The so-called classic organ designed by G. Donald Harrison, in the Germanic Museum of Harvard University, was really just a lucky accident.
So said Biggs in 1973 in a taped interview with John Fesperman of the Smithsonian Institution. Things were not, of course, quite that simple. One must take into account the fact that Biggs always had an uncanny knack for making the best possible use of “lucky accidents.”
G. Donald Harrison, an English builder formerly with Henry Willis of London, came to the Skinner Organ Company of Boston in 1927 at the age of 38. The Skinner firm had achieved prominence in a period when organ tonal design was strongly influenced by the concept of orchestral imitation, but organists’ tastes were beginning the long swing away from a transcription-oriented literature and back to the more traditional idiomatic organ repertoire. Harrison represented this more eclectic approach as it was practiced in England, and at the time he came to Boston his tonal concepts were not so much classical as they were anti-orchestral.
Because of financial difficulties, control of the Skinner firm had slipped from its founder’s hands, although Ernest Skinner remained with it in a position of responsibility. With regard to tonal matters, however, Harrison rather quickly rose to a position at least equal to Skinner’s; and while a number of organs built in the early 1930s (including that in Biggs’s Brookline church) showed the influence of both men, ideological conflict between them was inevitable. The rift between the two widened in 1932, when more and more customers insisted on having Harrison draw up the tonal scheme and supervise the finishing of their instruments. And Skinner strongly disapproved of the direction in which Harrison’s tonal work was heading.
Arthur Hudson Marks was a wealthy amateur who then held the controlling financial interest in the company; he had consolidated it with the organ division of the Aeolian Company in 1931 under the name of the Aeolian-Skinner Company. In May 1932 Marks wrote a strongly worded letter to Skinner mandating that henceforth Skinner and Harrison were each to have full control of the organs they themselves sold but were not to work together on the same organ. Marks, a shrewd and tough-minded businessman, was beginning to favor the more avant-garde Harrison. Biggs, although on the periphery of the conflict, also cast his lot with Harrison, whose tonal ideals were closer to his own than were Skinner’s. The following year the dictatorial Marks, irritated by mounting friction with Skinner, demoted him and appointed Harrison technical director. In 1935 Skinner, realizing his cause was lost, left the firm for good.
This reshuffling of the hierarchy of the firm left Harrison solely in charge of its tonal policies. Bit by bit, he experimented with what would come to be known as his “American classic” concepts, incorporating his adaptations of French reeds and German mixtures and mutations into certain influential organs built in the years immediately following Skinner’s departure, notably those of the Church of the Advent in Boston, Groton School, St. Mary the Virgin in New York, Westminster Choir College, and All Saints’ Church in Worcester.
Although born and reared in England, Harrison had never studied the organs on the Continent. He set out to do just that in the summer of 1936, in the company of Carl Weinrich, who, like Biggs, was concerned about broadening the organ repertoire. According to Biggs,
[Harrison] had come back with a number of ideas he wanted to put into practice. In those years, business was rather slack at the Aeolian-Skinner Company, and Harrison proposed to use some of the free time to plan and build a small organ to be used as a demonstration model, and this was to be put up in a small room at the factory.
The organ, Aeolian-Skinner’s Opus 951, was begun in December 1936. The plans were labeled “Baroque organ—Experimental,” and the completed instrument was, as Biggs indicated, intended as a studio organ for the firm’s Dorchester factory. A lot of the parts making up the organ were odds and ends found around the premises, the console being a legacy from the old Aeolian operation. Most of the pipes were new, however, and were made largely to standard Harrison scales and construction, although a few stops were made to new experimental specifications, notably, some of the flutes. The Pedal 16’ Bourdon was a “stock” set, and the Pedal Posaune 16’/Trompete 8’ unit was a reject from the Westminster Choir College Chapel organ of 1934. There seems never to have been any consideration of casework for the instrument.
