J. Melvin Butler

J. Melvin Butler is Canon Choirmaster/Organist, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle. Charles Fisk wrote of him: ‘He is a most unusually gifted natural musician who not only improvises well and plays much of the organ literature out of his head, but is also an excellent choir director (his choir members are devoted to him), and he plays regularly in the Viola section of the Rochester Philharmonic. He is off — puttingly unassuming, which means none of his sterling qualities can be ascertained via ordinary personal contact… I would not have been willing to build the organ in Rochester if I had not sensed the spiritual and musical qualities of this man…

The Genesis of Opus 83

I first met Charles Fisk and heard his organs when my former Oberlin organ professor Garth Peacock accompanied me on an organ pilgrimage to Boston in January 1973. Charlie showed us his instruments at Old West and at Harvard Memorial Church. What a revelation! Not surprisingly, my dream suddenly became the procuring of a Fisk organ for Downtown Presbyterian Church (where I had been appointed only six months earlier). Indeed, the old four — manual Odell organ (rebuilt and enlarged by Moeller in 1942) was deteriorating. Re-leathering of some primaries had already taken place, and it was now time for more extensive repairs. In 1977 an organ committee was formed, and Charles Fisk was hired as consultant. After asking him the question, “Would you ever consider building an organ for DUPC?” he answered: “Well, only if the dry acoustics are addressed by removing carpet and changing the pew cushions, and if Mel Butler is in charge of the project.” After many meetings and much debate the committee elected to commission a new organ rather than spend a similar amount refurbishing the Odell/Moeller. C. B. Fisk was the only builder seriously considered, especially after the committee’s journey to see Fisk organs at Cazenovia, Westfield, and of course, Old West and Cambridge.

The contract for our $199,900, three-manual organ (the Sears/Roebuck price, as Charlie called it) was signed in 1978 with delivery 4′ years later. (I checked off each day on a four — year calendar.) Fortunately for us, there was a cancellation in Fisk’s building schedule, allowing him to deliver the organ on time, although at a 50% greater cost because of the double — digit inflation of that era! The organ’s placement is a fascinating (and controversial!) story, summarized by Charlie in the 1983 dedication program:

“Opus 83… has an interesting genesis and history. Our original intent was to stand the new organ in the large rear gallery of the church, leaving the front of the church, its 1906 Odell — Whitelegg/Moeller organ and all the chancel decoration and furnishings, pretty much unchanged. As the organ’s designer, I would not have presumed to suggest a more drastic change, because I know and understand so well how people come to love their church the way it is. But to my utter surprise, when it came time to think seriously about how we were to build this organ, a totally new idea (of which I highly approved) was put forward by the church. It involved using the organ to divide off the chancel into a kind of chapel and bringing the chancel forward of the proscenium arch as if by way of bringing the holiest part of the church directly into the midst of the congregation. Acoustically, of course, this meant that all of the sources of sound — the minister, the choir, and the organ — suddenly achieved a hitherto unknown presence for the listener, especially beneficial for music because no sound need be forced in its effect…”

It was decided that to save costs, many large pipes from the original Odell/Moeller organ would be rebuilt for the new organ. In early 1982, Charlie’s son Josiah arrived at DUPC to extract the pipes and drive them in a large truck back to the shop. The zinc façade pipes were recycled as was the Positive Bourdon (originally a Doppelflöte — nicks on one mouth filled in), the Hautbois (from the Odell echo division), the Trombone, Basson, Cor de Nuit, Bourdon 16′, and Pedal Trumpet. The pipes of the 32′ Bourdon extension stand on their original chest in the old organ chamber, rewired into the new organ by our organ curator for many years, the late Roger Brock. Charlie felt that having so many stops on double — drawing knobs would also save money and make the knobs more reachable by the organist. He insisted that a Quinta be added to the Voix céleste knob — for no additional cost — since the two “would never be used together”!

This is an historic organ in several ways (are not most Fisk organs historic?): Opus 83 was the last of his organs that Charlie actually saw and heard in place (although he was too ill to attend the dedication). It was the first organ with flues voiced by David Pike (Dave Gifford and Steve Kowalyshyn voiced the reeds). It was the last Fisk organ with so many double — drawing stops and was perhaps the last Fisk organ making extensive use of pipework from the former organ. For me, it was an experience of a lifetime: knowing and collaborating with the great Charles B. Fisk and playing Opus 83 for eight years.