Tecnhical history

 

 

 

 

While it may appear highly unusual that two prominent organ builders have collaborated to build an instrument that would otherwise stand as the magnum opus of either firm, the long-standing association between Rosales Organ Builders of Los Angeles, California, and C.B. Fisk, Inc.,of Gloucester, Massachusetts, made the joining of forces to build an organ for The Shepherd School of Music of Rice University a logical result of a long and significant relationship.

The first project that established a precedent for collaboration between the two firms was Fisk's Op. 85 at Stanford University, the dual-temperament organ in University Memorial Church, completed in 1985, for which Manuel Rosales acted as consultant. During the planning stages for that instrument, Manuel Rosales and Charles Fisk began their work together by undertaking an extensive tour of organs throughout Germany, with the guidance of Harald Vogel, studying various historic instruments.

Since that time, technical information has been freely exchanged between the two workshops, and their shared experience has led to greater refinement in the work of both companies. Furthermore, each firm has welcomed input from other builders throughout the years. Rosales has regularly invited other builders to his workshop, and C. B. Fisk’s earliest success was a collaboration: Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore (1961), a groundbreaking two-manual organ built with D. A. Flentrop. In this tradition, the present collaboration continues in American organ building a spirit of collegiality and the sharing of ideas and ideals in the pursuit of ever better organs.

In 1992 Rosales Organ Builders entered into a contract with Rice University for a sizable three-manual organ. The stylistic orientation of the proposed instrument was primarily French, in the manner of a classical French organ as it would have been thoroughly rebuilt in the later part of the nineteenth century. When it became apparent that the scope of the Shepherd School instrument would exceed that of the firm’s largest organ to date (Opus 16 for First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California), Manuel Rosales began to explore the possibility of involving the Fisk company. Although he intended to retain a central artistic role, his goal became the production of a truly cooperative creation between the two firms.

Clyde Holloway, Professor of Organ at the Shepherd School, enthusiastically endorsed the selection of Fisk, having played and admired many of their instruments throughout the country. Fisk’s proven ability in building complex organs in diverse styles led to a redefinition of the project in March 1993, with Fisk as the prime contractor. At that juncture, plans for the Edythe Bates Old Grand Organ called for a decidedly nineteenth-century French specification of seventy-five stops that was intended to convincingly manage repertoire of other eras and styles. Detailed planning began in the spring of 1994, when David Pike of C. B. Fisk and Manuel Rosales began to select the materials and to decide on the initial scaling for the pipes. Preliminary discussions were based upon each firm’s individual research in France, coupled with the practical experience gained from the instruments they had already built.

As planning for the organ proceeded, it became clear that it would be invaluable for them to study several French organs together. A two-week tour of France in September 1994 provided a wealth of information and inspiration. Among the instruments examined were those of Louis Alexandre Clicquot (1734) in Houdan, Claude Parizot (1739) in Dieppe, and the renowned François-Henri Clicquot in Poitiers (1790). Well-known nineteenth-century instruments studied included Cavaillé-Coll organs at St-Etienne in Caen (1889), St-Ouen in Rouen (1890), and St-Sulpice (1862), Notre-Dame (1868), and Sacré-Coeur in Paris. In particular, many reed pipes were heard, taken apart, and measured.

Such varied and exacting study was an essential and critical requirement in determining the pipe scales for an instrument that would exist in the moderately sized Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall with its extremely live acoustics. In France, the large organs are customarily situated high on the west wall of buildings many times larger than the Shepherd School organ hall. The builders knew that pipes of ample scale blown forcibly are ideally suited to very large spaces, but could such pipes succeed in the smaller room at Rice? Would an attempt to reduce the scalings, pressure, and volume of the pipes lead to an appropriate miniature or merely to an unstylistically emasculated result?

After much deliberation, it was decided to build pipes of relatively “normal” scales, supplied with somewhat gentle wind pressures and place behind a fairly dense and roofless case that would direct the sound not so much forward but up toward the ceiling. The tightly spaced façade pipes and the restrictive casework are a result of this philosophy, and they assist in creating an illusion of distance and breadth. Lacking not only a roof but also a back and sides, the case represents a break with much of French tradition. However, with thick masonry on three sides, it was felt that the walls would provide ample reflection of tone. The Grand Orgue and Pédale divisions are located at impost level, with the Positif below and Récit above. The Honduras mahogany casework, designed by Charles Nazarian, rises nearly fifty feet and recalls the multiple-tower format of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French organs.

