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Northrop Auditorium Aeolian-Skinner Restoration

By Charles Hendrickson
Source: THE DIAPASON   March 1996   Volume 87 Number 3
Copyright 1996 Scranton Gillette Communications Used with permission.

Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis houses a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner organ of 108 ranks, the firm's opus 892.  The organ was installed in four stages from 1932-1935 in a large organ chamber located in the ceiling in front of the proscenium arch.  The organ remains fully intact, all original, unaltered, mostly operation and an excellent representative of its style and era.  One can see and hear what the large civic concert hall pipe organ of an earlier time is all about- it is impressive.

Northrop Auditorium was designed by the architect C.  H.  Johnson in 1928 and completed the following year.  A grill 25'x50' in the upper center of the proscenium shell allows sound from the organ chamber into the one-million-cubic-foot edifice.  The room seats 4800 with additional capacity on the stage for about 300.  The console is located on a lift in the front-center of the orchestra pit, and is 70 feet behind and under the organ grill, a difficult position for the organist to hear the instrument since no pipe is heard directly, but only after reflection, dispersion and a disturbing delay. 

Compared to other buildings of its size, Northrop Auditorium suffers from a very small volume-to-seat ratio (210 cubic-feet-per-seat) and a very low reverberation time of approximately .9 seconds.  A slight rise in the bass RT to 1.5 seconds is largely masked by background noise.  Since its opening in 1930, the hall has been criticized for its lack of resonance.  Beginning in 1961, a series of reflective shells, clouds, and ceiling panels have attempted to improve orchestral sound in the room, but these also shaded the organ sound from the organist and the front section of seating on the main floor.  At present, the organ is best heard in the balcony.

In a recent pre- recital lecture, Pipedreams host Michael Barone indicated that for many decades Northrop was the premier music performance space in the upper Midwest.  It was the home of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the touring Metropolitan Opera, and scores of other music and
performance events.  Even with the unsatisfactory acoustics, it was the only suitable large hall within hundreds of miles.  After the boom in new hall construction in the Twin Cities which started in 1974, Northrop was quickly abandoned for classical music, though it continues to be widely used for dance and other events. 

Negotiations for the organ began with E.M.  Skinner in 1927, the same year in which G.  Donald Harrison arrived in Boston to work for Skinner.  The original design was slightly altered, but Skinner's basic idea for the instrument remains in the completed installation.  One could characterize the project as being designed by E.M.  Skinner but installed and finished by C.  Donald Harrison.  It was not unusual to find Harrison doing this, and the organ definitely reflects the transition period when Skinner was in the process of leaving the firm, but Harrison was fully in charge.

A $30,000 contract was signed on May 5, 1932 for 53 of the eventual 108 ranks.  (An announcement of the contract appeared on page 1 of the July, 1932 issue of THE DIAPASON.) Delivery began in September of the same year, and Harrison arrived in mid-December.  Even in the depths of the Depression when the final ranks were added in 1935, Aeolian-Skinner had more than 100 on its staff, and deliveries were rapid.  The original price quote of $64,000 was whittled down by depression-era price cutting, and the final cost of the instrument was $54,000.  Even with a large staff and many contracts, profits were non-existent.

Within weeks following the dedication in December 1932, Harrison was proposing the second stage additions of 14 ranks and chimes at a cost of $4,525.  This was approved in June 1933 with
installation in September 1933.  Another 13 ranks were aided in 1934 for $4,850, and in August 1935 the final $14,000 for 30 ranks was approved.  (An announcement of the contract for the completion of the organ appeared on page 1 of the October, 1935 issue of THE DIAPASON.)
It is interesting that two of the largest sets- the 32' Open Wood and 32' Bombarde of the Pedal-were in the last group to be added.  They were brought into the chambers already full of chests and pipes.

Northrop is a large, somewhat brooding place.  The room is dark with no natural light.  Even with lights on, the gray walls arid proportions give the impression of a vast, almost Wagnerian interior. The resonant foyer has much better acoustics than the hall itself.

