Lawrence Phelps & Associates, A Corporation for Organbuilding


Lawrence I. Phelps

It seems to me most fitting that, in this inaugural issue of our new journal, we consider seriously the future of the organ and the significance of the role it may assume in the musical life of yet unborn generations. Since most of us have large backlogs of work on hand and spend most of our working days trying to accomplish individually what no two men ought to attempt, we are apt to accept quite complacently the idea that the organ is here to stay, and that the current rate of activity and growth in our field will go on forever. Occasionally, when we are faced with facts which indicate that the present rosy conditions may not continue forever, we are much more apt to toss the whole thought aside with a care-free "well, at least things are not going to change very much during my lifetime, so why should I worry?", or, "I have more work than I can possibly handle anyway, I do not have time to worry about the future. It is a job for those who have difficulty finding enough work".

It is obvious that some of us are concerned about the future or this new journal would not have been created. We are concerned, but we are also confident: confident that the organ has a great future, confident that the future lies largely in our own hands, confident that we can rise to the challenges of the future, and confident that every effort spent in preparing ourselves, our colleagues, our workers and laymen in various fields closely associated with our work is well worth-while.

This new journal is actually an expression of our confidence in the future, for it is not our intention that this endeavour be simply the final history of a declining art, but rather the current chronicle of a very much alive and ever-expanding art form which has been a part of Western civilization for more than 500 years. The art of organbuilding has ever continued to grow and develop, and it is even now, from all evidence, on the threshold of a new era that promises even greater fruition and maturity. We are confident that the "golden age of the organ" lies ahead, and not 200 years behind us, as has been so generally supposed. It is to the preparation of ourselves and of all who must make the journey with us into the challenging days ahead that this journal is really dedicated.

If the promise of the future is to be fully realized, we cannot make this trip alone. We must bring with us every organist, every church architect, every clergyman, in fact every church member, and, since the future of the organ does not lie entirely in the church or in religious use, we must also bring with us every chairman of departments of music and fine arts in colleges and universities, directors of cultural centers, and architects and managers who will build and operate the buildings devoted to music and the arts throughout the world.

In reviewing those influences which cause us concern and give us confidence, there comes immediately to mind the recent threat of obsolescence posed by the use in churches of guitars, bongo drums and such, which the organ has survived with little effort, and the threat of extinction by low-priced electronic substitutes, which though they have been with us for years, have somehow managed to make only minor in-roads in those areas of serious music making for which the organ is appropriate. In fact, to be realistic for a moment, I think we might agree that the advent of the electronic so-called "organ" has been, in a way, a major blessing, for it we organbuilders had been required to provide instruments for those several thousand churches now using electronic substitutes, how ever would we have met this need?

I have no idea how many churches have electronic instruments, but suppose, for sake of discussion, there are 5,000 - and I am sure there are many more than this - that paid a substantial price for their instruments (say over $15,000) and purchased them not so much because they were less expensive than a pipe organ but only because they were available immediately and as it seemed the modern thing to do, and therefore, through better knowledge of the relative merits, might possibly have ordered pipe organs averaging twenty ranks each, where would the required 100,000 ranks of pipes come from? Consider further the fact that even in shops making their own pipes for the instruments they build, the pipe makers constitute only about one-sixth of the total producing staff. I think most of us would lose interest if the demand for pipe organs ever reached such proportions.

Furthermore, in my own business, we obtain many more contracts to replace existing electronic instruments with new pipe organs than the number we lose in direct competition with electronic manufacturers. While this is to some extent related to the rapid, even planned, obsolescence of electronic instruments, there can be no doubt that the musical considerations involved are even more important. I will return to this later.

Much more important than any commercial considerations to the survival of the organ as a musical medium in the next few decades is the question of the relevancy of the instrument to our times. Since the organ, from its very inception, has been closely associated with the ceremonial life of those civilizations which have used it, we are of course all deeply aware of the close relationship of the organ with the church. In my opinion, I feel that we are a little over-concerned on this point and I think it is quite likely that the organ may survive, even if the church as we know it today does not. Fortunately, in the great questioning of the past few years in which the relevancy of the church itself has been seriously challenged, music has not only survived, but in many instances, seems now to be considered the most relevant thing in the church.

