Ernest M. Skinner

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Ernest Martin Skinner

Ernest Martin Skinner (born 1866 in Clarion, Pennsylvania – November 26/27, 1960) was one of the most successful American pipe organ builders of the early 20th century. His electro-pneumatic switching systems advanced the technology of organ building in the first part of the 20th century.


Skinner was born in Clarion, Pennsylvania, in 1866, to the touring concert singers Washington and Alice Skinner. His father organized a music company in Taunton, Massachusetts, and his son attended rehearsals and performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which stimulated his interest in music.

When he was a teenager, the family moved to West Somerville, Massachusetts, where he attended high school for six months. In his autobiography, he stated that the reason for leaving his schooling was his inability to understand Latin, but Dorothy Holden in her biography The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner attributes it to the fact that the family fortunes declined precipitously and Ernest was obliged to assist in supporting the family. It was during this time that Ernest saw his first pipe organ and later got a job as a bellows pumper at fifteen cents per hour. He repaired his first organ at this early stage of life.

He became a "shop boy" for George H. Ryder, a small organ builder located in Reading, Massachusetts. After four years he was fired, which led to his employ at the shop of preeminent Boston organ builder George Hutchings (1835-1913), first as a tuner, then rising to the post as factory superintendent during his twelve years with that firm.

The 1897 Hutchings organ at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston drew national attention and acclaim for Hutchings, although he failed to mention his young factory superintendent, Ernest Skinner, by name.

Skinner made the first of two public trips to England, crossing the Atlantic on a cattle steamer in 1898. Skinner was exposed to the work of Henry Willis, the London builder whose high-pressure chorus reeds and tuba stops set the benchmark for much of the 20th century. Skinner was given access to the large Willis organ at St George's Hall, Liverpool, and met privately with Willis, who tutored him in voicing practices and techniques not yet known in the United States. Skinner then visited France where he met Louis Vierne, the blind organist at Notre-Dame in Paris. Upon his return to Boston, Skinner made his first Pedal Trombone modeled after the work of Willis for the 1900 Hutchings organ installed at Boston Music Hall. The first documented instance of the Pitman windchest, as developed by Skinner, appeared in the 1899 Hutchings-Votey organ installed at the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church in Brooklyn, New York, although some sources mention origins in Hutchings organs as early as 1893.

In 1901, Skinner decided to strike out on his own. In 1902, he entered into a partnership to form the Skinner & Cole Company with another former Hutchings-Votey employee. By 1904 the partnership had dissolved, and the Ernest M. Skinner & Company purchased the Skinner and Cole assets.


Skinner was one of the first organ builders to try to establish a systematic method for providing fixed dimensions in his organ consoles. Prior to this, each organ builder might use different dimensions on their consoles, causing problems with adapting to different layouts and positions of keyboards and pedalboards of different instruments, even by the same builder. Skinner worked to develop a set of universal distances between the various keyboards, determining the ideal placement of the pedal board, at a specific distance from the Great manual, as well as the placement of the various expression shoes and other mechanical devices, that have significantly contributed to the standard American Guild of Organists (AGO) Console Measurements, in use in the United States since 1930.

Skinner consoles had fully adjustable combination pistons and combination actions, decades before other American firms adopted similar devices. A "Combination Action" allows an organist to pre-set and store different combinations of different stops and other controls, and to recall by pushing a button, allowing for almost instantaneous changes in the sound. The numbered rows of buttons, located between the keyboards of a Skinner instrument, access these preset combinations.

Skinner is credited with the advancement of Electro-Pneumatic Actions, which control the mechanical operation of the instruments. These huge (frequently several tons) and highly sophisticated devices were built of wood, leather, and metal organ parts, and used low-voltage DC current and low-pressure pressurized air to control and direct the switching and control commands. These actions allowed the pipework of the instrument to be located in any part of a building, while the console could be located hundreds of feet away, and allowing a single organist to have control over every aspect of the instrument.

Skinner developed numerous automatic Player mechanisms, which allowed an unskilled individual to operate a large pipe organ in a manner similar to a player piano. This was a lifelong interest of Skinner, and he frequently worked in secret. The Toledo Museum of Art contains a fully restored Skinner instrument that uses a Skinner Player action.[1] In 1916, Skinner created and patented the "Orchestrator", "Player-Relay" mechanism.