In his few years of residence in Cambridge, Biggs had become thoroughly familiar with Harvard Yard and its surrounding buildings, including a little stucco-and-masonry museum on the corner of Kirkland and Divinity streets that would have looked more at home in Heidelberg than in Cambridge. Although presently known as the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic Culture, it was referred to in those pre-World War II days simply as the Germanic Museum. It was donated to Harvard by a midwestern brewer and houses a tasteful collection of antique and modern art works by German masters. Immediately inside the main entry is a barrel-vaulted exhibition hall with a gallery at one end and a replica of the Golden Gate of Freiberg Cathedral at the other—and superb acoustical properties. Biggs was not the first to recognize the room’s potential for musical performance. He himself noted that William King Covell and Edward Gammons, two recent Harvard graduates who were also avid organ enthusiasts, had already observed that it would make an ideal location for an organ.
Biggs’s first reaction, on hearing of Harrison’s experimental organ, was that it should be in a more accessible location than the Dorchester organ factory. Ever one to follow up his ideas with action, Biggs “took the rather large liberty of suggesting the idea to Dr. Charles Kuhn, Curator of the Museum. He was very sympathetic, but of course remarked that there was no money available.” Biggs also approached officials of the nearby Fogg Museum, with the same result.
So it was really just the most fortunate coincidence of several factors that I was able to suggest through Donald Harrison and Bill Zeuch, who was Vice-President of Aeolian-Skinner, why not put that organ in the Germanic Museum, at any rate, say for a year, on loan. See how it sounds; it would certainly sound much better than in a small room at the factory.
Kuhn was agreeable to Biggs’s idea, even though it required the removal of an ancient boat from the gallery of the Great Hall.
One wonders if Biggs or Harrison ever paused to notice the quotation from Goethe on the front of the tower, high above the Museum’s doors: “Es ist der Geist der sich den Koerper baut” (the spirit makes an embodiment for itself). Surely if anything in the Museum merited the distinction of being the embodiment of a spirit or an idea, it was the organ that, piece by piece, entered those doors during the spring of 1937.
The organ was a curious hybrid. It possessed Aeolian-Skinner’s standard “pitman” windchests and electro-pneumatic action. Most of its pipes were of standard scales, metal composition, and construction, voiced by contemporary techniques with close nicking and small-to-medium toe-holes. The wind system was Aeolian-Skinner’s normal aggregation of small, spring-loaded reservoirs, and the two-manual console, with its tilting stop-tablets arranged on slanted jambs, was originally intended for a small stock model Aeolian residence organ. Yet the stoplist combines north and south German features from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (including the then almost unheard-of Krummhorn), and the wind pressure was, for those days, uncommonly low—2 1/2 inches in the manuals, 3 inches in the Pedal. There was no enclosed division, no tremulant. The nomenclature was German, even to the Hauptwerke and Positiv manual designations. Although innocent of casework, the organ was located not in the usual hole-in-the-wall chamber but high in the gallery, speaking directly out against the reflecting masonry walls down to the hall below. Seen in the light of previous and subsequent history, it was transitional in every sense of the word—a creation with a curious personality all its own, linked to both past and future. Biggs liked it.
Despite the threat of delay due to increased activity at the Aeolian-Skinner factory in February, construction of the organ was in its final stages by March. Everyone agreed that it ought to have a name, but there was no consensus on what that ought to be. Harrison suggested “Baroque Organ,” but Biggs took exception on the grounds that the adjective, “while signifying excellence to the organ student, suggested merely frills and gewgaws to the public.” Other suggestions were “Classical Organ,” “Bach Organ,” and “Organ built in the Classical Manner.” “Classic” was the adjective that ultimately came to be associated with it; probably it was Biggs’s preference. The “Baroque” designation was left to fall on a similar but smaller instrument that Harrison built in 1939 for Carl Weinrich’s studio at Westminster Choir College—the similarity extending even to the recycled Aeolian console. Although this particular instrument began life burdened with the grandiose title of “Praetorius Organ,” it was later referred to by students simply as “The Baroque.”
