John Ferris

Harvard University, 1967

I first met Charles Fisk in the fall of 1958, the year I became University Organist and Choirmaster of Harvard. We were introduced by the late Melville Smith, Director of the Longy School of Music and a distinguished performer on both harpsichord and organ. Melville had been especially kind in acquainting me with the Boston organ world and he was anxious that I get to know Fisk, whom he recognized as an exceptional talent. We drove to the Andover Organ Company in Methuen to meet Charles and to see and try the instrument (with electro – pneumatic action!) for Rice Institute in Texas, which had been set up in the Primitive Methodist Church. I was taken not only by the fine organ, but by Charles himself with his soft-spoken, unpretentious Yankee manner. Even then I had visions of a Fisk organ in the Memorial Church.

Unfortunately, the Harvard administration had no inkling that the enormous Æolian – Skinner in Appleton Chapel, G. Donald Harrison’s first instrument in this country, was not a success, even though Harrison and Archibald T. Davison, the University Organist, admitted as much. Its placement coupled with the unfavorable acoustics of the building had sealed its doom. When mechanical problems caused by its deteriorating leather led to an estimate of $22,000 (a then astronomical figure) for reconditioning, the way was paved for a committee to be formed to consider the alternatives. Later I was accused of stacking the committee, and with good reason, for I selected the strongest and most influential spokesmen for the cause of mechanical action I could find: E. Power Biggs, Edward Flint, Daniel Pinkham, Melville Smith, and Donald Willing. After due consideration a contract was drawn up with C. B. Fisk for and organ of some forty – seven stops, the first four manual mechanical action instrument to be built by an American builder in the 20th century.

Charles set about the project with his usual zeal and total concentration. Among his earliest recollections of Memorial Church and its organ were the Carol Services which he attended as a child, and now he was to have the opportunity of building an instrument for his alma mater which would expose generations of Harvard students to the finest of pipe organs. The first big issue was placement, the factor that had smothered the effectiveness of the Æolian – Skinner. Even though it was too deep to be acoustically ideal, the obvious choice was the rear gallery. The administration ruled it out on the grounds that the space was needed for seating, and probably rightfully so. Many possibilities were considered, even to placing it on top of the choir screen, but finally its location against the Palladian window in the east end was agreed upon by all parties and work began.

First the old organ had to be disposed of, a not inconsiderable problem. Charles was insistent that we find a buyer as far distant as possible, for he feared that if it were to be erected in some resonant cathedral – like space in south Boston, it would sound much better than it deserved. He was delighted when Loma Linda University in California purchased it for installation in a university chapel yet to be built. Realizing that the space was much too small for an organ of eighty stops, they resold it to Virgil Fox who had it shipped back to Charles’ very doorstep in Gloucester, much to his consternation. The saga continued with yet another cross country trip, this time to a church in Bakersfield, California, which we assume to be it’s final home.

The casework for the new organ presented a special problem. The dummy fa’ade of the old organ had been based on a case from Christopher Wren’s St. Stephen’s church, Walbrook, in London, and elegantly executed, cherubs and all, from the English oak by the same craftsmen who had done the carving of the chapel, the pews, choir screen, etc. somehow the new case had to harmonize with the richness of the chapel, yet reflect the dynamic quality of the organ it was to house. Again and again Charles devised new designs, never being quite satisfied. One plan was to make the division at the organist’s back serve double duty as a lectern for the minister, an idea soon scratched by the clergy. Through it all, Charles never lost patience. No detail was ever ignored or left unpursued. Nothing was too much trouble. Eventually the final design emerged and Roger Martin was engaged to do the carving, Charles explaining the sea motif because of the organ’s origin in a fishing port, and because Harvard had gained much of its wealth from ocean trade.

In May of 1967 the case and the first ranks of pipes arrived in the chapel. From then until 2:00 A.M. the morning of the dedication on December 3, Charles worked almost constantly, voicing, adjusting the action, pouring himself into his creation. To save himself from the daily commute to Pigeon Cove, he often would stay at my house during the week. What a rare privilege this was for me! After a tough day’s work which often extended well into the night, we would sit up talking about organs, his passion for Mahler, and any one of a hundred topics. He had his prejudices, too. He never missed the opportunity to rail against New York and New Yorkers. I even had to apologize for reading the “New York Times.” But through it all Charles had a fresh way of viewing any subject. Not given to clichés or small talk, he was one of the few original thinkers I have ever met. Charles Fisk was a consummate artist and an extraordinary human being who left his mark on all who knew and worked with him.

Published originally in the Old West Organ Society Journal January 1994