November 12, 2020 Organ Notes

Booms and Busts, War and Conflagration: The Great Organ and its Survival

Great Organ, Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts

On June 1, 1942, the United States War Production Board issued an order that mandated the conversion of the entire musical instrument manufacturing industry to defense work. All organ builders were ordered to convert to producing blowers for flight simulators used in the ground training of pilots. Four months later the organ building company, Ernest M. Skinner and Son, declared bankruptcy. The mortgage holder foreclosed on the company’s property, which consisted of the Great Organ, Serlo Hall and the Methuen Organ company factory.

It was a sad ending to Ernest Skinner’s distinguished career as an organ builder. Skinner (1866-1960) had started his career as a bellows pumper for the Baptist Church in Taunton, Massachusetts and worked his way upwards. He became, in succession, a shop boy for the organ builder George H. Ryder of Reading, Massachusetts; and then a mechanic, tuner and factory supervisor for George S. Hutchings, an organ builder in Boston.

Fortune smiled on him in the form of Montgomery Sears, a wealthy Boston arts patron. Financed by Sears, Skinner traveled abroad in 1898 to study organs in Europe and England. He returned to America with “English and European sounds resonating in his head,” and with the ambition to create an organ surpassing the power, warmth, and full sounds of a symphony orchestra.

In 1901, Skinner formed his own organ company in South Boston. World War I was a hard time for organ builders. But the industry boomed in the 1920s. Skinner tapped into the entertainment markets of radio and theater. He provided organs for private residences of the wealthy, as well as for churches, colleges and universities.

But poor financial management, changing musical tastes and the Depression overtook Skinner. Forever improving his instruments, Skinner often lost money on his largest organ commissions. The German organ reform movement advocated a return to instruments that produced baroque era sounds of Bach’s contrapuntal fugues, rather than the full sweep of Wagner’s symphonies. The year before the stock market crash Skinner’s company had earned $271,000. Three years later, it earned only $10,000.

In 1931, Skinner bought the Great Organ, Serlo Hall and the Methuen Organ Company from the heirs of Edward Francis Searles. It must have been a bittersweet moment. His company was being merged with the pipe organ division of the Aeolian Company. One of the world’s largest musical instrument-making firms, the Aeolian Company was known for their automatic player pianos and organs. Skinner was being forced out. But he had spent a lifetime building symphonic organs for clients. Now he owned one himself.

And he showcased it. He opened Serlo Hall to the public. He invited renowned organists to present concerts. He sponsored live broadcasts over national radio from the Great Organ.

In 1943 the Methuen Organ factory building was destroyed by fire. Serlo Hall and the Great Organ were spared. In 1949, then in his eighties and almost completely deaf, Skinner retired completely from organ building. He spent the last years of his life in California. From afar, he witnessed many of his organs being rebuilt to suit the newer tastes in organ music.

One consolation Skinner may have felt was that the Great Organ remained intact as a splendid symphonic instrument. In May 1946, eight local residents in Methuen founded a charitable organization to buy and maintain the music hall and to operate it as a cultural center. The public concerts on the Great Organ continue to this day.

At Christ Church we will hear the sounds of an Aeolian-Skinner organ. Manufactured after Skinner’s retirement, it departs from the full symphonic sounds that Skinner loved. It was built for a church setting and it will ring out with clear polyphonic textures and graceful solo lines. And we will have opportunities to visit Methuen ourselves and hear the Great Organ whose sound Skinner loved and preserved. An organ with nine lives, and still counting.


Great Organ, Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts