Wild Air

A Craft, Not an Industry

July 3rd, 2014


As craftsmen, organ builders are better able to concentrate on the really important things.

We organ builders sometimes suffer from an identity crisis.

In my current issue of American Organbuilding, a knowledgeable writer asserts that the Organ industry has contracted over time. He makes this statement in reference to the valid point that, as an industry, it is difficult for organ builders to make an impact on those much larger industries that supply our raw materials. Likewise, it is difficult for us to bring much political pressure to bear on such issues as the new regulations covering the use of ivory, which is now, for all practical purposes, banned.

I will pontificate later on my view of the relative importance of ivory to the creation of pipe organs. At this point, though, I would like to give some historical perspective to the use of the term “industry.”

Pipe organs have been built for hundreds of years. For most of that time, these great instruments were built in relatively small workshops, one or two at a time. Most builders were regional. Most of their work was done within a relatively small geographical area, and in relatively small numbers. In those days of challenging transportation, they were able to care for their work and to respond to the needs of their customers.

The great seventeenth-century German organ builder, Arp Schnitger, is a good example. Although he built one organ in Portugal and one in Brazil, the vast bulk of his work is in northern Germany and the Netherlands. Still, Schnitger’s work, some of which survives to the present day, was and is very influential, even though geographically limited.

"An organ a day." The M.P. Moller Organ Company during its salad days.

The Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth-century also revolutionized organ building. Particularly in America, organ shops did, indeed, become industrial entities. Consoles, pipes, windchests, reservoirs, blowers, keyboards, and all the other components of pipe organs were produced in such quantities that the largest of these concerns, M.P. Moller, could at two points in its history, boast of building “an organ a day.” As the country and its churches expanded, and as our forebears reaped the bounty of this expansion, there was adequate demand to support this output. Arp Schnitger built about 150 organs. Moller built over 11,000. The victim of the industrialization process was the unique regional character of our organs. A 1910 Moller organ of a particular size was pretty much the same organ wherever it was located.

During its years as an “industry,” the pipe organ business was able to do many things very well. This period in our history brought revolutionary improvements to the organ, as instruments were better and better engineered, and new technologies were applied. Standardization and specialization brought a high level of quality to most of the functional components that make up an organ. Competition and cost concerns increased dependability.

Estey's "luminous" console was innovative, but ultimately a commercial failure. So, Estey abandoned the idea.

A good example of this dynamic progress is the innovative and novel “luminous console,” built by the Estey Organ Company in the mid-1920s. For its era, it boasted a high-tech-looking design that used lighted touches for the stop controls. It was a keen idea, and, take it from me, these consoles could be great fun to play. But they were not commercially successful. The technology of the time simply was not adequate to the requirements of the design. Estey got complaints about such problems as light bulbs burning out and tiny electrical shocks from the pushbuttons. Ultimately, Estey abandoned the luminous console in favor of a more traditional and dependable form. Industrial competition had fostered innovation, but had also killed that innovation when it failed to work out commercially.

The aspect of our craft that did not fare especially well in the industrial context was careful attention and artistry applied to the sound of each individual organ. Many had “cookie-cutter” tonal designs that owed much more to salemanship than to musicians or craftsmen. Beautiful pipework was voiced in the shop by master voicers. However, particularly in smaller churches, the pipes were often not “finished” on-site. So, if the shop guessed right, the organ was successful. If not, well…

In fact, most of the larger companies used regional installers to “set up” new organs. These installers were paid on a per diem basis, and considerable pressure was applied to get each organ completed so the installation team could move on the the next.

“Important” organs in notable churches were, by contrast, often beautifully appointed and finished, since they served as showpieces to sell additional work. Letters between the major builders and their agents are full of references to “taking the donor, Mrs. so-and-so, to hear our job at First Presbyterian.”

There was actually one well-known organ company that as late as the 1960s offered an upsell on their instruments. For a fee, this company would actually send a voicer to the installation to regulate the organ on-site. Most reputable builders today wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

The fact that these manufactured organs were beautifully constructed makes many of them rebuild-able. The innovations of the past, coupled with new technologies and a certain historical perspective, can make a sad, wheezing, dying pipe organ into a superstar. In fact, most of these organs can be renovated to sound much better than they ever did, especially when the quality of the fine old pipes is married to competent tonal finishing – the “fine-tuning” of the voicing process.

By the way, some of these old organs are practically perfect as they stand, and want only a bit of tender loving care to restore them, without changing anything. These organs are treasures, and should be respected and treated as such.

But I digress… Back to the subject.

We are craftsmen. It's what we do.

Today, the pipe organ “industry” has reverted to its true state. We are not an industry; we are a CRAFT. As is true with many builders today, each organ Reynolds Associates builds is the product of careful thought, planning, and finishing. Today, our craft supports a number of industrial firms that serve us as suppliers, providing many of the quality, standardized components that benefit from industrial production. Often, the availability of these components allows us to spend more of our time tailoring our instruments to our customers’ specific needs. To us, at least, each instrument we build or renovate becomes part of our “family.”

Being a craftsman in the 21st century is a challenge. It is sad whenever someone comments that they “can’t tell the difference,” especially since now, more than ever before, there really is a difference.

I, for one, am happier as a craftsman than I would be as an industrialist. (Although, I admit, it would be fun to be Andrew Carnegie, just for a day!)

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