Jonathan Ambrosino

From the ashes

11:45, 7th November 2017

Jonathan Ambrosino asks whether a new organ in Virginia signals a stepping stone in Taylor & Boody’s output.

To read or write any history of 19th-century American organs is to be reminded how much new organ building came about by buildings burning down. With so many pre-20thcentury churches built from wood, and lit by candle and gas, fire brought about much unintentional change. In modern times, the destruction of organs has generally been caused by the introduction of other organs. But fire is still with us, the saddest recent example being the 2014 blaze in Lorain, Ohio, that took John Brombaugh’s Opus 4 (1970) at First Lutheran Church. This pioneering two-manual was an astonishing debut, a catalogue of firsts (hammered metal, unequal temperament) that inspired a generation of specialist builders and players.


Brombaugh’s Opus 4 had a seminal impact on George Taylor and John Boody, the now-veteranorgan builders in Virginia who have been central to the US historically-inspired movement. George Taylor joined Brombaugh’s shop in 1970 as Opus 4 was being built and installed; John Boody arrived in 1971. When John Brombaugh decided to relocate from Ohio to Oregon in 1977, Taylor and Boody stayed behind, eventually setting up a workshop in Staunton, Virginia, in 1979. For the next three decades, they built organs firmly rooted in the style of old German and Dutch organs, as uncompromising as any. But they never saw themselves as copyists, writing perceptively in 1989 what is true of all organ builders:


Our choices are personal and arbitrary, reflecting our interests, tastes and understanding at the time of the project. Years ago we learned that when we set out to copy someone else’s work directly, the product is never convincingly exact. The experiment can be instructive but is nevertheless influenced by what we consider important and what we overlook in the original. Like it or not, the results are always our own. Thus, we do not purport to make copies.


More recently, Taylor & Boody commissions have reflected a less strictly baroque approach. In 2010, the shop built its first instrument with electric stop action and combination pistons, along with a real Swell. The large four-manual for Grace Church, New York (covered here when it was new in 2014) truly split the mould, a big idea handled with fine skill, stretching not only the shop’s own thinking but also the possibilities for what tracker action might accomplish across multiple locations.


Fire has inadvertently brought about the shop’s latest instrument, a comprehensive two-manual for Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. In October 2010, an accidental blaze gutted the seminary’s 1881 chapel, taking with it a 1900 11-rank organ of Adam Stein. The seminary set about rebuilding immediately, commissioning New York architect Robert A.M. Stern for a new chapel. While Stern’s office is better known for skyscrapers and apartment buildings, the resulting edifice was designed and built with evident care and thinking. Echoing the form of a Greek cross, the chapel gives a sense of one space enfolded within another, with a corridor around the main worship space, partitioned but not exclusively separated. The acoustics are abundant, warm and active: inviting to sing in, if sometimes a bit specifically reflective for those seated beneath the edges of the dome. Photographs appear to give the organ prominence, but the focal point is really a majestic black chandelier above the central space, not unlike the corona at Hereford Cathedral but done more elegantly. Finally, it’s gratifying to enter a new worship space whose mechanical systems are designed such that a true quiet prevails, as in a concert hall – or, indeed, a proper church.


great-pipes nThe committee established to choose an organ builder was keen that the new instrument address the Anglican choral repertoire with more than a cursory nod. This has become a familiar mantra for the customer eager for a historically modelled organ that can still, with substance, address a choir’s core repertoire. In this assignment, Taylor & Boody might not have seemed an obvious choice: when the seminary order was placed, Taylor & Boody had yet to produce Grace, New York. But several factors swayed the choice to them, chiefly the excellent quality and care of their work, and their seeming energy around a new artistic direction. Moreover, with much to show elsewhere in Virginia, but nothing in the metro-D.C. area, it seemed apposite that this Virginia builder provide a new organ for the state’s pre-eminent seminary. ‘There was also an historic connection between Staunton, Virginia, and the seminary,’ Taylor and Boody later wrote. ‘After the fall of Alexandria at the beginning of the civil war, the seminary moved for a time to Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, home church of George Taylor and John Boody.’