In light of the varied repertoire the organ was expected to play, much deliberation centered around an appropriate wind system. Since the organ possesses the resources for a heroic tutti, an ample, stable wind supply was deemed most suitable. Therefore, double-rise bellows at the base of the organ feed wooded trunks; from there, the wind is conveyed to the pallet boxes, with Rosales-style wind stabilizers adjacent. Drawing the Vent Flexible knob disengages the stabilizers, exciting the natural resonance of the wind system and imparting a gently flexing quality appropriate to earlier repertoire. The Tremblant G. O. & Positif approximates the tremblant doux characteristic of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French organ. In addition to the customary Trémolo Récit, the Trémolo Récit rapide gives the characteristic fast and sallow vibrato associated with the nineteenth-century voix humaine. Following the customary practices of both firms, the key action uses a minimum of bushing cloth for a crisp, direct action. In the case of the Récit and Positif, the front-to-back chest arrangement dictated the use of horizontal roller boards, mounted directly underneath the chests as Cavaillé-Coll frequently did. (Both Rosales and Fisk have used this system in other organs with excellent results.) The windchests themselves employ modern materials - Delrin (TM) slider seals, Lexan (TM) sliders, best-grade voidless plywood - and rest on steel bearers, all to ensure climatic stability.

A unique contribution from the Fisk company is the Servopnuematic Lever that combines the ease of touch afforded by the Barker Lever (used in the nineteenth century) with a perfected servo control. Developed by Stephen Kowalyshyn of Fisk, the Lever faithfully communicates all the subtleties of key motion to the pallet valves, even when full organ and all the couplers are drawn. The Lever may be applied selectively to the Grand Orgue and its couplers, including the Octaves graves, which can subcouple all three manuals. Disengaging the Lever restores direct mechanical control.

Also of note is the complete enclosure of two divisions - a first for both builders. The enclosures of both the Récit and Positif employ Fisk’s graded expression system. The two-inch-thick walls that surround each of these divisions have vertical shutters on three sides. Through a system of levers and cams, only a few shutters operate at first; the rest are carefully calibrated for a gradual opening, distributing the dynamic range evenly over the travel of the expression shoe. This system provides a range and control of expression that is breathtaking.

The console design is unprecedented in being laid out en amphithéâtre as well as being attached to the case. While recalling the three celebrated consoles Cavaillé-Coll built in the ampithéâtre style, the present console differs in several respects: (1) By being attached to the case, the orientation of the console is the reverse of that found in historic models. (2) It is made up of only three manuals. (3) Coupler and ventil controls are introduced in the nameboard. With its sixty-one-note manual and thirty-two-note pedal compasses, the console most closely resembles that of the four-manual instrument now at Sacré-Choeur in Paris. In keeping with Cavaillé-Coll’s custom in his mature periods, the present pedalboard rises in height at its extremes, giving the effect of concavity, while the sharp keys grow longer, giving the effect of radiating pedals. Therefore, the pedalboard, while straight, is not flat. The manual keys of the organ are made of bone and ebony, while the pedal keys are of maple and ebony. The arc of the stop terraces are echoed in the gentle sweep of the toe-terrace returns. Gold-embossed leather borders and turned drawknobs of cocobolo and ebony complete the distinctive appearance of the console.

The by-now familiar multilevel combination action, augmented by an innovative programmable piston sequencer, offers three specialized modes of operation. In Mode americain, the pistons and toe studs control the organ stops in the usual manner. In Mode français I, several toe studs function as ventils on a nineteenth-century French organ, while in Mode français II, the ventil pisons cannot be affected by the combination action.

Especially from a tonal standpoint, Opus 109/21 combines the talents of all those involved in its planning and construction. Not only has the combined expertise and experience of each firm been fully exploited, but together they have forged exciting new paths. If the principal chorus of the Grand Orgue represents for Rosales something of a departure from its norm, it is for Fisk even more radical. In recent work, Fisk’s principal choruses have followed closely those of Schnitger in using hammered lead pipes with generous cut-ups. Although earlier Rosales choruses also employed hammered lead pipework, his more recent work has utilized tin, while retaining hammered lead for the nixtures to obtain a better blend.

In the Shepherd School organ, the choruses need to provide the appropriate plein jeu for French Classic repertoire while being versatile enough to be successful in other stylistic contexts. To obtain both breadth and clarity, hammered tin, scraped tin, and hammered spotted metal were used, coupled with ample but not overly generous scales. Another departure came in the Diapason and Prestant of the Récit, which feature narrow slots in the French tradition. These stops produce a controlled but distinctive horn-like timbre, evocative of nineteenth-century organs in France, Germany, and America, and lend an unmistakable vowel color to the foundations. Strings and celestes are more highly developed than in any previous Fisk or Rosales organ. The Grand Orgue Violoncelle is a modified version of stops found in other Fisk work: a small principal that is voiced as a broad string, employing the “freins harmoniques” typical of Cavaillé-Coll. The Récit Viole de gambe and Voix céleste are derived from familiar Cavaillé-Coll stops. The rapid beats of their tuning give an etheral yet animated effect that is especially appropriate in nineteenth-century music. For an alternate color, the Voix céleste also undulates agreeably with the Diapason. The Unda maris, of a broader scale than the Voix céleste, reflects a specific desire to provide an undulant for the Salicional and the broader Principal. Accordingly, the Unda maris lies midway in scale between the Salicional and the Principal, drawing either for its partner. With its flat and slow tuning, the Unda maris imparts variety and warmth that contrast with the Voix céleste.

