Casavant Organ History
The Phillips Academy Organ-A Thoroughbred A History of Casavant Opus 1177
by Dr. Thomas Murray, Yale School of Music from The Diapason, June 1979
Many famous organists figure in the story of the giant 1927 Casavant at Phillips Academy. Their names will be mentioned at the appropriate place in this brief account of the organ but I would be amiss if I did not speak first of the remarkable person whose respected presence on the Phillips Andover scene helps to account for the organ’s very existence. That man was Carl Pfatteicher, director of music at Phillips from 1912 until 1947. From his own scrapbooks we quickly sense the kind of musician he was – in 1913, a series of Bach lecture-recitals; in 1918, performances of the Orgelbuchlein and the trio sonatas; in 1925, a recital of the precursors of Bach: Cabezon, Scheidt, Raison, Muffat, Lebegue, Buxtehude, Clerambault-all these programs being held in the old “stone chapel” at Phillips. He also brought the best visiting recitalists to the “stone chapel” – Courboin, Farnam, Dupre – and no doubt welcomed them back in later years when he was able to offer them a far better instrument, the one which concerns us now. A gift from Thomas Cochran in memory of his wife, Martha Cochran, the organ in question was first installed in George Washington Hall at the academy. It was officially opened in a recital by Louis Vierne on April 11 of that year, and it is worth noting that M. Vierne closed the performance with his newly-composed Pieces de Fantaisie (1st suite, op. 51), written the previous year and presented for the first time in America on his 1927 tour.
In 1929, again through the generosity of Mr. Cochran, the school began work on a new chapel. It was probably assumed that this building would also have a new organ in due season, but with the burden of the great depression during the ensuing years, a decision was made to move the Casavant organ to the chapel. Thus the instrument began a second chapter in its history in a new location soon after its dedication – barely five years in fact, since the organ was rededicated in the chapel on May 8, 1932. In this chapel the organ has stood to the present time, heard in recitals by the great organists of the era: Bonnet, Dupre, Ramin, Germani (who had also performed on it in its original home), and others.
Given such illustrious performers, one might think that the organ has been heard to excellent advantage, but, unfortunately, such is not the case. The problem here is one over which a performer has no control. The academy organ, all 99 stops of it, is hopelessly, irredeemably buried. Virtually everyone who knows the organ will agree that it does not – it can not – sound well in its present environment. It was probably not very effective in Washington Hall either, if the size of the chamber openings is any indication, but in its present location it is utterly stifled. The sound of the manual divisons is obstructed by an elaborately carved case-facade and grille (the “case” portion is an architect’s adaptation of the l8th century 3-tower cases found in many of the old English churches, and is to be utilized in the new chapel organ), while the sound of the pedal organ (or a fraction thereof) is heard through a small arch off to one side. The sound of the Swell fares best in the chapel because of its wide, shallow chamber and high placement. Unquestionably the Choir fares worst, speaking as it does directly into the woodwork of the facade.
But when one penetrates the shell which so effectively imprisons the color and intimacy of the voicing one is impressed (if he has the broadminded musical outlook which will allow an appreciation of this kind of instrument in the first place) with the quality of everything – mechanism, materials and voicing. Why doesn’t Phillips keep it and restore it? For one thing (let the prospective buyer be fully aware), everything will need releathering. There are some 20 reservoirs, not to mention the console, swell shade motors and chests. For the organ to function reliably this releathering ought to be done completely, and a thorough search for the very finest leather available would be a wise preliminary task. It makes far better sense for the school to do precisely what it has done: namely, to contract for an instrument of half the size and give it all the advantages of good placement, something which the Casavant will never have in its present site.
Organ CD “Premieres” with Bill Chouinard on the Casavant-Schantz Organ available at the reception desk for $15.00.