Looking Back: The Human Touch

By The Editors / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
This fall the University marked the centennial of the Sayles Hall organ with—what else?—a cascade of music. University Organist Mark Steinbach performed on this rare Hutchings-Votey instrument on September 19, and its full, physical sound issued from Sayles onto the Green two days later, when David Briggs, organist emeritus of Gloucester Cathedral, took his turn at the pedals before leading a master class.

After the BAM commemorated the organ’s 100th birthday earlier this year (“Thunders & Whispers,” January/February), Sylvia Clark Coolidge wrote to fill in some historical gaps in the account. Ms. Coolidge is the widow of the late violinist and professor of music Arlan R. Coolidge ’24, who chaired the music department for thirty-one years. There is no better proof, she wrote, of the organ’s reputation among discriminating musicians than the pilgrimage of several world-famous musicians to Sayles Hall during the first half of the last century.

My story begins with Therese Lownes Noble. She was a well-known amateur musician, concert sponsor, and society leader in Providence during the first half of the twentieth century. In her later years, the idea came to her to honor the memory of her first husband by sponsoring a series of organ recitals in his name. These were the Lownes Memorial Concerts.

She was a person obsessed with excellence. Therefore the Sayles organ was an easy choice for the instrument. As for the musicians to play in these concerts, she consulted with my husband, for she knew of his study in Vienna and his close acquaintance with the top people in the music world.

Of the world-famous names who performed in the Lownes concerts, I particularly remember Marcel DuPrès, organist at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; Charles Courboin of Belgium; and Fernando Germani, organist at the Vatican.… I remember the unusual encore given by DuPrès. Before beginning his recital, he had invited the audience to write a short theme on a piece of paper and pass it up to him. At the end of the planned program, he selected the most promising of these original themes and turned it into a lengthy development of several variations, including a fugue, a cantata, and the like. It was a virtuoso performance of charming spontaneity that held his audience in absolute awe.

Surely, the value of the Sayles organ is told by the combining of the human with the material, and by the coming together of artists of high caliber with an instrument expertly built.

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November / December 2003