Peter Sykes

The following address was given by Peter Sykes at Old West Church as an introduction to his recital there on January 5, 2001 celebrating the completion of the cleaning work on the Opus 55.

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

This is a question perhaps better asked by one who has never seen, heard, or played it. All of us who are not in that category have our own answers to this question, but it’s interesting to contemplate just what they might be at this time when we gather to mark a certain milestone in its existence (I’m tempted to say “life”) here among us.

Let’s then imagine the reaction of someone who has never seen it before—and we all were in that category, once; now, happily, no longer.

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

First of all, let’s imagine some sightseers coming into the church on a trip to Boston from parts unknown. Walking into the church, they might first be struck by the building itself, its grand proportions and sense of airy openness found here in contrast to King’s Chapel which they just saw down the street. Turning around, they see an organ case, which seems to fit the church in just the same way the King’s Chapel case does. I’d believe that not one person might imagine that it is a new organ — it looks not only old, but completely appropriate. But here’s a crucial difference — even though the King’s Chapel case is a reconstruction, it’s basically the case that has been in that church for two hundred and fifty years. The Old West case is new to this church, but it is neither totally old, nor totally new — like much else about the organ, it is a collection of ideas and details that somehow unite into a whole. Fisk wrote of the good fortune that befell the project in the discovery of the 1830-ish Appleton organ case that became the kernel of the Old West case — but it was up to him to creatively re-imagine that kernel into what we see today, turning a center-tower single case into this twin-tower case with Rückpositiv. His words, taken from Yuko’s Bach recording liner notes: “The decision on casework was held off until the last possible moment, when all became clear: A badly mutilated, empty case of an old organ had become available in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When the pink paint had been stripped off it, this case showed itself to be the work of Thomas Appleton, an organ builder whose shop had been located just a block down the street from the West Church during the 1830’s. The mahogany cornices and carvings were exactly right for the West Church, and while the overall case dimensions were unsuitable for the new organ, the decorations would lend themselves very easily to a classical design in the style of the British organ builder Bernhard (“Father”) Smith. Appleton’s side towers and side flats were thus added to new central towers and a new center flat; meanwhile an entirely new case in Appleton’s style was designed for the Choir division. The final result was a new organ case unlike any ever made before, and yet in a style aptly suited to the building.” Certainly the ideas and the details all work — the beautiful proportions, seeming to fit into its space perfectly, the rich mahogany of the case wood, the carvings that seem to give a festivity without detracting from the overall dignity, the way the balcony moldings seem to be continued in the Rückpositiv.

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

Let’s imagine that those sightseers wander upstairs and find (horrors!) the door to the balcony to be open. They enter the balcony through a tiny hallway formed by the organ itself—anyone entering the balcony (whether to play the organ or not) has to pass through it much as happens often in Europe. One notices that the back of the case is all business — no fancy mahogany is wasted on back panels! — and that some pipes are visible on the back wall. The face that the organ presents to those downstairs is very different from that seen close up — it reveals some secrets when investigated. Going around to the front of the case, one admires the fine wood of the case again when seen close up, the carvings at the impost (but watch your head!) and notices that the console is a separate unit from the case, mounted on a platform. The console is all business too — just keyboards, stopknobs, and music desk — but there are, again, details and ideas that lift it out of the simply utilitarian. It’s made of the same mahogany as the case, there is a nice curve at the sides, moldings around and on the keyboards, and beautiful script lettering on the stopknobs — a combination of elements found on English harpsichords and old American organs with the efficiency of one of Fisk’s mentors, Walter Holtkamp. Once again, a collection of ideas and details that works. What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?

Let’s now imagine that one of those sightseers wants to see inside the case. Taking off one of the back panels (this is not a very polite sightseer, now, but he’s here to illustrate a point, not good behavior) he is astonished to find a mass of aluminum trackers and rollerboards—slider solenoids—metal framework—plywood—flexible tubing—tuning slides—electro-pneumatic offsets! This is not historic organbuilding, our naughty sightseer mumbles. And indeed, no, it isn’t! This organ was built in 1971 and inside, it looks it, every inch. We may think today that there are good reasons to try and more closely copy old organbuilding techniques and materials, but this organ can show us that not everything new is bad in either material or design, and that, in a way, beauty can be created using science. Opening another door, one sees a humble wooden plaque with sixteen signatures. Sixteen people built this organ — hardly a factory — and signed their names to it. It’s not a machine. It’s almost homemade.

