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Ernest M. Skinner (1866 in Clarion, Pennsylvaniamarker – November 26/27, 1960) was one of the most successful American organ builders of the early 20th century.

Early years

Skinner began his lifelong career at the Taunton, Massachusettsmarker shop of George Ryder in 1886. After four years' employment in the Ryder shop, Skinner went to work for the Bostonmarker based firm owned by George Hutchings, first as a tuner, then rising to the post as Factory Superintendent during his twelve years with that firm. The 1897 Hutchings organ at The Mission Church in Boston drew national attention and acclaim for Hutchings, although George Hutchings failed to mention his young factory superintendent (Skinner) by name.

Skinner made the first of two very public trips to England, crossing the Atlantic on a cattle steamer in 1898. Skinner was exposed to the work of "Father" Henry Willis, the celebrated London builder whose high-pressure chorus reeds and Tuba stops were to set the benchmark for much of the 20th century. Skinner was given free access to the large Willis organ at St. George’s Hall, Liverpoolmarker and was able to meet privately with "Father" Willis who tutored the young Skinner in voicing practices and techniques not yet known in the United States. Skinner then crossed the English Channel to visit France where he met Louis Vierne, the famed blind organist at Notre-Damemarker in Parismarker. Upon his return to Boston, Skinner made his first Pedal Trombone modeled after the work of "Father" Willis for the 1900 Hutchings organ installed at Boston Music Hall. The first documented instance of the Pitman windchest, as developed by Skinner, appeared in the 1899 Hutchings-Votey organ installed at the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York, although other sources mention origins in Hutchings organs as early as 1893.

Skinner & Cole/Ernest M. Skinner & Company

Skinner left the Hutchings-Votey shop and entered into a partnership with another former Hutchings-Votey employee to form the Skinner & Cole Company in 1902. By 1904 the Skinner & Cole partnership had dissolved and Ernest M. Skinner & Company purchased the contract for The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City (Opus 113, 1904) from the former company for $1.

By 1912 Ernest M. Skinner & Company had refined the pitman windchest to a state of simple elegance. (Pitman chests allow air to be pressurized under the pipes at all time, eliminating noise and other problems of ventil chests that apply wind only when a stop is drawn.) Virtually all major electro-pneumatic action American Organ Builders, including M. P. Möller, W. W. Kimball (both firms now defunct), Schantz, and Reuter use some form of the Pitman windchest to this day although most have only recently begun to credit Skinner with the design and subsequent refinements that make it an industry benchmark.(An exception would be the Austin Organ Company, which builds its own ingenious Universal Air Chest.)

Skinner developed a systematic method for fixed measurements in his organ consoles — a series of set distances between the various keyboards, placement of the pedalboard at a specific distance from the Great manual as well as the placement of the various expression shoes and other mechanical devices that have significantly contributed to the "Standard" American Guild of Organists (AGO) Console Measurements in use in the United States since 1930. In addition to his development and refinement of the Pitman windchest, Skinner also developed and perfected the Whiffletree Shade Motor — a mechanical device that moves the expression shades from the open to closed position in a smooth, fluid motion without the "slam" that often accompanies mechanical shade traces. Skinner consoles had fully adjustable combination pistons (another mechanical device that visibly moves the stopknobs to any combination pre-set by the organist) decades before other American firms adopted similar devices as standard. In short, Ernest M. Skinner & Company used the best materials available combined with an extremely high level of craftsmanship and mechanical perfection of cutting-edge technology that made the organ as easy to play as a concert piano.

This ease that brought "The King of Instruments" under the complete control of the organist was coupled with Skinner's lifelong interest and obsession with orchestral color and its application to the pipe organ. The first of his new stops, the Erzähler, appeared in 1904 soon joined by other exotic tonal colors between 1908 and 1924 including an Orchestral Oboe, English Horn, Corno di Bassetto, Flügel Horn and Heckelphone that were all very true to their orchestral counterparts. In addition to his orchestral color reeds, Skinner also developed and perfected numerous string and hybrid flue stops, many with matching celestes of uncommon beauty. Among these were the usual Salicional/Voix Celeste and Dulciana/Unda Maris present in the Swell and Choir divisions of many American organs of the era but also his ethereal Flauto Dolce/Flute Celeste, his Dulcet (a pair of very narrow scaled string ranks tuned with a fast beat to heighten the intensity), a pair of inverted-flare Gambas found in the Solo divisions of many of his larger organs that allowed a rich, 'cello-like timbre for solo lines in the Tenor range, the Kleine Erzähler, a softer, brighter version of his earlier Erzähler as well as Pedal Violones at 32' and 16' pitches which he defined as "subtle, soft string stops." Yet with all these developments, Skinner is still best known for his French Horn — his only sonic creation that he actually patented.

During the first decade of existence, Ernest M. Skinner & Company developed a national reputation, building large organs for some of the most prestigious churches, concert halls, colleges, and auditoriums in the country, including The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (op. 150, 1906); Sage Chapel at Cornell University (op. 175, 1909); Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh (op. 180, 1910); Appleton Chapel, Harvard (op. 197, 1912); St. Thomas Episcopal Churchmarker, New York, New York (op. 205, 1913); Finney Chapel, Oberlin College (op. 230, 1914) and the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York (op. 280, 1917).

