By John E. Schreiner
Opus 161 is the newest addition to the outstanding collection of pipe organs at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The organ department at Oberlin has a long history of evangelization, welcoming nonmajors into its community and introducing students from the entire college to the organ through diverse performances, including the Friday Night Organ Pump concerts, where audience members are invited onto the Finney Chapel stage to feel the power of the French Romantic–inspired 60-stop Fisk (Opus 116) rolling through them.
The new seven-stop continuo instrument is an ambassador for the organ in a different way. Rather than looming over the stage, it sits in the middle of an ensemble. It is a team player, letting the organist support the ensemble, with enough strength to sing out when called for.
The Fisk continuo organ design can be traced to a college senior thesis project 35 years ago. The Kalamazoo Bach Festival was looking for a continuo organ, and I was looking for a senior individualized project at Kalamazoo College, having built harpsichords and served a student internship in the Fisk shop. John Brombaugh provided the three-stop design, and Fisk agreed to supervise the project for a modest materials and supervisory fee, with the understanding that I would return after graduation as a regular employee.
The project was a success, and I graduated with my BA in mathematics, then returned to Gloucester to work for Fisk, until family took me on a new adventure to the Midwest. I set up shop on my own and eventually built another pair of instruments to Brombaugh’s design, one on commission and a second that I kept for a dozen years before selling it to Bard College.
This little instrument, designed to fit in the original Honda Accord hatchback, was a joy to perform with. The 8′ Gedeckt was pure and transparent, able to fill a vast space on its own but recede into the background when joined by another voice or instrument. The 4′ Flute, with its stopped bass and open, tapered treble, gave precision and clarity where it was needed in the treble and transparent reinforcement in the bass. The 2′ Principal added brightness but was restrained enough that people would use it.
Singing with this instrument, listening to it in ensembles, and tuning it over the course of ten years helped me think about what one might want in a larger continuo organ. When a church in Michigan commissioned a larger instrument, I had some ideas.
This larger instrument needed to be able to stand on its own without a cello or bassoon to help define the bass line, so I expanded the scales of the 8′ and 4′ flute basses and made the 2′ open all the way down to low C. An 8′ Open Diapason treble, placed in the facade and made of wood for durability, added warmth and gentle strength to the 8′ pitch level. A two-rank treble Sesquialtera added a distinct solo/accompaniment option, and a full-compass 1⅓′ Quint crowned the ensemble, allowing the 2′ to be held even more in check for ensemble work.
For the player, stop controls were changed from little levers on the top of the case to more conventional drawknobs in vertical jambs on either side of the keyboard. In addition to the convenience and familiarity of stop controls, this arrangement also brought the music rack up to a height closer to the line of sight toward a conductor for ensemble work. The keyboard compass was expanded from 51 notes, C–d3, to 54 notes, C–f3, to include the high E-flats in the Handel B-flat Organ Concerto, and more generally to allow the organ to be used in modern choral accompaniments that go above d3.
The expanded scales, key compass, and added stops called for a new case design. After I defined the basic parameters, Fisk designer Charles Nazarian beautifully proportioned and detailed the Michigan casework, and Morgan Faulds Pike adorned it with carvings.
Although the layout is compact, the pipework is easily accessed through doors and hatches. In recognition of real-world use, I returned several years later and added wheels inside the lower case.
A decade later, when I had returned to the Fisk shop, it was time to take another look at the continuo organ. The goal was to make the instrument as flexible as possible, able to accompany and lead a hundred-voice choir and orchestra in a concert hall or be part of a small ensemble in a chamber setting. A variety of options were considered for the large-scale situations, including a caboose for bass pipes, but in the end, it became clear that the core stops of the Michigan organ were the correct starting point. The instrument, after all, still needed to support a single expressive aria or recitative singer without getting in the way, and no matter how large a stage might be, the organ had to remain as compact as possible.
The new instrument retained the 8′ and 4′ flutes, a slightly modified 8′ Open Treble in the facade, and a 2′ Principal. To provide more presence in the choruses, a 4′ Principal was added down to low G. Instead of a two-rank treble Sesquialtera, a single-rank treble 2⅔′ Quint was added for solo opportunities, and it was matched with a narrow-scaled 1⅓′ Quint Bass to give a convincing organ flavor to the full ensemble.
On the earlier instruments, transposition from A440 to A415 was achieved by shifting the action guide one note and choosing whether the bottom pipes should be tuned to C or C#. On this and subsequent instruments, transposition is accomplished by lifting the keyboard and sliding it up or down the half step. An extra pipe was added at the bottom of each bass rank for full-compass C–f3 at both pitches.
Continuo organs are voiced to let the organist collaborate with singers and other instrumentalists and are less space-specific than a permanent-installation instrument. Nevertheless, when the organ is used in a chamber setting, the ability to moderate the sound is desirable. Doors are often suggested, but they are either in the way when they are open or likely to get left behind if they are removed, and they affect the behavior and tuning of a facade rank when closed. Instead, a double-layer system of matching pierced, decorative panels was devised. The inner panels can line up with the openings of the outer layer, or they can slide to cover the openings; this removes upper harmonics and brightness from the tone of the instrument.
In the early 1980s, Charles Fisk wrote that “North Americans are musical omnivores,” wanting to hear organs of many different regional styles from different eras. The Fisk continuo organs join their larger siblings, built with a wealth of musical and historical understanding but ultimately as instruments for organists to make music.
To hear a recording of Fisk Opus 161, click here.
John E. Schreiner is vice president of special projects and maintenance at C.B. Fisk Inc.
From the Oberlin Conservatory of Music
Widely regarded as having one of the world’s most distinguished organ collections, Oberlin College is home to 32 instruments. The concert organs are an encyclopedic offering of national styles and time periods, while the practice room and studio instruments provide an unmatched foundation for sound pedagogy and repertoire discovery. For all the strengths of the performance and practice facilities, our greatest need in considering new additions focused on acquiring a continuo organ to support the choral, orchestral, and chamber ensembles of the conservatory.
Oberlin’s organ and historical performance faculty outlined requirements for an instrument that could function in a solo capacity within an instrumental ensemble—the presence of the 8′ Open Treble from middle C and the divided mutations fulfilling this need—while maintaining a beauty of tone for harmonic support in more intimate performance spaces. Opus 161’s home moves week to week in conjunction with academic and performance schedules: a studio space for small Baroque ensembles or applied studies classes in continuo realization; onstage in one of the two jewel-box recital halls; in the presence of, or in concert with, its much larger and older sister, Opus 116, in Finney Chapel as part of large oratorio productions. The solid engineering and artistic musical crafting seen in Fisk’s monumental Cavaillé-Coll-style organ are amply found in this delightfully compact and responsive instrument.
The philanthropic support of Oberlin alumnus Dr. Keith Reas made possible the commissioning of an instrument of elegance, practicality, and flexibility that honors the teaching legacy of the late professor of organ Garth Peacock. Oberlin is deeply grateful to our donor and the talented team at Fisk for bringing this project into being and helping to create a resource that supports the great heritage of performance at one of the nation’s leading centers for all-undergraduate organ instruction.
David Kazimir, Curator of Organs