Articles on the new Germanic Museum organ, complete with interviews of Biggs and Harrison, appeared on March 27, 1937 in both the Christian Science Monitor and the Boston Evening Transcript, the former with pictures of Biggs, Harrison, and the organ pipes. Ample references were made to the “back to Bach” aspect and the dawning realization that the orchestrally imitative organ was a dead end as far as classical literature was concerned. Yet the use of electro-pneumatic action and modern voicing techniques was defended, at least by Harrison. At that time such a compromise was in fact quite justifiable. The cover of this particular Pandora’s box had only been cracked open; very little was yet known about the manner in which all the components of the historic instruments interacted musically, nor was the true sophistication of their design and construction recognized. Some of the earliest European attempts to reproduce a historic instrument were done more in the spirit of archaeology than of musicianship, and the results were singularly unappealing. In retrospect, Harrison’s unabashed hybrid had more artistic integrity and certainly had more appeal. In a very real way it broke the first ground for the enlightened reproductions that ultimately appeared in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Germanic Museum instrument had three very important factors in its favor: good placement, good acoustical environment, and a good stoplist. The first two gave warmth and immediacy, and the third, with its broad spectrum of pitches, gave color and clarity. Emerson Richards, writing in The American Organist, characterized the Positiv, with its varied flutes and mutations, “a color organ in which hues of so vivid a character are possible as to almost shock those accustomed to the smoother and more sophisticated colors produced by the average modern organ.” Richards also observed that the instrument did not rely on dynamic extremes for its effectiveness:
The softest stop is the Spitzfloete and yet it is not, in reality, very much softer than the Principal. All the stops are within the same power range and the actual variety of timbre in the various voices is limited to flutes and Diapasons. Yet in combination there seems to be almost endless tonal variety, due, apparently, to the mixing ability of every voice. . . . [One can draw] apparently impossible combinations without disastrous results.
Richards derided those who would call such an organ cold and colorless because it did not contain some of the familiar orchestral sounds: “It is all color—unimagined color, brilliant, vivid hues in endless variety. And if we have robbed Peter we have paid Paul because there are new tone-colors equally as beautiful as those supplanted. . . .”
Two identical opening recitals were given by Biggs on April 13 and 18, 1937, consisting of music by Bach, Handel, and d’Aquin. Alexander Williams, in the Boston Herald for April 19 stated confidently that “Another round in the battle for a just and perfect performance of Bach has been conclusively won.” Decrying cinema organs and the orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ works then enjoying considerable popularity, he praised the “brilliant skill” and “perfect taste” of Biggs’s performance. “The effect . . . of listening to that organ played with such knowledge and ability was electrifying. The harpsichord requires some mental adjustment before its qualities can be appreciated; but the immense superiority of this organ is under no such handicap.”
The Christian Science Monitor was likewise complimentary, its reviewer moved by the “spirit of simplicity and unity” in the Bach and Handel performances. “The beautiful tone of the instrument, lighter in texture, sweeter and more mellow than that of the average instrument built according to modern specifications, was yet capable of grandeur.” At this time it was still believed in most quarters that a good acoustic was a dead acoustic, and the same writer was somewhat bothered by the reverberation of the hall; he also found Biggs’s playing of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor “somewhat rushed and breathless.”
One of the most discerning reviews was written by Moses Smith of the Boston Evening Transcript, who was evidently a habitué of Biggs recitals—he compared the Museum performances with performances of the same works heard on other organs:
It was apparent as soon as he had begun the Allegro of the Vivaldi Concerto that the greater clarity of parts resulting from the structure and materials of the new organ was no mere boast on the part of the designer, G. Donald Harrison. The polyphonic development was far clearer than it is on the typical contemporary instrument. . . . The voices were more sharply contrasted.
Smith took exception to only one thing: the solo combination used by Biggs in the Adagio of the Vivaldi Concerto. From Smith’s description it was apparently a “gapped” combination of an 8’ flute and one of the 2 ⅔” stops, in which the mutation stop was a bit too strong to blend completely with the fundamental. One wonders if this criticism was what prompted Biggs to use flutes in the same passage in his subsequent recording of the work.
T. Scott Burhman, editor of The American Organist, measured the newspaper coverage of the organ and Biggs’s concerts at a total of 155 column inches (“undoubtedly . . . a world record of newspaper attention to any such event in the organ world”). It was capped by an editorial by Alexander Williams in the Boston Herald for April 26, entitled “The New Classical Organ: a Victory for Bach.” Williams was fully aware that the Harrison instrument was not a copy or a reproduction of an actual “Bach organ” but rather “an original instrument, modelled on the best examples of the 18th century and suitable for playing the great music of Bach’s period and earlier.” Edward B. Gammons concurred with this assessment in the May issue of The Diapason, calling the organ “the most satisfying musical medium for the interpretation of classical music that the writer ever hoped to hear.” Emerson Richards observed in The American Organist that even with “its obvious limitations and necessary shortcomings . . . it displays a vitality and resourcefulness that are amazing.” A significant observation of Richards’s was that “The musicians came to hear the music, not the organ,” for, after all,
The organ is only the instrument. The music’s the thing. And through this instrument we have revealed to us a music so new, so arresting, and so alive that we cannot believe it is the same old stodgy, uninteresting and decadent set of notes that have been running through the fingers of our organists since the middle of the last century.
During the summer of 1937 Biggs held another teaching session at Methuen Music Hall, similar in content to the previous year’s and including four Sunday afternoon recitals. Biggs’s expense account for this venture—with outlays of $145.00 and receipts of $173.65—indicates that it was not a particularly profitable activity, although it doubtless resulted in some publicity and contacts that, as Biggs knew, would very likely bear future dividends.
Up to this point in his career Biggs was frequently referred to in the press and in his own publicity releases as an “English” or “Anglo-American” musician. In September 1937 he formally became an American citizen, an event whose anniversary he celebrated regularly for several subsequent years.
In the fall Biggs announced a series of twelve recitals comprising the complete works of Bach to be played on the Germanic Museum organ between November 1 and April 11. He was not the first American organist to undertake this ambitious project; that distinction belongs to Lynnwood Farnam, who accomplished it in 1928. But Farnam had to make the best of the orchestrally conceived Skinner organ in the Church of the Holy Communion as his medium. Biggs had the advantage of a far more congenial instrument for the purpose. In the November 1937 issue of The American Organist he described his project:
I have spent much time on plans for the recitals and I have experimented a great deal with different ways of arranging the material. I believe the arrangement finally adopted has a certain logic, while keeping plenty of variety. This plan presents the chorale preludes that Bach arranged according to his own groupings—the Orgelbuechlein, the Eighteen Great, the Clavieruebung—while the preludes and fugues follow a rough chronological order. The close attention of the audience to the stiffest sort of program has been remarked by everyone; I believe it is going to continue.
In between the two halves of the Bach concerts . . . I am to go on tour. I’m very anxious that these Bach recitals shall not label me a “specialist.” I revel in all organ literature and play Sowerby, Vierne, Widor, Karg-Elert, etc. with as much gusto as J. S. B.
Biggs’s mention of Vierne and Widor had special significance: both of these French Romantic masters, along with Clarence Eddy, one of America’s finest exponents of “orchestral” playing, had died earlier in the year. Indeed, the year 1937 might well be called been a turning point in twentieth-century organ history.
