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All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters

by Craig R. Whitney

Public Affairs Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group

323 pages 9.72 x 6.30 inches. Glossary of organ terminology.

About a dozen b/w portraits of the subjects in the text.

ISBN 1-58648-173-8 2003
US$30 CDN$46.00


This book consists of biographies of five men, Britishers G. Donald Harrison and Edward George Power Biggs (his public called him "E. Power Biggs", his friends and intimates called him "Jimmy"(?) or "Biggsy," and Virgil Fox called him "Honey" to his face and "dried owl shit" behind his back), and Americans Ernest M. Skinner, Virgil Fox and Charles Brenton Fisk. It has been said that the problem with biography is that it always has an unhappy ending — the hero dies.

Mr. Whitney, New York Times Assistant Managing Editor and amateur performer, is a fine author, and he makes these lives and their endings heroic and meaningful in the best literary sense. Of course many other people move through these pages — Flentrop, Holtkamp, Silbermann, Johann Sebastian Bach, John D. Rockefeller, Dr. Robert Schuller, Isaac Stern, Albert Schweitzer, Catherine Crozier, Jean Guillou, Dr. Orpha Ochse — some playing major supporting roles, some only walk-ons with a single line.

All of these people spent much time in Europe examining historical organs so as to understand the fundamentals of organ construction, and how and why the British organs with which they were most familiar were as they were. But Yankee ingenuity resulted in technical and mechanical advances which produced organs improved over their models and by the twenty-first century American organ builders were making installations in Europe.

A graphic artist makes a drawing on a piece of paper and can show it to anyone anywhere. A composer of music writes music, but has to hire a hall and musicians and then get people to come to the hall to hear his music. A craftsman whose art is building organs has to find a hall, find a huge sum of money, hire dozens of skilled workers, then find music, find a player, and then get people to come to the hall and hope they give him some of the credit instead of it all going to the composer and performer. In a pursuit so thankless obviously we only encounter fanatics, people of astonishing fortitude and willingness to sacrifice themselves and perhaps others as well. You might object that Biggs and Fox were not builders but performers, but they are included because they interacted with builders and had an enormous impact on the creation of public taste and hence the building of — as well as the playing of — organs in the USA and elsewhere.

Apparently Mr. Whitney, along with nearly everybody, does not understand the question of equal temperament versus unequal temperament. It’s probably the most difficult question in all music. I feel some of his statements require correction and elaboration.

Equal temperament is not just "making it possible to play music in all keys" and unequal temperament is not just "some keys being unavailable" and Johann Sebastian did not demand equal temperament, instead he railed against it. Das Wolhtemperierte Klavier does not translate as "The Equal Tempered Keyboard" but as "The Well-Tempered Keyboard," meaning an unequal temperament in which all keys are "usable" but the varied personalities of the keys remain and can be used to heighten the drama in the music. That is what Bach set out to prove in the WTK, and although the work at once became the cornerstone of keyboard instruction to this very day, this point of it has been consistently misunderstood, and the 48 preludes and fugues, performed exclusively in equal temperament as they have been for nearly 200 years, fail to shine in their full glory which is only revealed when they are played on an unequally tempered instrument. One of the best "well tempered" temperaments is "Silbermann Mean Tone" which Mr. Whitney says Bach "did not like" but I think he is mistaken in this.

It is impossible to tune a twelve key scale perfectly in tune in any key. If you have separate black keys for, say, C# and Db, then you can tune one and only one key perfectly in tune. With equal temperament, every key is out of tune. With unequal temperament, some keys are nearly in tune, the rest of the keys are pretty much out of tune, but each key has a personality, and in Bach’s WTK these personalities are perfectly expressed in the music of the preludes and fugues. When the work is played in equal temperament, these tonal personalities are lost. The works are still works of supreme genius, of course, but an aspect of them has been sacrificed, and only in unequal temperament — "well tempered temperament" — can that aspect be recaptured. I am firm in my belief that unequal temperament of this kind should be used for all European music through Schubert, that only maybe with Chopin and certainly with Schumann do you actually require equal temperament, but I am roundly denounced by most authorities on this point.

Equal temperament works so well on the pianoforte because the stiff steel multiple strings of the notes are out of tune with themselves and with each other — hence the sounding pitch of each key is indeterminate, hence a small deviation is not conspicuous. There is no point in tuning a modern Steinway in Silbermann Mean Tone temperament because you could hardly hear any improvement. The difference is only audible in instruments of purer tone, such as harpsichords and organs. Perfectly tunable instruments, such as the violin and the human voice, match pitch with whatever instruments they’re playing with, but a violinist once told me he found it easier to play on pitch with an unequal tempered harpsichord.

Mr. Whitney finishes off his book about all the fights and squabbles over what makes a good pipe organ with the observation that nowadays in the USA it has been accepted that organs are as different as people and should be different from one another and that organs of many different styles are presently appreciated and enjoyed. Some organs have been built which very effectively combine the various styles into a single instrument, and he even describes an organ that has some ranks which are tuned in equal temperament in the same case with ranks that are tuned in unequal temperament so the organ can play older music as authentically as modern music. One thing all the people in this book agreed on is their dislike of electronic "organs" or synthesisers; even Virgil Fox, who frequently played electric organs in public, never really liked them. But one of the points of this book, one that I think the author did not intend to make, is that they all lost on that one. The digital electronic synthesiser, that most American of all kinds of organ, is here to stay and the electro-pneumo-mechanical pipe organ is going the way of the buggy whip, the button hook, and the honest democratic election. The temperament problem was solved 20 years ago in my Yamaha DX7s keyboard synthesiser. I can select mean tone temperament, Silbermann Mean Tone temperament, or equal temperament with a keystroke and make the instantaneous comparisons upon which my opinions are based. I think when everybody can do that, they’ll agree with me, but that won’t happen in my lifetime.

Paul Shoemaker



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