The new Flentrop tracker-action organ, installed in 1958 in the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Harvard University . . . is symbolic of changes that are rapidly taking place in the building and playing of organs in the United States.
In November 1963, when these words of Biggs’s were published in the British periodical The Organ, it was already clear to the organ world that Biggs’s prophecies of the 1950s were neither idle fancy nor wishful thinking. Encased tracker-action organs of classic or neo-baroque tonal bias were being imported from Europe at an increasing rate, and the first modern American-made three-manual organ with mechanical key action was being installed by Charles Fisk in Boston’s King’s Chapel, where Daniel Pinkham was organist. In part because of the efforts of the Organ Historical Society (of which Biggs was an early and supportive member), old American organs were being rebuilt or restored in a more sympathetic manner.
By 1963, also, the new Germanic Museum organ had been thoroughly broken in. At Biggs’s request Flentrop had provided a new bench top, and Fisk had replaced the Pedal sharps with ones more like the standard American type; with Flentrop’s advice, he had also corrected a problem in the Borstwerk wind supply.
And the organ had been heard: first (if briefly) by the radio audience, then in recitals and on records. Many of the recitals were given by Biggs, of course, but during the first few years of the instrument’s existence, concerts were also given by Biggs’s Cambridge neighbor Melville Smith and other local organists, as well as by such European visitors as Finn Viderø, Piet Kee, Gustav Leonhardt, and Anton Heiller. The organ also had proved its worth with instrumentalists and with choral groups such as the Harvard Glee Club. “It is excellent with voices,” observed Biggs, “and it is obvious that it would be perfect for church services.”
Biggs had been dissatisfied with the old Museum organ ever since his ill-fated attempts to have Harrison make some improvements to it in the early 1950s. His first serious thoughts about replacing the instrument seem to have occurred in 1953; and Schlicker, whose Cambridge Portative had proved so satisfactory, was his logical choice for a builder. But the 1954 tour changed all that. Biggs found the old Continental organs, particularly those of northern Europe, infinitely superior to anything he had experienced in England or America. Of the new organs he encountered, those built by the Dutch most closely resembled the old models in their unforced voicing and comfortable, responsive playing actions. And of the modern Dutch builders, it was Flentrop of Zaandam whose work made the most favorable impression on Biggs. Dirk and Marian Flentrop had been hospitable and helpful to the Biggses. They were genuinely interested in what Biggs was doing, and went well beyond the bounds of simple courtesy in support of his efforts. Flentrop and Biggs were soon addressing each other by the nicknames of “Biggsie” and “Dick.”
In 1956 the American Guild of Organists held a national convention in New York, and while it was still in the planning stage, a visiting organist from the host chapter suggested to Flentrop that he send a small organ to exhibit. When Flentrop asked Biggs’s advice on the matter, Biggs urged him strongly to do it, and then arranged for Flentrop himself to lecture on “Trends in European Organ-Building.” Biggs too was on the convention program, utilizing the Cambridge Portative in a program of concerted works at Hunter College Auditorium.
In 1957 Flentrop gave Biggs invaluable assistance during the recording session at Zwolle, and when Biggs was putting together the extensive jacket booklet for The Organ, Flentrop contributed a thoughtful and articulate article to it, based partly on his well-received convention address.
By the fall of 1956 the possibility of a new organ at the Museum was very much on Biggs’s mind. His friendship with Flentrop, as well as his liking for Flentrop’s work, had convinced Biggs that he had found the man who could create it. In a letter to Flentrop dated September 22, Biggs first discussed some details of a future recording project and then came to the real point of the communication:
You may remember the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, where our CBS broadcasts originate? And you may remember the excellent room acoustics, the present organ, and particularly the space available in the gallery.
Would you like to consider the idea of building a new organ for the Museum? It seems to me that there could not be a better spot anywhere over here in which to set forth your philosophy!
The present organ belongs to us. We were compelled to purchase it from Aeolian-Skinner some years ago. Thus we would ourselves purchase the new organ, and sell the present one to help with the cost.
An organ of a design similar to the little organ in Lübeck would look very well in the Museum gallery. But a design would be quite up to you.
Cost might dictate two manuals, but three would be much better if possible. Incidentally, cost does of course enter into our considerations. Yet we do not want any favors, and expect the price to be whatever you would normally quote.
With the perfect placement and live acoustics, volume is not important, but articulation and texture and beauty of sound is everything.
Biggs went on to suggest a center gallery location with a Rückpositiv division on the railing and sufficient space around for a small orchestra. A very quiet blower would be needed to eliminate background noise on broadcasts and recordings, and, as for action, “Naturally it would be tracker!” Pistons might be nice but were not essential, and “it would be advisable to have the pedal board to AGO dimensions.” Biggs expressed concern in the letter about past verbal commitments to Herman Schlicker and wondered if he could still be involved in some way, but this idea seemed unworkable. Financial arrangements were discussed, and the letter concluded with the hope that Flentrop would be interested in the project, since “it does seem that a little revolution might begin over here in the Museum hall.”