Even in situations where the very existence of deity is being questioned, clerics, liturgists and other specialists outside the field ot music are looking to music and other music-like activity, such as musique concrete for example, not only to bring people into the church but also to serve as a major vehicle for communication. There seems to be a large measure of agreement on this and the trend in this direction is growing rapidly, even though the exact content and nature of the message music is to bring is still a point of contention.

To speak of the relevancy of the organ with respect to the church while the church itself is in such a state of flux may seem foolhardy, but it seems clear that, after centuries of stable rigidity, the church will in the future be much more flexible and reflect more directly the evolution of our unfolding thought and culture. Thus, while music will have an increasingly important role in church activity, and while this will undoubtedly include frequent performances of the great music of the past, it seems likely that the contemporary ingredients will continuously increase. The music of the church, therefore, like the music of the concert hall, will consist mainly of a more or less standard repertoire of the best utterances of the past, liberally sprinkled with performances of new works, some of which will gradually find their way into the list of "standards" but many of which will be performed once or twice and then forgotten. The role of the organ in the performing of the older works is to be taken for granted. What its role will be in the new music remains to be seen.

I recently discussed with my friend Gerhard Krapf, Head of the Organ Department of the University of lowa in lowa City, his deep concern that the organ does not seem to be a suitable instrument for the avant-garde composers, particularly the neo-serialists. This group insists upon having complete control over every element of the music.

They are not content to merely change the pitch of successive notes in a "melody", but insist upon being able to alter the timbre of successive notes if they so desire. Even with an elaborate combination system, such a requirement pushes the organ to its limit. Such sounds as mixtures are far too rigid and uncompromising as to pitch to be acceptable to composers in this group.

Thus, our organs as nearly all instruments are being pushed by the avant-garde to the absolute limits of their capabilities and they are being asked to produce sounds which to an uninitiated listener cannot possibly be identified as to source. There are compositions in which the main contribution made by the organ is the sound of the blower coming on and going off, while holding many notes. It is clear that all of our traditional instruments and means of musical expression, including the voice, are obsolete and that more advanced contemporary needs will be met only by new instruments yet to be developed. These new instruments will not be planned to substitute for the organ. They will undoubtedly be electronic, and since there is no clear pattern in the requirements of the avant-garde groups, they will have to be flexible, multi-purpose instruments of a very sophisticated design. Already, there exists automatic sequencers and computor-controlled instruments in various electronic music workshops having such broad capabilities that it appears quite likely that the art of composition itself, in the form now conceived in avant-garde circles, may rapidly become obsolete. Thus, the avant-garde seems to me to be threatening itself with extinction, but this, of course, is the nature of the avant-garde.

From all of this, it is clear that the organ shares the fate of all other traditional instruments in that its true worth in the future will be the successful fulfillment of requirements which exist today. If our instruments do not perform this function satisfactorily, they will have no reason for being. The distance between being merely obsolete and being quite extinct is not great, and the difference is largely a matter of utility. Thus, it is more important than ever that our organs perform the functions expected of them in the presentation of both the traditional and contemporary literature.

Those requirements which are necessary for the organ to fulfill its role as a conserver of the traditional literature are now quite universally understood. These are perhaps best illustrated by the two widely contrasted schools which developed simultaneously in Northern Europe and in France, the one best typified by the work of Arp Schnitger and his pupils and the other by the work of the Clicquots. The techniques producing the most characteristic features of these two contrasting schools are also well understood and are used by many of us daily in our work. Since the beginning of the German Orgelbewegung in the mid-20s, the functional transparency of ensemble required for the presentation of the polyphonic literature of the 17th and 18th centuries has been the much researched ideal, and today it is a distinguishing characteristic of fine new instruments everywhere. In those areas where the French classical literature is of importance, mainly in France and Québec, color-oriented instruments necessary for the performance of this literature are again being constructed and these instruments are also well equipped for the clear presentation of the German polyphonic literature. Although today no one seriously suggests that the instruments of the past should be slavishly copied, except for some special pedagological purpose, it is only natural that in various areas certain characteristics should prevail.

in Germany and areas of Germanic influence, while there is a certain tendency towards large, flexible instruments of a broad scope embracing some romantic and French characteristics, the modern German organ nonetheless bears strong family resemblances to the great German masterpieces of the past. This is not so much the result of a conscious imitation of the old work as perhaps it was a few years ago, but the natural result of the evolution of certain national characteristics and the requirements of the literature native to the area.

