Old West's Fisk Organ

On Easter 1971, Old West Church dedicated its then-new Fisk organ. During May and June of 2000, C. B. Fisk, Inc., performed extensive restoration, updating of controls, and cleaning. This organ is considered by many to be the finest of its genre in America. Its musical qualities have been praised by many of the world’s greatest organists, who have taken great delight in playing it. Old West Church’s Fisk organ is considered to be the quintessence of Charles Fisk’s work. Since 1974, Yuko Hayashi has been our Director of Music and, as long-time Head of the organ department of the New England Conservatory of Music, has worked to secure the reputation of our Fisk organ as one of the outstanding instruments for worship and performance, alike. The following tells how this magnificent instrument came to be built for Old West Church.

In 1965, one year after this congregation reopened Old West Church, James Busby, our organist at the time, urged the pastor, the Rev. Wilbur C. Ziegler, to pursue the acquisition of a suitable organ for worship activities. Ziegler discussed this need with his friend and colleague, Dr. Barth of King’s Chapel. Dr. Barth introduced Ziegler to Miss Amelia Peabody, benefactress for the Fisk organ at King’s Chapel. She agreed that Old West Church should house a fine instrument. She suggested we acquire either a Fisk or a Wicks organ. In addition to Fisk and Wicks, the Skinner and Andover organ companies submitted specifications. Mr. Busby was instrumental in the selection of the Fisk firm, which was also endorsed by many renowned organists, including E. Power Biggs, John Ferris, and Daniel Pinkham.

The first tonal design was submitted in January 1966. In January 1967, the Rev. Ziegler wrote Charles Fisk to review the specifications of the organ. The congregation had been in the new building only three years, and they wanted to ensure that the new organ would meet the widening range of needs that they clearly saw before them. Daniel Pinkham and John Ferris, organists of King’s Chapel and of Harvard University, respectively, were asked to join in this conversation.

The resulting tonal design was completed in September 1968, and it provided for the greater range of musical demands that had been identified. In order to contain costs despite considerable changes, more used pipework was employed than had been intended in the first plan. From a cost standpoint, providing an appropriate case for a neworgan in Old West Church was no small problem. Since there was no money for an elaborate facade, it seemed that the case must be of a plain, contemporary style, not well suited to the Federal period sanctuary. In an interview with Yuko Hayashi in 1975, Charles Fisk described the evolution of the visual design:

The decision on casework was held off until the last possible moment, when [the solution] became clear: A badly mutilated, empty case of an old organ had become available in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When the pink paint had been stripped off it, this case showed itself to be the work of Thomas Appleton, an organ builder whose workshop had been located just a block down the street from West Church during the 1830’s. The mahogany cornices and carvings were exactly right for the West Church, and while the overall case dimensions were unsuitable for the new organ, the decorations would lend themselves very easily to a classical design . . . Appleton’s side towers and side flats were thus added to new central towers and a new center flat; meanwhile an entirely new case in Appleton’s style was designed for the Choir division. The final result was a new organ case unlike any ever made before, and yet in a style aptly suited to the building.

Probably the outstanding feature of this organ is the voicing of the pipes. For Fisk, even voicing was a matter of opportunism. Fisk described “waiting for a stop to tell me what to do with it.” He described “Beginning on the usual procedures with each pipe, usually voicing from bass toward treble, but always waiting for one especially good pipe to make itself known . . . The question of whether a pipe is good or not can never be told simply by playing the pipe alone; it is essential that throughout the voicing process all pipes of the stop be played on in various ways in order to see how the pipes stand in relation to music.”

Fisk’s voicing is characteristically smooth, especially in the foundation stops, which are full and often somewhat limpid, without any trace of undesirable edge or harshness. No single stop, not even among the mixtures, possesses harshness in itself, yet when all is put together the choruses are fiery and the reeds add greatly to the ensemble, producing a very full and intense full-organ sound.

Charles Fisk was born in 1925. He graduated in 1942 from the Cambridge School in Weston, Massachusetts. Gifted in physics, he worked on the first stages of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Drafted into the Army in World War II, he was assigned to the government laboratories at Los Alamos as an electronics technician in the Bomb Physics Division. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard in physics in 1949, he then went to work on cosmic ray research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. In 1950, he entered Stanford University for graduate work in physics.

Then he switched from physics to music, partly because of the moral ambiguity of the nuclear enterprise. “He was sympathetic with Dr. Oppenheimer,” his wife said. “They had almost no idea what powers they unleashed. And he was awed by what they had done.”

At Stanford he studied organ with Herbert Nanney and the rudiments of organ building with John Swinford, keeper of the University Organs. More apprenticeship followed in Cleveland before he returned to Massachusetts in 1955 to become a partner in a small organ maintenance and rebuilding company. Three years later he bought out his partner and devoted himself to building organs with mechanical action (often known as tracker organs).

He established himself as a pioneer in the field. In 1964, he completed for King’s Chapel the first modern American-made mechanical-action organ of three manuals. For Harvard’s Memorial Church he completed the first four-manual mechanical action organ to be made in America in this century. In 1971, he completed the Old West organ. All three instruments are considered landmarks in the art of organ building.

Charles Fisk died of cancer in December 1983. In a remembrance of Charles Fisk, Robert Cornell recalled working with him at Old West, beginning in 1970:

My involvement in the installation of the Old West organ was that of a beginner dazzled by new experience: carrying all of the organ up the fire escape to the balcony, cutting into original beams of Asher Benjamin’s magnificent church building, and lunch time walks over Beacon Hill with craftsmen who could appreciate the architectural details of the wonderful houses there . . . As we arrived each day to work on this magnificent instrument, there were usually a few street people at the church. Charles often sat and chatted with them. He wanted to know them personally, to hear their stories of how they had come to such a desperate state of affairs. I could sense that Charles found deeply troubling this juxtaposition of human suffering, which he felt helpless to alleviate, with the work we were doing on the organ, and that he must often have wondered whether his chosen vocation really made sense. But if Charles had doubts, they were tempered by his unreasonable and peculiar optimism. After he had decided to build a “perfect” instrument for this historic church, the better part of that Thomas Appleton case “fell” into his lap. Toward the end of work at Old West, a fellow by the name of Ted Young happened into the shop. He was about to retire and thought he might like to work with us. He had years of experience, having worked for Hook and Hastings and then for Skinner, all before Charles was born! Charles came to love and admire Ted for his craftsmanship but mostly for his no-nonsense approach to his work, for Ted knew just what he needed to do quickly to achieve the best result, unlike us young perfectionist “dilettantes.” We may now confidently say about Charles Fisk what he said in memory of Ted Young – that he knew “so well who he was, and why he was here.”
— Robert Cornell

[Sources of information included the Boston Globe, Old West Organ Society newsletters, and literature from C. B. Fisk, Inc.]