Flentrop responded barely a week later, saying “It seems a wonderful idea to me!!” and began making tentative designs, which served to heighten Biggs’s enthusiasm for the project. An attractive visual design would unquestionably enhance the instrument, but Biggs’s foremost concern was how the organ would sound. In December he wrote to Flentrop,
If your organ can have a persuasive, outgiving mellow quality, and a rich but never “hard” ensemble (yet very articulate in speech beginnings) I think it will just bowl people over! They will say THIS IS IT! It will be nothing less than an earthquake, for which America is ready right now!
Biggs shared Flentrop’s preliminary drawings with Charles Kuhn, the director of the Museum, whose interest in the new organ was keen. A contract was signed, and Roy Carlson and others were alerted to the impending availability of the Aeolian-Skinner organ, although it was nearly a year before anything transpired in this regard. Early in 1958 it was finally sold to Boston University for $11,500, and shortly thereafter it was installed in the auditorium of the School of Fine and Applied Arts. In October 1957 a one-manual, six-stop Flentrop organ was sent to the Museum on loan, and for a brief time it shared the gallery with the Aeolian-Skinner instrument. When the latter was removed in the spring of 1958, the small Flentrop, occasionally in combination with orchestral instruments, was heard on the radio broadcasts until the new organ arrived in the fall.
Flentrop’s first speculative drawings for the new organ depicted a somewhat flamboyant contemporary case, but the design gradually evolved into a reserved and dignified traditional scheme. Its basic shape was not unlike that of the small Gothic organ Biggs had admired in the Church of St. Jakobi in Lübeck, and it was executed in sleek mahogany. The tonal plan was also traditional: Hoofdwerk, Borstwerk, Rugpositief and Pedaal, containing the classical principal choruses, flutes, and reeds of the Baroque period. Biggs got his American-style pedalboard but decided to forego the costly combination pistons in favor of a straight mechanical drawstop action, and of course the manual and pedal key action was mechanical as well. The voicing was gentle but articulate, as Biggs wished it, and the wind pressures were low—from 1 7/16” to 2 1/16”.
The organ was shipped from Flentrop’s works late in July 1958, and a month later Flentrop’s men arrived in Cambridge to begin installation. Dirk Flentrop himself came later to supervise the final tonal finishing, and he stayed for the opening festivities on September 22.
It was a gala occasion. A large invited crowd of organists, organ builders, critics, friends, museum officials, and Harvard faculty milled around the Great Hall and adjacent galleries, nibbling hors d’oeuvres and sipping drinks from an improvised bar tended by harried undergraduates from the student employment pool. The assemblage was then hailed into the Great Hall, and after some words of welcome and introduction Biggs put the new organ through its paces in a brief recital of works by Sweelinck, Franck, Vaughan Williams, and Bach. The concert was followed by the traditional European ceremony in which Flentrop poured wine from a principal pipe into glasses passed by Peggy Biggs to all who had managed to jam themselves into the organ gallery. The taped-up mouth of the pipe leaked, the wine tasted of pipe size, and almost as much went onto the floor as into the glasses. But the mood was ebullient and nobody minded that the ceremony lacked the solemnity it doubtless had in ancient times. “Even the organ was smiling,” reported the Harvard Crimson.
A few days later Biggs was preparing his first broadcasts with the new organ and knuckling down to a serious practice schedule. “I am gradually learning to play it,” he wrote Flentrop in October, “and am discovering new things about it every day.” Some of Biggs’s discoveries had a marked effect on his own approach to the instrument. In the mid-1950s Biggs had begun to affect an excessively detached playing style, especially when playing electric-action organs (although it spilled over into his recording of the tracker-action organ in Zwolle). By 1958 it had reached the point where a reviewer in The American Organist saw fit to criticize the “yippiness” of Biggs’s playing, which included a noticeable slapping of the pedals. Biggs was not the only American organist to adopt this overly detached style. It was a reaction common to many organists whose consciousness had recently been raised relative to articulation, but who found themselves still having to play instruments that were slow of speech and lacked any articulation of their own. Once Biggs got used to the lighter, more responsive action and the clean, articulate speech of the Flentrop organ, he realized that such overcompensation was no longer necessary, and his style began to smooth out noticeably, as his recordings on the Flentrop testify.
Preparations for the new organ did not significantly curtail Biggs’s typically busy schedule in 1958. Beginning with a spring recording tour in Europe and an appearance with the Oratorio Society of New York on his return in May, his schedule accelerated as summer approached. In June Biggs gave a major concert at an American Guild of Organists convention (a concerted program using a small Reuter organ similar to the Cambridge Portative), dedicated the rebuilt organ in Boston’s Old North Church, and played a Handel organ concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler in Symphony Hall. July was spent teaching and giving concerts at Syracuse University and at the Organ Institute in Methuen.