In France, the instruments now show much better understanding of the great heritage of the French Baroque builders and the literature created for their instruments, while at the same time having enough breadth of design to allow characteristic performances of the work of the much beloved Bach and his precursors.

The situation is about the same here in the Province of Québec where it is generally expected that our new instruments will perform the French classical literature and the "Bach" literature with equal ease and characteristic style. l have been fortunate to work here in this Province where what is expected from the organbuilder is so clearly defined. The situation in the rest of North America is by no means clear, and in many areas, there is such confused thinking that it verges on chaos. There are a few situations in North America requiring instruments of special design displaying a national characteristic. I think especially of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church in this regard, which, because of its Germanic orientation, leans in the direction of what we in North America call the North German School.

The trend which seems only now to he developing in Europe which demands a broader type of instrument in order to embrace some of the more worthy contributions to the literature of the romantic period, the works of Franck, Mendelssohn, Widor, Vierne and Reger, for example, has been with us in America ever since the beginning of our reform movement here in the late 20s. All sorts of formulas for achieving this have been proposed. The more prevalent formula for the ideal instrument in America until about ten years ago consisted of a rather superficial merger of the characteristics of the work of Gottfried Silbermann with those of Cavaille-Coll. Of course, it was absurd to think that a classical instrument could result from the combining of characteristics which at their best typified only the more virtuous characteristics of the beginning and end of romanticism in organbuilding in Europe. Today, the basic principles required for the classical literature, both French and German, are better understood by our organists, but there is still a tendency to feel that the organ must include a large collection of features from Cavaille-Coll's great monuments at Notre-Dame and St-Sulpice, if they are to achieve the drama generally thought to be necessary for romantic literature. It is hoped that the longing for a more inclusive instrument will eventually be met by a new approach only just beginning here in which the romantic requirements seem to be best satisfied in instruments of fairly modest resources but which embody all of the essential characteristics required for both the German and French classical literature. In such instruments, only the addition of two or three stops is required to embrace a very wide segment of the romantic literature also.

There are perhaps no organbuilders remaining today who consider themselves to be in any sense antiquarians, but we must all admit that our preoccupation for many years has been with conservatory aspect of our function as organbuilders and that we have been concentrating on building instruments to present the literature of the past, a rather distant past. While most of us hope that our instruments will perform the music of today, we are nonetheless finding it difficult to know how to stimulate interest in our instruments among contemporary composers, especially among those who, unlike the avant-garde element, have not turned their backs on existing instruments, and therefore seem likely to be able to produce meaningful compositions for organs. There are few clues, either in the work of contemporary composers or in the work of our more distinguished and forward-looking colleagues, to guide us, no matter how well disposed to co-operate we might be.

If we listen to the demands of any individual composer, we are courting accelerated obsolescence, since only a small percentage of contemporary compositions receive more than a few performances and an even smaller percentage ever reach the point of acceptance into the "standard repertoire".

If we listen to the dictates of some organ experts, which, praise God, we are by no means required to do in North America, we are also flirting with obsolescence since the capriciousness of these well meaning gentlemen is well known.

Not every organ expert is willing to acknowledge the prerogatives of the organbuilder as an artist, although one of the best known German organ experts, Walter Supper, president of the "Gesellschaft der Orgelfreunde", concedes this possibility in his book "Orgelbewegung und Historismus" . (Berlin 1958), writing (p. 95):

"According to the circumstances, even if we are now inclined to keep too tight reins on the master organbuilder, we should take a lesson from history. In earlier times, the role of an organ consultant was certainly - as the name implies - a more consultative one than one of leading by the nose. A pre-requisite to this, of course, is that the organbuilder is an artist, and not just a managing clerk."
We all know of fine instruments that were produced by the close collaboration of an organbuilders with a sympathetic musician or other knowledgeable person or persons, but these are the exception rather than the rule. In general, at least, the old masterbuilders created for themselves, looking neither to the left nor to the right but simply following the dictates of their own artistic conscience, deeply impelled by the great traditions instilled in them by their teachers or inbred in them by their nationality. So, there is the question of our own artistic integrity - the rights of an organbuilder as an artist to make his own decisions and to live with them, and to be known by them to posterity. Great art is not produced in committee. A camel has been defined as a horse designed by a committee, and there is a parallel in organbuilding. While it is good, indeed necessary, that we co-operate in working out technical problems, the training of personnel, various business matters and various promotional activities, in matters pertaining to creativity and in areas affected by individual taste, each of us must stand pretty much alone.

In my opinion, there is very little that can be done to change the organ in any way that would make it more appealing to contemporary composers without in fact changing the essential nature of the instrument. However, there are at least two areas in which there is room for development and which we have only begun to probe. There is a possibility, for example, of developing entire families of new reeds which might have little or nothing to do with the sounds produced by reeds in the past but which nonetheless would be useful. Then, of course, there is the area of the dissonant Aliquots (partial tones) on which very little work has been done.

I tried to encourage the use of ranks tuned to the so-called dissonant intervals - sevenths, ninths and elevenths - more than twenty years ago. In the instrument I designed for First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, I included an eight-rank compound stop in the Bombarde division consisting of the eight consecutive harmonics of the 8-foot series, beginning with 2-foot. This was a most effective stop and, when used with the large French Cornet of the same division, produced a solo trumpet effect unequalled by any reed in the organ. When used in the ensemble, it transformed an otherwise quite conventional sound into a glorious blaze of colour of a sort we expect to hear only from reeds, while at the same time maintaining a clear and well balanced effect not usually achieved by reeds. That organ also has two compound stops in the pedal using sevenths and ninths in each. These were also very effective. While some of the more superficial aspects of that instrument have been much copied in other large instruments built in America, these more advanced ideas, which were used so extensively for the first time in America in this organ have not been duplicated in other instruments. Why is this? It seems to me rather clear that the reason the more conventional ideas presented in that instrument, although new in America at that time, have been so widely introduced in other American instruments is that they were stops demanded by the literature and thus required little imagination in their use, whereas the use of the elaborate harmonic-compound stops with dissonant ranks required a great deal of imagination and inventiveness to work out appropriately. Actually, these stops can be only completely exploited in music newly composed or in improvisation. I believe that the idea of dissonant Aliquots should be thoroughly pursued in very large instruments in at least two divisions if not in all. I am not insisting that any colleagues agree with me on this, nor am I overly confident that the presence of these new sounds in an organ will necessarily excite a composer to rise to new heights of creativity, though, of course I am hopeful. These new sounds may be added to large instruments without in any way harming the basic nature of the instrument, and their presence broadens the tonal pallet considerably. I am hopeful that someone may find more use for them than has so far been the case. I note that, here and there in Europe, individual non-harmonic ranks and occasionally small compound stops of two or three ranks are now appearing rather regularly. I am assuming that this rather meager sprinkling of these effects is all the builders are allowed to include by the organists and other experts involved. However, in looking at some of the smaller specifications in which the seventh or ninth appears, perhaps both, each on a different manual, I am reminded of the early days of the use of chiff in America when it was considered avant-garde to say: "Oh yes, I think there should be a stop with chiff in it in every organ". I well remember those early reformed instruments in which "that stop with chiff" seemed very out of place in the midst of all the otherwise quite smooth voicing. It seems now it is the popular thing to say: "Oh yes, I believe every organ ought to have at least one dissonant harmonic rank".

