October 8, 2020 Organ Notes

Boston’s Temple of Music and the Great Organ

The Walcker organ in Boston Music Hall. Bach stands in front of the organ

Boston’s Music Hall opened in 1852. A four-story structure, it was the largest performance space in Boston. Between its main floor and two balconies, it seated over 2,000 people. It was intended as a “temple of Music.” The intention was reinforced by the oversized reproduction of the Vatican’s Apollo Belvedere (Apollo being the Greek god of music) that stood in the interior.

The Handel and Haydn Society moved to Music Hall and gave the inaugural concert. It also rented its Appleton organ to the hall. But no one was satisfied. The Appleton organ was built for use in smaller halls than the vast Music Hall. Moreover, it had never been intended for solo recitals of the lush organ compositions and symphonic transcriptions that were becoming popular by the mid-19th century.

In 1856, the Music Hall’s board of directors approved a plan to spend $25,000 on an instrument that would eventually be known as the “Great Organ.” Committee members traveled to Great Britain, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany seeking information, ideas and cost estimates. A year later, they settled on the German firm of Walcker Organbuilders headed by Eberhard Friedrich Walcker.

Walcker (1794-1872) worked slowly, but Boston hopes remained high. Finally, in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Walcker and his team arrived in Boston. It took six months to assemble the now-completed organ. It weighed more than sixty tons, had four manuals and eighty-nine stops. Its black walnut case, designed by a Boston artist and built by two craftsmen brothers of New York, took two years of intense labor. It was the largest and most complex organ in the Americas. Its inauguration lasted a full week.

The board of directors of the Music Hall, not coincidentally, were all members of the Harvard Musical Association. The entire amount needed for the construction of the hall had been raised by the Harvard Musical Association, and most of the money for the Great Organ came from the same source. Founded in 1837 by Harvard graduates, the association sought, among other goals, “to exercise a wholesome, elevating and conservative influence on musical taste around us.”

Did it succeed? Eventually, yes, as we call all attest from the excellent music we enjoy in Boston. But achieving that goal took time. Boston audiences in mid-century were not self-conscious. They liked the popular and entertaining as well as the august and uplifting. Thus, the elegant Appleton organ had accompanied travelling musicians in a popular piece known as the “Runaway Gallop”. As the music played, a little mock steam-engine scooted about the floor of the hall, with black cotton wool smoke coming out of the funnel.

And the Great Organ? One concert program announced that the fantasia from the opera “Maritania” by William Wallace would be played as a duet for mouth harmonica and the Great Organ. It was a combination that, the audience in the Music Hall was informed, had “never before attempted in the history of music!”

And, Charles, as we sit together with our new organ in Christ Church, what do you have planned for us?