Ernest M. Skinner is a name engraved forever on the organ world. Skinner was born in 1866 in Clarion, Pa. His most illustrious ancestor was John Alden from "Courtship of Miles Standish" fame, who was reportedly the first to step ashore from the Mayflower in 1620. Ernest Martin Skinner was an innovator, a risk-taker, a romantic, a musician, a lover of new technologies and gadgets, and the one person who, in the first quarter of the 20th century, single-handedly raised the organ to the status of "king of instruments" in the United States.
The following notes on Skinner include quotes and information derived from "The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner" by Dorothy J. Holden of Detroit, who, along with her husband, bought a 1925 Skinner from Charleston's Baptist Temple in 1969. The Holdens have been prominent national leaders in the drive to give new life to existing Skinners and to respect for Skinner's works.
Skinner began his love affair with the organ as a young boy while engaged as a bellows pumper for a number of organs in New England. On difficult musical works, and even at so young an age, he insisted that the organist give him a copy of the music so he could time his minimum and maximum pumping efforts to a fine point. Later, he apprenticed in organ building with George H. Ryder of Reading, Mass., then as a tuner with George S. Hutchings of Boston, Hutchings being one of the premier organ builders of his day. Skinner eventually became the factory superintendent for Hutchings.
Skinner's concept of the ideal organ had its roots in the romantic movement which began in Europe and England, and he became much interested in the orchestral ideal. Through experimentation, always trying something new, his ability to create new voices for the organ and a non-directional, "floating" quality of sound were characteristic of his work. Layers of strings, flutes, imitative orchestral voices, and bold diapasons colored the palette.
In 1898 Skinner made his first visit to England, where he became acquainted with the famous English organ builders of the time, Henry "Father" Willis and his son, Henry, Jr. There is no question that after his meeting with the Willises his high pressure reeds of the trumpet family showed great improvement and refinement. Our organ at St. John's has two of those high pressure reeds: his harmonic tuba and French horn.
Skinner started his own company in 1900 in Boston, and his innovations in organ building spread quickly throughout the United States. Through his associations with other builders and partners, the company name changed often, from the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Co., to Skinner & Cole, to E.M. Skinner & Co. With his reputation on a firm foundation, the period 1909-13 brought contracts for such places as Cornell University and, in New York City, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Thomas, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. Succeeding years saw more and more cathedrals, churches and synagogues, theaters, civic auditoriums, and university chapels of great importance throughout the land acquiring Skinner organs.
A second trip to England in 1926 brought more new innovation to his instruments. Our organ at St. John's, of 1927, is modest in size compared to a number of Skinner installations across the land, but it contains some of the English ideas that he brought to his organs as a result of his work with Henry Willis III. As an example, our organ's four-foot flute triangulaire, a singularly lovely, English, three-sided wood rank of pipes, is one of the early flute triangulaire stops in the U.S.
Skinner's last mighty work was that of the great organ in Washington National Cathedral, dedicated in 1938.
Skinner died in 1960, at a time when respect for his work was, in the organ world, at its lowest, but today the organs he built are no longer looked at as old-fashioned but with a newly-found respect by a generation that has come to recognize the Skinner organ as the finest designed and built of its time. This newer generation also realizes that not one type of organ is the ultimate and likewise no longer maintains a narrow view of what organ literature really is.
How delighted and proud Skinner would be if he were alive today to see the justifiable resurgence of interest in his work and the preservation of the organs he built that remain. Many that do remain have been rebuilt beyond original recognition, but, fortunately, a small number are still extant and unchanged, which is our good fortune at St. John's.
Appreciation is extended to David Morton, who wrote the original version of this article.