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In her preface to The Great Organ at Methuen, Barbara Owen likens her book to a ‘story, with many characters’. And given the narrative arc of this particular organ’s history, the story might easily remind one of a hero’s tale, complete with a heralded beginning, threats of demise, resurgence, and ultimate trans- formation. As a trustee of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Owen brings an insider’s devotion to her task, drawing extensively on archival material to chronicle in detail an instrument once touted as ‘the most famous organ in America’. The organ, built by the German firm of E.F. Walcker for the new Boston Music Hall, was dedicated with significant theatrical flourish in 1863. The auditorium became what Owen perceptively terms Boston’s ‘cultural cathedral’, and the history of its organ thus became intertwined with the rise of a number of institutions, such as the Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the New England Conservatory. To her credit, Owen casts a broad net over her subject, and among the most interesting parts of her book are those that bring 19th-century Boston to life.

Musical changes in the 1880s would see the Walcker organ sold and placed in storage, awaiting a home in the young New England Conservatory; the ‘cultural cathedral’ offered popular vaudeville at the turn of the century. Before the end of the century, however, the Walcker waif had found a home in the Massachusetts mill town of Methuen, brought there by local philanthropist Edward Searles and housed in his newly constructed Serlo Hall. Subsequently Methuen would attract Ernest M. Skinner, who bought the organ and the local organ factory in 1931. Following the second world war, Serlo Hall was transformed into the incorporated Methuen Memorial Music Hall, with G. Donald Harrison completing a rebuild of the organ in 1947. Through a series of organ institutes, concerts, and recordings both the hall and its storied instrument have continued to claim a prominent place in American organ culture.

That prominence is well served by Owen’s detailed account and the handsome production values of this beautifully illustrated volume. The degree of detail, however, sometimes takes the form of long prose lists, mined from the lode of archival material that Owen has skillfully retrieved. In those instances, the reader may wish for a more conceptual and analytical approach – Owen’s is mostly that of a chronicler – but her chronicle remains vivid and authoritative, an important salute to an instrument of distinction.

STEVEN PLANK Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing