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 (exact date unknown), to the touring concert singers Washington and Alice Skinner. His father organized a music company in Taunton, 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 approximately 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 also 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. It was here that Ernest's interest in the pipe organ began to take shape. After four years here, he was summarily fired one morning. This departure proved fortuitous, for it led to his employ at the shop of preeminent Boston organ builder George Hutchings (1835-1913), first as a tuner, then quickly 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, commonly known as the Mission Church, 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 "Father" Henry Willis, the celebrated London builder whose high-pressure chorus reeds and tuba stops were to set the benchmark for much of the 20th century. Skinner was given free access to the large Willis organ at St George's Hall, Liverpool, and was able to meet privately with "Father" Willis, who tutored the young Skinner in voicing practices and techniques not yet known in the United States. Skinner then crossed the English Channel to visit France where he met Louis Vierne, the famed blind organist at Notre-Dame in Paris. Upon his return to Boston, Skinner made his first Pedal Trombone modeled after the work of "Father" 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 other sources mention origins in Hutchings organs as early as 1893.
In 1901, Skinner decided to strike out on his own, to develop his dream of a more expressive pipe organ by exploiting all the benefits to be gained by the "new" electro-pneumatic action.
In 1902, Skinner 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 organists many 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 also had fully adjustable combination pistons and combination actions, decades before other American firms adopted similar devices as standard. A "Combination Action" allows an organist to pre-set and "store" different combinations of different stops and other controls, and to recall them with the push of a single button, allowing for almost instantaneous changes in the sound of the instrument. The numbered rows of buttons, located between the keyboards of a Skinner instrument, access these preset combinations.
Skinner is also credited with the advancement and perfection of the "Electro-Pneumatic Actions", which function as the "brain" of the instrument, and which control the mechanical operation of these instruments. These huge (frequently several tons) and highly sophisticated fore-runners of modern computers were built of wood, leather, and metal organ parts, and used low-voltage DC current and low-pressure pressurized air ("wind") to control and direct the thousands of switching and control commands which are constantly being sent to all parts of the instrument when it is being played.
These actions also 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.
A large Skinner organ and its action can contain tens of thousands of precision moving parts and mechanisms, many miles of wiring, and represented the pinnacle of craftsmanship, engineering, and ingenuity for their era.
Skinner Organs were frequently referred to as the "Duesenbergs of Pipe Organs," as while they were among the most expensive of instruments, they were famous for an almost fanatical attention to detail, quality, and reliability.
Skinner also developed and perfected 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, which contains a Skinner Player action.
In 1916, Skinner created and patented the "Orchestrator", "Player-Relay" mechanism, which stands directly as one of the fore-runners of the modern computer.
It was not until the 1980s, when one of his Player-Relays was discovered and reverse engineered by organ builders, that it became apparent just how far Skinner had actually progressed beyond his contemporaries in the development of "Mechanical Intelligence".
The desire to bring the organ under the complete and easy control of the organist was coupled with Skinner's lifelong interest and obsession with "orchestral" tonal colors and their application to the pipe organ. The first of his new stops, the "Erzähler", appeared in 1904, and was soon joined by other exotic tonal colors which Skinner worked to perfect between 1908 and 1924, including an Orchestral Oboe, English Horn, Corno di Bassetto, Flügel Horn and "Heckelphone" that were all very true to their orchestral counterparts. In addition to his orchestral color reeds, Skinner developed and perfected numerous string and hybrid flue stops, many with matching celestes of uncommon beauty. Among these were the usual Salicional/Voix Celeste and Dulciana/Unda Maris present in the Swell and Choir divisions of many American organs of the era, but also his ethereal 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 creates 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". Yet with all these developments, Skinner is still best known for his highly imitative French Horn stop, which is his only sonic creation that he actually patented.
During the first decade of existence, Ernest M. Skinner & Company developed a national reputation, building large organs for some of the most prestigious churches, concert halls, colleges, and auditoriums in the country, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (op. 150, 1906); 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).
While Skinner was an artistic and mechanical engineering genius, his business management skills were notoriously poor. In 1919, the Ernest M. Skinner & Company was reorganized with Arthur H. Marks (who had amassed a fortune as 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 the technical and artistic aspects of the dozens of projects in which the company was involved at any one time, 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 "Father" Henry Willis (Sr.), and spending considerable time in France with Marcel Dupré learning about mutation stops and chorus work of the French Romantic organ. Skinner returned to the United States with a new love for unison and quint mixtures and more brilliant upperwork that was standard fare in English organs of the era.
The fall of Skinner
Through the 1920s, Skinner's acclaim continued to grow. The "Skinner Organ Company" built hundreds of pipe organs, for customers all across the United States. Skinner was in constant demand for his opinions and ideas, and was considered the preeminent pipe organ builder of the era.
The relationship between Skinner and the business managers of his company was rarely good, but by 1927 friction had built quite significantly between Marks and Skinner, to the point where Marks had begun to actively seek a way to rein in Skinner. At the suggestion of English organ builder Henry Willis III, a young Englishman George Donald Harrison joined the Skinner staff as assistant general manager in 1927. Initially, this was accepted positively by Skinner, and early collaborations between the elder Skinner and the younger 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.
By the end of 1929, however, Skinner (who was then 63 years old) had become increasingly aware that it was actually Marks' intention that the younger Harrison was not simply a protégé for the elder Skinner, but was rather meant to be his replacement, and that the intention was to take the instruments built by the Skinner Organ Company in a new tonal direction.