What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?

Let’s banish the sightseers, now — they”re getting on my nerves with their bad behavior. Let’s imagine ourselves, now, the first time we might have heard or played this organ. I can distinctly remember the first time I played it — permit me a small trip down memory lane. (And I played it myself before ever hearing it in recital or in a masterclass.) It was September 1976, and I was just starting lessons with Bob Schuneman while still an undergraduate piano major at the Conservatory. The previous summer I had been to Europe for the first time and was lucky enough to have visited and played some famous Dutch organs including Alkmaar and Haarlem. Before that, my organ playing experience included the Snetzler organ on Cape Cod — the first organ I ever played — Hook trackers, and a few others. My first impression here was how similar (in a way) this organ was to those Dutch instruments — even though I was struggling to coordinate left hand and pedal—but how much more responsive it seemed than those big bruisers, how well I could hear it as I played, and how light and treacherous the action was.

Certainly over the years I have had a love-hate relationship with playing this organ, one that directly relates to how I might be feeling about my own playing at the time. On the one hand it can reveal the very best a player has to offer; on the other, it unmercifully exposes any unawareness as regards touch. I remember taking a lesson with Yuko Hayashi long ago in which I complained of the funny noise the pipes made when the keys were released — a sort of bouncing giggle at the end. She told me, (and I am paraphrasing!) “that’s not the organ’s fault — you just have to make sure your finger doesn’t leave the key until it is all the way up, in order to control the release and not let the key bounce like that.” I vvidly remember my reaction to that advice — I thought, “that’s just fine, but it’s impossible to control the release of EVERY note.”

Little did I then know how necessary the impossible would become…

In this playing this organ reminds me a lot of playing the clavichord. I found, in preparing the recital we’ll all hear later tonight, that I had to change a lot of fingerings in order to obtain a degree of control that the organ demanded, and, just like playing the clavichord, one has to hold on to the keyboard for dear life at all times in order to get the best sound—and that the organ lets you know in no uncertain terms whether you are getting a good sound or not.

Certainly one very non-historical aspect that makes all the difference here is the detached console. Being able to hear, for good or ill, the immediate feedback of the organ’s reaction to your ministrations makes this organ, as we all know, a superb teacher. Were the console under the impost I’d imagine a very different, and always the same sort of, sound emerging due to unawareness of what was really going on.

Well, I’ve talked about how the organ looks, and how it feels. What about its sound?

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

What’s special about any organ’s sound?

Now we get into the hard questions. I like to be able to break things down when the going gets hard — all my students know this! Well, what’s to listen to in organ sound? I think there are three things—forgive me if this is too simple now. It’ll be more complicated later. Let’s just listen, metaphorically now, to just one pipe. What sounds does it make, and when does it make them?

The beginning
the middle
and the end.

The beginning of the sound, the speech of the pipes, is to me the humanizing factor in organ sound. If an organ speaks well, one can make music. If not, forget it. Well, speech is one of the major things that this organ is about. Especially in the Prestants. I believe first that the way that this organ is voiced takes into fullest account the possibility of affecting the speech of the pipes by the player, and second that the way these pipes speak, far from making the sound of the organ ‘articulate’, makes it, well, speak.

Instead of hum. Instead of hoot. Instead of scratch. Instead of wail. Instead of yelp.

Speak. Like a person. Not always the same, not regular, not predictable, but human. There’s nothing intrinsically beautiful about speech though — what matters is what is being said, and how. So I say that this is not a beautiful organ, per se, but that it can make beautiful music, given the right combination of circumstances. The sort of thing that, happening just the right way in just the right time, counting on luck and serendipity and convergence and karma, can break your heart, it’s so helplessly beautiful. Or, done the wrong way at the wrong time, oblivious to outside forces, clueless, can drive you to thoughts of violent retribution. There is no organ I have ever heard that can sound as different from time to time as this one, depending on who is playing it.

I have played beautiful organs. They’re boring.