Ernest M. Skinner & Company failed and was reorganized following the First World War with Arthur H. Marks (who had amassed a fortune as the former General Manager and Vice-President of the Goodrich Rubber Company) as the President and Skinner as Vice-President of the newly organized Skinner Organ Company. In 1924, at the behest of Marks and William Zeuch, another principal at the factory, Skinner made his second trip to England, this time meeting with Henry Willis, III, the grandson of "Father" Henry Willis (Sr.) and also spent considerable time in France with Marcel Dupré learning about mutation stops and chorus work of the French Romantic Organ. Skinner returned to the United States with a new love for unison and quint Mixtures and more brilliant upperwork that was standard fare in English organs of the era although it is not clear whether this love sprung from Skinner's exposure to Henry Willis, III or Skinner's exposure to organs built by Harrison and Harrison, the firm that had taken center-stage in the pre-WWII Edwardian era.

Friction in the Boston Factory had begun to build between Marks and Skinner and was further exacerbated when the young Englishman George Donald Harrison joined the Skinner staff as Assistant General Manager in 1927 at the behest of Willis III. Early collaborations between the elder Skinner and the younger Harrison resulted in three "Landmark Organs" in the late 1920s — the first built in 1928 for The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor then two additional large organs for the Chapel at Princeton, then another in Rockefeller Memorial Chapelmarker at the University of Chicago. By the end of 1929 Skinner (who was then 63 years old) had become fully aware that the younger Harrison was not intended as a protégé for the elder Skinner but was rather meant to be his replacement. The Great Depression, of course, exacerbated the entire situation, although some organists maintained their loyalty to Skinner and his product and the company was happy to have their business.

Skinner quietly sold his interest in The Skinner Organ Company to purchase the property now known as Methuen Memorial Music Hallmarker, including the adjacent organ factory. Both had been built by Edward Francis Searles to house and maintain the very large organ which was originally built for the Boston Music Hall in 1863. In the following years Skinner presented public performances of both choral and organ works with featured performers including Marcel Dupré and E. Power Biggs.

It was Skinner's intent to form a new business concern with his son, Richmond Skinner, to be known as Ernest M. Skinner and Son, and to compete with the firm that Skinner had founded and that still bore his name. Marks was able to persuade Skinner (with the help of Skinner's wife, Mabel and his son, Richmond) to enter into a five-year contract with The Skinner Organ Company which provided Skinner with an annual salary of $5,000 in exchange for the continued use of his name, but required that Skinner and his newly purchased interest in the Methuen Organ Company would not compete with Skinner in the construction of new organs but rather "confine his work..." in the Methuen shop " the rebuilding of older pipe organs." In January 1932, The Skinner Organ Company merged with The Æolian Organ Company to form The Æolian-Skinner Organ Company, with G. Donald Harrison appointed as Tonal Director.

Later years

In 1936 Skinner was able to form Ernest M. Skinner and Son and produced one final, spectacular organ for Washington National Cathedralmarker that opened in the fall of 1938 to wide national acclaim. Financial troubles forced the company to file for bankruptcy on October 1, 1941, then fire burned the Methuen Shop to the ground on June 17, 1943.

Skinner was a prolific writer with numerous letters to the editors of The Diapason and The American Organist appearing in those publications from the 1940s onward wherein he defended his tonal ideals and made an attempt to regain lost territory on the American musical landscape. From the 1940's onward, Skinner saw many of his best organs rebuilt beyond recognition while others were thrown out wholesale in the name of progress. Even the three "Landmark Organs" mentioned in the previous section were subject to this trend with modifications to the Chicago organ being carried out only a few years after its completion. Following the death of his wife Mabel, in 1951, he entered a downward spiral from which he never recovered. The tonal revision of his earlier organs at St. John the Divine, NYC (op. 150, 1911), St. Thomas, NYC (op. 205, 1913) and his final large organ built for the National Cathedral all fell subject to this trend by the mid-'50s, further complicating his emotional state as he saw his life's work (and by extension, himself) gradually going extinct. Of a total of 49 four-manual organs built prior to 1919, there remain only two instruments in their original installation and unaltered tonal state. The Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall at Yale Universitymarker, which was rebuilt by Skinner in 1928, remains in its original installation with an unaltered tonal state; it contains over 12,000 pipes. The 1912 Opus 190 (4 manual 55 rank) instrument at Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri remains the oldest original intact installation of Skinner's. Many previously altered E.M. Skinner organs have been restored along the lines of their original design because of the renewed appreciation of his work. Often chests and pipework are returned to pristine-looking appearance. Several active restoration studios are specialists in E.M. Skinner installations.

The end of Skinner's life found him in relative obscurity and died the night between November 26-27, 1960 at the age of 94. He is buried in Bethel, Mainemarker.

Bibliography/suggested reading

  • The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner — Dorothy Holden published by The Organ Historical Society, 1985
  • Stop, Open and Reed published by The Organ Historical Society, 1997
  • All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters — Craig R. Whitney published by PublicAffairs a member of the Perseus Books Group
  • The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters — Charles Callahan published by The Organ Historical Society, 1990
  • The Modern Organ-- Ernest M. Skinner published by the H.W. Gray Co., 1917

E.M. Skinner organs today

Washington Street UMC. 1401 Washington Street Columbia, SC 29201 Photos of 2008 restoration

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