Evolution of the Organ

Edited by Everett E. Truette

A few words relative to the general imperfections which were prevalent in most of the organs in the middle of the 17th century will give the reader a clearer idea of the value of each invention and improvement. The swell box was, as yet, unknown, and while a few organs contained three manuals, the majority had but two, Great and Choir, with a compass of GG to see to. Such mechanical accessories as combination petals were unknown, and the pedal organ consisted almost entirely of stops borrowed from the Great (probably by means of couplers). Considerable attention had been paid to the bellows as the unevenness of the wind supply had been a constant source of dissatisfaction. A German builder named Former, of Wetten, invented the anemometer, for measuring the pressure of the wind. By the aid of this little contrivance the efforts to secure a steady supply of wind were more fruitful, as it was possible to accurately test the effect of the various experiments, the outcome of which was the placing of weights upon the bellows, increasing the pressure of wind and producing a more steady supply.

In response to an advertised invitation for organ builders to settle in England, Bernard Schmidt, commonly called “Father Smith,” to distinguish him from his son, who was also named Bernard, landed in England about the middle of the 17th century.

Strange to say, there is no account extant of the early life of Bernard Schmidt, not even the date of his birth being known, Hamel’s “Trait Theoretic” states that he was born about 1630. The sketch of his career after he settled in England, found in Hawkins “History of Music,” is here copied, being the most comprehensive to be found.

Bernard Schmidt, or, as we pronounce the name, Smith, was a native of Germany, but of what city or province in particular is not known. Upon the invitations of foreign workmen to settle here, he came to England, and brought with him to nephews, the one named Gerard, the other Bernard; and, to distinguish him from these, the elder had the appellation of Father Smith. Immediately upon their arrival Smith was employed to build an organ for the Royal Chapel at Whitehall, but it was built in great haste, it did not answer the expectations of those who were judges on his abilities. He had been but a few months year before Harris arrived from France, bringing with him a son named Renatus, who have been brought up in the business of organ making under him; they met with little encouragement, for Dallans and Smith had all the business of the kingdom; but upon the decease of Dallans, in 1672, a competition arose between these two foreigners, which was attended with some remarkable circumstances. The elder Harris was in no degree a match for Smith, but his son Renatus was a young man of ingenuity and spirit, and succeeded so well in his endeavors to rival Smith, that at length he got the better of him.

The contest between Smith and the younger Harris was carried on with great spirit; each had his friends and supporters, and the point of preference between them was hardly determined by that exquisite piece of workmanship of Smith, the organ now standing in the Temple Church; of the building thereof the following is the history, as related by a person who was living at the time, and intimately acquainted with both Smith and Harris.

Upon the decease of Mr. Dallans and the elder Harris, Mr. Renatus Harris and Father Smith became great rivals in their employment, and several trials of skill there were betwixt them on several occasions; at the famous contest between these two artist was at the Temple Church, were a new organ was going to be erected towards the latter end of King Charles II’s time; both made friends for that employment; but as a society could not agree about who should be the man, the Master of the Temple and the Benches oppose that they both should set up an organ on each side of the church, which is about half a year or three quarters of a year was done accordingly. Dr. Blow and Dr. Purcell, who was in his prime, showed and played Father Smith’s organ on appointed days to a numerous audience; and, till the other was hurt, everybody believed that Father Smith certainly would carry it.

Mr. Harris brought Mr. Lully, organist to Queen Catherine, a very eminent master, it touches organ, which brought Mr. Harris is organ into that vogue; they thus continued buying with one another near a 12 month.

Then Mr. Harris challenged Father Smith to make additional stops against a set time; these were the box humane, the Cremona or violin stop, the double Courtel or bass flute, with some others I may have forgot.

These stops, as being newly invented, gave great delight and satisfaction to the numerous audience, and were so well imitated on both sides, that it was hard to judge the advantage to either. At last it was left to my Lord Chief Justice Jeffries, who was of that house, and he put an end to the controversy by pitching upon Father Smith’s organ; so Mr. Harris is organ was taken away without loss of reputation, and Mr. Smith’s remains to this day… Now began the setting up of organs in the cheapest parishes in London, were for the most part Mr. Harris had the advantage of Father Smith, making, I believe, two to his one; among them some are reckoned very eminent; viz., The organ at St. brides, St. Lawrence near Guildhall, St. Mary ax, etc.

