Is the organ set for a comeback?

Published November 1, 2003

All the Stops , a history of the pipe organ’s development in America in the last two centuries, brings back childhood memories. My grandfather, George H. Stevenson, played the “mighty Wurlitzers” in the silent movie theatres of New York and Brooklyn . Although he had stopped playing by the time I came along in 1954, my mother’s stories of that time were wondrous. Perhaps because of this filial connection I was such a nerd as a teenager in the 1960’s, listening to E. Power Biggs, the great British organist who had an enormous following, rather than Jimi Hendrix.

[pullquote]It was a great time to be a fan of the pipe organ, those huge, breathing instruments that most of us first encounter in church. Biggs’ rival at the time (they were almost like rock stars) was American Virgil Fox, the Liberace of the organ, who staged “Heavy Organ” concerts, complete with psychedelic light show, at the marijuana-saturated Fillmore East theatre in New York. I, firmly in the Biggs camp, thought Mr. Fox a vulgar showman.

Mr. Whitney, who works in his spare time as an assistant managing editor of the New York Times when he is not searching out, and playing, pipe organs around the world, vividly brings that era to life. He also writes engagingly about the American organ builders Ernst M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison who had completely opposing views ? Mr. Skinner aiming for a big, orchestral, romantic sound and Mr. Harrison the proponent of tonal clarity and a delicate sensibility friendlier to baroque music.

Although one doesn’t have to be an organ dweeb to enjoy All the Stops, one’s attention does flag a bit after the deaths of Mr. Biggs and Mr. Fox, perhaps inevitably. They were the proverbial tough act to follow and Mr. Whitney, in the following chapter, delves into the occasionally eye-glazing esoterica of organ tuning. However, in subsequent chapters, he does deliver the good news that, after a post-Biggs/Fox slump, the pipe organ as a concert instrument is poised for a comeback. What will take it to new audiences – and what we are still waiting for – are forceful, dynamic advocates like those distinctive performers of the recent past.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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