October 1, 2020 Organ Notes

The Handel and Haydn Society and its Boston-Built Organs

The Appleton Organ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Few people in Boston today would know what caused the War of 1812. But many people would recognize one long-lasting result—start of the Handel and Haydn Society.

The War of 1812 had been deeply unpopular. On February 13, 1815, news of the war’s end reached Boston. Churches rang bells; drummers beat their drums; soldiers fired cannons. Ten days later, a parade, fireworks, and a ball were scheduled. And, to start it all off, singers and instrumentalists gathered at King’s Chapel, Boston (now renamed Stone Chapel) to perform a concert. They presented highlights from two recent and already famous oratorios—Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. One month later, on March 24, the singers officially formed the Handel and Haydn Society. Its purpose was “to cultivate and improve a correct taste in the Performance of Sacred Music.”

The Society was a success. Within two years, the audience for the Handel and Haydn Society had expanded beyond the seating capacity of Stone Chapel. The Society’s first move, in 1817, was to Boylston Hall, a multi-purpose meeting space located on the third floor of Boylston Market. Its second move, in 1839, was to Melodeon Hall, also a hall hosting many, varied events.

In both spaces, the Handel and Haydn Society needed an organ. In 1817, it commissioned an instrument from William Goodrich (1777-1833). Previously to Goodrich, New England organ builders had shaped metal organ pipes from the small lead sheets that lined imported tea chests. As a result, only pencil-sized pipes could be made of metal. All larger pipes were wooden. Goodrich, a carpenter by training, learned soft metal casting from a pewterer. He put his combined mechanical skills, plus his love for music, to use in building organs. By 1810, his organs were accompanying congregational singing in Boston churches.

In 1822, the Handel and Haydn Society published The Handel and Haydn Society’s Collection of Church Music. It was a bestseller. Now financially flush, the Society decided to upgrade its organ. It turned to Goodrich’s former assistant, Thomas Appleton (1812-1884). Appleton’s organs were known for their beautiful cabinetry and for their bright, unforced sound. The organ, with its 27 stops, had a recessed console and a Greek-revival case made of mahogany.

But another move to another space, this time to the Boston Music Hall, required an even larger organ. In 1863 the Appleton organ was dismantled and sold to Old First Church of San Francisco, California. In 1906 San Francisco was struck by a massive earthquake. Devastating fires, caused by ruptured gas mains, broke out. Firefighters tried to create fire breaks by dynamiting buildings, including Old First Church. To no avail. 80% of San Francisco burned; an estimated 3,000 people died. Along with its church and city, the Appleton organ was destroyed.

Very few of Appleton’s organs have survived. Imagine the elation of a young organ buff, in 1982, who was wandering through churches in the small city of Plains, Pa. to see what kinds of instruments they had there. Pickings had been slim. Then in the rear gallery of Sacred Heart Church, he came across an original Appleton organ.

It had first been installed in 1830 in South Church, in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1883, it had been moved to Sacred Heart Church in Plains.

By 1982, it had been half hidden behind a recently added wall and lowered ceiling. It was also unplayable. Replaced in the mid-20th century by an electronic organ, it had been forgotten. Neglect turned out to be a blessing. It had never been modernized. It had its original two keyboards, pedal board, pipes and hand-pump. It even had the initials carved into the back of the case by generations of choir boys who had taken their turns at pumping.

It is forlorn no longer. The Appleton organ of Plains, Pennsylvania now resides in a glorious setting. Acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it is attended by solicitous curators. After a painstaking restoration, it is in splendid condition. During concerts, organized by the Met, it is played with music by 18th and early 19th century composers. Handel and Haydn once again sound out from its pipes.

Boston is a city of music. With our new organ, we at Christ Church contribute the vitality of our community’s musical community.