My design for the Boston church had six dissonant ranks, and through the years these have attracted very little attention. I am harboring no disappointment about this; it is only my intention to point out here that, no matter how creative the organbuilder may be and no matter how loaded with bright, new ideas his instrument may be, his efforts are to no avail, so far as the propagation of a new literature is concerned, unless they attract the attention of an imaginative composer who will be adequately inspired by them to attempt to exploit these resources in new ways. I have not included dissonant mutations in my work since the Boston project, not because I lack conviction or interest, but because I feel that there are a great many more things that need to be in an organ before dissonant mutations seem to be the next logical step. Furthermore, I feel that when they are included they must be developed adequately enough to allow their use in organ-like ways. Thus, it is necessary to have these colours in contrasting groups which are adequately terraced dynamically so that a truly organ-like performance can be achieved. Otherwise, we are altering the nature of the organ and encouraging developments in new literature which might in fact be retrograde instead of progressive. For example, if we introduce the dissonant mutations in such a way as to encourage their use in a monophonic manner and do not at the same time provide a similar enrichment for the ensemble resources, we are in danger of encouraging the composition of monophonic music without adding an incentive to develop the ensemble, and polyphonic characteristics of the instrument as well. To do this is perhaps to repeat the errors contributing to the decline of the organ in the 18th and 19th centuries. But then, all of this is perhaps best left to another time when the subject can be developed more fully. For the moment, it is sufficient to conclude this line of thought by stressing once more that no matter how we innovate, unless our best imaginative efforts fall into the hands of imaginative music makers, our efforts are in vain.

As mentioned earlier, the chief justification for organs in our time is their role in the presentation of the existing traditional literature. Where the organ literature is concerned only a pipe organ comes close to meeting the requirement. As our good friend Herr Rensch has said and continues to repeat at every opportunity, "Eine richtige Orgel hat Pfeifen". No matter bow hard they try, the manufacturers of electronic substitute instruments do not approach the effect of a modern pipe organ with classically-voiced pipes using nickless, full-wind techniques on key-chambered chests. Even if classical voicing techniques had nothing to recommend them other than that they produce a sound which is impossible to duplicate electronically, the effort spent in the rediscovery of the classical techniques has been worth-while. I often tell my young voicers, when they ask how they can tell if they are producing a good sound, that if they think it can be duplicated electronically, it is a bad sound and will not be acceptable. I have often warned organbuilders and amateurs who pick up the occasional contract by appealing to a certain reactionary element still to be found here and there in America, that the kind of sound they are producing is contributing to the myth that the sound of an organ can be imitated electronically because it is a sound that one does not really need pipes to produce. Strangely enough, thick, opaque sound is still being produced with new pipes here and there in America. It is only to people to whom this type of tone is still acceptable that electronics seem an admirable substitute, and it is only to those who still produce this kind of tone that electronics offer serious competition.

Just because they are obvious to us, we should not take it for granted that laymen will immediately grasp the differences or regard all the features of the pipe organ as virtues. We owe it to those who have confidence in us to point out these differences. We of ISO need to do more collectively on this, not so much because this is good for our business, but because we know more about the subject than any other group in the world and the organbuying public needs our help in obtaining the information necessary to make their selection of an instrument wisely. Perhaps there are situations where an electronic is the best answer, but without our help the purchaser will not be sure. There are certainly places where I would rather see an electronic than one of my instruments. We should not hesitate to dispel the myth of long, trouble-free service so widely advertised by electronic manufacturers. Perhaps we should publish figures on this as a public service. We are in a position to know because we replace so many electronic instruments with organs.

It seems the electronic inventors are finding it hard to know what to do next. In America, they are now adding "pipes" to resonate the sound produced by loudspeakers. In recent issues of "Instrumentenbau-Zeitschrift", I have seen articles about two electronic instruments with rather elaborate cases. Next, they will try tracker action, and maybe even real wind. These pathetic attempts are in themselves admissions of the inadequacy of the electronic attempts and we should not neglect the opportunity to bring this to the public attention.

Although the basic points of the Deutsche Orgelbewegung are now very widely accepted, even in America, builders of fine instruments everywhere should unite not only in the propagation of interest among musicians in the organ in its ideal form, they should also try to make the public more aware of the virtues of "the real organ" that "has pipes" and of the beauty of its great literature. Actually, interest and awareness is growing constantly almost by itself, and in some areas at an astonishing rate. But we really have no right to complain if growth seems slow if we ourselves are doing less to spread knowledge and interest than are some enthusiasts who seem to be ever working on our behalf.

