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In his twelfth book, Rollin Smith makes the case that a home organ is not automatically a luxury appurtenance. His 58 examples stand up well individually, with owners, settings and instruments explored in fine balance. There is copious illustration and technical data on the organs, and sometimes much more. Alongside the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie (and their seemingly inevitable roll-playing Aeolians), we have French salle instruments from Widor to Marchal, Dudley Buck’s Johnson, and grander concert essays such as John Courage’s Lewis in Surrey or the curious Gonzalez for the Goüin family in Paris. Short-time movie star Chester Conklin makes an appearance, as does his six-rank Estey. And the story of African-American entrepreneur C.J. Walker, and her attempt to purchase a 10-rank Estey for her Manhattan residence, reminds us that even black people of means had to claw for decency in the supposedly enlightened North. Blenheim and Versailles return the reader to actual aristocratic examples, and as a whole the book reads as social history as much as it does musical.

Tipping neither to reverence nor disdain, Smith takes his subjects’ desires at face value, whether for serious musical purposes, or merely a keenness for that era’s ultimate technology in reproduced music – the roll-operated pipe organ. There is a deal of recycled material here, both from Smith’s ‘Last Page’ series in The American Organist magazine and also his excellent (and now out-of-print) 1998 history of the Aeolian Company. In certain instances it’s hard to tell whether the book could have used a stronger editorial hand or whether Smith has intentionally repeated material that will allow chapters to stand independently. Having it so beautifully together in one volume is entirely worth the price, particularly given Smith’s seasoned understanding of the genre and its personalities. When the story gets juicy, he doesn’t refrain from an added squeeze. He goes on at greater length, for example, about Lydia Locke than the organ her third husband (the rubber titan and Skinner company owner Arthur Marks) purchased. And why not? Compared to the calisthenics of this scheming, husband-murdering opera star and professional divorcée, a 31-rank Skinner could never hope to compete. Even these operatic moments highlight Smith’s overarching theme: in this brief period, wherever society swirled, somewhere in the vicinity a pipe organ was probably playing.

JONATHAN AMBROSINO Read the full review on Agora Classica

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