Hilborne Roosevelt and the Two May Music Festivals

By Lewis, James | The Tracker, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Hilborne Roosevelt and the Two May Music Festivals

Lewis, James, The Tracker


EARLY IN 1881, workers from Hilborne L. Roosevelt's organ company began removing the large threemanual organ the firm built in 1874 for the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City. There was nothing wrong with the instrument that would cause church authorities to want ittaken down. In fact, Roosevelt considered it the most successful organ he had built up to that time, and the congregation was very pleased with it. The organ was being removed so it could to be transported to the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, where it would be reassembled and used for the 1881 May Music Festival.

The festival was one of those larger-than-life events. There was an orchestra of 250 players and a choir of 1,200 that held forth in the immense Drill Hall of the Armory. With an So-foot-high ceiling supported by an elaborate steel-truss system, the Drill Hall embraced a total of 55,000 square feet of floor space and could accommodate up to 8,000 people. The music director for the festival was Leopold Damrosch; Walter Damrosch and Samuel P. Warren were the organists.

Hilborne Roosevelt was a member of the Festival Committee, a subscriber to the Festival Guarantee Fund, and a moving force in New York society and business matters. It seems incredible that church authorities would allow themselves to be parted from the large instrument for several months, but their respect for Roosevelt and the organ, not to mention Roosevelt's persuasive personality, won the day. The Music Trade Journal reported:

Everything connected with the musical festival that is to take place in the spring of 1881 will be of interest, particularly to New Yorkers who have a local pride in making the series of concerts worthy of the reputation of the Metropolis. For the proper production of the choral works, the question of how to provide an adequate organ has been a most difficult problem. The solution, however, it is a pleasant duty to state, has been made and the Committee have secured the organ of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer. This instrument was built in 1874 byMr. H.L. Roosevelt, who considers it the best that has been produced from his factory.

Its scheme is elaborate. The Double Open Diapason (32 feet) of the pedal organ is a remarkable feature of the instrument. The measurements for it were furnished by Herr Haas, the celebrated organ builder of Switzerland; his organs in Bern and Lucerne contain the finest stops of this size in Europe. The interior of the organ is so arranged that all parts of the mechanism are easy of access. The space occupied is 32 feet across the front, 18 feet deep and nearly 40 feet high; these dimensions give some idea of the size of the instrument. The pneumatic lever is applied to the great organ and its couplers, rendering the touch, even with all the couplers on, as light as that of a piano. The full organ is powerful and brilliant, but not harsh, and each register maintains a decided character of tone.

On the application of the committee, the fathers of the church have loaned this organ, which will be taken down and set up again in the armory. It will be placed at a considerable elevation from the floor, and directly in the center of the chorus, where it will give a strong foundation tone. Those who have heard this superb organ will welcome this announcement and will rejoice at the success of the managers of the festival in securing a satisfactory instrument.1

The organ, Roosevelt's Opus 7, had three manuals and 47 ranks. The Great and Choir divisions used mechanical action, with pneumatic assists applied to the Great and its couplers, while the Swell had tubular-pneumatic action. A tall threesectional case front contained 16' speaking pipes taken from the Great Double Open Diapason.

Because the console was attached to the case, the organist sat with his back to the conductor. This was not a problem when the choir conductor was in the gallery of the church, but when he was some ioo feet away and viewed through a mirror, as was the case at the Festival, the distance became considerable.

Hilborne Roosevelt's Opus 7 may have been effective in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, but in the immense space of the Armory Drill Hall, it was found wanting. After the Festival ended, a reviewer for Dwight 's Journal of Music wrote:

. . . and soon we heard a faint humming, like that of a tuning fork held against a door panel. What could it be? It was the great Roosevelt organ giving an A to the orchestra to tune by. We could just hear it - no more!2

The Roosevelt organ had the following stoplist:


