New York Times editor Whitney (Spy Trader, 1993) crafts a joyful and well-versed celebration of the pipe organ in American musical history over the past century.
For sheer musical power and sonority, pipe organs are hard to beat. The author, who has been playing them for 40 years, here chronicles the struggle for the soul of the organ that took place in the US during the 20th century. He starts with Ernest Skinner, an organ builder who developed the eclectic electropneumatic instrument with its smooth orchestral sound, and continues through the renaissance of the classic baroque tracker-action organ. Whitney has a fine old time describing the architecture of the instruments from windchest to whistle, as well as their special qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. Occasional ventures “up to the chirping stops of the one-foot sifflote on the positive,” or “the enclosed swell division with a romantic voix celeste” give us a peek into the musicality of the nomenclature, without being so frequent as to become annoying. The author introduces other makers, including G. Donald Harrison, who brightened Skinner's instruments and then spearheaded the classic revival, and Charles Fisk, who revived the eclectic organ. Whitney also profiles the enormously popular organists Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs, ably reflecting the character of each: strict, cool, clipped Biggs, who along with Harrison championed the return of an organ that Bach and Handel would have recognized as their own; and colorful, dashing, brilliant Fox, who loved the orchestral organ for its ability to show off his romantic, 19th-century playing style. But the star here is the pipe organ itself, pneumatic or tracker, with its great peals of sound that in the hands of someone like Bach render the instrument “awe-inspiring in its majesty and solemnity, proclaiming the power and the order of the universe.”
A well-tempered song of praise.