[As a new member of the Fisk workshop in 1979 I distinctly remember the regular and frequent visits to the shop of Owen Jander during the long incubation of Opus 72, the Wellesley Organ. Owen spoke to everyone in the workshop in a most ebullient way encouraging us in our vocation to make a singular instrument. — Mark Nelson, editor.]
Remembering Charles Fisk
During his Adventure with Opus 72—the Wellesley College Organ
Back in 1971, as the Wellesley College Music Department began contemplating a new pipe organ, it was suggested that this instrument have a unique historical character. The initial proposal was for a “Sweelinck” organ; what later came to pass was a “Scheidt” organ. I was chairing the Department at the time, and so it fell to me to get Charles Fisk on the phone and enquire whether he might be interested in a project of this nature. His response was something like this: “I would love to build an instrument like that — but you need to be aware that, at this point, I don’t know how. On the other hand, I can imagine what would be required to learn how.”
As Charlie and I groped for appropriate wording of a tentative “working” contract, he approved my wish to include the adjective “uncompromising”—but he balked at my admonition that he should seek to copy the work of historical organ builders. “I can’t copy the work of other builders,” he insisted; “I can’t even copy myself!”
Along the way in that ten-year-long adventure Charlie made three trips to Europe. On the second trip, which was planned and guided by Harald Vogel, I went along. (Also with us was Frank Taylor, Wellesley’s organ instructor.) The tour began in France. It is hard to believe that this was the first time Charles Fisk—who had earlier built the 18th-century French-style organ at Old West Church—had ever been to France.
(L to R) Owen Jander, Frank Taylor and Charles Fisk planning the Wellesley organ
Photo: Robert Cornell
Vogel took us to see and hear many instruments. As we entered one small but high-arching Gothic church, Charlie whispered, “Oh, Mommy, give me a building like this!”
As we four toured the Netherlands we were joined by Klaas Bolt. In one church that housed a precious little 17th century organ Charlie and I sat together in the nave as Klaas improvised. At one point Charlie poked me and said, “Listen, Owen, that’s the sound of lead!”
Charlie was determined that, as much as possible, he himself would do the voicing for the Wellesley organ. I cherish the memories of that three-month period when, every week Charlie would spend Monday at the shop in Gloucester, and then, on Tuesday morning, along with Virginia Lee, come down to Wellesley to spend the next four days voicing the organ in Houghton Chapel. Every evening Charlie and Virginia Lee had dinner with me and my friend Gene Cox—and then spent the night in our guest room.
I recall going over to the chapel late one afternoon. It was a quiet scene. In the dimly lit interior Virginia Lee was up in the gallery, shellacking pipes for the Oberwerk Oktav. I slowly became aware, however, that in that large room there was sounding a very soft low note. In the nave Charlie was slowly moving about, listening to that note. He paced along the walls of one of the transepts, listening to that note. Then suddenly he strode back to the stairs leading up to the gallery, climbed the ladder leading to the organ case, and hauled down a pipe about six feet in length (one of the lowest notes of the 16′ Quintadena). Somewhere in this pipe, his ears had detected, there had to be an air-leak; and so he placed his lips to the pipe, carefully sucking on its seam from one end to the other. When Charlie found the leak, he grabbed his soldering iron and corrected the problem. Slowly he hefted the big pipe back into its hole on the windchest, and returned to the floor of the chapel. There he checked the pipe’s corrected sound—and was satisfied. (On the way home to supper Charlie quietly mumbled, “Somebody in the shop is gonna catch hell.”)
During those months, at the supper table, what wonderful conversations we had! I remember one occasion when Charlie had spent the day voicing pipes for the 4′ Rohrflöte on the Rückpositiv—a stop that has a most adorable voice. The stop is, in fact, Charles Fisk’s faithful copy of the 4′ Rohrflöte in Friedrich Stellwagen’s Rückpositiv (1636 for the organ on the side of the nave in the Jakobikirche Lübeck.)
Harald Vogel playing at Wellesley College, Opus 72
Photo: Robert Cornell
At supper that evening the conversation dwelt on the fondness of Baroque architects, sculptures, and painters for winged putti, dancing about in the clouds. Charlie remarked that, as he was voicing those Rohrflöte pipes, he couldn’t get those angelic creatures out of his mind. And, he concluded (with Stellwagen in mind), “That guy really knew what he was doing.”