Peter Sykes
Organist and Scholar

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The following address was given by Peter Sykes at Old West Church as an introduction to his recital there on January 5, 2001 celebrating the completion of the cleaning work on the Opus 55.

"What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?"

This is a question perhaps better asked by one who has never seen, heard, or played it. All of us who are not in that category have our own answers to this question, but it's interesting to contemplate just what they might be at this time when we gather to mark a certain milestone in its existence (I'm tempted to say "life") here among us.

Let's then imagine the reaction of someone who has never seen it before—and we all were in that category, once; now, happily, no longer.

"What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?"

First of all, let's imagine some sightseers coming into the church on a trip to Boston from parts unknown. Walking into the church, they might first be struck by the building itself, its grand proportions and sense of airy openness found here in contrast to King's Chapel which they just saw down the street. Turning around, they see an organ case, which seems to fit the church in just the same way the King's Chapel case does. I'd believe that not one person might imagine that it is a new organ—it looks not only old, but completely appropriate. But here's a crucial difference—even though the King's Chapel case is a reconstruction, it's basically the case that has been in that church for two hundred and fifty years. The Old West case is new to this church, but it is neither totally old, nor totally new—like much else about the organ, it is a collection of ideas and details that somehow unite into a whole. Fisk wrote of the good fortune that befell the project in the discovery of the 1830 - ish Appleton organ case that became the kernel of the Old West case—but it was up to him to creatively re - imagine that kernel into what we see today, turning a center - tower single case into this twin - tower case with Rückpositiv. His words, taken from Yuko's Bach recording liner notes: "The decision on casework was held off until the last possible moment, when all became clear: A badly mutilated, empty case of an old organ had become available in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When the pink paint had been stripped off it, this case showed itself to be the work of Thomas Appleton, an organ builder whose shop had been located just a block down the street from the West Church during the 1830's. The mahogany cornices and carvings were exactly right for the West Church, and while the overall case dimensions were unsuitable for the new organ, the decorations would lend themselves very easily to a classical design in the style of the British organ builder Bernhard ("Father") Smith. Appleton's side towers and side flats were thus added to new central towers and a new center flat; meanwhile an entirely new case in Appleton's style was designed for the Choir division. The final result was a new organ case unlike any ever made before, and yet in a style aptly suited to the building." Certainly the ideas and the details all work—the beautiful proportions, seeming to fit into its space perfectly, the rich mahogany of the case wood, the carvings that seem to give a festivity without detracting from the overall dignity, the way the balcony moldings seem to be continued in the Rückpositiv.

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