Historical Notes on the Severance Organ
By David Gooding
We are being led by the present day historians to believe that the E.M. Skinner organ in Severance Hall was dormant and unused after the installation of the Szell shell in the latter 50Ís. From the period of 1961 through 1972, the organ was used regularly and with reasonable success, considering the state of its sound transmission equipment at that time. Szell had seen and heard a similar predicament in the Conzertgebouw, Amsterdam, where the pipe organ was broadcast into the auditorium from its fourth floor location with satisfactory results. Considering that the proscenium of Severance Hall had never been pierced, as per the original plans, the instrument could only speak into the Hall through the stage anyway. To amplify it was the only solution to the isolation of the organ arising from the new shell. With Robert Shaw joining the conducting staff, however, the Orchestra Chorus soon undertook the performance of a number of major choral works with organ figuring into the orchestration.
My first encounter with performing on the instrument was with von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, doing the Richard Strauss, Also sprach, on tour in 1961. There followed a Poulenc concert with Shaw in which we did the Concerto for Organ Strings and Timpani. It was at that point that Szell approached me about doing all of the organ work for the Orchestra, and I, of course, accepted. Into the 70Ís, I was included in the roster as organist of the Cleveland Orchestra. Occasionally small continuo parts would be played by Louis Lane or Michael Charry, but I always did the major works...on the E.M. Skinner.
Toward the end, the combination action fell into utter disrepair, but it was always an intrepid instrument and always managed to respond. Sometimes the console would be set up backstage for my use, at which time the live sound of the organ filled the space with a seldom heard and utterly glorious ensemble. For its time, it was an amazing specification...and it still is.
I wonÍt try to list all the works done and broadcast with Szell, Pretre, Lane, Stokowski, Ehrling, Leinsdorf, Boulez, and of course Shaw, amongst many other conductors, but they include the Saint-Saens, Symphony III; Mozart, Requiem; Bruckner, Te Deum; Janacek, Slavonic Mass; actually, during that period of time, most all of the significant orchestral literature with organ... done on the E.M. Skinner.
IÍve heard many of the broadcasts from those years...and the organ reproduced extremely well despite its being piped into the Hall. There were many hours spent with Szell working out registrations...and there was a wonderful day spent with Leopold Stokowski at the Severance organ...dealing with some experiments he wanted to make with the Gliere work he was conducting that week...and hours of reminiscences about his life as an organist...his approach to Bach...and a lively discussion about Franck, his music, and the organ. There was a splendid decade back then for the Severance organ...just to clarify the record.