Who Built the First Organ in America? A Historiography

By Friesen, Michael D. | The Tracker, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Who Built the First Organ in America? A Historiography


Friesen, Michael D., The Tracker


INTRODUCTION

Discussion about what was the first pipe organ in America, and its corollary about who was the first organbuilder, has been a frequent subject for many writers since the nineteenth century. A nearly countless array of articles and books-be they music, cultural, or church histories-have asserted answers to the two-part question that titles this essay. Were the answers that simple, however, the matter would have long since been settled, but the fact remains that certainty about this subject continues to elude historians, and resolutions of the question will probably never be completely arrived at due to the lack of adequate surviving documentation. The topic also becomes as much an issue of definition and/or assumptions as it does of sufficient proof.

This essay presents a historiography (i.e., a compilation and evaluation of historical writings) about the first organs and organbuilders. This also means that many of the citations used as a basis for this article are secondary sources, but then are commented upon in light of known primary sources. As will be noted, the plural expression of "first" is a contradiction in terms itself, since it should mean only something singular. In fact, there were numerous "firsts" associated with the topic of the organ in America, and thus there is no single answer to either of the above two questions.

The subject may be framed in several ways. First, one must consider what "America" is. While in times past, historians used the terms "America" and "United States" almost as synonyms, particularly in writing "heroic" history (meaning that the only accomplishments worthy of note were the work of upper-class Anglo-Saxon males)-as if all other Americas and people were inferior-that approach is no longer appropriate.Various sources used for this paper in fact employ "America" in exactly this context in their tides or texts. For our purposes, a proper historiographical review must necessarily hold that "America" means a large part of the New World. Obviously, America consists of two large continents connected by an isthmus. However, the New World also includes islands of the Caribbean Sea, all of which were colonized from Europe, whence pipe organs and the knowledge of organbuilding came. Confining the subject to organs in this country would make the subject more precise, but not necessarily make any answers more accurate.

Accordingly, this essay will touch upon the entire range of the Americas and their adjacent islands. Because the historiography is uneven, however, a complete survey of the earliest organs and organbuilders in that part of the globe is not possible here. (Admittedly, some writers have made certain distinctions between North and South American instruments and builders, but heretofore no one has addressed the entire geographic spread.) Instead, specific "firsts" will be pointed to. Even for North America, a breakdown among Canada, Mexico, and the United States of America (to use their modern entity names for convenience's sake) should be undertaken. However, the principal focus here is inevitably on the United States-or, more precisely, what became the United States.

Next, one may break down the question as it pertains to what eventually constituted the United States by switching the focus among various unequal considerations.These include such variations as organs and organbuilders in the thirteen original British colonies, those in the Spanish missions in territories that later became part of the nation, and those that arrived after this country formally achieved independence from England in 1783, when it really was then finally the United States. In addition, the word "state" refers to political boundaries, and thus would here mean any of the fifty states regardless of when it became a state, but exclude all of this country's territories and similar political jurisdictions elsewhere (of which there are many).The use of an ultimate geographical boundary admittedly approaches the topic from a point in time and moves backward instead of forward, but it also helps to frame the issue.

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