We continue the interview with Barbara Owen, historian, lecturer, organist, and church musician.
J: You are also the author of among four other major works, the definitive source, The Organ in New England. At an amazing 649 pages, this is the only comprehensive discussion of the artistic supremacy of organ builders in America’s golden age. Please describe the importance of your work for not only organists, but organ enthusiasts and music-lovers worldwide.
Ms. Owen: The genesis of the book was my 1961 Master’s thesis, at a time when American topics were not very popular as material for academic papers. But even after that was finished I kept accumulating more material on the subject as several years passed. As the bicentennial approached, American topics became of more interest in the academic community. Eventually it was suggested that I work it into a book, and thanks to some supportive colleagues I applied for and got an NEH grant that allowed me to take a few months off from my day job and write, write, write – on a portable typewriter, with the floor littered with crumpled paper, and a bottle of white-out handy.
The grant also made more research possible, so I was poring over old newspapers and music magazines in libraries, and digging into church archives. A small publisher with an interest in organs took on the task of publishing it, and it finally came out in 1979. I was glad that I focused solely on New England, though, as it allowed me to do it in depth, and for the first time to attempt a completer picture of the extraordinary achievements of the highly skilled artisans who founded an American organ-building industry that eventually rivaled that of England and the Continent.
Around the same time Orpha Ochse tackled the entire country in an excellent but more general survey, and others started writing about organ building in New York and other regions, so by now one can have a quite long bookshelf of studies related to organs and their builders in America.
J: The Organ Historical Society is unique in its mission as it “celebrates, preserves, and studies the pipe organ in America in all its historic styles, through research, education, advocacy, and music.” To reiterate, the focus is exclusively on American pipe organs. As Past-President of this organization, why do you think the work of The Organ Historical Society is of such importance? And urgency? Would you please give some examples of the work done by the Society?
Ms. Owen: The O.H.S. had its origin in a meeting in a church choir room of several friends concerned about the state of historic American organs, during the 1956 AGO National Convention in New York. And yes, there was a distinct sense of urgency, as we had all been witnessing the rebuilding or outright destruction of historic American organs. Hence the name. I was elected first president. Similar organizations already existed in European countries, so there was precedent.
Our first effort was a mimeographed newsletter, named The Tracker since at the time most of those older organs had mechanical action, and also because we were intent on tracking them down and studying them; it is now an important journal. Soon it included listings of threatened organs available for relocation, which eventually became the independent Organ Clearing House, by means of which many “orphan” instruments have since found new homes.
As membership grew, annual conventions were held in various locations, and these too helped to raise consciousness about the worth of historic organs. In Europe, historic organs are often given special citations, and so a program was instituted to cite American organs of especial cultural significance.
Membership growth spurred more projects, one of the most substantial being a library and archive devoted to another kind of preservation, containing books relating to the history and construction of organs, periodicals, and archival material, some from defunct U.S. organ building firms. Next came the OHS Press, which has since issued many books dealing with facets of the organ in America.
Then a scholarship program called the Biggs Fellowship was established specifically to allow younger people to attend the yearly conferences and become members. Some have since distinguished themselves as performers, teachers, or members of the organbuilding trade. So in various ways the O.H.S. and its members continue to have an important impact on the organ culture of America.
Dr. Jeannine Jordan, interviewer, is a concert organist who promotes the music of early America in her organ and multi-media concert experience, From Sea to Shining Sea.