elson Barden has long been known in Boston circles for his elegant restoration work on famous organs such as Church of the Advent, Groton School and Old South Church. But it is his firm's restorations of two small player organs at Boston University that have brought him international acclaim.

The first instrument is a 12-rank 1930 Skinner, Opus 764, originally installed in the home of Percy A. Rockefeller in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1981 this organ was donated to Boston University by John R. Robinson, then Secretary of the University Board of Trustees. Shortly afterward, a 23-rank 1930 Aeolian, Opus 1783 from the Winchester mansion of Boston candy-maker William E. Schrafft, was added to the project, the donation of the late Dr. Arthur G. B. Metcalf, Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1976 to 1994.

Dr. Metcalf's vision was to preserve the two instruments intact, yet combine them into a larger musical entity. Nelson Barden & Associates were appointed Restorers - in - Residence at Boston University, and installed a fully-equipped restoration studio in the Fuller Building on Commonwealth Avenue. An eight-year restoration to museum-quality standards was sponsored by the Arthur G.B. Metcalf Foundation. During the project, additions from other vintage Skinner and Aeolian organs enlarged the instrument from 35 to 62 ranks.

Throughout the 1980s, thousands of visitors from all over the world visited the studio to see the restored instrument in its parquet-floored chambers surrounded by polished brass handrails. Nelson Barden and his staff gave more than 500 demonstrations of the organ and its automatic player mechanisms, accompanied by a narrated history of the restoration.The highlight of that period came during the 1990 American Guild of Organists National Convention in Boston, when the B.U. organ was featured in late-night demonstrations for more than 1,000 conventioneers.

During the summer of 1993, the final phase of Dr. Metcalf's vision became a reality when the organ was relocated to Metcalf Hall in the George Sherman Union, the heart of University social life. On October 26, 1994 the instrument was formally dedicated in honor of Dr. John R. Silber, seventh President of Boston University.

Building on the success of the studio walk-through, the Metcalf Hall installation was conceived as a grand promenade of organ pipes. A parquet-floored corridor runs straight through the instrument, and visitors can look through glass doors into five of the chambers, the largest of which contains 1,560 pipes. The blowing plant (33 horsepower in all) is on display - a plethora of vintage blowers, reservoirs and shiny new metal ducts, with framed wind gauges showing the various stages of wind pressure. The original Skinner and Aeolian consoles are exhibited in an adjacent room, while another chamber features electro-pneumatically operated percussions. Even passersby who know little about pipe organs find this installation visually captivating.

Presenting a vintage instrument in this manner is a step beyond the kind of museum - quality restoration that Barden himself helped introduce to electro-pneumatic organs in the late 1970s. (Other key figures in this movement were the Thompson - Allen Company of New Haven and Edward M. Stout of San Francisco. Their pioneering efforts have encouraged other restorers to develop similar techniques.) In its first phase, the museum - quality movement emphasized that the look of an instrument, as much as its tone, contributed to the artistic effect. Chambers were painted, both for appearance and hard reflection of tone. Pipework was fully restored, in order to recapture the original voicing and effect. Internal leathering work reached a peak of perfection, while external components were given a fresh appearance, emphasizing the elegance of the original construction.

In the Silber organ, this approach has been taken to its logical conclusion. In addition to listening to the organ and viewing the chambers while it is playing, the main corridor through the instrument is always open as a pedestrian walkway. Students stroll through the organ on the way to class; some stop to eat lunch there. From the start, the instrument was designed to be a living display of art and technology, restored to perfection and open to the public. Whether playing or silent, the organ makes a statement on many artistic levels.

Tonally, the organ continues to respect the residence organ aesthetic. The Skinner and Aeolian organs were gently voiced, and although effective in the studio setting, it was clear they could not be forced past their residence parameters without destroying their integrity. In addition, the core concept was automatic performance, and it seemed only natural that the new installation perpetuate and build upon that ideal.



esidence organs were musical chameleons. They could mimic the sound of church, concert or theater organs, even a 1920s dance band. However, their most elevated role was to reproduce the effect of a miniature symphony orchestra. Indeed, these instruments were the ultimate orchestral organs, with all the velocity, attack, tone color and expression that the concept implies.

Virtually all residence organs had automatic players run by paper roll recordings. These were of two kinds: symphony rolls and hand-played rolls. Symphony rolls were usually created by recording a rhythm track on graph paper and drawing in the notes directly from the orchestral score. The technique dates from 1885, when paper roll music was invented. By the 1920s, the techniques were highly refined.

The patterns of notes and registration on symphony rolls were entirely orchestral and quite different from those customarily employed even by skilled transcription players. For organists, the music had to fall within the physical possibilities of fingers and feet. But for roll editors, human limitations no longer applied. All the notes necessary to produce an orchestral effect, including chords of up to twenty notes, were effortlessly spread across the manuals. Registrations changed with lightning speed, and complex melody coupling produced effects that even two organists playing a duet could not match. The only limitation on symphony roll music was the taste and imagination of the arranger.

