Exploring St. Stephen's Musical Voice: Its Pipe Organs through Time
Since St. Stephen’s returned to life in 2017, with music a vital dimension, many people have been touched by the magic of its acoustics and the intimacy of its space during performances. We are increasingly aware that there is much to say about a voice built into the church that once filled it, drawing musicians and audience alike—its pipe organs.
Since its first years, St. Stephen’s has had FOUR pipe organs including the current one, a 1952 Wicks (Opus 3296), with a near-fifth by Austin explored in 1925 but apparently not pursued. Many organists know about the Wicks and its immediate predecessors—and have generously made information publicly available through the OHS Pipe Organ Database. Thank you!
As St. Stephen’s historian—though a neophyte with the complexities of the pipe organ—I can now contribute too. I propose to start at the beginning, to weave a story about St. Stephen’s and its pipe organs from its archives and sources located as I searched. Where I have them I’ll post specs here, new and known, then submit the new ones to the OHS Pipe Organ Database. There are still plenty of holes and questions. . . . I count on the specialists to bring this story to fuller life for its community!
From its founding, the new congregation committed to a pipe organ as part of its building and program. No surprise; Episcopal churches were among the Christian denominations that supported church music beyond hymn singing. The new St. Stephen’s, a self-declared high-church parish, would especially embrace music, along with architecture and decoration, as contributing to—rather than corrupting—spirituality and the sacred. Strickland’s completed structure, a “Gothic” design, featured a pipe organ and choir loft at the center of an un-Gothic gallery, over the entrance on the west wall. For some, this design reveals misunderstood Gothic; for me, it marks an adaptation to a new congregation’s religious vision. A year after the church was consecrated (1823), the vestry arranged for an “organ screen” to be constructed though it did not yet have an organ.
By spring 1824 they may have acquired the rented pipe organ mentioned in later Vestry Minutes since they approved the Music Fund Society’s request to use the church for the performance of Haydn’s Oratorio of the Creation, which includes an organ.
A year later (spring 1825), the administration was under contract with Hall & Erben, NY, for a pipe organ to be completed no later than December 1, 1825. We are told nothing about why they chose this partnership between Thomas S. Hall and his apprentice (and brother-in-law) Henry Erben. Both had roots in Philadelphia. Did the English-born Hall offer an English (vs. German) sound purportedly preferred in New York? The partnership proved fractious and short-lived (1824-7). The contract with St. Stephen’s was for $2175 and was fully paid by March 1827, following an apparently “late opening” of the organ in July 1826. Unfortunately, we still know little about that opening and who played. I don’t see any reference to a salaried organist until March 1833, when Mr. “Darly” (W.H.W. Darley [1810-1872], organist-composer now known mainly for his choral work), requested a salary increase.
Then there’s the organ. The contract called for a pipe organ of twenty-three stops, with three “sets of keys” (manuals) and pedals. To my delight, the Vestry Minutes include a “description of the organ” which I illustrate here. I hope this too enters the OHS Pipe Organ Database! St. Stephen’s Hall & Erben appears to be little known today; there are eight others noted in the Database, none in Philadelphia. I can’t tell you yet what it looked like. The description may tell you specialists what its sound might have been. Please share! One New York critic (thank you, Jeff Fowler) felt, though a very good instrument, it was inferior to others by Hall, identified as the sole builder. I would be curious to know the critic’s criteria!
The Hall & Erben’s voice filled St. Stephen’s until 1864, when it was transferred to the chapel of an ambitious new project for the church, the Burd Orphan Asylum just built in West Philadelphia. It is not clear what happened to this inaugural pipe organ when the institution moved to 4226 Baltimore Avenue in the 1920s and the original property sold (it is now defunct).
At St. Stephen’s, however, the 1825 Hall & Erben was replaced in 1864 by a new pipe organ by W.B.D. Simmons of Boston, possibly with input from St. Stephen’s new, eminent organist, David D. Wood.
But that’s another story. Stay tuned!
-Suzanne Glover Lindsay, Parish historian and curator