The Bach series was a success. It drew standing-room paying audiences and earned more good reviews for Biggs as well as more fame for Harrison’s instrument. The Boston Globe critic stated that “With the conclusion of this exhaustive series, Mr. Biggs indisputably places himself among those making the most magnificent contributions to the Boston musical season. . . .” The Boston Evening Transcript reviewer praised Biggs’s articulation, expressed a bit of concern over an occasional “tendency to hurry,” but felt that “in the larger works requiring passion and grandeur . . . Mr. Biggs really made his zeal for Bach most manifest.”
In March 1938 Emerson Richards commented on the record attendance at the Bach series, wryly observing,
I did not say that organists came to the recitals but the music-lovers did. Speedily followed by the music critics. Since the result was both unexpected and unprecedented and threatened to devaluate Mr. Biggs’ standing in the eyes of the organists, this brilliant young recitalist did everything possible to cut down the size of his audience. He fed them the Trio Sonatas and the more austere of the Great Contrapuntalist’s works. But the musicians still packed the galleries, remained for the last note and applauded.
By December, the editor of The American Organist, still keeping count of Biggs’s newspaper footage, had totted up a record 370 column inches.
Biggs performed regularly on the new organ, but he also welcomed visiting recitalists. Ernest White and Edward Gammons gave early programs at the Germanic Museum; and in October of 1937 Marcel Dupré, whom Biggs first met almost by accident while on the Cambrian tour, gave a recital that included an improvisation. Unfortunately Dupré does not mention any of the events of his seventh American tour in his autobiography, but Biggs himself recalled that he seemed not to care much for the organ. Other Europeans who played the Harrison instrument during its first few years of existence included Fritz Heitmann, a noted German Bach player, and Susi Hock (now Lady Jeans), a prominent early music advocate.
In January 1938 Biggs made a transcontinental tour, completing the Bach series upon his return. In April his church choir combined with William Zeuch’s choir from First Church in Boston for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In the summer Biggs and Colette took a vacation trip abroad—Biggs’s first ocean crossing since he came to the United States in 1930. Before the trip, Biggs had contacted various English friends, including his first teacher, J. Stuart Archer. He sent Archer some of the publicity on the new organ and his Bach series, to which Archer responded in a letter of July 14:
I was very interested in reading about your Bach recitals—what a prodigious undertaking—and the Bach specifications on which you played. Harrison has done splendid work in reviving interest in the so-called “baroque” instrument. There is no doubt that for Bach playing that is the sort of thing you want. Since the middle of the last century the tone of the diapasons began to thicken. Willis never yielded to this—but Walker began to use absurdly large scales—and Hope-Jones introduced leathered lips. Many people liked the tone—they called it the “Cathedral roll”—but, unfortunately—this Cathedral roll refused to mix with upper work—and stood away like oil from water.
I saw Harrison when he was over last year. He hasn’t changed much. I am wondering about you—you look thinner—at any rate in the face. . . . I have been looking at your programme and press notices again today—and feel I should like to have heard you play Bach on that organ. You must tell me how you registered. I wish we could have an instrument like that over here. Willis could tackle the job—& then we could get you to come over & give the series over again.
Biggs renewed many British acquaintances on his trip but apparently played no recitals. He and Colette visited relatives in England and France and did such “tourist things” as climbing the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, and in general it was a true vacation.
Nineteen thirty-eight was proving an eventful year, and before it was over Biggs had made his first commercial American phonograph recordings, using the new organ: a five-record album entitled A Bach Organ Recital and a single disc containing a movement from a Handel Concerto and one of d’Aquin’s Noëls. The recordings were issued by Technichord, a small Brookline firm run by H. Vose Greenough, a recent Harvard graduate who had previously made some amateur recordings of some of Biggs’s concerts. The old Technichord 78s, collector’s items today, created something of a stir when they were first issued, and they got good reviews. In the February 1939 issue of The American Organist, editor T. Scott Buhrman observed:
It is only in the past few years that records of organ playing such as this have been available; what a prize to have them now. He who finds his audience does not like Bach, will do well to buy these Bach albums and learn why. Here we have Bach as Bach should be, and we can each of us for himself readily compare and find out what he lacks to make Bach as vital and living as on these records. Is this album enjoyable as music or is it merely instructive? The answer depends on one’s taste; I think there are few albums of any kind that make a stronger musical appeal or provide more enjoyable music for educated listeners.
