Organ Note September 24

Merriment, Midnight Revels and an Early Boston Organ

Snetzler Organ (1762) originally located in Boston Concert Hall being played by Don Enos, organist of the Congregational Church, South Dennis, Massachusetts.

The organ in South Dennis on Cape Cod has a sweet tone and a colorful past. A past punctuated by foreign frivolities, Puritan disapproval, revolutionary upheavals, and frequent moves. And now, finally, the organ is enjoying a benign, respectable old age.

The organ was created by Johannes Snetzler (1710-1785), a prominent organ builder born in Switzerland and transplanted to England. Musicians prized Snetzler’s organs. Handel used them to play his concertos. During the premiere of Messiah in Dublin in 1748, Handel accompanied his oratorio on a Snetzler organ.

Snetzler built both small residential organs and larger church organs. One of the two residential organs imported into the American colonies was owned by Samuel Bard. The physician to George Washington and the founder of Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Bard hid the organ during the American Revolution to preserve it. One of the two church organs imported to the colonies was installed in Christ Church, Cambridge. It suffered the effects feared by Bard for his personal organ. Its pipes were melted down for bullets by the revolutionary forces.

The fifth organ was the beauty of the bunch. This organ was purchased by Stephen Deblois (1699-1778), Boston’s first musical entrepreneur. Born in Oxford, England, he arrived in Boston 1720 with William Burnet, a British civil servant and music lover who became governor of Massachusetts in 1728. In 1729, Deblois opened a dancing school. In 1733 he became organist at King’s Chapel. In 1752, he built a substantial three-story brick building. The lower floors housed his import business; the upper floor was a concert hall. The hall hosted performances by local musicians and bands, theater readings, social meetings, dinners and celebrations, balls and dances. All this was interposed with sword-swallowers, ventriloquists, card magicians, and spiritualist guides to the afterlife.

The Snetzler organ was installed in Deblois’s Concert Hall in 1763, arriving after a long and stormy voyage. Economic downturns caused by Boston’s restive politics brought financial hardships to the Deblois family. Loyalists and Anglicans, many Deblois family members left for Halifax. The organ was sold King’s Chapel, Providence, Rhode Island. Some New Englanders, like Yale president and Congregationalist minister Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), were dubious about the organ’s fitness to promote the worship of God. It had, he noted disapprovingly in his diary, been used to “promote Festivity, Merriment, Effeminacy, Luxury, and Midnight Revellings.” But then, Anglicans had always had more fun. The minister of King’s Chapel tried to allay doubts by preaching a sermon on the “Excellency and Advantage of Instrumental Music in Public Worship.”

Now suitably sanctified, the Snetzler organ had not ended its odyssey. Displaced from King’s Chapel by a larger organ, it was sold in 1835 to First Church, Gloucester. In the 1850’s, it was sold again. This time it reached South Dennis, where it has been lovingly restored and is now gently cared for. It is, after all, older than the nation in which it resides.

At Christ Church, Needham, we will hear sacred works by Handel on our new organ. We may think of the musician’s friendship with Johannes Snetzler, the organ builder who provided the composer and England’s distant colonists with wonderful instruments still enhancing worship experiences. And we will renew our own friendships with each other in person.