The lavish array of flute stops provides every requisite color for the French repertoire, as well as many for German and even Spanish music. Of special note among this ensemble of flutes are the complete complement of mutations necessary for the “grand jeu de tierce,” a combination possible on only a few organs in this country. At the unison pitch level, the full, melodious Flûte harmonique of the Grand Orgue and a mellower Flûte traversière in the Récit have sufficient precedent in the oeuvre of both builders. However, because this is the first organ by either company to include a third harmonic flute at unison pitch, the one for the Positif required something fresh. Experimentation led to the inclusion of a tapered metal rank, an unusually clear and penetrating voice of moderate power. In addition, chimney-flute tone is developed to a high degree, especially in the Grand Orgue. This concentrated, bell-like timbre is a signature of all Rosales organs.

Of the organ’s lighter reeds, several deserve special mention. The Positif Cor anglais is an entirely new stop constructed with a Basson bass and was developed by Michael Kraft at Fisk. The Récit Clarinette has been kept on the woody side, bearing in mind its usefulness in the music of Franck, Widor, and Vierne. Representing new territory for both organ-building firms, the Basson 16’ and Basson 8’ on the Grand Orgue, a standard tone color of the French romantic organ, seemed ripe for development in this country. These pipes have slotted spotted-metal resonators and make use of “à larme” (teardrop) shallots. The mild, smooth, and incisive tone - not unlike that of old German trumpets - is especially useful in the pedal when supporting a classical plenum.

The particular effectiveness and beauty of the chorus reeds are the culmination of two decades of research and experience on the part of each builder. In this regard, the 1994 study trip yielded particularly valuable insights into tongue curvatures and subtle revisions of shallot scales and depths. In these reeds is captured the particular drama of the French organ: a sweet, sonorous treble that descends with a steady and majestic crescendo in the bass.

The Pédale division is a synthesis of design objectives, expanding the customary palette of the typical French pedal specification with additional principal tone. The Contrebasse unit provides gravity at 16’, the necessary unison bass at 8’, and an effective solo voice at 4’, as called for in the music of Widor, Vierne, Duruflé, and Messiaen. The Violonbasse, the first such stop in a Fisk or Rosales organ, is the expression of a desire for an alternate and incisive pedal voice; this particular stop is patterned after those of Edmund Schulze, the celebrated nineteenth-century German organ builder. The Octave 8’ and Octave 4’ can be called upon to function as either chorus or solo stops, while judicious borrowing from the Grand Orgue provides additional flexibility. If in its flues the Pédale forms the foundation of the organ, in its reeds lies the ultimate profundity of the organ. The most prominent member of the division is the Pédale Bombarde 32’/16’, with its distinctive marriage of Bertouneche shallots with wooden resonators for the lowest thirty-two notes. Here, the use of wood creates additional fundamental and helps eliminate irregularities in the tone. The Trompette and Clairon complete the battery and possess unmistakable authority, even in full organ.

The organ was built entirely in Fisk’s workshop during 1995. The organ arrived in Houston on January 15, 1996, and was assembled during the following six weeks. The voicing, which began on March 4 and lasted thirteen months, was accomplished by a team of five voicers: David Pike, Michael Kraft, Casey Dunaway, Stephen Malionek, and Manuel Rosales. A signature plate inside the organ lists all those involved in the construction and voicing of the organ.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this collaboration is the manner in which the organ remains true to the core beliefs and ideals of both firms. The result is an instrument with a responsive action, varied and distinctive flue choruses, and ample foundation tone at the unison and subunison levels, a sensitive development of brilliant reed tone, and, finally, a wind supply that responds and can be tailored to the music it serves.

Clearly, this collaborative process, carried out during the past several years, suggests important lessons for organ builders and all those engaged in creative activity at the close of the twentieth century. It has proved that removing even the most perceptive and inspired artisans from the unavoidable isolation of their indivual routines and combining their efforts and talents can transform the predictability of their individual work into an indivisible artistic achievement that indeed transcends what would otherwise be possible.

© Jonathan Ambrosino
(from interviews with David Pike and Manuel Rosales)