G. Donald Harrison apparently concurred with Buhrman’s evaluation and promptly put the records to a very practical use. Writing to W. King Covell in April of 1939, he observed that
[The records] were quite a help to me on my trip South. I was able to play them to many prospects and gave them some idea of how an organ sounded built to classical lines. It convinced many of them that such an organ need not be all top, which is the usual criticism.
Although the five two-sided 78 rpm discs in the Bach album contained only four complete works—the Concerto in A Minor, the Trio Sonata in E flat, the chorale prelude on “Wachet auf,” and the Prelude and Fugue in E flat—there was much variety within these narrow bounds, and virtually every facet of the organ’s resources was shown off to advantage. Small wonder that Harrison found it useful as a demonstration record.
The Germanic Museum organ was, in its way, just as vital to Harrison’s professional development as it was to Biggs’s. It had provided Harrison with a laboratory in which to test his newly formed concepts of classical tonal design as well as some beneficial publicity. In an article in the Germanic Museum Bulletin for March 1938, he described some of these concepts and especially stressed the importance of clarity—a property already noted by several reviewers—in the interpretation of polyphonic music. Recalling the organs heard on his European tour two years previous, Harrison observed that “clarity and transparency of tone are the most striking characteristics of the organs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” and added that “an attempt has been made to recapture these desirable qualities in the Germanic Museum instrument.” Harrison’s experimentation did not end with the installation of the instrument; despite Richards’s opinion that the 8’ Principal was “a beauty,” Harrison rescaled this stop and the 4’ Principal two notes smaller early in 1938.
From its installation in the Germanic Museum until its sale in 1958 to Boston University, Harrison’s “classic” organ was inextricably entwined with Biggs’s recital, radio, and recording career. It remained the property of the builder for some time, however. In 1940, the Aeolian-Skinner firm, needing money, tried to sell it. The asking price was $8,000, and a group of people in the Harvard community, led by Taylor Starck, attempted to raise the sum from alumni contributions, in order to donate the organ to the university. Perhaps because of this effort, and perhaps also because of the hardships occasioned by World War II, the organ remained undisturbed for another seven years. In the fall of 1947 the organ fund committee abandoned its task, having raised only $1,323.30. The university still declined to purchase the organ (of which they had had the free use for a decade), but by this time it had become so well known through Biggs’s broadcasts that it seemed unthinkable to remove it. It became obvious to Biggs that if he wanted to continue to use it he would have to purchase it himself, and so he did.
In 1973, 36 years after the organ was built, and two years after its destruction by an arsonist while in the auditorium of the Boston University School of Fine Arts, Biggs could still speak appreciatively of the 1937 organ—with only the mildest of criticisms and perhaps a faint tinge of affection:
All in all, the organ was quite playable; it sounded extraordinarily well—bright tone, outgoing, very persuasive. Of course the bland voicing did not give the organ any articulation, and the electric action would have precluded any control of chiff, had there been any chiff. As a whole, the ensemble sounded very well when the hall was empty. When the hall had people in it, and the acoustics were cut down, one tended to hear the mutations as separate lines. But at the time, these limitations were not so apparent; one rejoiced in the forward-sounding tone, unhampered by enclosure. It took a little while for the lessons, both positive and negative, taught by the instrument, to be learned. Still, all in all, the effect in the museum was new and striking.
It lived its life, 1937 to 1971, in a period in which it was possible for its useful influence to be greatest. . . . I am enormously grateful to G. Donald Harrison, to Dr. Charles Kuhn, to James Fassett, and to others, for all the wonderful opportunity that the instrument represented.