Notwithstanding the success of Harris, Smith was considered as an able and ingenious workmen; and, in consequence of this character, he was employed to build an organ for the Cathedral of St. Paul; in which undertaking he narrowly escaped being a great sufferer, for an the 27th day of February, 1699, a fire broke out in a little room at the west end of the north aisle of the church, and closed for the organ builders man, which, communicating itself towards the organ, had probably consume the same, and endangered at least one side of the choir, but it was timely extinguished, though not without damage to two of the pillars and some of the fine carving by Gibbons. Vide “New View of London,” 457. The vocal report was that the plumbers, or some others employed in soldering had been negligent in their fire; or repairing the metal pipes, have been negligent of their fire; but the true cause of the accident was never discovered. The organs made by Smith, though in respect of the workmanship they are far short of those of Harris, and even of Dallans, are justly admired, and for the fineness of their tone have never yet been equaled.

The name of Smith occurs in the lists of the Chapel establishment from 1703 to 1709, inclusive, as organ maker to the Chapel, and also to Queen Anne. He had a daughter married to Christopher Schrider, a workman of his, who about the year 1710 succeeded him in his places.

The organ of St. Paul’s, erected soon after the year 1700, had established the character of Smith as an artist; whether Harris had been his competitor for building an instrument for that church, as he had been before at the Temple, does not now appear; but in the Spectator, No. 552, for December 3, 1712, is a recommendation of a proposal of Mr. Renatus Harris organ builder, in these words, “The ambition of this artificer is to erect an organ and St. Paul’s Cathedral, over the West store, at the entrances into the body of the church, which in art and magnificence shall transcend any work of that kind ever before invented. The proposal in perspicuous language sets forth the honor and advantage such a performance would be to the British name, as well that it would apply the power of sounds in a manner more amazingly forcible than perhaps as yet been known, and I am sure to an end much more worthy. Had the vast sums which had been laid out upon operas without skill or conduct, and to no other purpose but to spend or vitiate our understandings, been disposed this way, we should now perhaps have an engine so formed as to strike the minds of half of people at once in a place of worship with a forgetfulness of present care and calamity, and a hope of endless rapture, joy, and hallelujah hereafter.”

Among the notable organs built by Father Smith, besides those already named, may be mentioned in organ for Westminster Abby, one for St. Giles in the fields, and one for St. Margaret’s, at which church Smith was elected organist, with a salary of $100 a year. He was afterward appointed organ maker in ordinary to the King, Apartments in Whitehall being allotted to him, called in the old plan “The Organ builders Workhouse.” In 1683 he built the organ in the Durham Cathedral. The organ and St. Paul’s was dedicated on December 2, 1697. Father Smith died in 1708.

Such of Father Smith’s work is still remains, notwithstanding all the inventions and improvements which are been made, can hardly be surpassed today, is of such sterling quality. He was particularly careful in his choice of materials – Oak being his favorite for woodwork – and no flaw was ever patched, as he preferred to put entirely new material and labor in the place of anything which was imperfect. His voicing has commanded the admiration of expert to the present day. The organ for the Temple Church, mentioned above, contain the extraordinary addition of quarter tones. 80 – flat and D – sharp being distinct from G – sharp and E – flat. He also constructed organs for St. Paul’s Cathedral, for the Durham Cathedral, and for two other very noteworthy instruments, viz.: That of St. Catherine’s, Leadenhall Street, and the one in St. Peter’s, Tiverton.

Besides being an organ builder, Father Smith was somewhat of a performer, holding the position of organist at St. Margaret’s, London, up to the time of his death, which probably occurred in 1708.

Thomas Harris and his son Renatus landed in England shortly after the Smiths, and became powerful rivals. Renatus, who succeeded his father, had some difficulty in establishing himself at the outset, but the contest was Smith gave impressed each in London, rebuilt so fine instruments, one of the finest being in the St. sepulcher’s church, Snow Hill, and another in Christchurch, Newgate Street. He also placed organs in the cathedrals of Salisbury, Gloucester, and Worchester. Eventually he settled in Bristol, where he died in 1715.