His pace did not slacken after the inauguration of the Flentrop organ in the fall. In addition to a program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and various solo recitals, Biggs gave a special program for the Busch-Reisinger Museum Association in December, and the first of what was to become a traditional series of post-Christmas concerts on the large new Möller organ in St. George’s Church in New York. A year that had been so filled with high points ended on a dismal note, however, with the abrupt and unanticipated termination of the CBS Sunday morning broadcasts.
The cancellation was a serious blow to Biggs’s plans for the new organ. The broadcasts had been an integral part of the instrument’s raison d’être. But Biggs, as always, was flexible, and it did not take him long to retrench. If the increasing use of commercial recordings was driving live music from the air waves, then the new organ would be used for recording. During 1959 Biggs sketched out and began work on a whole new series of recordings involving the Flentrop organ. The first one, a lively collection of pieces for brass and organ by Gabrieli and Frescobaldi, recorded with the Boston Brass Ensemble under Richard Burgin, was released in February 1960. The second, an album of Noëls by d’Aquin, came out in September of the same year, just in time to get on everyone’s Christmas gift lists.
The first recordings of the new organ were well received by the critics, as was the organ itself. The Diapason for May 1960 deplored the loss of the organ to the radio audience and called the organ and brass album “top drawer.” Along with the Handel Concerto album done in England it was rated as a “must” for hi-fi addicts, who were warned to be startled by the realistic stereo effects of the Gabrieli Canzonas. Ross Parmenter in the New York Times for December 18 regarded the d’Aquin record as “particularly delightful” and praised the organ’s “clear, reedy, baroque type of sound.” An especially perceptive review of the Gabrieli and Frescobaldi release appeared in the A. G. O. Quarterly for October 1960:
E. Power Biggs’s records are not just aspects of a fine but fixed philosophy, but represent rather the philosophical growth of one of the most perspicacious minds in the organ field. This issue seems to match, though smaller in scope, the significance of Mr. Biggs’s giant Handel and Mozart releases, for it presents—and this is a sure fact—America’s first true classic organ in a lively performance of two Renaissance composers who opened the doors of the Baroque.
Other recordings on the new organ quickly followed. Back in the early radio days Biggs had discovered the sprightly concertos for two organs by the eighteenth-century Spanish organist-priest Antonio Soler. These light-hearted works were intended for performance by himself and his pupil Prince Gabriel de Borbón on the dual organs of El Escorial. Biggs had previously performed some of them with organ and harpsichord, and, aided by a tape recorder, with himself on both parts. It was not until of the Flentrop organ had been installed that Biggs finally contrived to play all six concertos as written, for two organs. The second instrument was an eighteenth-century chamber organ by the Dutch builder Hess, loaned by Charles Fisher of Framingham and played by Daniel Pinkham.
The Soler works were given a preview concert at the Museum, then recorded for an album released in 1961. In the summer of the same year, there appeared the first of a series of Bach recordings under the general title of Bach Organ Favorites. It was followed, in 1962, by the release of an album containing six of Sweelinck’s Variations on Popular Songs, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the composer’s birth, plus another organ and brass issue. All these recordings emphasized the versatility of the organ, all gave Biggs the opportunity to propagandize subtly in the jacket notes, and all got good reviews.
Versatile as this organ was, after a few years’ experience with it, Biggs hatched an idea which would make it more so, and the so-called convertible stops were added in 1964. A 2’ principal was made to be interchangeable with the 2’ flute in the Hoofdwerk, and the 8’ Rankett, standing in the front of the Borstwerk, was provided with an alternate in the form of a divided stop consisting of a 2’ Schalmei from middle C down (which could be coupled to the Pedal for solo playing) and an 8’ Dulzian in the treble range. The extra pipes were stored in boxes on the tuner’s walkboard, and they could be exchanged easily by the tuner. Biggs thought this a rather clever twist, and when he told Walter Holtkamp about it, the organ builder jokingly told him to keep quiet about it, otherwise “every organist will want a batch of convertibles.”
The Flentrop organ was heard not only on the radio and on records, but on television and, in December 1960 it was featured in a documentary film made for the United States Information Service. Biggs obviously enjoyed this particular project and wrote to Flentrop, “I think you’ll like it. They photographed the organ from every angle, in color. And we have shots of the trackers going up and down, to the music of Sweelinck’s Balletto. And of course of the audience, and of the Museum.”
Because of such widespread exposure, the Flentrop organ attracted far more attention than other imported tracker-action instruments, including a sizable and equally worthy Rudolph von Beckerath organ in an out-of-the-way Lutheran church in Cleveland, which was recorded a few times for an obscure label by Robert Noehren. The Museum organ, located in a major eastern university and recorded on the Columbia label, was in the best possible position to garner converts not only to its style of action and voicing but also to its builder. There is little doubt that this instrument was a factor in the steady increase of American contracts for Flentrop after 1958. Fenner Douglass, in his preface to John Fesperman’s Flentrop in America, expressed his belief that Biggs’s records made on the new Museum organ “not only educated the American public on the subject of classical music, but . . . made Flentrop the most familiar organ builder from the Old World.”