Peter Sykes
Organist and Scholar

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

Let's imagine that those sightseers wander upstairs and find (horrors!) the door to the balcony to be open. They enter the balcony through a tiny hallway formed by the organ itself—anyone entering the balcony (whether to play the organ or not) has to pass through it much as happens often in Europe. One notices that the back of the case is all business—no fancy mahogany is wasted on back panels!—and that some pipes are visible on the back wall. The face that the organ presents to those downstairs is very different from that seen close up—it reveals some secrets when investigated. Going around to the front of the case, one admires the fine wood of the case again when seen close up, the carvings at the impost (but watch your head!) and notices that the console is a separate unit from the case, mounted on a platform. The console is all business too—just keyboards, stopknobs, and music desk—but there are, again, details and ideas that lift it out of the simply utilitarian. It's made of the same mahogany as the case, there is a nice curve at the sides, moldings around and on the keyboards, and beautiful script lettering on the stopknobs—a combination of elements found on English harpsichords and old American organs with the efficiency of one of Fisk's mentors, Walter Holtkamp. Once again, a collection of ideas and details that works.What makes the Charles Fisk organ at Old West Church so special?

Let's now imagine that one of those sightseers wants to see inside the case. Taking off one of the back panels (this is not a very polite sightseer, now, but he's here to illustrate a point, not good behavior) he is astonished to find a mass of aluminum trackers and rollerboards—slider solenoids—metal framework—plywood—flexible tubing—tuning slides—electro - pneumatic offsets! This is not historic organbuilding, our naughty sightseer mumbles. And indeed, no, it isn't! This organ was built in 1971 and inside, it looks it, every inch. We may think today that there are good reasons to try and more closely copy old organbuilding techniques and materials, but this organ can show us that not everything new is bad in either material or design, and that, in a way, beauty can be created using science. Opening another door, one sees a humble wooden plaque with sixteen signatures. Sixteen people built this organ—hardly a factory—and signed their names to it. It's not a machine. It's almost homemade.

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

Let's banish the sightseers, now—they"re getting on my nerves with their bad behavior. Let's imagine ourselves, now, the first time we might have heard or played this organ. I can distinctly remember the first time I played it—permit me a small trip down memory lane. (And I played it myself before ever hearing it in recital or in a masterclass.) It was September 1976, and I was just starting lessons with Bob Schuneman while still an undergraduate piano major at the Conservatory. The previous summer I had been to Europe for the first time and was lucky enough to have visited and played some famous Dutch organs including Alkmaar and Haarlem. Before that, my organ playing experience included the Snetzler organ on Cape Cod—the first organ I ever played—Hook trackers, and a few others. My first impression here was how similar (in a way) this organ was to those Dutch instruments—even though I was struggling to coordinate left hand and pedal—but how much more responsive it seemed than those big bruisers, how well I could hear it as I played, and how light and treacherous the action was.

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