I quote again from Yuko’s recording’s liner notes, here a description of one aspect of the voicing process. “Probably the outstanding feature of the Old West organ is the voicing of the pipes. For Fisk, even voicing was a matter of opportunism. Fisk described “waiting for a stop to tell me what to do with it.” He described “Beginning on the usual procedures with each pipe, usually voicing from bass towards treble, but always waiting for one especially good pipe to make itself known.” Once the good pipe was found, he examined it carefully to see if he could tell why it seemed better than its neighbors. “Any visual difference detected, such as a wider windway or a more protuberant upper lip, is then tried on a neighboring pipe to see if this visual difference is responsible for the difference in quality of tone. And of course the question of whether a pipe is good or not can never be told simply by playing the pipe alone; it is essential that throughout the voicing process all pipes of the stop be played on in various ways in order to see how the pipes stand in relation to music.”

How the pipes stand in relation to music. What a beautiful turn of phrase.

Having played my share of music on this organ, I can say that these pipes certainly take a stand. And it’s not that this organ likes one kind of music and doesn’t like another; the difference is more subtle. It’s more like the pipes are asking to be played different ways for different kinds of music. I have heard almost the entire gamut of organ literature played on this organ. No matter how weird or unsuitable the repertoire might have been to how this organ was conceived, the result was always interesting, and in some ways musical, although sometimes things got pushed a bit too far. (And I count myself in that category!)

Maybe this organ can play anything.

A lot has been said about the proportion of old pipework in this organ — that it is responsible for a certain “romantic warmth” of the sound of certain stops, that it makes the organ sound “older”, not so new and antiseptic, and that it gives the organ a character that is different, and better, than an all-new organ. Indeed, there is pipework in this organ coming from as early as 1840 (the Choir Chimney Flute) and as late as 1898 (parts of the Pedal Trombone and the Great Clarion). (I note, however, that there is no pipework from 1926 in this organ.) Indeed, these stops, and the others as well, are quite beautiful in their full, focused sound. What’s remarkable to me, however, is that the rest of the organ matches it so well. There’s no leaning on the qualities of pre-existing materials; rather, all is woven into a whole so that the new is informed and inspired by the old, and the old is slightly modified in order to better blend with the new. These old stops were not just plunked in, mind you—they were carefully worked on in order to be a part of this new organ. And, let’s not forget, this organ’s sound (as a result of pipe scales and voicing techniques) was inspired by the sound of one organ more than any other — the Silbermann organ in Marmoutier. I’ll never forget hearing that organ for the first time — it was eerie, how much like this organ it seemed. (Yuko said to me last week as we were talking about that organ that she got homesick when she heard it, it was so much like Old West.) Some interesting differences between that organ’s home and this one make crucial differences in the way we hear them though, and I need to make clear what they are. First, of course, the church at Marmoutier is, shall we say, a bit bigger than Old West Church. Secondly, it’s quite high, one of those places with two balconies, and the organ is in the second balcony, right under the ceiling, two stories above your head. Hearing that sound swirl around in that church makes one yearn for the same effect here — and Fisk said as much when he said “the acoustics of the West Church, which though by no means ideal, are free enough to permit the mind to imagine how ideal acoustics might sound.”

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

What does any special organ do, after the last notes of yet another recital or church service have sounded? It reflects honor on the builder long after he has left this earth. It is the pride and joy of the church and congregation that houses it. It is a must-see item on the visiting organist’s itinerary. It continues, year after year, to attract listeners. It continues, year after year, to attract players. Here’s a very partial list of people who have given recitals here: Mireille Lagacé — Harald Vogel — Rene Saorgin — Guy Bovet — Peter Planyasvsky — Bernard Lagacé — Ton Koopman — Zsigmond Szathmary — Peter Williams — Umberto Pineschi — Christoph Albrecht — Montserrat Torrent — Susan Landale — Bert Matter — August Humer — Michael Radulescu — Jean Boyer; and those are only Europeans. If we list Americans, from NEC students to esteemed recitalists, we’d be here a lot longer! It lasts for generations, speaking of the aspirations of one generation to the next. It teaches its values to students—and everyone who plays it is a student. It inspires new music to be written. It gives new meaning to old music played on it. It forms community among those who love and care for it.

“What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?”

The feeling that, as this talk is now over, I think I’ve only just started to begin.