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Tonal Splendor: Details on the Organ Restoration Project

January 24, 2020

Not a day passes that I don’t dream about your magnificent instruments I played over there; their marvelous touch, their fine tone, their perfect and sensitive action haunt me. It seems as though I were dreaming when I think of Trinity Church, Boston, of St John’s, Los Angeles, Hollywood High School, Williamstown and Utica.

-Louis Vierne (1870-1937), organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

writing to Ernest Skinner after a 1927 United States tour


Trinity's organ project has two central goals: flexibility and tone.


Flexibility: The 2018 Console

In 1926, when the nave Skinner organ was installed, both chancel and nave organs were controlled by an imposing, four-manual console on the north side of the chancel. In 1956, a new console was provided, now on the south side, from which vantage players could hear the chancel organ and choir in better balance. The console’s low profile permitted easier conducting from the console. Designed by George Faxon, Trinity’s eminent Organist and Choirmaster 1954-1980, this new console was a marvel of its time, as miniaturized as the old console had been large, and with numerous features special features.

Installed in August 2018, the new console is marginally larger than the 1956 one, and once again contains four keyboards and individual knobs for every stop. The latest technology includes a sophisticated combination memory system, user-definable options via iPad, and a record-playback function. This last feature is most useful, as it allows organists (particularly visiting artists) to hear their playing from the nave, as the congregation does, and thus judge balances, adjust tempi, and refine the choice of stops. As with the prior one, the new console is on a mobile platform, which rolls to the center of the chancel for concerts. Finally, a dual-vent fan provides a light breeze during the un-air-conditioned Trinity summers.

The new console was built by Richard Houghten of Milan, Michigan, and J. Zamberlan & Co., in Wintersville, Ohio. Mr. Houghten has worked at Trinity before, in the 1980s converting the organ’s original electro-pneumatic controls to its first solid-state system. In Boston alone, Mr. Houghten has worked on the consoles at St Paul’s Cathedral; The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Extension (Mother Church); Harvard University; and Park Street UCC in Arlington. Mr. Zamberlan has helped Mr. Houghten construct new consoles for Duke University Chapel, Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, and River Road Church (Baptist) in Richmond. Richard Webster, Colin Lynch, and Trinity’s curator of organs Jonathan Ambrosino, all had an active role in the design.


Tonal Splendor: Recapturing the Skinner Sound

One of the glories of Trinity Church is that Richardson’s resplendent interior has never been lost to subsequent modification, thus keeping at bay the tide of modernism and its “less-is-more” philosophy. Not so with the organ, which after 1926 was revised to keep in tune with the musicological times. In tonal terms, this meant an ever-leaner sound thought to be clearer for the music of Bach, and more transparent for choral leadership. Along the way, however, the grand richness of the original 1926 Skinner ensemble was lost, although Skinner’s characteristic orchestral colors (French Horn, English Horn, Celesta, vibrant strings) were retained. (Mechanically, the Trinity organs have always been maintained in excellent condition.)

The tonal reconstruction of 2019 recast the nave organ along its original 1926 lines, using, wherever possible, pipes built and voiced at Skinner’s factories between 1921 and 1934. This project was a collaboration of Trinity’s former and current organ curators: Foley-Baker Inc., of Tolland, Connecticut (who renovated the nave organ in 1999-2001, and the chancel organ in 2007), and Jonathan Ambrosino, who with Joseph Sloane also maintains the organs at Old South Church and Church of the Advent. Foley-Baker handled the engineering and installation of the larger pipes, installing not only a vintage 16ft wood Diapason but also re-activating the southern green-painted façade pipe, which date from 1877 but have not been heard since 1926. Foley-Baker also racked in the various new reeds stops, and handled other mechanical modifications. Mr. Ambrosino’s team coordinated the purchase and reconditioning of the vintage pipes Trinity had purchased, installing, voicing and tuning them at Trinity. The voicer and organist Duane Prill, of Tyrone, New York, was a key player in this work, as was Broome & Co. LLC, specialists in the reconditioning of reed pipes. The capstone of this project, contracted only last year, is the installation of the grandest of all bass registers, the 32ft Bombarde. These heavy, wood pipes, installed at the west wall north of La Farge's Christ in Majesty window, will be installed this year. 

All along, the goal of the tonal reconstruction was not a louder organ, but something more supportive of the human voice. The recast tonal pallet, with its vastly increased warmth and bass, ceremonial without being overpowering. May it lift the congregations and choirs of Trinity Church to their greatest heights yet.

-Jonathan Ambrosino & Colin Lynch

View or download specifications for the updated organ.