October 29, 2020 Organ Notes

The Great Organ Showdown in Boston Music Hall

Grover & Baker’s advertisement

1881 was a momentous year in both Tombstone, Arizona and Boston, Massachusetts. In that year, the Earp brothers faced off against the Clanton-McLaury gang in the shootout at the O.K. Corral. In the same year, Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Three years later Boston Music Hall was the scene of a showdown. The BSO, growing in size and in public popularity, faced off against the Great Organ, weighing in at 70 tons and measuring 47 feet-wide, 18 feet-deep, and 70 feet-high. At stake was control of the stage space. Outgunned, the organ was expelled, disassembled and placed in storage.

It had only a few years earlier been revered as a valuable cultural resource. At its installation, it was both the only concert organ and the largest organ in the United States. It inspired church organists on the East Coast to learn secular organ music, to embrace the symphonic possibilities of the instrument, and to schedule public organ recitals.

The original sponsors of the Great Organ had spent approximately $85,000 on it. To resurrect the organ from its dusty bin, it needed a new patron—a person who had money, loved the organ, harbored a vision for its use, and, most importantly, could provide the space to house it. William O. Grover qualified in most regards.

Grover started life as a poor Boston tailor and ended life as a successful international sewing machine manufacturer. At a time when tailors in Europe had attacked sewing machine inventors, burnt their manufacturing places and literally driven one to the poorhouse, Grover regarded the sewing machine as both revolutionary and inevitable. He also saw the sewing machine as a financial opportunity, rather than a threat. He partnered with another Boston tailor, William E. Baker. Together, they patented mechanical improvements to the sewing machine that resulted in a double chain stitch with two threads. They invented the portable sewing machine. Their company, begun in 1851 in Haymarket Square, spread across the East Coast and Great Britain.

Grover’s admiration for complex machinery may have influenced his decision to buy the Great Organ. At $5,000, it was also a good price. He may have intended it to donate it to the New England Conservatory (NEC), the second oldest independent music conservatory in the United States. He even stored it in an old barn behind the NEC. It might have been good fit, since NEC had instituted the earliest organ performance program in the country. But it also might have proved too overwhelming in size and assemblage to install at the conservatory. At Grover’s death in 1897, the will was mute in terms of any bequest to NEC; the organ was still in storage; and his heirs auctioned it along with the rest of his estate.

The next person to buy the Great Organ was Edward Francis Searles. He became the person who made it all happen. He loved organs. And how he came to have the money to buy the organ, to harbor a vision for its use, and to create the space for its performance is a story in itself.

To be continued next week.

A woman operating a Grover and Baker sewing machine

A man performing at the Great Organ