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Organ Gives Life to Choral Sound

Instrumental project honors Reverend Gomes by restoring original layout of Memorial Church

Edward Elgar’s hymn “Great is the Lord” is a piece practically made for the organ, as it surges forward in great swells, slowly cascades through climbing chords, and demonstrates delicate melodic interplay.

Fittingly, the piece was the central work at Memorial Church’s Veterans Day service on Sunday, which marked the unveiling of Appleton Chapel’s new organ, installed last week.

Nicknamed “the Skinner,” The newly installed instrument is part of a two-organ solution to a musical quandary that has plagued Memorial Church since its construction in 1932. Apart from enhancing the church’s musical capacity, however, this organ’s placement also restores the original spatial layout of the church and chapel, in a long-awaited renovation.

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The organ—a 1929 restoration originally constructed by renowned builder E.M. Skinner—is the smaller of two new instruments that will now provide the church’s music. The Skinner, offering a wider range of notes and a softer sound, will replace the sharply-defined, treble-heavy tones of its predecessor—an organ designed by C.B. Fisk, Inc. that towered in the church from 1967 until this past May.

“[The Skinner] has a lot of breadth of tone—surrounding tone rather than high tone—and that is more suitable to acting as a support for the choir,” Jones says. “Some of the music I have put down on the program [for morning services] was not particularly well suited to the [old Fisk organ], but I did it because it was good for the choir,” he adds. “Now I think we have the capability of doing all of this music exactly as it should be done.”

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“The more sound that organ puts forth, the more sound we’re comfortable putting forth,” says Ian H. Clark ’12, Junior Secretary of the University Choir. “I could see at our rehearsal last Thursday, when we were singing with this massive organ, everybody was singing out a lot more.”

The Fisk organ was installed in 1967 because of an original organ’s inability to perform both tasks the church required—being too loud to accompany the intimate morning prayers in Appleton Chapel, yet never mustering the volume to fill Memorial Church for larger services.

But when Edward E. Jones came to Memorial Church in 2003 as Acting University Organist and Choirmaster, he saw the Fisk as having this same problem. Reverend Peter J. Gomes, a Divinity School professor, encouraged him to find a solution, and the church formed a committee.

“The idea of this church, and the idea of a rich musical church, is that you can do a lot of different things with an instrument, and [the Fisk organ] was not really serving that purpose,” says Jones, who is now the Gund University Organist and Choirmaster in Memorial Church and leads the University Choir. “[Gomes] has lived with this instrument the longest and was never its biggest fan, and had said to me that we need to think about this.”

Instead of making modifications to the iconic Fisk organ, Jones and Gomes arrived at the solution of removing it instead. They planned to then install two different organs in the church, each of which would serve a distinct musical purpose. Besides the Skinner, a larger organ—Fisk-commissioned, and currently being constructed—will be installed in the church’s rear gallery this summer. Scheduled to be unveiled on Easter Sunday of 2012, this new Fisk will accompany larger services.

“Two incredibly historic, important instruments had tried serving both rooms and had failed,” Jones says. “We decided that really the only way forward was having two different instruments.”

Jones and Gomes found the new Skinner in 2008 at a church that was closing in Hartford, Conn. It is an artifact in itself, as its creator is an icon in the organ-building world. According to Mike E. Foley, whose company, Foley-Baker Inc., installed the new organ, Skinner’s construction represents the height of American organ-building in the 1920s with its enveloping sound and romantic flow.

“Skinner was a very famous man in the organ world. If you were somebody, you had a Skinner,” Foley says. “This is a trend that’s happening around the country, to restore these old Skinners.”

This organ project, which costs approximately $6 million and will be funded by donors and church members, was inspired by more than just the desire to enhance the music of Memorial Church. The removal of the old Fisk organ also restores the original 1932 architecture of the church and Appleton Chapel, a change many have been awaiting since 1967.

When the church adopted the old Fisk, it vetoed installing the organ in the rear gallery. Instead, the instrument was placed against the back wall of the chapel. This move forced the lectern to the other side of the space, thereby isolating the chapel from the rest of the church. The organ also covered the east wall’s towering Palladian window.

“The symmetry of the chapel was lost, and there was no integration between the chapel and the church at all,” Jones says. “Many people, while they understood musically why this was done, felt that the chapel lost a lot of its integrity architecturally.”

Congregation member William R. Crout was a graduate school student in the 1960s, and he recalls the Palladian window and the original chapel.

“I regretted that the chapel was reconfigured to accommodate the new organ, and we lost the window which is so beautiful to behold inside the church,” Crout says. “It’s wonderful to have the window back.”

The organ renovation marks the beginning of projects that celebrate Gomes’s legacy, as the preacher will retire in June 2012. According to Jones and Lane, Gomes has always supported the church’s music program and had long hoped to return the church to its original layout.

“This is not a vanity project for Peter Gomes. It’s really about the church and the music of the church having the instruments to do what it can do best,” Jones says. “I think this is really an amazing end to his tenure here, to have put the church back to the way it was, and to make sure that we’re going forward—that the church is allowed to build and grow.”

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