The Memorial Church, Harvard University

C. B. Fisk, Op 139, 2012


Harvard had a distinct chapel as early as 1744, its location changing regularly until Appleton Chapel settled into the present site in 1858.  Though long outgrown it was not replaced until 1932, when Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott, successors to H. H. Richardson, erected the present structure as a war memorial.  The ponderous columns of the porch announce a prosperous, well-fed neo-Georgian style, a suitable counterweight to the bulk of Widener Library and H.H. Richardson’s masterful Sever Hall across the Yard. - Ross Wood

Named in memory of two influential leaders — Charles B. Fisk, who influenced the trajectory of American organ building in the 20th century, and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who adeptly communicated through word and speech the presence of God’s love in art and music — this Fisk, Op. 139 stands as a soaring testament to music’s immeasurable power in corporate worship, its place in a modern and dynamic university, and its impact on the lives of countless persons who, in the coming decades, will find inspiration and seek knowledge in its smooth voice, malleable tone, and delicate craftsmanship. 

The installation of Opus 139 marked the completion of a multi-year period of restoration and renewal in The Memorial Church, a project that is a legacy of the late leader, the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He was a man whose genius was to not only embrace the past, as he did so vibrantly, but to envision a definable and glorious future for his beloved institution, ensuring both its viability and vitality.

The Fisk organ is ideally suited for its space — not only architecturally, but tonally. Its 3,110 uniquely crafted pipes comprising 44 individual voices sing vibrantly into the room for which it was designed. Its placement in the gallery near the ceiling helps guide its sound efficiently into the room, allowing for an enlivened sonic experience and an eminently improved capacity for supporting congregational singing in the Church.

Three divisions of the organ — the Great, Positive, and Pedal — live comfortably inside the main case of the organ, while the substantial Swell division and the largest of the pedal pipes (which are as wide and long as an oak tree’s trunk) are housed in new construction within the attic of the church, speaking through a tone chute hidden by the upper portion of the casework. The Positive division in the main case is behind the central façade and above the organist’s head, allowing direct speech into the room; many of the organ’s “melody” stops are in this division, which is ideally suited to interact with the magnifying qualities of the barrel vaulted ceiling. The Great and Pedal divisions are spread low and wide to the sides of the main case, minimizing their interaction with the vaulted ceiling, thus ensuring that these fundamental and substantial divisions do not tire the listener’s ear.

The majority of the pipe-work is made of hand-cast sheets of lead and tin alloys. (The quality of a pipe’s sound is largely impacted by the specific metal alloy utilized.) The remaining pipe-work is constructed of wood, which in many cases gives the tone a “flute-like” quality. All of the pipe-work and its supporting mechanisms are connected to the console via an intricate system of “trackers,” allowing the organist to control the organ’s breathing and speech by manipulating the engagement of wind and pipe. (For instance, a fast key attack at the console will create a different quality of pipe speech than a slow one.) While the fundamental design of a “tracker-” (or “mechanical-”) action organ hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, our organ trackers are made of modern carbon fiber material, which is stronger than wood or metal and lighter for the organist’s touch. In addition, Opus 139 features a Kowalyshyn Servopneumatic Lever, which provides a power-assist to the Great key action and couplers, allowing the organist to manage and control large portions of the organ with relative physical ease while maintaining a fine sense of connection to the instrument. Finally, our organ lives in its own climate; a dedicated HVAC system provides air to the organ that is then cycled back by way of a circular system. The resulting environmental constancy provides the instrument with tuning and mechanical stability in a church that, on the whole, is not climate-controlled.

Gregory R. Bover, Fisk project manager for the design and construction of Opus 139, wrote, in 2012, of the instrument’s genesis:

When initial discussions about the possibility of a new organ in Memorial Church began in 2005, they presented C. B. Fisk, Inc. with a complex set of challenges and opportunities. Charles Fisk, the founder of our company, was a Cambridge native and a Harvard alumnus. In 1967, his then six-year-old firm built a large four-manual organ in the Church’s Appleton Chapel, in front of the grand Palladian window. It was not the location that he would have preferred, and caring for this instrument over the intervening years had given us, his followers, an appreciation for the reasoning behind his preference and an intimacy with the splendors and foibles of the acoustical environment into which it spoke.

The decision to build a new organ in the gallery, to move the choir there for Sunday services, and to install a separate instrument in the original chambers of Appleton Chapel frees both instruments from compromise. The tonal design of Opus 139 is an eclectic choice of historically based voices that authentically reflect the best examples of French, German, and English organ sound from the last four centuries. With the Swell and the Positive divisions under expression, a plethora of colors at eight-foot pitch — including the powerful Tuba mirabilis — is available at all dynamic levels.

In the Fisk tradition, the visual design of the new organ was carefully created in a precise scale model of the building to ensure harmony with the Georgian Revival interior. The dark oak case, ornate carvings, and gold-leafed front pipes were all concepts developed in consultation with the Reverend Gomes and the musicians of Memorial Church. The position of the organ in the gallery, the arrangement of the divisions within the organ, and the decisions made during the nine-month voicing process all reflect our long-term study of the acoustical properties of the room and the roles the organ will play in the life of the church, first and foremost as choral accompaniment and in support of congregational singing, but also in solo recital and as a teaching instrument.

The men and women of C. B. Fisk, Inc. spent more than 40,000 hours to create Opus 139 as a tribute to Charles Fisk and the Reverend Gomes, whose friendship and guidance we valued so highly. 

Steven Dieck, current president of C. B. Fisk, Inc., added,

Charles Fisk always dreamed of building a major pipe organ for his alma mater. As a young physics major at Harvard College, he could often be found tinkering with organ pipes in his dorm room, and it was this passion for the pipe organ and its music that ultimately compelled him to abandon a blossoming career in physics to become an organ builder. With the installation of Opus 46 in Memorial Church in 1967, his dream of building an organ for Harvard was realized.

Charlie loved to keep ideas flowing and to “stir the pot,” as he would say. Opus 46 was a daring instrument that not only represented his then most notable to date, but it also influenced American perceptions on how organs could and should be built for decades to come. Opus 139 continues his relationship with Harvard.

- Christian Lane