With the onset of the Great Depression, orders for pipe organs fell tremendously. The Skinner Company was forced to lay off workers and scale back production significantly, throwing additional stress onto the management of the company.
More importantly, the world of organ music and performance, as had been created and developed by Skinner over the previous 30 years, had also begun to significantly change. By 1931, the "orchestral" style of pipe organ was falling from favor among many 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. Other organists did maintain their loyalty to Skinner personally, and requested him personally, but again this served to exacerbate the tensions within the company.
The 1932 merger of the Aeolian Organ Company with the Skinner Company, and the resulting change of the company name to "Aeolian-Skinner," also resulted in increasing tension between Skinner, Harrison, and Marks, as Skinner saw his technical and artistic influence at the company, which was the part of the business which he had historically personally managed, beginning to be significantly diminished by the ascension of Harrison.
On July 14, 1933, Ernest Skinner was formally stripped of his power 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, and built by the Aeolian-Skinner factory, is the organ of the Chapel of Girard College in Philadelphia (Opus 872 - 1933). To this day it stands as a testament to the genius of Ernest Skinner. While not a particularly large instrument, by modern standards, it is blessed with some unique attributes. It is installed in a huge, unique, and highly resonant chamber, located in the ceiling, 100 feet (30 m) above the floor of the 2,000+ seat chapel, and speaking down through a huge ceiling grill, into the stunning acoustics of the chapel. Skinner had himself been working on new voicings and scalings of his pipework, to provide a brighter and "cleaner" sound to his instruments, and the Girard organ displays this new sound in its full glory. With a dynamic and color range of a modern instrument twice its size, it stands as one of the most emotionally and musically powerful pipe organs ever built in the United States.
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 Skinner and his newly purchased interest in the Methuen Organ Company would not compete with Skinner in the construction of new organs but rather "confine his work..." in the Methuen shop "...to the rebuilding of older pipe organs."
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.
In 1936 Skinner was able to form the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Organ Company. He and his son Richmond Hastings Skinner then produced one final, spectacular organ for Washington National Cathedral, which was dedicated in the fall of 1938, to wide national acclaim.
The start of World War II, materials shortages, and the resulting 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, in his eighties, Skinner retired from the organ building business completely.
Skinner was a prolific writer with numerous letters to the editors of The Diapason and The American Organist appearing in those publications from the 1940s onward wherein he defended his tonal ideals and made an attempt to regain lost territory on the American musical landscape. From the 1940s onward, Skinner saw many of his best organs rebuilt beyond recognition while others were 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 Chicago organ being carried out only a few years after its completion.
Following the death of his wife Mabel in 1951, he 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 by extension, himself) gradually going extinct.
The final years of Mr. Skinner's life found him living in relative obscurity, having far outlived most of his contemporaries.
He died during the night of November 26–27, 1960, at the age of 94, at the family home. He is buried in Bethel, Maine.
- 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
Noteworthy E.M. Skinner organs today
- St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Glendale, CA. 1929, Opus 774 3/28.
- Brucemore, Cedar Rapids, IA. 1929 Opus 754 (residential organ in situ)
- Cleveland Public Auditorium, Cleveland, OH. 1922 Opus 328
- University Auditorium, University of Florida. Gainesville, FL. 1924 Opus 501
- Scottish Rite Cathedral, Detroit Masonic Temple, Detroit, MI. 1925 Opus 529
- Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal). Cleveland, OH. 1907.
- All Souls Chapel, Poland Spring, ME. 1926 Skinner Opus 564.
- Hollywood High School Opus 481-A
- St. Ann's and the Holy Trinity Opus 524, Brooklyn, NY
- Columbia High School, Maplewood, New Jersey Opus 637
- Saint Luke's Episcopal Church www.opus327.org, Evanston, Illinois
- St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
-  Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Missouri, Opus 190
- Girard College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, chapel (large early Aeolian-Skinner closely supervised by E.M. Skinner)
- Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio op. 816
- Harvard Divinity School, inside the Andover Chapel, Cambridge, MA, 1911
- Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, CA (1927 Opus 676, 4Manual/62Ranks)
- Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland, Opus 839
- Rosary Cathedral (Toledo, Ohio)
- Toledo Museum of Art 1926 Opus 603, at The Peristyle (a concert hall in the museum's east wing)
- Trinity Lutheran Church, Astoria, NY (Queens)
- Stambaugh Auditorium, Youngstown, OH
- Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, OH
- St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, NC
- St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Morristown, NJ Opus 836 1930 4/63
- First Congregation United Church of Christ, Benton Harbor, MI
- Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH
- Old South Church, Boston, MA (1921 Opus 308, 4 Manual/115 ranks)
- Damascus United Methodist Church, Damascus, MD, renovation planned, fundraising underway
- St. James Episcopal Church (New London, Connecticut)
- St. Mark's Lutheran Church - Faith Center, Marion, Iowa, 1928 Opus 695
- Trinity United Methodist Church, Durham, NC 1924, Opus 416
- Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA 1924
- St. Matthews Cathedral, Laramie, WY (1926)
- Missouri United Methodist Church, Columbia, MO Opus 750
- Washington Street United Methodist Church, Columbia, SC
- Old First Presbyterian Church, Columbus, OH 1929 Opus 773 (instrument unaltered from original installation). Fundraising for full restoration underway.
- Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY, Opus 780
- First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, Chicago, IL, 1923