Minority Rites

July 11, 2009

niche One of the happiest developments for those of us with interests that inhabit what are called niches is that no niche-interest is too small to get its full due through new media. There seems to be a blog for everything, and communication between people involved with the rarest pursuit can find fellow-enthusiasts somewhere in the world to gratify and stoke that zeal. Marketing has come to see the power of this phenomenon under the label of the “long tail” — out of which fortunes are being made on what would once have been deemed unprofitable minority concerns.

Some of these niches, of course, predate digital media but nevertheless profit from them and the communication they forward. Those interested, for example, in the history of the design, technology, manufacture, preservation, and restoration of pipe organs have long merited their reputation as a particularly hardy lot. The Organ Historical Society was founded in 1956, largely under the influence of the doyenne of organ historians, Barbara Owen, for whom that adjective hardy would constitute a laughable understatement. At the time when the Society was founded, the keenest interest among historians and amateurs was focused on the mechanical-action pipe organs that had predated the innovations involving pneumatic and electrical means, starting in the late 19th century. Their interest was far from being all abstract, for valuable monuments to artistic creativity and technological genius were being destroyed constantly in those days, simply for want of an appreciation for their irreplaceable value — a value often obscured by poor maintenance or the redundancy or altered purpose of the venues that housed them.

Such ardent concentration on one type of instrument, mostly those of greatest antiquity, led to an unfortunate corollary: the instruments that had gradually succeeded the old mechanical-action (also called tracker-action) organs in dominance began themselves to be replaced — often thoughtlessly — by new instruments that sought to imitate the virtues (and technology) of the older style. Many of these new organs were of the highest quality, but many were not up to the standards of the instruments that they replaced — the best of which suffered from merely having become temporarily unfashionable. (It is true that some of the musical concerns that led to their falling out of favor had real validity in their aim to compensate for the relative neglect of certain musical values for a time.)

As we know, fashions can be cyclical. But the wheels don’t necessarily revolve on their own. There usually arise prophets who prepare the way for the new or the return of a proper appreciation for the old. In the case of the electro-pneumatic organs of “symphonic” character, a leading harbinger was Nelson Barden. In a certain approach to aristocratic quality of workmanship, he has no rivals. Though he might have persisted in crying in the wilderness, fueled by his ardor for these instruments — then considered decadent by much of the musical intelligentsia — his fervor fortunately was able to light fires in others as well. Some of these, happily, were not lacking in means to further his work in preserving and extending the use of what was left of a great tradition — one in which, by the way, a number of American builders had long kept the Patent Office busy and were stars of the recurrent “industrial exhibitions” that were such an item for the Victorians and Edwardians.

The occasion for my briefly (and thus insufficiently) commemorating his great accomplishments here was a celebration of Nelson Barden’s 75th birthday last Sunday in Boston. A grand banquet was held in the vast space that houses the Boston University Symphonic Organ, a creation of Mr. Barden out of surviving components deserving of a new home (the nucleus coming from the Aeolian house organs, once so common in the mansions of American magnates, belonging to benefactors of the University).

The after-dinner program included a wonderful silent movie, accompanied by anything but silence from the great organ, improvised with consummate skill and imagination by Peter Krasinski. Then came more masterly music-making on the Symphonic Organ, both from historic performances that were immortalized on paper rolls (the contents of which Mr. Barden has now digitalized, providing another valuable service to historic preservation) and — at least as notably — live performances by Harry Huff, one of the leading virtuosos of the symphonic manner on the pipe organ.

Then we heard a brilliant re-creation by two exponents of Nelson Barden’s shop, now leading practitioners in their own right, of what they credibly claim was the stock lecture Nelson Barden gave around 650 times to visitors to the Boston University Symphonic Organ. Jonathan Ambrosino and Joseph Rotella managed to be hilarious and moving at the same time.

Nelson Barden had declared that he wouldn’t utter a word by way of speechifying. Thanks, however, to the sway of the fruit of the vine, he gave an account of his life and work in perhaps twenty minutes that could have passed for a painstakingly-composed major address.

Here follow a few iPhone photos of the organ taken on the happy occasion, when over a hundred grateful diners — a remarkable turnout when the annual convention of the Organ Historical Society was getting underway in Cleveland — renewed bonds with each other, with the honoree, and with an art that is not now lost, partly because of Nelson Barden.

The Boston University Symphonic Organ
The console
Closeup of keyboards and pedal board
Enormous wooden pipes (I assume it’s the 32-foot First Bourdon)
Some of the minority of pipes that are not enclosed in swell boxes
Inside one of the boxes
Part of the organ’s percussion
The blowers that provide the wind
The Boston University Symphonic organ in full cry
(Barbara Owen looked up and quipped: “It’s a good thing there’s no tax on swell shades!“)

Here‘s a very brief video of Nelson Barden in his workshop.

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