Nearly half a century has elapsed since my first contact with Charles Fisk. I was organist of Dartmouth College, presiding over an instrument with pipework dating back to 1887 but more or less newly built in 1918 by Austin, and in 1929 enlarged in a haphazard manner by a builder better left unnamed. When I arrived in 1954 it had 41 ranks of pipes on four manuals and pedals, seven 8 diapasons, and eight apologetic ranks pitched above the unison. Fortunately it stood in an open gallery in a fairly live room typical Romanesque college chapel of the 1880s. In these enlightened preservationist days the organ would doubtless have been lovingly restored to the blessed state in which Austin had left it in 1918, but I had been deeply bitten by Church of the Advent, Boston and All Saints, Worcester in their glory days and had spent the preceding four summers in Europe, mostly France (think Gonzalez), and my Austin needed MIXTURES!
I don't remember who put me on to Andover, conceivably Melville Smith, but my correspondence with Thomas Byers shows that he came up to Dartmouth on 8th November 1954 and I visited the shop in Methuen a month later. This would have been before Charles Fisk joined the firm. The initial proposal is dated the day after Byers visit, and it envisions a four - to - five - rank fourniture and a three - to - four - rank cymbale on electro - pneumatic chests sitting in the open just in front of the organ. Price, not including installation, was $1,653. After my visit to Methuen, during which we visited organs and listened to mixtures and I expressed a preference for bright voicing of the individual ranks (I had never liked Aeolian - Skinner mixtures), Byers rethought his proposal, adding a rank to the cymbale and narrowing the scales. The fourniture began at 1 1/3 with five breaks and the cymbale began at 1/3 with seven.
Nearly a year later there was a letter from Charles telling me that the pipes were to leave Holland by October 26; in the event, they left at the end of November and were playing by early January. To what extent Charles had collaborated in the final design of the mixtures I do not know, but in a final letter (proposing a set of French reeds at 16, 8, and 4 for $2,488 including installation and finishing but never built), Byers said they were the most dramatic mixture ensemble I've ever heard in the flesh. They certainly transformed the old Austin. I seem to remember that they ended up in the Harvard Chapel Fisk.
I saw Charlie off and on during the subsequent twenty years. We had plenty of friends in common and I was close to John Ferris during the whole of the agonizing seven - year gestation of the Harvard organ. I visited something more than half the Fisk's completed up to Charlie's death.
Although I continued to haunt Boston as much as I could, in the fall of 1964 I joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo (as a musicologist, not as organist). Planning had just started for a vast new campus in the suburb of Amherst. It was to be governor Nelson Rockefellers greatest monument: The Berkeley of the East, everyone said. A rich friend sold him a large swamp, and construction began. It was supposed to cost a billion uninflated dollars. In 1967, a quarter - million was budgeted for two organs, a big one in the concert hall and a smaller three - manual in a teaching studio. In those days $250,000 was a princely sum even for two organs. From the beginning, the big organ was to be first, tracker, and second, stylistically eclectic. I was thinking of Charles, of course.
Alas, twenty - three years of wars, riots, recessions, and stagflation were to pass before our organ would make music. The quarter - million remained, chiseled in stone, but it would buy less and less. The concert hall disappeared, the studio organ evaporated, and a single, shrunken, organ was shifted to a planned 700 - seat chamber music hall. Finally, in the mid - 1970s, we were allowed to approach some builders. But I was too impatient to wait for Fisk, whose list was something like five years. We decided on Lawrence Phelps, because he made eclectic trackers, had no waiting list, and was only 100 miles away, in Erie, Pennsylvania, instead of 450 to Gloucester. But the lack of a waiting list should have warned us: by 1977 he was bankrupt. It was a close call.