Magazine article The Tracker

The Great Organ at Methuen

Magazine article The Tracker

The Great Organ at Methuen

Article excerpt

The Great Organ at Methuen, Barbara Owen. Richmond: OHS Press, 20II. xiii, 397 pp. ISBN 9780913499405, $39.99. Available from www.ohscatalog.org. The title of this book suggests a descriptive study of one of America's most notable organs, and the reader, if looking for such a project here, will not be disappointed. The subtitle, "From Its Celebrated Arrival in Nineteenth-Century Boston to the Present," suggests much more and with this aim in mind the reader will also be richly rewarded. In an all-too-brief summary of this remarkable instrument, highlights must include: this large four-manual organ was built in Germany by E. F. Walcker and installed in the Boston Music Hall in 1863; much acclaimed, it was played by many notable organists, and has the honor of being "America's first true secular concert organ" (p. 311); it escaped destruction in Boston's 1872 fire, was removed in 1884, stored for many years, and eventually erected in its own hall in nearby Methuen in 1909 thanks to a millionaire enthusiast, Edward F. Searles; while under the control of Ernest M. Skinner it narrowly escaped another fire; it was rebuilt several times, most notably by G. Donald Harrison in 1947; eventually it came - and continues - to flourish as the centerpiece of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, a veritable Mecca for organ recitals; numerous recordings of the organ have also been made. Even this inadequate précis suggests that this organ's story contains the seeds of a good read for anyone interested in organs, organists, the social and cultural history of Boston, or simply a grandly improbable tale of Gilded Age America. In the hands of Barbara Owen, a good read becomes a great one.

Owen describes the instrument - known since its creation as the "Great Organ" - in its present form thus: "Tonally it is a unique amalgam of the Romantic era sounds of its original builder, Walcker, with the mid-2Othcentury 'American classic' concepts of G. Donald Harrison" (p. 312). "Unique" is a famously overworked word but it seems precisely right here. Indeed, there is much about this magnificent organ and its convoluted history that is not just unique but undeniably noteworthy. Moreover, Owen might well be uniquely qualified to author this study; she is unquestionably superbly equipped to do so. She brings both the specialized knowledge of an organ expert and the broad perspective of a seasoned historian. Her enthusiasm is infectious yet at the same time she maintains a proper skepticism of the sources.

Owen sets the stage for the Great Organ with a detailed musical portrait of Boston in the mid-ipth century, reminding the reader that this story is almost as much about Boston and its rich musical culture as it is an organ. She examines the (oddly familiar) tensions between those who insisted the Music Hall organ be a European one, and those who favored an American product; equally interesting are the innovations in American organbuilding that she credits to the immediate influence of the Great Organ, such as in this savvy assessment: "it would seem that one result of its advent was to spur the Hooks into becoming more adventurous tonally and inventive mechanically in their larger organs, probably with the encouragement of various organists" (p. 93).

The chief reason she can offer so richly documented a history of the Great Organ and its players during its early years is the voluminous commentaries on these topics in Dwight's Journal of Music: numerous excerpts from those pages appropriately find a place in her work. She is not, however, taken in by John S. Dwight's occasional flights of fancy. And she counterpoints his accounts with other notable voices, including that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who waxed lyrical at the inauguration of the organ. His musings about "Old-World cathedrals" and their organs finding a new home in "gilded halls" heard by "the promiscuous multitude" inspire Owen to one of her many impressive conclusions about the path-breaking importance of the Great Organ in the musical history of America: while "splendid churches and cathedrals have risen on American soil that have rivaled those of Europe," at the same time, as Holmes seemed to predict, "innumerable concert-halls have been built in American cities - secular temples of music, as it were - and the majority of them contained organs" (p. …

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