Skinner Organ at University of Virginia's Cabell Hall Auditorium Celebrates 100 Years

April 21, 2008

April 22, 2008 — 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, which was installed in Cabell Hall in 1907.

"I have come to congratulate the University of Virginia. I'm awfully glad it is there," said Laurence Libin, research curator emeritus of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: E.M. Skinner Organ Celebrates 100 Years

Citing the many mechanical advances and the tonal innovations that Skinner incorporated into the design, and the fact that the organ is unaltered, in good condition and remains in the location where it was originally installed, he said, "This is really a monument. The organ here is a benchmark of American taste and ingenuity."

The March 29 tribute included an afternoon symposium at which Libin spoke on "Cautionary Notes: Reconciling Preservation and Function," and organ historian Barbara Owen presented "A Biographical Sketch of Ernest M. Skinner." 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 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 in 1906-07 that showcased the instrument's unique features.

"Ken Cowan’s recital was amazing," said Paul Walker, who teaches organ at the university. "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 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, Owen said.

Loach shared details about the 1907 dedication recitals, at which University President Edwin A. Alderman and Skinner gave brief remarks. Skinner described the organ's construction and various technical aspects of the instrument 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.

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. Also part of the original technology is a piston system with combinations set by the builder; a system of small lights at the console enables the organist to know which combination of stops is being played. Skinner was intrigued with perfecting the electro-pneumatic functions and in expanding the tonal capabilities; the Cabell Hall organ incorporates a number of his early advances in those areas. It 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.

"The organ here is irreplaceable and historical," Libin said. "Skinner's vision was in the vanguard a century ago. Organs like this just aren't built any more."

He also spoke about the challenges of preserving intricate musical instruments like the Skinner organ due to the various different materials used in construction, including wood, leather and an assortment of metals, that require vastly different preservation climates. The value of preservation lies in part in protecting "how an instrument sounded 100 years ago. It's part of the history of music and instruments themselves."

Libin 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."

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 performances of several musical organizations 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, who graduated in 1977, fondly remembered those occasions and 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.

Earl Miller, music director of the Episcopal parish of Christ Church in Andover, Mass., known for his interpretations of music composed during the Victorian-Edwardian era, played the rededication concert on Oct. 20, 1983. 

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.

Loach reminisced fondly about one incident involving the organ. For numerous years, the late organist Yvaine Duisit, who was born in France, would accompany the annual "Messiah Sing-Ins" held at Christmas time. As part of those events, it became a tradition to include the singing of the "Twelve Days of Christmas." Audience members would arrive early and sit in that section of the auditorium assigned to the day of their choice. When the moment arrived for the three French hens "the entire group would stand and wave the French tricolor and Duisit would accompany them by playing the opening bars of the French national anthem, 'la Marseillaise,'" Loach said as a big grin crossed his face.

On a more serious note, Loach closed by saying that "it has been my pleasure to be so closely related to that instrument over the years."

— By Jane Ford