The organ has been used on an irregular basis over the years, but continues to perform because of rescue efforts of organ repairman Gordon Schultz.  Without him, the organ would now be silent.  In the early years the organ was heard on a weekly basis with noon recitals, many of which were broadcast over the university radio station, which could be heard within a radius of more than 100 miles.  Palmer Christian of the University of Michigan dedicated the organ on December 12, 1932.  Charles Courboin and the Minneapolis Symphony under its conductor Eugene Ormandy played a second dedicatory program on December 14.  Ormandy said, "After we have had the organ for a few years we will wonder how we managed without it."

Over the years recitals have been played by E.  Power Biggs, Robert Baker, Wm.  H.  Barnes, Alexander McCurdy, Robert Noehren, Oswald Ragatz, Claire Coci, Alexander Schreiner, Douglas Butler, Lady Susi Jeans, Michael Schneider, Daniel Chorzempa, Fernando Germani, George Markey, Paul Manz, Keith Chapman, Charles Tompkins, Calvin Hampton, Virgil Fox, and countless others.  One of the Fox programs was memorable and embarrassing.  The organ was in such poor condition that an electronic substitute was brought in and Fox railed against the university for allowing the Aeolian-Skinner to deteriorate. 

Fox was not tire on ly organist to suffer from difficulties with the Northrop organ.  University organist Heinrich Fleischer had to quickly move his recital on February 26, 1960 to Grace Lutheran Church when the Aeolian-Skinner combination action failed.  It failed also during a recital by a prominent European organist.  Even a two-week repair trip by technicians from Aeolian-Skinner failed to solve the problems, and in the 1960s the organ went through its worst years.  A problem of administration contributes to the Northrop difficulties.  The organ is not the property of the School of Music, which has no control over access or use of it.  Housed in Northrop Auditorium, it is under the Department of Concerts and Lectures, and is part of a sometimes busy and always bureaucratic operation of this large hall in the middle of the campus.

Still, the organ has served for the teaching and recitals of hundreds of students over the years, as well as the big graduation ceremonies of the university, when the organ would provide inimitable pomp and grandeur.  Until 1974 when the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra moved out of Northrop, it also served for the performance of major works for organ and orchestra. 

University organists have used the organ frequently over the years.  George Fairclough, Arthur Jennings, Edward Berryman, Heinrich Fleischer, and Dean Billmeyer have played many memorable recitals in this capacity, presented guest recitalists, taught students, played for graduations and convocations, and made the most of the limited budget available for the instrument.

It was to an ailing but still thrilling instrument that organ enthusiast Gordon Schultz brought a volunteer's dedication in the 1970s.  Gordon began unpaid work on the organ, and with the thrill of working on such a grand machine he managed to improve its operation.  An article in the local newspaper, with a photo of Gordon in the chamber, brought embarrassment again to the university.  With no funds available, a volunteer had brought the organ back to life and attracted attention to it.  Limited funds for repair began to be applied, and Gordon has kept the organ operational ever since.

In early 1994 a group of persons interested in the organ formed "Friends of the Northrop Organ," headed by University Organist Dean Billmeyer, the group sponsors recitals, and is seeking funds for a major renovation of the instrument.  Donations payable to "University of MN Foundation--Northrop Organ Restoration" may be sent to: Friends of the Northrop Organ, School of Music, University of Minnesota, 2016 Fourth St.  S., Minneapolis, MN 55455.

The character of the organ in the room is special and rare.  This is is not a church, not even a large church, but an auditorium with a huge stage, raked seating, large balcony, theatrical lighting, orchestra pit, and velvet theatre seats.  There arc no visible pipes, just the huge sloping plaster grill in the ceiling and the spotlighted console far below in the pit.  The sound is warm, mystical, emanating from an imprecise direction and distance, and completely blended.  The intent is to emote, to thrill, to inspire and to bring one into a world of musical grandeur and dignity.  This is not a toy; there is no levity, but one can invoke laughter.  It is a serious instrument of lofty purpose and result.  One could accompany a great silent movie with the organ, but slapstick it is not. 

