PIPORG-L: An American Classic

Richard Elliott

The organ which I play on a regular basis is regarded by many as the culmination of what has come to be known as the "American Classic" style of organbuilding. Consequently, I have thought a lot about the meaning of those two words--"American," and "classic."

By "American" one could presume that this particular style of organbuilding either originated or was codified in North America. Might it not also be a synonym for "eclectic," in the sense that America is regarded as one of the great melting pots of the world, a place where a fascinating cross-section of humanity mingles, interacts, and crossbreeds?

The word "classic" connotes authenticity, tradition, simplicity, and excellence. But when preceded by the prefix, "American," it could also connote inauthenticity, nontraditionalism, complexity, and mediocrity, since those are also "classic" aspects of American culture and society.

What did Emerson Richards (the supposed author of the term) mean when he referred to a particular organbuilding style as "American Classic"? Speaking of his associate G. Donald Harrison, he wrote, "He has set up for himself, taken all the ideas that he was heir to as well as some others that he has been talked into, and made something which in a shadowy sort of way may be considered American." More specifically, Harrison and Richards were espousing ". . . a blending of modern organ practice with classic design." Richards goes on to say, "We are simply trying to increase the musical possibilities of the modern organ, to clean out the indecision and the fog in favor of greater variety, brilliance, and precision."

What does this have to do with PIPORG-L?

Simply this: I like to think of PIPORG-L as an American Classic. It is "American" not only because it originated in North America, but also because it is a true melting pot of ideas, a place where tracker-backers, tibiaphiles, and everyone in between is given an equal opportunity to win friends, influence people, and occasionally touch off flame wars. As in any American metropolis, its denizens hail from many parts of the globe, and the topics of discussion reflect the wide variety of their respective musical tastes and experiences.

PIPORG-L is "classic" because it helps to preserve the great traditions of the past while upholding standards of excellence and authenticity. But at the same time, it is also "classically American" in that it provides a non-traditional forum for both traditional and non-traditional ideas. And, as with that great American institution, democracy, the conversation can sometimes get fairly combative and the rhetoric pretty strong. As my fellow Baltimorean, H. L. Mencken once wrote, "Under democracy one party always devotes its energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule--and both commonly succeed and are right."

I have been a subscriber since the early days of PIPORG-L and still find it as fascinating and engaging as when I received my first e-mail from the list way back in 1994. It has broadened my horizons, taught me many things I never knew before (especially in the area of pipe organ construction), kept me informed of new and exciting instruments, performers, and music, and served as a lifeline when I had come to dead-ends while searching for music, recordings, or other information. Nowadays, when I read a letter to the editor in one of the "hard-copy" organ journals which either launches a discussion or else solicits help in locating music or information, I have to chuckle to myself at these poor, uninitiated folks who are still living in the Stone Age and who must wait at least one or two months before receiving any response. PIPORG-L subscribers can do the same thing and receive dozens of replies before the day is over. And it doesn't cost a penny to subscribe!

Like G. Donald Harrison and Emerson Richards in days of yore, Dave Schutt, Ben Chi, and David Kelzenberg have helped fashion something which blends modern practice (or technology) with classic subject matter; something which has increased the possibilities of the modern organist and organbuilder; and something which helps to "clean out the indecision and fog in favor of greater variety, brilliance, and precision."

Three toots of the Tuba Mirabilis to these three gentlemen, as well as to all who have made PIPORG-L what it is today! Here's to ten more years of an American Classic!

About the author: Dr. Richard Elliott is one of three full-time organists at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where he participates in the daily recital series on the 206-rank Æolian-Skinner organ and accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on their weekly radio and TV broadcast, "Music and the Spoken Word." A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he received his early musical training at the Peabody Conservatory and the Catholic University of America and holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Elliott is featured on three solo organ recordings and also appears on over a dozen recordings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.