The first of Skinner's new stops, the "Erzähler", appeared in 1904, and was soon joined by other tonal colors which Skinner worked on between 1908 and 1924, including Flügel Horn, and Heckelphone. In addition to his orchestral color reeds, Skinner developed numerous string and hybrid flue stops, many with matching celestes. Among these were the Salicional/Voix Celeste and Dulciana/Unda Maris present in the Swell and Choir divisions of many American organs of the era, as well as his Flauto Dolce/Flute Celeste, his Dulcet (a pair of very narrow scaled string ranks tuned with a fast beat to heighten the intensity), a pair of inverted-flare Gambas found in the solo divisions of many of his larger organs that allowed a rich, 'cello-like timbre for solo lines in the tenor range, the "Kleine Erzähler", a softer, brighter version of his earlier Erzähler (which mimics the effect of string players playing very softly), as well as his Pedal Violones at 32' and 16' pitches which he defined as "subtle, soft string stops". Skinner is known for his imitative French Horn stop, which is the only sonic creation that he patented.

Ernest M. Skinner & Company built large organs for Cathedral of St. John the Divine (op. 150, 1906); Saint Luke's Episcopal Church, Evanston, Illinois (op. 327, 1922); Sage Chapel at Cornell University (op. 175, 1909); Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh (op. 180, 1910); Appleton Chapel, Harvard (op. 197, 1912); Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, New York (op. 205, 1913); Finney Chapel, Oberlin College (op. 230, 1914), Kirkpatrick Chapel at Rutgers College (Op. 255, 1916), and the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York (op. 280, 1917).

In 1919, the Ernest M. Skinner & Company was reorganized with Arthur H. Marks (the former general manager and vice-president of the Goodrich Rubber Company) as the president and Skinner as vice-president of the newly organized Skinner Organ Company. This allowed Skinner to focus on technical and artistic aspects, while others would manage the commercial aspects of the company. In 1924, at the behest of Marks and William Zeuch, another principal at the factory, Skinner made his second trip to England, this time meeting with Henry Willis III, the grandson of Henry Willis (Sr.), and spending time in France with Marcel Dupré learning about mutation stops and chorus work of the French Romantic organ.

The fall of Skinner[edit]

The Skinner Organ Company built hundreds of pipe organs for customers all across the United States. The relationship between Skinner and the business managers of his company was rarely good, but by 1927 friction had built between Marks and Skinner. At the suggestion of English organ builder Henry Willis III, George Donald Harrison joined the Skinner staff as assistant general manager in 1927. Initially, this was accepted positively by Skinner, and collaborations between Skinner and Harrison resulted in four Landmark Organs in the late 1920s. The first was built in 1928 for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, then two additional large organs, one for the Chapel at Princeton University, then another for Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. The final instrument was the rebuilding and expansion of the Newberry Memorial Organ, which is located in Woolsey Hall at Yale University. The Woolsey Hall organ is the largest instrument to bear the Skinner nameplate, and remains virtually unaltered. It is widely considered to be one of the finest "symphonic organs" in the world.[2]

With the onset of the Great Depression and coincident improvements in the recording and playback of electronically amplified music in larger public spaces, orders for pipe organs fell. The Skinner Company was forced to lay off workers and scale back production. The world of organ music and performance in the early 1930s had also begun to change. The orchestral style of instrument, which was the Skinner Company's specialty, had been falling from favor among many younger organists, who were looking for a more classical organ sound. Harrison, who had been working on the development of this new tonal direction for the company, was becoming more frequently requested as the designer and finisher of the limited number of available projects, while Skinner found himself being requested less. Many organists did maintain their loyalty to Skinner and insisted on his involvement.

The 1932 merger of the Aeolian Organ Company with the Skinner Company and the resulting change of the company name to Aeolian-Skinner,[3] resulted in increasing tension between Skinner, Harrison, and Marks, as Skinner saw his technical and artistic influence at the company beginning to be diminished by the ascension of Harrison.

On July 14, 1933, Skinner was formally stripped of his titles and authority within the company by the Board of Directors of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, following his attempts to circumvent Harrison and influence the terms of the contract for the organ at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

The final instrument which was personally designed and finished by Skinner, though built by the Aeolian-Skinner factory, is the large organ at the Chapel of Girard College in Philadelphia (Opus 872 - 1933). It is installed in a spacious and highly resonant dedicated chamber, located above the ceiling, and 100 feet (30 m) above the floor of the 2,000+ seat chapel. Speaking down through a large ceiling grill and into the resonant acoustics of the chapel, even the softest voices of the instrument are clearly heard throughout the room.

As pressure increased within the Aeolian-Skinner Company, Skinner began to plan the formation of a new organ company with his son, Richmond Hastings Skinner, which he planned to call the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Organ Company, with intention to compete with the Aeolian-Skinner Company. Marks was able to persuade Skinner (with the help of Skinner's wife Mabel and his son Richmond) to instead enter into a five-year contract with the Skinner Organ Company that provided Skinner with an annual salary of $5,000 in exchange for the continued use of his name, but required that Mr. Skinner and his newly purchased interest in the Methuen Organ Company would not compete with Aeolian-Skinner in the construction of new organs, but rather "confine his work..." in the Methuen shop " the rebuilding of older pipe organs."

