Gifts From Afar! Following up on the W.B.D. Simmons organ of 1864

As I began to post findings on St. Stephen’s early organs, information flowed our way from members of the organ community, often miles away.

Thanks to them, we now have news clippings that give us more insight into the history and reputation of one in particular, St. Stephen’s elusive second organ by W.B.D. Simmons of Boston. Grateful thanks to Stephen L. Pinel, organist and retired Archivist of The Organ Historical Society for providing those discussed below.

First, a Boston newspaper (The Boston Herald, June 9, 1864: 4) announced that local builder W.B.D. Simmons had received the order for a new organ for St. Stephen’s in Philadelphia—a public report merely a month after the vestry was informed.The brief article emphasized the prestige of this commission for a native son. This new organ was considered ambitious—it was described as “great”—commissioned by a “corporation . . . reputed to be in wealth second only to Trinity Church, New York.” That’s Trinity Wall Street, a historic and very important congregation throughout the years. I’m not sure St. Stephen’s qualified as “second” to Trinity Wall Street even with the recent Burd bequest. But we can certainly see the Boston newspaper felt the prestigious Philadelphia commission reflected well on Boston.

Another news clipping in a Philadelphia paper revealed the new organ was playable by the end of 1864—AND that there was indeed a dedication recital: on December 23, 1864 (The [Philadelphia] Press, December 24, 1864: 2). The critic had only praise for the new organ: It was “very powerful and sweet in tone, and gave great satisfaction to a large audience. . . . “ In addition to St. Stephen’s own new organist, David D. Wood, three other respected musicians performed: George Whiting, Arthur Messiter, and Henry Gordon Thunder. Thunder’s son, of the same name, would succeed Prof. Wood in 1912. The program included “choice selections from the great masters,” interspersed with “excellent” solos, a “fine” duet, and a “very good” trio, all by amateurs.


These are positive, if brief accounts in a press preoccupied with a harrowing phase of the Civil War—Sherman’s March to the Sea had just ended, as Jeff Fowler reminded me. Perhaps news of a “great” new organ, admirable organists, and an appreciative audience brought welcome light and delight into dark times.

So now I dream of finding a recital brochure to provide details of the dedication recital program—and most of all, the stoplist so crucial to knowing the instrument. All help appreciated!

—Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s historian and curator

Suzanne Glover Lindsay