Review which appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Diapason
Copyright 2011 © Neal Campbell
The King of Instruments Highlights, VTOA, Op. 8
The King of Instruments, Volumes 1-3.
www.vermontorganacademy.com or by mail for $23.50 (post paid) from
Vermont Organ Academy
P. O. Box 2069
Kilgore, TX 75663-2069
The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company was not the only major organ company to use sound recordings to advance sales or to articulate its tonal philosophies, but at a total of 30 volumes the complete “King of Instruments” series was considerably greater in scope than typically need be contemplated purely for promotional purposes. As was typical of Aeolian-Skinner, the artistic and musical interests of their endeavors trumped the purely practical nature of the enterprise. In this case, the series of recordings was of sufficient musical merit that each volume as it was released was announced in the New York Times and was briefly reviewed in its columns of new recordings. [The entire “King of Instruments” series is chronicled in detail by John A. Hansen in April 2003 issue of The Diapason.]
In 1942 G. Donald Harrison narrated two sides of a 78 rpm recording titled Studies in Tone, which used the organ at Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass., Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1007, for the musical examples. Volume I of the new “King of Instruments” series featured Harrison narrating in a way similar to Studies in Tone, which may have been the impetus for Joseph S. Whiteford as he initiated the new series. But the “King of Instruments” series of recordings was Whiteford’s project, and it was he who directed all facets of its production. In fact Whiteford, a competent organist himself, actually played some of the examples that accompanied Harrison’s narration.
Taken as a whole the 30 volumes are a recorded documentation of the work of Aeolian-Skinner following World War II until it closed for business in 1972, as played by the leading organists of the day. This era divides itself into three distinct periods of tonal style: Harrison until his death in 1956; Whiteford, who was Harrison’s assistant and ultimately his successor; and Donald Gillett, formerly the head finisher who became President and Tonal Director after Whiteford retired in 1966. Harrison’s work has come to be generally accepted, studied, and documented, and rightly so. But as Charles Callahan presciently says in the introductory notes to his second book [Æolian-Skinner Remembered. Minneapolis: Randall Egan, 1996]:
“The pendulum of taste and opinion is constantly in motion. Caught up in the enthusiasms of a particular moment in time, it is all too easy for anyone to belittle others’ achievements. Perhaps Joseph Whiteford and his work are overdue for a fair assessment.”
I would proffer that these three master organ builders led the modern American response to the principles of the Orgelbewegung movement to a pinnacle of creativity and workmanship that has not been surpassed. The complete 30 volumes of “King of Instruments” and other modern recordings of these existing organs provide, in part, the tools for the fair assessment Dr. Callahan calls for in his remark above.
The master tapes for the complete “King of Instruments” series of recordings came to the archives of the Organ Historical Society after Aeolian-Skinner closed, and there they have since languished in a state of gradual inexorable decline. It is from these original masters that VTOA has produced these CDs. Daniel Colburn, who during his relatively brief tenure as executive director of the OHS facilitated access to these master tapes, is to be congratulated for allowing them to see the light of day. The sound reproduction quality of these new compact discs is remarkably clear and vibrant in tone, relatively free from pops, scratches, and tics, and they compare better than favorably to most historical remasterings.
Volume 1 consists of Harrison discussing the different types of pipe construction and the tones they produce. Sixty years later his concise language and colorfully correct technical information is imparted in a manner that is at once elegantly understandable, yet inevitably practical and useful. All organists ought to listen to this commentary as they take their first lessons! At the same time the seasoned serious listener is compelled to consider the content of his message with deference. This narration is enhanced by brief, succinct performances by Thomas Dunn, George Faxon, and Roy Perry playing the organs in Symphony Hall, Boston, the Cathedral of St. Paul, Boston, and First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas—each new organs in the early 1950s. Joseph Whiteford plays the examples at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, including the closing page of the Franck B-minor chorale and the fanfares on the State Trumpet. Volume 2 consists of Dunn and Faxon playing the same two Boston organs, Robert Owen playing Christ Church, Bronxville, New York, and Perry and William Watkins playing at Kilgore. Volume 3 consists of Robert Owen playing a recital at Bronxville.
There have been prior transfers, both private and commercial, directly from good copies of the LPs to CD of some material from Volumes 1-3, but you will want these new editions not just for the enhanced sonic luster of the master transfers: there is a significant amount of material that never made it to the original LPs because of time limitation technologies of the day which are restored here—entire pieces, such as Purvis’ Thanksgiving and Repentance recorded by Roy Perry at Kilgore, two Bach chorale preludes played by Thomas Dunn at Symphony Hall, and even some narration and examples in Harrison’s Volume 1. Particularly poignant is the identification for the first time in print of Thomas Dunn and William Watkins, two players identified ignominiously on the LPs of Volume 2 simply as the “staff organist” since they were each members of the musicians union. As an aside, although not presented here, Volume 5 of the series featured Richard Purvis playing an album of his own music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and he is similarly identified with the same generic appellation.
Produced as a “teaser” prior to the release of Volumes 1-3, the Highlights volume contains selected material from the complete set of master tapes, including tracks from Volumes 1-3. But, again, there is material presented which never made it to the original LP’s and has therefore never been heard. Notable are performances of Norman Coke-Jephcott playing his Toccata on a National Air at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé playing the Tournemire Fantaisie-Improvisation sur l’Ave maris stella on the Whiteford-Gillett organ of Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis. Also included on the Highlights album are performances by Albert Russell at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford and John Weaver’s heart-melting performance of Mozart’s K. 594 Fantasy recorded at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York for Volume 20 in the mid-1960s.
Let us hope that Vermont Organ Academy will continue to release more from this historic series of master tapes. On several levels they are of significant musical and historical content, interest in which will only be enhanced as the pendulum of taste and opinion continues its swing and pull.