A year after completing Northrop, Harrison would make his first journey to Germany, where he would pick up ideas of the Baroque revival leading to the Busch-Reisinger organ and others.  But at Northrup, the early 1930s are a darker world for Harrison, and he would rise to the needs and the times with great majestic strokes and the sound of storms and distant green landscapes- a Valhalla for the organ around a soaring peak of romantic expression.  Chiff, low wind pressure, the American Classic Organ, and clarification would come later.  At Northrop we find a different mood, a seeking for that which is beyond the printed page in a remote comer of the world of beauty and art-a corner which is now disappearing from our understanding and consciousness, but which can be sought out and entered for a touch of that which once was common, self-evident, and understood. 

Annotated booklets with full technical specifications, a history of recitals, and other information are available for a donation to the organ's restoration from: Charles Hendrickson, 1403 N. 5th St., St Peter, MN 56082.

  Great   Swell
16 Diapason 16 Bourdon
8 First Diapason 16 Gemshorn
8 Second Diapason 8 Geigen Diapason
8 Third Diapason 8 Hohlflöte
8 Flute Harmonique 8 Bourdon
8 Rohrflöte (enclosed) 8 Salicional
8 Gemshorn 8 Voix Celeste
8 Viola 8 Echo Gamba
5 1/3 Quint 8 Echo Celeste
4 Octave 8 Flauto Dolce
4 Second Octave 8 Flute Celeste
4 Flute (enclosed) 4 Octave Geigen
3 1/5 Tenth 4 Violina
2 2/3 Twelfth 4 Flute
2 Fifteenth 2 2/3 Twelfth
  IV Harmonics 2 Fifteenth
  VII Plein Jeu (enclosed)    V Cornet
16 Contra Tromba (enclosed)   V Chorus Mixture
8 Tromba (enclosed) 8 Oboe
4 Octave Tromba (enclosed) 8 Vox Humana
8 Harp (Choir) 16 Posaune
4 Celesta (Choir) 8 Cornopean
  Chimes (Solo) 8 French Trumpet
    4 Clarion
  Choir 8 Harp (Choir)
16 Contra Viole 4 Celesta (Choir)
8 Diapason   Tremolo
8 Concert Flute    
8 Cor-de-Nuit   Solo
8 Dulcet II 16 Contra Gamba
8 Unda Maris 8 Gamba
8 Dulciana 8 Gamba Celeste
4 Gemshorn 8 Aetherial Celeste II
4 Flute 8 Flauto Mirabilis
2 2/3 Nazard 4 Octave Gamba
2 Piccolo 4 Orchestral Flute
1 3/5 Tierce   III Cornet de Violes
1 1/3 Larigot 16 Corno di Bassetto
  III Mixture 8 English Horn
16 Fagotto 8 French Horn
8 Clarinet 8 Tuba Mirabilis
8 Orchestral Oboe 4 Tuba Clarion
8 Trumpet 8 Harp (Choir)
8 Harp 4 Celesta (Choir)
4 Celesta   Chimes
  Tremolo   Tremolo


32 Double Open Diapason (12 pipes) 8 Viole (Ch)
32 Sub Bourdon (5 pipes) 8 Still Gedeckt (Sw)
16 Diapason 5 1/3 Twelfth (from Bourdon)
16 Contre Basse 4 Super Octave (from Metal Diapason)
16 Metal Diapason 4 Flute (ext)
16 Diapason (Gt)   V Harmonics
16 Bourdon 32 Contra Fagotto (ext Ch)
16 Contre Viole (Ch) 16 Fagotto (Ch)
16 Gamba (Solo) 16 Posaune (Sw)
16 Echo Lieblich (Sw) 32 Bombarde (12 pipes)
16 Gemshorn (Sw) 16 Trombone
8 Octave (ext) 8 Tromba (ext)
8 Gedeckt (ext) 4 Clarion (ext)
8 Cello (ext)   Chimes (Solo)




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