John Boody’s love affair with wood is well documented. He operates a micro saw-mill, and takes special pains not only in the selection of the logs, but in their ageing, sawing and drying. Twenty months after the chapel fire, a fast-moving series of storms swept through the seminary property, downing some 20 old-growth white oak trees in the process. Boody promptly took three of them home to use in the new organ, which had a particular resonance in a chapel itself being reborn from misfortune.


In the new organ, the Great is at impost level, with the Swell above in a narrow box with shutters on three sides. At floor level, the Pedal speaks mostly through small tracery panels below the case’s side sections, while also communicating with the chapel’s surrounding space. The effect overall is only so much that of an encased instrument, given this extra acoustical connection. When compared to the typical Taylor & Boody exuberance of carving and baroque detail, the case adornments here are spare, and all the better for blending in with the overall ambience and other custom-built furniture.


playing-action nIt is hard to pin down this organ’s tonal style. But it does seem to fall in line with a micro-movement occurring among the ‘historical’ builders (Richards, Fowkes & Co; this shop; Pasi; Fritts), a group that has generally rejected the eclecticism that may be found in the work of, say, C.B. Fisk (stops with direct historical antecedents re-visioned in a contemporary American way). With a commitment to stylistic purity, this crop of builders saw considerable success from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the US appetite for stylistically pure organs has waned, perhaps informed by the experience gained after a generation of living with such instruments (without combination actions) in settings where romantic and postromantic music forms a core. In particular, the last decade has seen a new type of organ from these shops. Martin Pasi’s large instrument for the Co-Cathedral in Houston swung his approach largely to the Fisk mould, but not his calm, mildly articulate voicing. Fritts’s core commitment to Schnitger has never wavered, but he has found a way to make the Swells of his larger organs essentially enclosed oberwerks, enriched with a celeste and wide-ranging reed complement. Richards, Fowkes find inspiration in the mid- to late-18th-century, even early 19th-century, German and Dutch examples, feeling that some aspect of the colour world of Hildebrandt, Trost and others can apply to Wesley, Parry and Howells.


"The commanding black chandelier surmounting the central space and altar. All chapel furniture was custom-designed and is movable"
“The commanding black
chandelier surmounting
the central space and
altar. All chapel furniture
was custom-designed
and is movable”

Taylor & Boody’s new seminary organ tackles this same issue, informed by the builders’ work at Grace New York, study in England, and their restoration of several Tannenberg organs. The Great has a few 19th-century touches augmenting the classical core (Harmonic Flute 4, Clarionet 8); the Swell is complete enough to have baroque cake and romantic icing (the Salicet 4 is a nice luxury); the Pedal is all basics, its best friend the Great to Pedal coupler. The manual keys are much more modern in their dimensions, and the pedalboard has 32 keys. The voicing represents a transition, as the torch is passed from the founders to Aaron Reichert and Christopher Bono (who voiced this organ). The Great is still unmistakably in the vocale style, warmth over keenness; it is slightly terrifying in an empty room yet just the ticket with a full congregation singing heartily. The Tannenberg influence seems present too, in the bright, scratchy, articulate strings, and certain placid flutes. Overall, the voicing seems less articulate than former times, and calmer, perhaps in recognition that an organ used daily needs to be something other than just a weekend sports fan. And, with two wedge bellows and no wind stabiliser, the organ soon flags up the limits of its comfort being registered in a true romantic manner.


Still, with its nicely crisp key action and effective swell box, Taylor & Boody Opus 70 is a fascinating job and, one suspects, a stepping stone. Although the company’s next few contracts revert to baroque form, the seminary organ telegraphs an openness to shaking up old ways for new situations.

Boston-based pipe organ technician and adviser Jonathan Ambrosino has contributed to Choir & Organ since 1998.

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