“No Screech, No Mud.” Organs and organists at Curtis

At a time when you can hear any music you want at the press of a button, it is difficult to imagine what people listened to before radio and phonographs. If you want to find out, read Craig Whitney’s All The Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and its American Masters. It’s a fascinating account of a time when concert organists were famous, free concerts at the giant organ in the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia drew many thousands, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie spent millions of dollars to help schools, churches, and concert halls acquire organs, and people of wealth had organs in their homes that played music recorded by famous musicians on organ rolls.

Plan of Casimir Hall by architect Horace Wells Sellers, published in 1928

Both Curtis’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and her father, the publishing magnate and philanthropist Cyrus Curtis, had residential organs at their homes. Cyrus Curtis, who played the organ himself, donated many organs to Philadelphia institutions and elsewhere. One notable example was the organ built for the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926, which he donated to the University of Pennsylvania. Now known as the Curtis Organ, it is one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Naturally, when the Curtis Institute of Music got its own concert hall, inaugurated in December 1927 as Casimir Hall, Cyrus Curtis donated the organ, which was built by the New York Aeolian company.

The new concert hall’s location had already caused many challenges for architect Horace Wells Sellers. “The site was insufficient to permit of widespread anterooms and corridors which might isolate the auditorium from outside noises,” he wrote in 1928. Heating and ventilation posed another problem; “the mechanical equipment having been made especially complex by the requirements of a large pipe-organ, which had to be installed without encroachment on the hall.”

The 4-manual Aeolian console, facing the north lunette above the balcony, c. 1928.

When Mary Louise Curtis Bok contracted the famous Canadian organist Lynnwood Farnam to head the new organ department, the plans for the building of the Aeolian organ must have been well on their way. Farnam, the organist of the Church of the Holy Communion in New York, had only limited input. According to correspondence in the Curtis Archives, the duo-art mechanism found in the specifications of the Aeolian organ was a request by Farnam, who already had recorded organ rolls for different player organs.

By all accounts, the sound of Curtis’s new organ was a disappointment. “As all too often happens, the architect, presumably ignorant of the space requirements, left practically no room for the organ,” according to Emerson Richards in the American Organist in January 1942. The organ pipes were crowded into organ chambers above the ceiling. Two lunettes on either side of the hall provided the only outlets for the sound of the pipes.

Portrait of Lynnwood Farnam by William Greenbury, 1932

Lynnwood Farnam by William Greenbury, 1932

Farnam dedicated the organ on Tuesday evening, November 27, 1928 with a diverse program. According to correspondence in the Lynnwood Farnam papers in the Curtis Archives, Farnam unsuccessfully tried to interest Mary Louise Curtis Bok in purchasing another organ that had come up for sale. However, he could make any organ sing. “He accepted the organs of the day, for better or worse, and created an organ of his own, so to speak, by the way he handled registration,” according to his student Robert Noehren (’31) in the American Organist in 1990. Noehren recalled Farnam’s dissatisfaction with the Aeolian organ in Casimir Hall, “but then we would watch him seek a registration he had in mind and, in spite of the organ, achieve a remarkably effective sound for the piece being studied.”

Tragically, on October 13, 1930 Farnam had to be taken to St. Luke’s hospital, where he was diagnosed with liver cancer. His death six weeks later caused an outpouring of grief for a man who had been not only venerated for his music, but also loved for his gentle nature. Tributes appeared in professional journals for organists and other musicians, as well as mainstream newspapers. On the day of Farnam’s funeral Casimir Hall was kept dark except for the top stage lights, which cast a light on a vase of white lilies that Mary Louise Curtis Bok had put on the organ console. A portrait of Farnam, painted after his death, hangs at the entrance of what is now called Field Concert Hall.

For the remainder of the term, Farnam’s organ students were taught by Dr. Clarence Dickinson. In 1931 the Italian-born organist Fernando Germani was appointed to head the organ department, but at the onset of the Great Depression in 1933 the appointment was discontinued. In 1935 the organ department was revived with the appointment of Alexander McCurdy (’31), one of Farnam’s students, who would teach the organ department until 1972.

Present console with Positiv Division behind glass, 2014

Present console with Positiv Division behind glass, 2014

In May 1937, McCurdy announced a few changes to the Aeolian in Overtones, including the addition of an unenclosed Positiv division during the summer, “voiced on very low pressure, along classical lines.” The Positiv was purely an ensemble section, which “would be valuable for all contrapuntal music, especially Bach and his forerunners.” The alterations were to be made by G. Donald Harrison, the technical director of the Aeolian-Skinner company (a merger of the Aeolian Company’s organ division and the Skinner Organ Company). With his unenclosed divisions, which often included a German-style “positiv,” Harrison radically changed the romantic sound of American organs that used to be in fashion, and introduced what became known as the “American Classic Organ.” The organ at Curtis also got a new five-manual console to control the new Positiv division, whose pipes stood out in the open to the left of the console.  The sound of the renewed organ can be heard in a broadcast from Casimir Hall in March 1938, during which Claribel Gegenheimer (’38) played Bach’s choral prelude In dulci jubilo (to hear her performance, view the last section of the online exhibit Life at Curtis before the War).

With the changes in place, the Catalogue of 1937–38 describes the organ as a five manual Aeolian-Skinner concert organ. It was not until 1941, however, that Harrison built a truly new Aeolian-Skinner for the school, known in the Aeolian-Skinner records as Opus 1022.  The Positiv division and the five-manual console that were installed in 1937 were retained.  When Harrison’s friend Emerson Richardson came to test it out in person, he was jubilant about the clear, brilliant, colorful sound. “There is no screech to the mixtures. There is no mud in the bass octaves,” he wrote in in the American Organist. “The kaleidoscopic color changes are boundless. It seems impossible to draw any two stops, no matter how divergent in pitch and color, without finding them in harmonious accord.” Richardson concluded, “Fortunate it is for G. Donald Harrison that he has one of the new classic organs in a place where it may be heard by the general public under sympathetic and intelligent conditions.” Philadelphia, he asserted, possessed “an instrument worthy of the traditions of that great city.”

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In the decades that followed, however, not many Philadelphians had the privilege to listen to the new instrument. Student and faculty recitals were not open to the public until Rudolf Serkin became director of the school in 1968. In 1972 Alexander McCurdy retired and was succeeded by his former pupil John Weaver (’59).  On the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary in 1974, Weaver arranged for a revision and additions to the organ by the Möller organ company, including a new console utilizing the knobs from the Aeolian-Skinner console. According to Möller’s calculations the organ now counts 6206 pipes behind the walls of the north and south balconies and lunettes (see specifications).

Weaver’s successor is Alan Morrison (’91), Haas Charitable Trust Chair in Organ Studies, who joined the Curtis faculty in 2002. As student of Weaver, who in turn was taught by McCurdy, his lineage as organist goes directly back to Lynnwood Farnam, who started Curtis’s organ program in 1927.

Check soon for a new blog entry about Farnam’s papers in the Curtis Archives.

 

Resources

  • Craig R. Whitney, All the stops, the glorious pipe organ and its American masters, (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).
  • Marcus G. St. Julien, “Lynnwood Farnam: American Classic Organist.” (unpublished PhD diss., Rice University, 2002).
  • Emerson Richards, “Curtis Institute’s New Organ,” The American Organist (January, 1942): 10-14. Copyright 1942, by the American Guild of Organists. Used by permission of The American Organist Magazine.
  • Robert Noehren, “Lynnwood Farnam; thoughts and reminiscenses,” The American Organist (February, 1990): 70-74. 

 

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