'All the Stops'
By CRAIG R. WHITNEY
NY Times © 05/05/03
Ernest M. Skinner, one of the greatest names in early-twentieth century American organbuilding, got his first organ factory job with the Boston builder George Horatio Ryder, who on October 25, 1895, gave the dedicatory recital on the organ I played as a youth in the Unitarian Church in Westborough, Massachusetts.
The church's organ, Ryder's Opus 180, held up well for more than half a century. But by the early 1960s, it was getting stiff and creaky in the joints, and the church decided that it needed to be replaced. Like so many other churches, it picked an electronic substitute offered by the Allen Organ Co. of Macungie, Pennsylvania, after being persuaded by a salesman that it sounded just as good as a pipe organ and wouldn't break down and produce dead notes and troublesome drones. Speakers were mounted behind the tall, gold-painted pipes of the Ryder organ's façade, and some of the 500-odd speaking pipes inside the organ case were removed, wrapped in newspaper, and laid on top of the bellows that had supplied them. The Allen console went where the choir seats had been when the church had a choir, and the oak cover closed over the Ryder keyboards for many decades.
Old pipe organs like this one have all too often just been thrown out and junked. Had the church been more affluent, it might have renovated or redecorated the plain yet dignified sanctuary, removed the pipe organ and replaced the electronic substitute when it, too, began to fade with age. But, though silent, Ryder's Opus 180 survived into the twenty-first century, long enough to be considered historic and worth restoring. Its design is still as sound as Ryder's factory brochures had advertised a hundred years before, and under a layer of dust, the windchests with their pipes and the mechanisms beneath them are probably as sound as they were when he installed them. The bellows leather is cracked and dried, but basically the instrument is intact and whole-a sleeping beauty awaiting only an awakening kiss.
Ryder's Opus 180 was typical of late nineteenth-century American craftsmanship, made with cabinetmakers' skill and mechanical ingenuity more or less as organs had been built in Europe for centuries. But the way it was sold and marketed was typically American, marked by the entrepreneurship and commercial inventiveness that was changing the United States from an agrarian economy into a manufacturing colossus. Ernest Skinner and others in the generation after Ryder's would take the old skills they learned in shops like his, add something new-the technological advance of electricity and electropneumatic action to replace all those clacking slats and levers-and revolutionize the business.
It had taken a long time for pipe organs to take root in New England's rocky Puritan soil. The first instruments to be built in the United States were in Pennsylvania, the work of German immigrants like David Tannenberg, who in the late eighteenth century constructed exquisitely made organs in the style of his native Saxony for the Lutheran and Moravian churches of the German-speaking "Pennsylvania Dutch" country. Farther north, the first organ was an import, an English one-keyboard instrument that Thomas Brattle, the treasurer of Harvard, brought to Cambridge in the first years of the eighteenth century. But when Brattle willed the organ to his church in Cambridge, it was refused as an unwanted adornment to the plain religious practice of Puritan times.
Admirers of organ music in Boston nevertheless persisted against the odds, and by the early nineteenth century William and Ebenezer Goodrich were building organs full time, teaching a cabinetmaker named Thomas Appleton their trade. Some of the organs and the beautiful wooden cases that Appleton produced still survive, including one from 1830, restored and installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
This New England tradition in which George Ryder had his roots produced genteel, soft-spoken instruments whose tone was inspired by the English organ sounds that Handel had known. Ryder was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1838, and grew up in Boston where his father, Thomas Philander Ryder, who had attended Harvard, was a teacher and administrator at the Boston Latin School. But in November 1852, Thomas Ryder died of epilepsy, leaving his wife, Sarah, and their three children in dire straits.
George's elder brother, Thomas Philander Jr., was sent to a school for indigent boys in Boston, which noticed that he had a talent for music and gave him his first piano lessons. "Philando" Ryder, as he was nicknamed, went on to make a name as a minor composer for organ, piano, and chorus and held a prestigious position as organist of Boston's Tremont Temple. One of his most popular pieces, "The Thunder Storm," instructs the organist how to produce a rumble of thunder by holding down low C, C-sharp, and D simultaneously on the keyboard and low C-sharp and D on the pedal. That and other compositions that were easier on the ear, as well as a collection of hymns, were published successfully by White, Smith & Company, which also printed articles about the Ryder brothers and their activities in a magazine called The Folio. The rest of the article
- Frank B.