Subsequent career[edit]

In January 1936, Skinner sold his interest in the Skinner Organ Company to purchase the property now known as Methuen Memorial Music Hall in Methuen, Massachusetts, including the adjacent organ factory. Both had been built by Edward Francis Searles to house and maintain the very large organ which was originally built for the Boston Music Hall in 1863. In the following years Skinner presented public performances of both choral and organ works with featured performers including Marcel Dupré and E. Power Biggs.

Later years[edit]

In 1936, Skinner, and his son Richmond Hastings Skinner, were awarded the contract for what would be his final instrument, for the Washington National Cathedral. The instrument was dedicated in the fall of 1938, to wide national acclaim.[4]

World War II and the resulting materials shortages and related financial troubles forced the company to file for bankruptcy on October 1, 1941. The Methuen Organ Shop burned to the ground on June 17, 1943.

In 1949, then in his eighties and almost completely deaf, Skinner retired from organ building completely.[4]

Skinner was always a prolific writer, with his letters penned to the editors of The Diapason and The American Organist appearing in those publications from the 1940s onward, wherein he worked to defend his tonal ideals, and attempted to regain lost territory on the American musical landscape. As early as the mid-1930s, Skinner saw many of his instruments rebuilt or modified beyond recognition, while others were simply removed and thrown out wholesale, in the name of "musical progress." Even three of the "Landmark Organs" mentioned in the previous section were subject to this trend, with modifications to the University of Chicago organ being carried out only a few years after its completion.

Not every organist felt obliged to follow the dictates of the "organ reform movement" and any discussion of Skinner would be incomplete without mentioning his extensive, informative and influential writings on the organ and its music, published in books and national journals over most of his career.

Following the death of his wife Mabel in 1951, Skinner entered a downward spiral from which he never recovered. The tonal revision of his earlier organs at St. John the Divine (op. 150, 1911), St. Thomas (op. 205, 1913) and his final large organ built for the National Cathedral all fell subject to this trend by the mid-1950s, further complicating his emotional state as he saw his life's work and ideals (and by extension, himself) gradually becoming extinct. Fortunately, in recent decades there has been a large resurgence of interest in restoring E. M. Skinner's instruments to their original condition. In many cases in which Skinner's pipework was replaced with more generic or baroque sounds, the Skinner pipework was put in storage, thus making it easier for the eventual rebuilding of his instruments to be restored back to their original tonal designs and sound. This has preserved E. M. Skinner's instruments for future generations of organists and listeners to experience his glorious instruments.

The final years of Mr. Skinner's life found him living in relative obscurity in California, having far outlived most of his contemporaries.

Skinner died during the night of November 26–27, 1960, at the age of 94, at the family home.

He is buried in Bethel, Maine.[5]

Bibliography/suggested reading[edit]

  • The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner — Dorothy Holden published by The Organ Historical Society, 1985
  • Stop, Open and Reed published by The Organ Historical Society, 1997
  • All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters — Craig R. Whitney published by PublicAffairs a member of the Perseus Books Group
  • The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters — Charles Callahan published by The Organ Historical Society, 1990
  • The Modern Organ-- Ernest M. Skinner published by the H.W. Gray Co., 1917

List of E.M. Skinner organs[edit]


  1. ^ Toledo Museum of Art restored Skinner Organ Archived 2010-11-28 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Newberry Memorial Organ, Yale University Archived 2012-01-19 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Whitney, Craig R., All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group, 2004. Cf. p.65
  4. ^ a b Vitacco, Joe, "Ernest Skinner a great American Artist" Archived 2013-07-13 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Howe, Stanley Russell, "Ernest M. Skinner", The Bethel Courier, Volume 24, No. 2 (2000), Bethel Historical Society, Bethel, Maine
  6. ^ "Music Facilities".
  7. ^ Day, Marcy (March 10, 2008). "U.Va. Plans Events To Mark Centennial of Old Cabell Hall Organ". UVA Today. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  8. ^ "Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia". A. Thompson-Allen Company. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  9. ^ "Organ | Pine Street Presbyterian Church". Retrieved 2018-08-03.
  10. ^ Skinner Organ, Brucemore, National Trust for Historic Preservation
  11. ^ Opus 327
  12. ^ "OHS Database". Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  13. ^ archived October 4, 2103, Retrieved September 7, 2020
  14. ^ Skinner Organ, Trinity UMC, San Francisco, CA
  15. ^ Organ at Missouri United Methodist Church Archived 2012-10-25 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Photos of 2008 restoration of Skinner organ, Washington Street UMC, Columbia, SC[permanent dead link]
  17. ^ "Opus 579: Second Presbyterian Church (Auburn, NY)". Retrieved 2020-01-13.
  18. ^ "OHS Database: Instrument Details". Retrieved 2020-01-13.