In addition to arranged rolls, many noted organists made roll recordings, first produced in 1910 by Welte & Sohn in Freiburg, Germany. Despite the limited technology of the period, the Welte recorder captured the notes, shade movements and registration changes of live playing, all with astonishing fidelity. After World War I, the recording techniques were refined in America; soon enough, virtually every prominent organist could be heard on player rolls.

At Boston University, roll - operated performances range from orchestrion arrangements made in the early 1880s to popular music of the 1930s. The early Welte recordings are particularly significant, as the artists were late Victorians, some of whom were born as early as 1865.

Since many of the older rolls are now in deteriorated condition, a computer system was installed in the early 1980s. By recording the roll performances for electronic playback, the computer preserved this fragile musical legacy in digital form. The software was rudimentary by today's standards, but it did allow notes, stops and expression to be altered and wrong notes to be removed.

In 1993, after seven years of development, an improved high - speed performance recorder was installed. Designed by John Irwin, a mathematics professor in Marlborough, England, and built by Roy Battell of Computamation Ltd. in Milton Keynes, the Boston University Symphonic Organ Recorder (BUSOR) is the fastest and most accurate organ record-edit-playback system in the world.

In particular, its resolution and accuracy of note placement staggers the imagination. For example, the blink of an eye and the shortest note playable on an organ both take about a twentieth of a second. During that minuscule period, BUSOR is capable of playing 1,000 notes or changing 1,000 stops fifty times. Such infinitesimal fidelity captures every nuance of rhythm and articulation necessary to faithful reproduction.

The editing software allows the operator to create new recordings or computer-assisted arrangements of unlimited complexity. Through these features, BUSOR becomes an artistic medium in its own right. Where the old arrangers drew out symphony rolls on graph paper, today the music can be constructed right on screen.


etcalf Hall, the home of the Silber organ, is the University's primary multi-purpose facility for meetings, banquets and receptions. Sliding doors and walls adapt the size of the room to different purposes, from a 600-seat auditorium to a 600,000 cubic foot area that can seat 2,000 for dinner.

Clearly, these acoustical conditions are no longer those of a residence organ salon. Because of the variable sound transmission when the room is rearranged, a portable voicing machine helped determine the room's acoustical response in its various configurations. Based on these tests, a number of ranks were added to fit the organ to the new environment.

The organ is 30' high, 100' wide and weighs 22.5 tons. The installation takes the form of five lower chambers and three upper ones, with unenclosed ranks at either end. The lower chambers contain the 62 ranks of the original studio installation. Apart from minor reconfiguration and new two-inch-thick swell shades, these divisions were moved intact. The tonal result exhibits the refined piano and mezzo effects for which residence organs were renowned, and the broad horizontal spread creates a carpet of tone that is unusually orchestral in nature. Fast-running passages on the multiplicity of muted strings and woodwind voices are clear in texture and surprisingly fleet in effect.

The upper chambers contain a restored Solo division and portions of a 1928 Skinner (Opus 665) formerly in Boston's John Hancock Hall. Three-inch-thick swell shades direct the tone downward toward the floor of the room. The tone of the upper divisions grows out of the lower ones, lending increased presence, brilliance and dynamic impact. The culmination of the instrument will be a Fanfare division, now in the planning stages. This will include heroic chorus, woodwind and brass registers for climactic effects when Metcalf Hall is maximally expanded.

For an organist, it is difficult to understand the layout of an instrument unless it falls into established patterns. Therefore, to make the varied resources of the Silber organ conform to accepted practice, the names of the original divisions were changed. The 12-rank Skinner, originally divided into Manual I and Manual II, was renamed Enclosed Great, and four ranks of strings from the studio installation were added in the same chamber. Fifty feet away at the other end of the organ, the former Aeolian Great and Echo were combined to make the Choir. This duplicates the woodwind and brass voices in the Skinner (First and Second Trumpets, First and Second Clarinets, First and Second French Horns) to provide stereo and echo effects. The largest single division combines the pipes of the Aeolian Swell and Antiphonal into a String Organ of 1,560 pipes, which completes the lower section of the organ.

On the upper level, the new Solo in the upper left corner combines flues on 10" wind and reeds on 15" wind. The center chamber contains the Skinner Swell division from Opus 665, unaltered except for the replacement of the 16' Bourdon with a 32'-16' Waldhorn. The Great and Choir from the same instrument became the unenclosed Great on the upper right. Pedal ranks from the studio are displayed on the wall at the ends of the instrument, with a 16' Major Bass crowning the top of the organ. Presently there are 102 ranks and 6,815 pipes. When the Fanfare is installed, there will be 7,500 pipes. A four-manual drawknob console, currently under construction, will control the entire instrument.


he John R. Silber Symphonic Organ is the culmination of a 16-year development process that continues to this day. It is an unusual multi-purpose instrument designed to play a variety of music and serve many functions: classical organ concerts, symphonic realizations, silent film accompaniment, and background music for banquets and receptions. With its old and new technology, diverse tonal elements and walk-through experience, it is a singular combination of art and technology, and a unique display of Americana.

©1997 Jonathan Ambrosino. All rights reserved.

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