The story of Lawrence Phelps and Associates is the story of Lawrence Phelps. It is a remarkable story, of the man who, more than any other single American, has been responsible for the development of the classical organbuilding tradition in the United States.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Fort Collins, Colorado
Lawrence Phelps is a Bostonian, born in 1923. His early education was directed towards a musical career; his vocation was to be a conductor and at the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, he studied the art of conducting, both orchestral and choral, along with various orchestral instruments and the organ. The organ had always fascinated him mechanically, but now the discovery of its wealth of fine music, much of it then emerging publicly again after having been buried for centuries, fostered a growing interest and involvement which led eventually to his maintaining the organs at the Conservatory. In 1944 he became apprenticed to the well-known organ reformer G. Donald Harrison at the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, and for five years absorbed from him the traditional skills of the organbuilder before spending a year as voicer and tonal finisher with the period's other notable reformer, the late Walter Holtkamp, in Cleveland.
Two-manual, mechanical-action console in St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Fort Collins, Colorado A planning session in Lawrence Phelp's study; with him are Clive Webster, Ken List, Plant Manager, and David Young, Assistant to Mr. Phelps Technical Director, Clive Webster, installs an electronic combination card in a mechanical action console Organ case in progress in erecting room for St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Skokie, Illinois Edwin Heintzl and Baranowski casting pipe metal on the 16-foot granite table Pipe metal planer designed and built for Lawrence Phelps and Associates
This was the era of the "American Classic" organ; the time when dissatisfaction with the muddy, overblown instruments of the early 20th century had led Harrison and Holtkamp to experiment with brighter voicing, and stop-lists in which the orchestral-imitativeness of the l9th century organ was less apparent. It was due mainly to their efforts that over a period of only ten or twelve years the surface aspects of purely tonal matters had improved greatly. However, the fact that the organ is not an end in itself but rather a functional means of communicating musical ideas had not yet been grasped; the quality of sound, rather than its musical effectiveness, was the prime criterion. Lawrence Phelps, trained to think and hear as a musician first and a technician second, remained largely dissatisfied with these essentially superficial improvements and, working always from his knowledge of the organ's centuries-old repertoire, sought to develop the organ to the point where every part of its design reflected the fulfillment of a musical need. Study of the "werk-prinzip" concept as found in the finest of the 17th and 18th century German organs, and of the French Classical instruments for which such great composers as Couperin and Grigny wrote their music, as well as of the best modern European examples, convinced him of the logic and efficiency of traditional concepts such as the key-chambered chest, individual divisions complete in themselves, and the separate encasement of each division to focus, project and color the sound; while the universal dictates of music conceived for any medium - sensitivity, a transparent clarity and internal balance, a sweet, singing line - led him naturally to advocate the subtlety and quickness of mechanical action, the versatility of completely empirical scaling, and the free, Iyrical speech of classical voicing.
Some of these precepts Lawrence Phelps was able to put into practice almost immediately. In 1949 he became an independent consultant, and later that year was engaged by the Christian Science Board of Directors to be responsible for the design, installation and tonal finishing of two organs for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston. In the larger of these two instruments - the largest church organ in the United States - he made a number of important innovations, both technical and tonal, thus setting the pattern for his development to the present day, when his organs are known both for their tonal distinction and for their extremely sophisticated construction and technical devices. Modifications to electrical and winding systems used in this organ led to his article in the Organ Institute Quarterly in 1953 on the effects of wind-chest design on the speech of organ pipes, an article expressing theories considered radical at the time but now accepted by all leading organbuilders and knowledgeable players. The dissonant mutations found in the Boston instrument were novel at the time, but in the years since then have been seen more and more in American - and European - organs, as organbuilding has branched out to face the challenge of evolving a truly modern organ and providing new opportunities for today's composers, without turning its back on the organ's traditional roles.
After the completion of this in many ways historic instrument, Phelps went on to serve numerous groups as an independent organbuilding consultant and as technical and artistic director of several important organ building projects. In addition, he engaged in the study of engineering at Northeastern University, a study which stood him in good stead when in later years he undertook such radical projects as the now famous "hanging organ" in Portland, Oregon: a circular, four manual organ suspended from the ceiling of the striking chapel of Lewis and Clark College. The project posed vast engineering and acoustical problems; the organ weighs 30,000 lbs. and its sound is designed to be heard entirely by reflection from the funnel-shaped walls of the building. It proved triumphantly successful and is quite unique.
