Igor Toronyi-Lalic

‘Booming, beaming waves of noise’

Igor Toronyi-Lalic looks back to the early 20th century when organs were in their heyday

Igor Toronyi-Lalic looks back to the early 20th century when organs were in their heyday

‘As in England, in America the organ is King,’ wrote the French organ-composer Louis Vierne in 1927, following a phenomenally successful three-month tour of America and Canada. His 50 recitals had drawn in around 70,000 obsessed fans, including some 6,000 at the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia alone, home to the world’s largest organ.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the organ and its practitioners were at the top of the musical pile. Virtuosos like Louis Vierne or Edwin Lemare packed out municipal halls, football stadiums and shopping malls with hordes of frenzied crowds; they toured the world, played for political royalty, became household names and indulged in appropriately modish, pop star-ish pursuits. The charismatic French organist Charles M. Courboin, for example, was advertised as an aviator, motorist — his cars included a racy Stutz Bearcat — and speedboat pilot.

Their mammoth instruments, meanwhile, got larger, more elaborate and more exalted. At the early World Fairs organs became the centrepiece exhibits. Their unveiling was always the cultural apex of the jamboree, akin to the start of the 100-metre race at an Olympics. And audiences thronged to hear these hulking, ever-expanding behemoths, often paying triple the entrance fee for the privilege.

It was no coincidence that Leon Czolgosz, a young Polish anarchist, chose to shoot President William McKinley dead with two rounds of his pistol at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, while McKinley was attending the opening organ recital. It was the biggest audience that Czolgosz would get.

Today, assassinations are less likely at organ concerts — as are appearances from prime ministers or presidents. It is in many ways quite difficult to imagine that previous age where organists and their instruments were so revered that presidents attended dedications, though the recent organ Proms offered up the full Victorian ferocity of the Royal Albert Hall’s Willis organ, a wonderful glimpse of what once was.

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