Exploring St. Stephen's Musical Voice Through Time: Its Pipe Organs, Part II
Beginning in early 1862, the Vestry Minutes tell us, life at St. Stephen’s suddenly took on new energy, thanks to a generous bequest from a formidable supporter in life, Eliza Howard Burd (d. 1860). The legacy effectively opened new doors for the forty-year-old church. The vestry made several changes to accommodate Mrs. Burd’s pet project, a new asylum and school in West Philadelphia for white legitimate fatherless girls (preferably daughters of Episcopal clergy), that she paid for and endowed, to be administered by the church. The ambitious complex required new staff and programs. Towards that end, the vestry hired an assistant rector, allowing the elderly rector, Dr. Ducachet, to become the Asylum’s chaplain in his last years.
The church also sought to engage a more sophisticated Philadelphia.
The Chair of the Music Committee, Dr. Robley Dunglison, reported “deep dissatisfaction” with the state of the music department because of inadequate funds. Philadelphia’s musical taste had improved with time. Church music had kept pace, he noted, and denominations that once “strenuously objected to instrumental music of any kind within their walls” now generously supported it.
Above all, Dunglison affirmed music’s vital role within devotion at St. Stephen’s: “The minister,” he argued, “needs support from a great choir.” Great choral music was integral to worship, a complement to the clergy, the sacrament, and the spoken Word. Dunglison and the Committee aimed to avoid any criticism of the church on that point “from citizens or strangers.”
Given the Vestry’s blessing, in early 1864 the Committee hired a new quartet and choir and two acclaimed professional musicians. Both were professors of music at the nearby Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind where Dr. Dunglison was also Vice President: Aaron Taylor came on board as the new basso and choirmaster and David D. Wood, whom Dr. Dunglison indicated was widely applauded as a “musical genius” and “one of the most accomplished organists” despite his blindness.
The organ was crucial. Having had the 1825 Hall & Erben organ examined, the Music Committee increasingly considered a replacement. A new two-manual organ would now cost $3000, depending on the number of stops and ornamentation, and a three-manual organ, $4000. The vestry gave the Committee authority to act with financing from the church and a subscription.
There is no sign of comparison shopping. In May 1864 the Committee reported it adopted the plans submitted by a “Mr. Simon of Boston” (William Benjamin Dearborn Simmons) for a pipe organ costing $4000. The Committee recommended that the old organ be repaired and purchased for the Burd Orphan Asylum’s chapel.
Why a Simmons? The pipe organs of this Boston builder had been commissioned throughout the country since the 1840s, either with a partner or by his own firm. He built organs of various sizes, some innovative, some standard but with a distinctive voicing and tonal balance. By the 1860s he enjoyed a national reputation—especially with some major new commissions. In August 1863 the Chicago Tribune reported an especially prestigious project: Brigham Young ordered from Simmons a huge organ and case for the Mormon Tabernacle of Salt Lake City whose 16 and 32 feet diapasons were to be executed and finished on site. Thanks for this, Jeff Fowler!
Recruited to fulfill the church’s greater musical ambitions, the much-touted new organist David D. Wood likely played some part in the design of the new organ.
Since the vestry reported having “put up” the old organ in the Burd Orphan Asylum in late May 1865, we can assume the new Simmons was in place by then. There is, mystifyingly, no sign of the typical dedication recital.
And, regrettably, there is no sign of a contract or recorded specs (so far). We do know the Simmons pipe organ was a three-manual model, to judge especially by the drawing illustrated here, for the Philadelphia Times’ column on Prof. Wood’s thirtieth anniversary celebration at St. Stephen’s in March 1894. According to Jeff Fowler, it likely had a full pedalboard that could accommodate works by Bach, which Prof. Wood performed to high acclaim. We welcome all help in learning more about it!
Prof. Wood played the Simmons for all but the last three years of his long career at St. Stephen's. It was replaced with the 1907 C. S. Haskell that he did design and played until he died in 1910. The Simmons’ subsequent whereabouts are unknown; it may have been destroyed. Descendants of Prof. Wood report that the frame on a photograph of the Haskell in his music room was made of wood from the prior organ, likely the console of the Simmons.
St. Stephen’s Simmons falls chronologically midway within those known thus far as in Philadelphia. Simmons built several instruments for Philadelphia churches in the 1840s and 1850s, in partnership with other builders and of different sizes. Simmons & McIntire, for instance, provided a small two-manual organ with pedalboard for St. Jude’s Episcopal Church around 1856. Advertising heavily in Philadelphia (citing St. Stephen’s organ as a new work) likely bore fruit: He furnished several organs here in the 1870s. However they were later rebuilt, destroyed, or their fate is unknown.
Stay tuned for the story of St. Stephen’s third organ, Prof. Wood’s C.S. Haskell!
-Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s historian and curator