Organ Scholar and Consultant
It would be dishonest to write a remembrance of a man I never knew. But as one who cannot help but see past, present and future through a historical filter, it seems equally dishonest to think that anyone in organbuilding today can remain uninfluenced by the enormous contributions Charles Fisk made to our culture.
Others will write from the perspective of having known him and worked alongside him. My perspective is twice removed. First, in a generation that has generally scorned its parents to the adulation of its grandparents, it is heartening to see that Charles Fisk appears to have skirted the charge. His work and efforts still seem fresh, deft and noble. Second, I come from outside the Fisk shop, and as such see the work not merely as a visual, musical and aesthetic entity, but as something impossible to separate from all that appeared alongside it (the final imports from Flentrop and von Beckerath, the development of Fisk’s great contemporary John Brombaugh, and the work of such artistic descendants as Manuel Rosales). Quantifying influence is risky; organbuilding is ultimately too personal a craft ever to be truly plagiaristic. In his writings Charles Fisk made constant mention of his immediate forbears, particularly Walter Holtkamp and G. Donald Harrison, demonstrating that however we aim not to duplicate those immediately before us, we cannot help but grow out of their efforts. To gauge what Charles Fisk has meant to us, it may be more effective to imagine our world today without his pioneering efforts.
It would be tempting to speak of this influence in stylistic terms. But too often we think of organs as mere vehicles for music, forgetting that while the music is essential to their very creation, organs are often monuments to a whole way of life, a codification of taste, talent, ability, work ethic and vision. To get the whole of Charles Fisk means seeing organs much as shipbuilders regard their vessels (in or out of the water) or the titans of 19th – century pianism viewed their instrument as they debated its meaning without ever playing a note. The organ as an end unto itself gets little press these days, but taken as a body of work, the Fisk organs command this viewpoint, a movement unto themselves and the indelible reflection of a complex and vibrant mind quite apart from the music that inspired them.
The danger of mistaking the work for the man, however, is that work often culminates a person’s being without illuminating any of its finer points. What comes through, then, are the overriding aspects. If I had to select those qualities for Charles Fisk, based on the work, they would be genius, daring, creativity, humor and weakness.
If Fisk was like the two or three other geniuses of my acquaintance, he was probably charming and exasperating by equal turns, proving both sides of the same point with equal fervor on different days. Genius often does this, by seeing matters in a form of truth so personal that it may not have a perfect opposite. What appears, superficially, as contradiction is revealed instead as reinterpretation of the same truth on different levels. Such people are often confounding, because their thoughts seem irresolvable to lesser logic. But ultimately such people are often revelatory to others, since their words and work lead us to a place we might not have gone ourselves.
Daring is risk married to reason—an educated gamble—and it defines the pioneer. Many great craftsmen have worked in organbuilding, but few dared raise the endeavor to a truly artistic level, much less pursue the craft in an atmosphere charged with music and intellectual inquiry. We live in a time of so much information, so much data, that it becomes harder to come in contact with those epic people, those whose personality or vision or accomplishments are so toweringly large as to have the force of ocean current, drawing us inexorably to their vision and behind their propulsion. Many of those people have been Gentle Giants, with that delicate balance of ego that never loses sight of the larger picture while recognizing the daily trod of getting the work done. Clearly Charles Fisk was someone who knew the importance of aiming high, infecting his clients and staff with enthusiasm, knowing how to stoke the embers of everyone’s inspiration. What else could explain the breadth of work, the range of styles explored, the many things tried, left behind or adopted?
A common charge from 1930 forward has been that organbuilding was uncreative, particularly that which looked to the past. Yet even among Fisk’s most historically oriented work, there isn’t a true “copy” organ to be found. To listen to music on these organs, to inspect their internal design and workings, and to review the process that brought them to fruition is to be reminded that their creator accepted the impracticality of replication. Ultimately the creator must see his work through the prism of his own creativity and taste. Accepting, not abdicating, that responsibility made even so definitive an organ as Wellesley College an unmistakable Fisk endeavor.
Standing even taller in this regard is the Fisk eclecticism, which was of an entirely innovative breed. This was eclecticism with a new regard for the results and a new standard for the ingredients: organic cooking, if you will. Forecasting where the style might lead is far easier than originating it in the first place. He paved the theoretical channel for organs that might not look daring on paper but were utterly modern in concept, however historically informed the individual elements.
Organbuilders know about humor, not only in their language but in the clues they leave behind to indicate a certain sensibility to their comrades. The quirky practicality of Fisk is nowhere more evident than the occasional direct electric action found in the odd place. How more delicious for the apostle of mechanical action to get out of a pinch with a Reisner 601? There’s a good chuckle.
And this leads finally to the Fisk attribute that seems the grandest: weakness. The Reverend Peter Gomes is famous for his sermons built around the phrase from Paul, II Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” The organs of Charles Fisk form an essay in balancing these two particular elements. The wind system with only barely enough to do the job became somehow all the stronger for exposing the engaging frailty of the result; the eclectic organ, by admitting what it might not be capable of, demonstrated with ever – surer clarity just what it could handle confidently. Great organbuilders have always had to juggle the moments of necessary arrogance with those of abject humility; but to reveal these qualities so directly in the musical behavior of the instruments was in itself revolutionary for 20th – century organbuilding. No one else was quite so prepared to present an instrument that might pose more new questions than the answering old ones. In that elastic paradox, Charles Fisk saw a workable mystery for the advancement of the art. What better response to the troubled and dazzling time in which he lived?