Major I – American Classic Organ

The American organ tradition


Symphonic and Romantic Organs: – 1930

The Symphonic Organs in the US were built in response to an increased interest in and availability of orchestral transcriptions for the organ. As the name implies, the organs included ranks and voices that imitated the many sounds available in a symphonic orchestra. This included strong tonal and color contrast, few mutations and mixtures, enclosing of all divisions and the possibility of more extreme volume variations.


Ernest M. Skinner & Company

Ernest M. Skinner was one of the most successful American organ builders of the early 20th century. His desire to bring the organ under the complete and easy control of the organist was coupled with his lifelong interest and obsession with “orchestral” tonal colors and their application to the pipe organ. During the first decade of their existence, Ernest M. Skinner & Company developed a national reputation, building large organs for some of the most prestigious churches, concert halls, colleges, and auditoriums in the country. The company implemented a streamlined building methodology, and several new inventions were brought to life within the company. This included huge and highly sophisticated fore-runners of modern computers that were built of wood, leather, and metal organ parts, and used low-voltage DC Current and low pressure pressurized air (“wind”) to control and direct the thousands of switching and control commands which are constantly sent to all parts of the instrument when being played. A large Skinner organ and its Action system would contain tens of thousands of precision moving parts and mechanisms, many miles of wiring, and represented the pinnacle of craftsmanship, engineering, and ingenuity for their era.


The American Classic Organ 1930-1970

The arrival of George Donald Harrison at Skinner and the later merger into the Aeolian-Skinner Company in the early 1930′s was followed by a change in organ philosophy. While the bulk of Harrison’s work was as a tonal designer and voicer, Harrison is most famous for his association with the “American Classic” organ design. This design concept was partly a reaction to the proliferation of romantic-orchestral “symphonic” organs that had been in fashion to that point. The symphonic organ sought to emulate the effects of a symphony orchestra with imitative solo reeds, colorful flutes and warm string-toned stops. The American Classic organ, on the other hand, sought a return to design principles of the 18th century, particularly the development of clean diapason choruses topped by several brilliant mixtures. The organs also contained stops and expressive divisions evocative of the romantic organ writing of the 19th and early 20th-century French school. The voicing of these instruments, in particular, allowed for a clear interpretation of fugal passages and chorale writing where each inner voice could be heard and articulated clearly. Harrison, along with other builders such as Walter Holtkamp, conceived the American Classic organ as a single instrument that could effectively and convincingly play music of all styles and eras with equal facility. In many, if not most of his instruments, he is considered to have achieved this goal, adapting his instruments effectively to the particular acoustic qualities of American concert halls and churches. This then meant a change into more versatile instruments, which were built on some of the 18th century principles, but still retained much of the beauty of the romantic organ, which was more symphonic in nature. The American Classic Organ brought Mutations and Mixtures back and properly voiced, clarity and transparency of tone again became important, and same for the achieved versatility from combining the tonal characteristics of the 18th century with modern instruments.

Sources: internet articles, including: