History of the Harvard Organs

There are three main organs on Harvard’s campus to which students have regular access: a 1930 Skinner (Opus 793), a 2011 C. B. Fisk (Opus 139), and a 1958 Flentrop. The Skinner and Fisk are both housed in Memorial Church, the grand Georgian-style Univeristy Church opposite Widener Library, and the Flentrop resides in Adolphus Busch Hall, formerly the Busch-Reisinger art museum. There are also several smaller organs in variable condition located around campus in such spaces as the Divinity School and the College residential houses.
The 33-rank, mechanical action Flentrop organ in Busch Hall was made famous by concert organist E. Power Biggs. After experiencing the historic organs of Europe on a concert tour, Biggs commissioned this instrument in 1958 from the Dutch organ builder Dirk A. Flentrop, who was notable for his instruments that revisited the original Baroque style. This so-called “Neo-Baroque” instrument in Busch Hall was at the forefront of a surge of interest in classic organ building techniques across America. Biggs brought this classic appreciation to a larger audience through his recordings and live radio broadcasts from Busch Hall. His recordings of Bach introduced many Americans, organists and enthusiasts alike, to a new historically informed approach to playing. This Flentrop was truly Biggs’ instrument; he continued to perform and record on it until his death in 1977. The instrument and Biggs’ legacy live on, as the Organ Society hosts a weekly recital series in which the audience can hear the clarity and precision that Biggs so loved about his instrument.

The Skinner and Fisk instruments in Memorial Church replaced the previous 1967 Fisk instrument (Opus 46). Charles Brenton Fisk was a Harvard graduate himself who earned a degree in Physics in 1945, and then decided to pursue his passion for organ building. A committee, which included E. Power Biggs and University organist John Ferris, chose C. B. Fisk, Inc., to build a state-of-the-art mechanical action instrument so that Memorial Church could also participate in the renaissance of classic organ building. Opus 46, installed in 1967 in Appleton Chapel at the east end of the church, was a pioneering instrument. It was the first four-manual tracker instrument ever built in America, and at the time it was the largest tracker in the country. However, it had one major flaw. Given Memorial Church’s unique design with Appleton Chapel enclosed at the front, Opus 46 was intended to be quiet enough for use in morning prayer services in the chapel but loud enough to be able to fill the sanctuary during Sunday services. It became evident that, like its 1932 Aeolian-Skinner predecessor, Opus 46 was not successful at accomplishing this. Under the leadership of the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, a new committee was formed at the turn of the 21st century to determine a solution. With two failed past examples, it was clear that one organ alone could not support musical integrity in Memorial Church worship. The final decision was for Opus 46 to be relocated to Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas in 2010, and for two new organs, complementary yet distinct in nature, to be commissioned.

The committee wanted to find a vintage organ for Appleton Chapel that would be suitably quiet for the accompaniment of the morning prayer services, but could also hold its own for organ voluntaries. The winning instrument was the 1930 Skinner Opus 793 from the Second Church of Christ Scientist in Harford, Connecticut, chosen for its versatility in color and texture as well as its two enclosed divisions (both the Swell and Choir divisions are under expression, ideal for choir anthem accompaniment). Foley-Baker of Connecticut restored the instrument to its current condition, and it was dedicated in the fall of 2010 as The Jane Slaughter Hardenbergh Memorial Organ. A visitor to the chapel may not be able to tell that there is an organ in the space. Without a visible façade, the pipework remains hidden in organ chambers behind both side walls of the chapel while the console is tucked away among the choir stalls.

In addition to the Skinner for Appleton Chapel, the committee commissioned a new grand organ for the back gallery, intended to fill the sanctuary space for Sunday services, holidays, and other special events, as well as to serve as a solo instrument on its own. C. B. Fisk, Inc., was again selected to build an instrument for Harvard’s Memorial Church. This time, the organ was designed to accomplish three specific artistic goals: to lead congregational hymn-singing, to accompany choir anthems, and to successfully perform the array of diverse organ repertoire. The result was a magnificently pure yet versatile sound cased in an ornately carved façade with gold-plated pipes. According to current University Organist & Choirmaster Edward Jones, its eclectic mix of stops means that “its sound palette represents the best of French, German, and English organ building, but it speaks with a voice that is distinctly American.” Opus 139 was dedicated on Easter Day 2012 as The Charles B. Fisk and Peter J. Gomes Memorial Organ, in recognition of two of the most influential men of this project who could not live to see the final product. The splendor of Opus 139 can be heard on display in the biweekly Tuesday organ recital series.

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