In America, it is in the schools where interest is growing at the most rapid rate. It is here where musical instruments are understood to be means of communication and not merely a source of entertainment, that the idea of encased instruments with mechanical action is most readily accepted. The logic of providing the player with a direct and responsive mechanism and of designing the instrument so its tone is amplified and projected efficiently into the listening area has such appeal to those who have tried in vain to produce a sensitive performance on the electric key actions of instruments buried away somewhere in the walls. Many universities are building new music buildings with recital balls and practice rooms, and a considerable number will be equipped with mechanical-action organs, some of extensive resources and very high quality. This is certainly a large change from a few years ago when almost anything seemed good enough for the student and electronics and non-descript unit organs were the order of the day. The immediate prospects of buildling all these organs for academic circles is, of course, a joyous one for the organbuilder, and he must be more joyous yet when he thinks of the multiplying business as students from these institutions pass out into the world to become organists and teachers in churches and colleges not yet equipped with new instruments. There is no danger whatever that electronic instruments will fill this need.

Of course, the acceptance of the modern, encased, mechanical-action organ into the academic environment is by no means complete, and progress has not been without opposition. Recently, an organbuilder lecturing to a group of organ students at an important school in a famous university town on the virtues of instruments of this type was asked: "Why should we return to the horse-and-buggy days before electricity?" To the student, electricity represented progress and whatever further developments there might be should surely continue as a logical outgrowth of the present state of the electro-pneumatic organ. The lecturer said he was quite willing to go along with this and proposed that the next logical step in electrically-controlled instruments was the development of a self-playing mechanism that could read the music and registration directly from the printed page and give as fine a performance as any living organist could on the same instrument. It would take only slight modifications of the printed layout and existing reading equipment to accomplish this.

It was pointed out to the student that there was not much point in training people to do what a machine could do just as well, and that if the training of organists had any meaning in this age of advanced computer-controlled technology, it was to encourage them to play better than a machine on any instrument that a machine could not play with full potential. It would be much more difficult for a machine to duplicate the subtleties possible on a mechanical-action organ in the hands of a sensitive player. Thus, in schools for organists, only instruments with mechanical key action can be fully justified. It is this conclusion that has brought about the progress just described.

It is because of the improved and continually improving situation in the schools and the increased importance of music and the organ in churches everywhere that it seems the "golden age of the organ" lies still ahead. But in churches, the role of the organ will undoubtedly change. Indeed, it may change rather often in the years to come. In any case, that Victorian invention, "church music", is doomed and in its place will rise again the condition that existed throughout most of the Baroque era when there was very little difference in style and content between music intended for the church and serious secular music. At that time, it was chiefly the choice of the words that made the difference, and often the same tunes were used with both sacred and secular texts. This is not to say that all of the music of the church will be of a popular nature, but much of it will in the future he contemporary and the rapidly changing popular trends will undoubtedly make their way into the church. The old idea that there should be something for everybody in the music will be stressed again and this will be worked out not so much according to the tastes of the different groups as to their various levels of competence. All of this very likely means that other instruments besides the organ will be used in church more often than in the past, and perhaps regularly. This is good and may in fact prove a great aid to providing more stability in the role the organ is to play. There are certain accompanimental duties better performed by other instruments or instrumental groups, and a fine classic pipe organ is not likely to sound very much at home in jazz and the like. Thus, the organ will continue to be used for those things it does best, and it will be relieved from some of those responsibilities it has had to accept rather uncomfortably in the past just because it was the only instrument present. In rare situations, larger organs may be required, but, in general, it is likely that more small organs will be required than before and electronic substitutes will be found much less acceptable. A better understanding of the appropriate use of instruments will develop and the organ will always have its place in the church.

The growing demand for instruments in concert halls in America is also encouraging, although to date few situations have been worked out in which the instrument rests comfortably in its surroundings. There are wonderful possibilities in this field and the time spent in developing good solutions and in educating those involved can be well worthwhile. In the future, this promises to be a major part of the organbuilder's work.

No matter where we look, we see more signs for a growing demand for better and better organs. How well and how soon the potentials of the newly developing situations are realized depends to a large extent on how the organbuilders of the world respond to the challenges. Through the pages of ISO INFORMATlON and by ever growing friendship and co-operation in every facet of our field, we can shape the future with skill and assurance. We must make a collective effort to promote those values we cherish in every aspect of our work, for we can certainly accomplish more working together than alone.