mostly France (think Gonzalez), and my Austin needed MIXTURES!
I don’t remember who put me on to Andover, conceivably Melville Smith, but my correspondence with Thomas Byers shows that he came up to Dartmouth on 8th November 1954 and I visited the shop in Methuen a month later. This would have been before Charles Fisk joined the firm. The initial proposal is dated the day after Byers visit, and it envisions a four-to-five-rank fourniture and a three-to-four-rank cymbale on electro-pneumatic chests sitting in the open just in front of the organ. Price, not including installation, was $1,653. After my visit to Methuen, during which we visited organs and listened to mixtures and I expressed a preference for bright voicing of the individual ranks (I had never liked Aeolian-Skinner mixtures), Byers rethought his proposal, adding a rank to the cymbale and narrowing the scales. The fourniture began at 1 1/3 with five breaks and the cymbale began at 1/3 with seven.
Nearly a year later there was a letter from Charles telling me that the pipes were to leave Holland by October 26; in the event, they left at the end of November and were playing by early January. To what extent Charles had collaborated in the final design of the mixtures I do not know, but in a final letter (proposing a set of French reeds at 16, 8, and 4 for $2,488 including installation and finishing but never built), Byers said they were the most dramatic mixture ensemble I’ve ever heard in the flesh. They certainly transformed the old Austin. I seem to remember that they ended up in the Harvard Chapel Fisk.
I saw Charlie off and on during the subsequent twenty years. We had plenty of friends in common and I was close to John Ferris during the whole of the agonizing seven-year gestation of the Harvard organ. I visited something more than half the Fisk’s completed up to Charlie’s death.
Although I continued to haunt Boston as much as I could, in the fall of 1964 I joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo (as a musicologist, not as organist). Planning had just started for a vast new campus in the suburb of Amherst. It was to be governor Nelson Rockefellers greatest monument: The Berkeley of the East, everyone said. A rich friend sold him a large swamp, and construction began. It was supposed to cost a billion uninflated dollars. In 1967, a quarter-million was budgeted for two organs, a big one in the concert hall and a smaller three-manual in a teaching studio. In those days $250,000 was a princely sum even for two organs. From the beginning, the big organ was to be first, tracker, and second, stylistically eclectic. I was thinking of Charles, of course.
Alas, twenty-three years of wars, riots, recessions, and stagflation were to pass before our organ would make music. The quarter-million remained, chiseled in stone, but it would buy less and less. The concert hall disappeared, the studio organ evaporated, and a single, shrunken, organ was shifted to a planned 700-seat chamber music hall. Finally, in the mid-1970s, we were allowed to approach some builders. But I was too impatient to wait for Fisk, whose list was something like five years. We decided on Lawrence Phelps, because he made eclectic trackers, had no waiting list, and was only 100 miles away, in Erie, Pennsylvania, instead of 450 to Gloucester. But the lack of a waiting list should have warned us: by 1977 he was bankrupt. It was a close call.
So in the end it was Charlie. Our serious discussions with him dated from December of that year, and we were talking French romantic. I no longer remember when my thinking veered in that direction, but I must have suggested the possibility of something like a Cavaillé-Coll for Buffalo, because on 29 December 1978 he wrote, The idea of the Cavaillé – Coll will always interest me very much. If we can make it a reality, let’s!
In June, 1979, I went to St. Paul, Minnesota, to give a talk at Macalester College, and took the opportunity to visit House of Hope, where a crew, including Charlie, were finishing their magnum opus. This was just after Charlie had been to Paris and seen several Cavaillé-Colls. We sat in the garden and talked about Buffalo. The only paper at hand was the envelope of my American Airlines ticket, and on this Charlie sketched, in ink and in pencil, his ideas for the organ.
(The 4 principal and vox humana on the swell and the stoplist of a great in the lower right part are in my hand.)
What is fascinating and curious to observe in this sketch is that the French-ness is mostly in the language. The distance that separated this scheme from Cavaillé-Colls of equivalent size is seen most strikingly in matters of overall balance. Fisk has four divisions of almost equal numbers of stops instead of Cavaillé’s characteristic large great with a Récit and positif hardly more than half the size and an even smaller pedal. There are seven mixtures, none of them a cornet, and eight reeds. This is long way from the paucity of mixtures and wealth of reeds in a typical Cavaillé-Coll. Independent tierces and larigots are almost unknown in Cavaillé-Colls of this size, and the same is true of gemshorns (cors de chamois), spindle flutes (flûtes fuseau), and chorale basses.
He could not have thought that his sketch represented a Cavaillé-Coll or anything resembling one, in spite of his burst of enthusiasm six months before; after all, he had just been studying the real thing on its home ground. His first formal proposal came in a letter to the university dated 26 March 1980, in which he now stated explicitly that he was proposing an instrument in the style of Cavaillé-Coll and that he believed that this organ would be, as he said, the first of its kind in this country.
There were 31 stops and 40 ranks of pipes on three manuals and pedals. Eight of them were money-saving double-draws in this case, two stops on one knob that pulled out halfway to isolate a rank in a mixture, and all the way for the whole mixture. Except for these pernicious double-draws, the second stoplist was as similar to that of most Cavaillé-Colls of comparable size as the sketch on the airline envelope was different. Two mechanical features of Fisk’s proposal, firsts for the company, enhanced its authenticity: a pneumatic lever (Barker machine) for the great, and divided windchests with higher pressures for the trebles than for the basses.