In 1958, Lawrence Phelps was invited by surviving members of the founding family to become tonal director of the Canadian firm of Casavant Frères Limitée. At that time, the long-established firm was undergoing a difficult period in its history, having been devoted wholly to the kind of organbuilding and rebuilding which through developments in the U.S.A. and the example of fine organs from Europe was now exposed as outdated. Under Phelps the craftsmen were retrained in new methods and the firm given new aims; it revived spectacularly to produce instruments of outstanding merit and to establish a position of leadership once again. In 1961 he was able to set up a division for the making of mechanical-action (tracker) organs, then largely unknown in North America except for those imported from abroad or made experimentally by enthusiasts; it was the first such operation in any large organbuilding organization on this continent, and in the quality of the workmanship and the versatility and musical effectiveness of the tonal design of these instruments Phelps set the standard for the profession.
Lawrence Phelps's career reached another landmark in 1972, with the organization of his own organbuilding company and the acquisition of facilities in Pennsylvania, marking the return of progressive, quality organbuilding to the United States. During the fourteen years he headed the firm of Casavant (first as artistic director and later as President ), he was responsible for more than 650 organs, some 50 with mechanical action; all of them successful, practical musical instruments, and several, artistic milestones. Now, with a team of chosen craftsmen and technicians, some of whom have been with him for more than a decade, he is free to devote himself not only to the minute details of the design and construction, but also to the meticulous finishing of each instrument. Lawrence Phelps is a perfectionist in every aspect of his art, and although now one of the most experienced organbuilders in the world, he is continually refining his tonal concepts and sifting new technical ideas. He is an acknowledged expert on the French organ, both Baroque and Romantic, and is one of the few organbuilders today who build organs which can fulfill the particular demands of the French Classical literature with complete fidelity. The monumental organ he designed in 1971 for the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, Providence, Rhode Island, is a four-manual, 74 stop, mechanical-action instrument intended specifically for this demanding literature, and is almost unique of its kind. His organ (1973) for St. Luke's Church, Fort Collins, Colorado, is another. But his most important achievements, tonally, lie in the way in which he fuses the two principal and seemingly irreconcilable traditions of organbuilding, the French and the German, in one supremely versatile, warm and cohesive instrument. This has nothing to do with so-called "eclecticism", the sophistry which advocates a hybrid collection of unrelated tonal elements culled at random from diverse instruments. Rather, these instruments display all the variety of color, the power and grandeur required for the French Classical music, while retaining the transparency of tone and clarity of texture essential to music of a polyphonic nature. The unity they achieve is the natural outcome of a perfected philosophy of organbuilding, evolved in the quest for a truly contemporary instrument; it has resulted in one which is capable of playing virtually any school of music with fidelity and excitement, or of accompanying a psalm, a hymn, or a plainsong Mass. This kind of unity of design and breadth of purpose can be achieved only by a designer who completely understands the music and its needs, and it is here that Lawrence Phelps has made perhaps his most significant personal contribution.
Lawrence Phelps and Associates is, however, by no means a "one-man band". The technical director is Clive Webster, who has worked closely with Lawrence Phelps for several years. He studied electrical engineering at the University of London, England, and then became attached to the British Broadcasting Corporation. His role there combined the technical and artistic interests and talents which were eventually to draw him to high quality organbuilding; he was able to use his outstanding inventive gifts in the service of the BBC's artistic aims, and acted as liaison between program operations and the engineering division in devising equipment for studio use. For three years he was a member of the BBC's prestigious Radiophonic Workshop, and just prior to joining Lawrence Phelps was consultant to the Royal College of Music, London, in setting-up its electronic music studio. His dual interests have been employed to singular effect in the Phelps organization; an example is the electronic combination system he has developed, the most advanced in use anywhere in the world. It is silent, and instantaneous; if in error two pistons are pressed at once (on the same division) they will not jam. Unlike some other systems, manual and pedal pistons can be pressed simultaneously. If desired, the pistons can be arranged to switch from general to manual or vice versa, and costs are so reasonable that a total of 32 pistons on each division (including generals) is perfectly feasible. Furthermore it is possible, if desired, to have an electronic "over-ride" system which provides electronic combination pistons for an organ with mechanical stop action. However, simple maintenance is a prime consideration in the design, and should it be necessary, untrained personnel could insert a new module in seconds. In keeping with Phelps policy, even this equipment is hand-made in the plant, under Mr. Webster's personal direction.