16 Double Open Diapason

16 Double Gemshorn

8 Open Diapason

8 Violin

8 Melodia

4 Principal

4 Flute

2 WaldFloete

Mixture IV

Cornet IV-V

8 Trumpet

4 Clarion

Swell to Great

Swell to Great Octaves

Choir to Great


8 Doppel Floete

8 Gamba

8 Dolce

8 Concert Flute

4 Viol d'Amour

4 Rohr Flute

2 Piccolo

8 Clarionette

Swell to Choir


16 Bourdon

8 Open Diapason

8 Keraulophon

8 Rohr Flute

4 Principal

4 Flauto Traverso

Mixture IV

8 Cornopean

8 Oboe

8 Vox Humana



32 Double Open Diapason

16 Open Diapason

16 Double Gamba

16 Bourdon

8 Violoncello

16 Bombarde

8 Tuba

Great to Pedal

Swell to Pedal

Choir to Pedal

To be fair to the instrument, it was placed at the very back of the platform, behind the large orchestra and choir.


Having learned his lesson from the 1881 Festival, Roosevelt chose to construct a special organ for the 1882 May Music Festival. The venue was once again the Seventh Armory Drill Hall, and the size of the musical forces and audience were the same as the previous year. The music director was Theodore Thomas and the organist, Dudley Buck.

The 1882 Festival organ was small, but pugnacious. It had one manual and only twelve stops, but it was voiced on high wind pressure, and equipped with a full-length 32' stop and electropneumatic action. The problem of distance between the conductor and organist that plagued the musicians the year before was solved by placing the console directly in front of the conductor's stand, with the organist facing the conductor. The only visual evidence of the organ was a huge banner hung across the back of the platform that proclaimed "Roosevelt Organ." The opening night program consisted of Bach's cantata Ein' feste Burg, BWV 80, Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, and concluded with the Handel Jubilate.

A reporter for the Music Critic and Trade Review wrote:

Mr. Hilborne L. Roosevelt has built an organ especially for the Festival. It has been placed under the stage, as all the stage room is needed for the singers. The instrument was designed especially to support the chorus and consists of one manual and onepedal keyboard, controlling twelve registers, with scales that are very large and tones powerful, round and brilliant, without being harsh. The keybox is placed directly in front of the conductor's stand, so that Dudley Buck has the same view of Mr. Thomas that the orchestral musicians have.

The keys are connected with the organ by electrical contrivances. There being insufficient height for them under the stage, the large pipes of the 32-foot Open Diapason stop of the pedal organ lie flat upon the floor. These are the stops of the organ:

MANUAL (58 pipes)

1. 16-feet Double-Mouthed Bourdon, wood

2. 8-feet Open Diapason, metal

3. 8-feet Violin Diapason, metal

4. 8-feet Doppel-Flöte, wood

5. 4-feet Octave, metal

6. IV-ranks, Mixture, metal, (232 pipes)

7. 8-feet Tuba Mirabilis, metal

PEDAL (27 pipes)

8. 32-feet Double Open Diapason, wood

9. i6-feet Open Diapason, wood

10. i6-feet Bourdon, wood

11. 8-feet Octave, metal

12. ??-feet Trombone, metal

Octave Coupler

Manual to Pedal Coupler

There is no case around the organ and nothing to hinder the free egress of sound, and it has been so constructed that it can be speedily taken down. After the Festival it will be transported to Chicago to be used in the Festival there, also conducted by Mr. Thomas.3

It seems that the 1882 organ was fully up to the challenge of supporting the orchestra and chorus. During the second evening of the Festival, before an audience of ?,???, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was judged a"ragged and slipshod performance" by the New York Times. The writer went on to give the organ faint praise: "The organ, which by the way, is no organ at all, but is merely the fundamental pedals and has less than a dozen stops, gave some assistance at critical moments, without which the situation would have been distressing"4

After the festival, the organ was dismantled and sent to Chicago where it was erected at Farwell Hall, on Madison Street, for use in a similar festival. The organ was then brought back to New York City and installed in 1883 in the newly-completed Metropolitan Opera House.

1. Music Trade Journal (September 6, 1880): 14

2. Dwight's Journal of Music (May 21, 1881): 86.

3. Music Critic and Trade Review (May 5, 1882): 305

4. NewYork Times (May 4, 1882): 5

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