The stop action was mechanical, and although the four double – draw pairs would have vitiated the utility of a modern combination action, four composition pedals drawing groups of stops on each division were provided. The manual compass was 56 notes and the pedal, 30. A comparison of this scheme with the stoplist of a middle-period Cavaillé-Coll of similar size provides clues to Charlie’s thinking. The Fisk scheme is labeled A to distinguish it from two further proposals submitted the following June.
There is no reason to think that Charlie knew the Lavaur organ; certainly I had never even heard of the town in which it was located, much less of the instrument (Lavaur is in the south, not far from Toulouse). But it is as typical of Cavaillé-Colls middle-period organs as Charlie’s scheme on the airline envelope was untypical of this kind of instrument, and the many similarities that link it with his proposal demonstrate his familiarity with Cavaillé’s practice. Yet the two instruments with all the stops drawn would sound very different. The lack of Cavaillé’s two powerful 16s and bourdon in the great and the choice of a fourniture (with breaks) instead of Cavaillé’s progressive mixture, together with the addition of the carillon, cornet, and pedal mixture, all shift Fisk’s tutti in the direction of the light and the bright. The carillon (2 2/3 – 1 3/5 – 1) and cornet were, to be sure, often incorporated into Cavaillé’s later and larger organs, and it was at my request that they, along with the violoncelle and the swell flute ensemble, were included here. Never to my knowledge, however, did Cavaillé put a mixture into the pedal, not even in the 124-stop project for St. Peters in Rome. The unda maris was probably a broad string meant to beat with the principal, though it might conceivably have been a bourdon. It no longer exists.
According to Charles’s letter, even though the value of the dollar was then in free-fall he could have built his Cavaillé-Coll for our quarter-million IF it could be paid immediately in full and IF he could begin construction immediately. Neither condition could even be dreamed of. His delivery time was then a little over four years, and work on our instrument could not even begin for three. Moreover, even though the money had been in our budget for thirteen years, it would take two more for the State actually to approve the purchase order. Until then we could not even secure a place on Fisk’s waiting list, since this required a down payment.
Cavaillé was, if not dead, at least severely crippled. On 16 June 1980 Charlie sent us two more stoplists, B and C, either of which he said he could build for $250,000 if the down payment were big enough and the amount that would have to be escalated were correspondingly reduced to a minimum.
Gone were multiple pressures, gone was the Barker machine, gone were the composition pedals, gone were the big string on the great, the positive trumpet, and the vox humana on the swell. Pedal 16 and 8 foundations were now borrowed from the great. The number of those malignant double-draws had doubled and scheme C was padded with no fewer than four preparations. But miraculously the four harmonic flutes Charlie seems never to have made even one harmonic flute until 1979 were not touched.
His cover letter made the necessary revision in his thinking explicit: the organ was now to be Fisk – eclectic; in this specification we have endeavored to provide an organ which will cover the gamut of the musical literature that is being taught today. Of particular interest is that this organ would perform well the works of seventeenth and eighteenth century German, Dutch, and French composers, yet would make an unusually effective display of the French music of the nineteenth century.
It is a measure of the cost of a Cavaillé-Coll copy and perhaps a comment on the all-purpose organ that it should have been cheaper to build an instrument to cover the whole range of organ music than it was to make one designed for a single repertory!
The introduction of German and Dutch elements into what had been a resolutely Latin approach to our design must have been congenial to Charlie in 1980, since he was approaching the culmination of years of inquiry into these instruments in connection with the 17th-century north-German organ for Wellesley College, whose dedication was only a little over a year away. The names themselves furnish a rough guide to the style he had in mind for each group of stops.
The plenum of both greats was to be north German, influenced by Stellwagen, while the reeds and of course the harmonic flute were French. The two positives are less neatly analyzed. For one thing, both were to be played in modern French style from the middle manual, contrary to what one would naturally assume, especially in the case of the Brustpositiv. That Brustpositiv is frankly odd, with its presumably imitative clarinette confronted by a snarling regal and its polyglot jeu de tierce surmounted by a tiny cimbel.
But the great sacrifice here is clearly in the Pedal divisions. Two borrowed manual stops could never provide enough weight to support a manual ensemble of twenty foundations and mixtures unless they were so heavy as to make them useless in their home divisions.
On 28 October 1981, after fifteen months of battling every imaginable obstacle, we signed an agreement with Virginia Lee to order spec. C. We only needed Albany to approve it for the clock to begin ticking. Slee Hall was just complete with its gaping organ loft. But Albany continued to withhold its final approval. In April we were informed that the Schlicker Company had induced a New York state legislator to block the approval, and we were required to gather letters from prominent members of the profession testifying to Schlickers inability to build the organ we required. Enthusiastic testimonials to that effect poured in and were duly forwarded. Finally, on 3 June 1982 we were informed that Albany had approved the purchase order. The following year Charlie died.
But the company survived indeed it throve, and the clock ticked and ticked. Delivery was promised for 1987, and instead of an organ we got a letter telling us that 1989 would be the delivery date. We never stopped begging for more money. Suddenly, in 1988, we were informed that $621,500 had been committed to the organ. This sum just happened to be identical to one named in a letter from Mark Nelson in March of that year, and it would buy us half again as much organ as we thought we were going to get and almost as much as would fit in the loft. Thank God for that last delay! On the last day of July, 1989, twenty – two years after it had been budgeted, Opus 95 arrived, and it was dedicated the following April after eight almost solid months of installation and finishing. I think Charlie would have been thrilled with the sound.