Heavenly tones: The mighty pipe organ

From cathedrals to shopping malls, the mighty organ keeps breathing

The humongous instrument known as the pipe organ carries - a bit ironically - very little weight in most people's minds. At best, the gargantuan musical machine is thought of as something of an anomaly, like a steam engine, a symbol of bygone largess.

In "All The Stops," by New York Times journalist Craig Whitney, the instrument's long history is traced in the loving detail only a fellow organist could provide. His story of the pipe organ also works as sort of a narrative thread, providing a broader look at American history while following the instrument's clarion call throughout the years.

Intricate and often stunningly complex in both aesthetics and design, pipe organs stood for years as one of the most extravagant successes of American design. From the Civil War era onward, the pipe organ was the sort of entertainment that folks would travel for. Organ builders like Ernest M. Skinner and Aeolian soon began cranking out the machines, which began to drop in size and price. Soon, the machines were able to replicate the sound and range of entire orchestras, with only one man "conducting" the whole show.

As the organ progressed in the early 20th century, so did celebrity organists. The barrel-chested E. Power Biggs and the flamboyant Virgil Fox are probably the best known. Biggs, often in collaboration with the organ manufacturers who helped sponsor his touring, sought to return the pipe organ to its original glory. Fox, on the other hand, turned to concert halls and other popular music venues in an attempt to draw in younger audiences for the music.

Both men let it be known early that each one cared little for the other. At the heart of the rivalry was a bitter clash between the grip of tradition and the burgeoning tastes of the modern age. Biggs was a staunch traditionalist, a man who fumed when Carnegie Hall refused an offered Flentrop organ and instead accepted a smaller, more modern organ that Fox had helped design. Fox, while still an advocate of the classic pipe organ, decided that an updating was what the pipe organ needed to regain popular acclaim. Biggs thought the organ spoke for itself, and if people didn't hear what it was saying, it was their loss.

Sadly, Biggs never lived long enough to see the future of the fight, passing away in 1977. Fox, who had spoken with disdain about electric organs in the past, soon overcame his misgivings when manufacturers of the same offered to fund his touring. In fact, by the early 1970s, the strait-laced Fox became something of a guilty favorite of the counterculture, with his concerts often accompanied by light shows and psychedelic-style show posters.

Whitney is smart to let the characters - including, in some ways, the instrument itself - tell the story in "All The Stops." Indeed, this is the book's strength. Whitney's finely honed reporting skills allow him to give us the facts without seeming dry or pedantic, and the longer book format allows him ample room to luxuriate in his obsession.

Since the deaths of Biggs and Fox, a sort of "new traditional" movement has arrived, says Whitney. The formerly well-known instrument, once a drawing card in any town worth its salt, has now become something of an exoticism, protected and preserved as a historical treasure. Perhaps more interesting - and despite the "advances" made by Fox and others - today's organ students are largely being taught to play in the same fashion as folks did 200 years ago. Whether or not this push for better instruments and the surprising preponderance of young organ talent are enough to save the pipe organ from obscurity is open to debate. One thing is certain, however. If the pipe organ is going to go out, it won't be quietly.

Timothy C. Davis is a music writer for the Creative Loafing newspaper in Charlotte, N.C.

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