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An Instrument Finds its Voice: The Norton Memorial Organ at Severance Hall

September 30, 2016

A class field trip to the organ loft at Severance Hall

When Severance Hall was being designed in the late 1920s, every consideration was taken to make the space the most comfortable, beautiful, and acoustically resonant hall possible. However, there were a glitch in the design — the placement of the Norton Memorial Organ. This instrument, named in memory of Mr. and Mrs. David Z. Norton, was a gift from their children, Miriam White, Robert Norton and Laurence Norton. It was a magnificent instrument built by renowned maker Ernest M. Skinner. Curiously, the Norton Memorial Organ was to be concealed in a space above the stage:

This was primarily a decision of the architects, Walker & Weeks, although they had substantial input from Skinner. Certainly, Skinner was supportive of the design. In a letter to Walker & Weeks he was nothing but complimentary of their decision:

This unusual choice had the best of intentions behind it, as this 1930 press release indicates:

“Through the extraordinary cooperation of Walker and Weeks, the architects, the organ has been given a location almost without precedent. It is to be placed directly over the orchestra, in a concealed position, with sound reflectors which will unite the tone of the organ with that of the orchestra, when they are used together.

The tone will enter the auditorium through a grille placed directly over the front of the stage. The effect of the sound reflectors will be to give the same result as though the organ were below the ceiling within the auditorium itself. In spite of this fact the position above the ceiling will lend a charm and touch of mystery that will greatly enhance its musical character.”

Alas, it turned out to be a flawed plan. After the instrument’s dedication in March of 1931, audiences began to notice that the sound of the organ was lacking. The following year, the instrument made its debut as a solo instrument with the Orchestra, in Handel’s Concerto in F Major. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the organ’s unsatisfactory tone in a review of theperformance: “Carl Weinrich was the organist of the evening. […] but with all his skill and resource he was playing a losing game, for the organ, save now and then, seemed an adjunct to the orchestra.” And, upon hearing the encore, a Bach Prelude and Fugue: “I missed a certain clarity and roundness of tone in the beginning of the prelude and in the announcement of the fugue theme; though whether this was due to the location of the organ boxes, I am unable to say.”

Further modifications to the stage of Severance Hall made the sound of the organ even more muffled. The 1958 “Szell shell,” designed to improve the sound of the orchestra, blocked off the tone opening for the organ, effectively entombing the instrument:

The sound became so muffled that the Orchestra was forced to amplify the organ electronically. However, these efforts were not satisfactory either, and by 1976 the orchestra had stopped using the organ in concerts altogether. The organ was rescued from neglect during a massive restoration of Severance Hall that took place between 1998 and 2000. During this time, the organ was removed, restored by the Schantz Organ Company, and reinstalled in a new location behind the stage, ensuring that the full sonic power of the instrument could be enjoyed. Renowned photographer Jennie Jones captured this process in a series of photographs, which she has donated to The Cleveland Orchestra:

Today, the Norton Memorial Organ is considered among the finest orchestral organs in the United States and is enjoyed by audiences year-round during orchestra concerts, film screenings, and solo recitals. The Norton Memorial Organ in all its glory makes an appearance in Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra on this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall.

—Sophie Benn

Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.
All photographs courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.