The ultra responsive mechanical key action is also unique. It is of particular concern to Lawrence Phelps that it should be not only "crisp" and fast; the action must also be so sensitive that it is genuinely possible to affect the speech of the pipe. In the final regulation of the action by Lawrence Phelps and his assistants, it is ensured that the pluck is so adjusted as to be controllable by the player with real subtlety. It must be possible to vary the starting transient of a pipe; for works from the Romantic repertoire the player will want to modify the attack so as to produce a smooth, legatissimo line in quiet, flowing passages; other music will call for an exciting, vital attack, and this exceptionally responsive action will supply an infinite degree of expressive variety. Naturally, the action is light, but a special invention utilized only by Phelps makes it possible to couple manuals on the largest of organs with only a nominal increase in weight - still retaining the complete control only totally mechanical coupling can give.
Under certain special circumstances Phelps and Associates will build an instrument with electric key action. Such instruments differ from the mechanical action organs only in the action itself; the design, the methods of construction, the voicing etc. are of the same order of distinction. For example, the same singing tone is present, made possible by the exclusive use of keychambered chests. The mass-produced, slower-speaking and uneven pitman chests (or "direct electric" chests) are not to be found in the Phelps plant. Revolutionary electrical innovations are to be found here too. It is now possible for the firm to undertake the provision of detached movable consoles made entirely without heavy, unwieldy and unsightly cables and windlines. The consoles are operated through a few small wires. This, too, is exclusive to Phelps and Associates.
The Associates in the field are not representatives in the sense of that word as used by the large commercial organ companies. They are all experienced, creative men whose primary interest is music and the organ; they are knowledgeable and able to act as informed members of an integrated organization.
Lawrence Phelps's international reputation extends over a wide range of organ-related activities. He is a sought after contributor to journals, encyclopaedias and periodicals, and has lectured for Universities, architects and acousticians, and many other organizations, among them the A.G.O. National Convention held in Los Angeles, the Church Music Conference at Concordia Teachers' College, River Forest, and the International Organ Festival of St. Albans, England. He is a Board member of the International Society of Organbuilders, and is the North American Editor of its publication, "ISO Information". It is not surprising, therefore, that he should have become the first American organbuilder to reverse the trend, established during the organ reform movement, of importing organs from Europe. In 1974 his organ for the ancient Abbey of Hexham, England, was dedicated, as a central event in the Abbey's yearlong celebrations marking its 1300th anniversary. In 1976 a Phelps organ will be installed in an exquisite Georgian church in London, followed by the three manual instrument for Christ Church, Oxford, the magnificent medieval cathedral that serves also as Chapel of the university's college of that name, and where the distinguished organist Simon Preston is Director of Music. All represent a conspicuous honor for both the builder and his country.
The name of Lawrence Phelps has been synonymous with prestige, perfectionism and brilliant inventiveness for over 25 years. That name is not placed on any organ unless it, too, proudly measures up to those attributes.
Hexham Abbey, Hexham, England
Before forming his Own company, Lawrence Phelps was responsible for several hundred organbuilding projects. The following are a few of the churches and colleges which have Phelps-designed instruments.
Aiken, SC First Presbyterian Church Albuquerque, NM Immanuel Presbyterian Church Angwin, CA Pacific Union College Baton Rouge, LA Trinity Episcopal Church Berrien Springs, MI Andrews University Boston, MA Emmanuel College Boston, MA First and Second Church in Boston Boston, MA The First Church of Christ, Scientist Buckhannon, WV West Virginia Wesleyan College Caldwell, ID The College of Idaho Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec Sanctuaire de Notre-Dame du Cap Charlotte, NC Myers Park Presbyterian Church Cincinnati, OH University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music Clarksburg, WV First Methodist Church Dayton, OH Westminster Presbyterian Church Decorah, IA First Lutheran Church Dedham, MA St. Paul's Episcopal Church Edmunston, New Brunswick Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs R.C. Church Fall River, MA St. Ann's R.C. Church Fort Collins, CO Colorado State University Frankenmuth, MI Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Lorenz Gastonia, NC