In today’s show, written by Jane Ford, Senior News Officer for the UVa News Department, we celebrate the one hundred-year anniversary of the E.M. Skinner Organ, which was installed in UVa’s Cabell Hall in 1907.
On March 29th, 2008, UVa celebrated the 100th anniversary of the E.M. Skinner Organ, an iconic fixture of the University of Virginia since its installation at Cabell Hall in 1907. At the turn of the 20th century, pipe organs were models of cutting-edge technology and American engineering, an organ expert told an audience celebrating the 100th anniversary of the E.M. Skinner organ.
Laurence Libin, research curator emeritus of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said, “I have come to congratulate the University of Virginia… This is really a monument. The organ here is a benchmark of American taste and ingenuity.” He added that there could be no better place to have the instrument than at a University, where engineering, architecture, music and other disciplines could play a role in the “wider scope of inquiry” and “create benchmarks for future evaluation of the state of the organ. At 100 years it has a lot to teach us.”
The March 29 tribute included organ historian Barbara Owen, who said, “The organ was a gift to the University from Andrew Carnegie, the man who built a steel empire and spent his later years as a philanthropist. Valued at $7,000 at the time, it is estimated that to replace it today with an organ of that complexity and workmanship would cost in excess of $600,000.”
The session was concluded with U.Va. associate professor emeritus of music Donald Loach presenting a history of Skinner’s organ at the University. Loach shared details about the 1907 dedication recitals, at which University President Edwin A. Alderman and Skinner gave brief remarks before Samuel L. Baldwin, organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, N.Y. performed musical selections chosen to highlight the organ’s special features. Loach delighted the audience with recordings from the rededication concert held in 1983 and from a second rededication concert in 2000.
Following the symposium, evening concertgoers were entertained with a recital by organist Ken Cowan of Westminster Choir College, who played music contemporary with the time of its installation that showcased the instrument’s unique features.
Paul Walker, who teaches organ at the university said, “Ken Cowan’s recital was amazing. The music he played was most appropriate to the organ and the time when it was installed, and his program brought out the organ’s obvious strengths: a deep, rich tone and colorful solo stops. Most impressive to me was Cowan’s own transcription of the Mephisto Waltz #1 of Franz Liszt, a technical tour-de-force which made dazzling use of the organ’s resources. The audience particularly responded to Cowan’s encore, a piece by George Thalben-Ball played almost entirely by the feet.”
The U.Va. organ, although built in the early years of Skinner’s long career of organ-building, incorporates unique innovations that he continued to pursue throughout his career. It boasts a movable console of the rare “batwing type” as well as more than 1,500 pipes, ranging from three-quarters of an inch to 16 feet in length; a piston system with combinations set by Skinner and features one of the first examples of his famous “Erzahler” stops, said Owen. The Erzahler is his first foray into creating tonal color by adding the sounds of orchestral instruments, such as French and English horns, oboes, clarinets, strings and flutes.
Loach, who played a major role in preserving the Skinner organ, noted that while it was primarily used at ceremonial occasions such as baccalaureate ceremonies, it was included in several musical performances and served as a practice instrument for budding student organists. Occasionally, after a full rehearsal of the Glee Club in the auditorium, he would play a few pieces on the organ which “the boys seemed to really enjoy,” he said.
Only a few years later, one of those students, William R. Piper, class of 1977, offered funds to restore it. The two-year project was completed in 1983. Loach oversaw the work conducted by the A. Thompson-Allen Organ Company of New Haven, Conn. The goal was “not to improve or alter the tonal or mechanical character of the instrument.” Leather membranes were replaced, new valves were installed and springs and pipes were cleaned and refinished.
After a remodeling of Cabell Hall in the 1990s a new restoration was instigated by Marita McClymonds, acting chairman of the Music Department, and begun in 1998 by Xaver A. Wilhelmy of Satunton, Va. A second rededication on Sept. 15, 2000 featured organist Peggy Kelley Reinburg. The organ continues to be played occasionally for concerts.
Libin said, “The organ here is irreplaceable and historical. Skinner’s vision was in the vanguard a century ago. Organs like this just aren’t built any more.”
You’ve been listening to the Oscar Show, I’m Jacob Canon. Join us next week when we look at a University of Virginia study, which indicates that air pollution from power plants and automobiles is destroying the fragrance of flowers and thereby possibly inhibiting the ability of pollinating insects to locate flowers, and may partially explain why certain populations of these pollinators are on the decline.
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