First Presbyterian Church Grand Forks, ND First United Lutheran Church Huntsville, AL First Baptist Church Iowa City, IA Gloria Dei Lutheran Church Iowa City, IA The University of Iowa Recital Hall Kalamazoo, MI First Presbyterian Church Kettering, OH Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church La Grange, IL Emmanuel Episcopal Church Lake Forest, IL First Presbyterian Church Lakewood, OH First Church of Christ, Scientist Lincoln, NB Cathedral of the Risen Christ Loma Linda, CA University Church of Seventh-day Adventists London, Ontario First St. Andrew's United Church London, Ontario The University of Western Ontario Manchester, NH St. Anselm's College Milton, MA Milton Academy Milwaukee WI Our Savior's Lutheran Church Minneapolis, MN Bethlehem Lutheran Church Minneapolis, MN Central Lutheran Church Montreal, Quebec EXPO 67, Canadian Pavilion Theater Montreal, Quebec McGill University, Redpath Hall Montreal, Quebec Sanctuaire de Marie-Reine-des-Coeurs Montreal, Quebec Westmount, St. Andrew's United Church Nashville, TN Scarritt College Newton, MA College of the Sacred Heart New Ulm, MN Dr. Martin Luther College New York, NY Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church New York, NY Teachers College, Columbia University Norton, MA Wheaton College Pelham Manor, NY Christ Church at Pelham Philadelphia, PA First Unitarian Church Pittsburgh, PA Calvary Episcopal Church Pittsburgh, PA Carnegie-Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA Mount Lebanon, St. Bernard's R.C. Church Portland, OR Lewis and Clark College Providence, RI Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul Providence, RI Grace Episcopal Church Princeton, NJ Westminster Choir College Quebec, Quebec Sts. Martyrs Canadiens R.C. Church Richmond, KY First Presbyterian Church Richmond, VA Westminster Presbyterian Church Rimouski, Quebec St. Pie X R.C. Church Riverside, CA La Sierra Campus, Loma Linda University St. Pascal, Quebec St. Pascal R.C. Church St. Paul, MN St. Stephanus Lutheran Church Salisbury, NC Asbury Methodist Church San Diego, CA First Presbyterian Church Shreveport, LA St. Paul's Episcopal Church Spartanburg, SC First Baptist Church Toronto, Ontario Deer Park United Church Toronto, Ontario Our Lady of Sorrows R.C. Church Urbana, IL The University of Illinois Vancouver, British Columbia The University of British Columbia Van Nuys, CA First Baptist Church Victoria, British Columbia Anglican Church of St. John the Divine Walla Walla, WA Walla Walla College Church and Fine Arts Center Wallingford, CT Choate School Wellesley, MA St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Wichita, KS Wichita University Wilmington, DE St. Stephen's Lutheran Church Wilmington, NC St. James Episcopal Church Willowdale, Ontario St. Joseph Motherhouse Yonkers, NY St. Joseph's Seminary
Published Articles and Lectures of Lawrence Phelps
"Great Organ Placed in Christian Science Mother Church"
The Diapason, July 1952
"Compound Stops in Mother Church Organ of Christian Science"
The Diapason, January and February 1953
"Effects of Wind Chest Design on the Speech of Organ Pipes"
The Organ Institute Quarterly, Winter 1953, Spring 1953
The Organ Institute Quarterly, Winter 1954
"Designing a Two-Manual Organ"
The Diapason, September 1961
"Towards a Rational Tonal Design"
Lecture given to the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists, Los Angeles, July 1962
"Creative Church Acoustics"
Discussion held in offices of Bolt Beranek & Newman, sponsored by Massachusetts Chapter of the American Guild of Organists published in Protestant Church Buildings and Equipment, February 1963
New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw Hill Book Company, 1965
"A Short History of the Organ Revival"
Church Music, biannual published by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, Spring 1967
"Thoughts on the Future of the Organ"
ISO-Information, No. 1, Journal of the International Society of Organbuilders, February 1969
"Trends in North American Organ Building"
Lecture given to the International Organ Festival, St. Albans, June 1969, published in MUSIC The AGO/RCCO Magazine, May 1970
"Organ and Sanctuary, One Musical Instrument"
Lecture given at the Organ and Church Acoustics Symposium, North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Illinois, sponsored by Bolt Beranek and Newman, February 1970, published in The Diapason, October 1970
"An Organ for Today"
Lecture given at the Choate School, Wallingford, Connecticut, April 1970, for the Connecticut Chapters of the American Guild of Organists. Published in The Sydney Organ Journal, Sydney, Australia, Volume Three, #6 and 7, June and July 1972
"An Organ for Our Time"
Lecture given at Southwestern Regional Convention of AGO, Oklahoma City, June 1971
"A Brief Look at the French Classical Organ, its Origins and German Counterpart"
Article for the ARGO division of the Decca Record Co. Ltd., accompanying Gillian Weir's recording, "Couperin - Pièces d'Orgue", ARGO STEREO 4BBA 1011/2, April 1973