Our magnificent pipe organ, situated in the Rodin Gallery at the Legion of Honor and integrated into the museum’s architecture, resonates through the galleries weekly during free Saturday concerts. The organ was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company of Boston. It was given to the Legion for its opening in 1924 by John D. Spreckels in honor of his brother Adolph, who cofounded the museum with his wife, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.
Working with Legion of Honor architect George Applegarth (1875 – 1972), Ernest M. Skinner (1866 – 1960) developed a customized plan to accommodate the 4,526 pipes seamlessly within the structure of the museum. The sound permeates the building primarily through canvas painted to resemble stucco, found in the ceiling of the Rotunda and in the apse and East wall of the central Rodin Gallery. The impressive walnut, ivory, and ebony console, along with the comprehensive range of stops and additional effects, make this one of the world’s finest organs, comparable with Skinner’s organs at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and Washington Cathedral in the nation’s capital.
The instrument encapsulates Skinner’s philosophical approach to organ music. Classically, organ builders sought to emphasize clarity and counterpoint (separate voices moving in conjunction with each other — typical of the music of Bach); however Skinner championed reproducing the rich, full sound of an entire orchestra, capturing its bold symphonic layering of strings, horns, reeds, and even percussion. The sound is meant to resonate in a nondirectional manner, creating music that seems to float, saturating the space with its presence. Through a legacy of great instruments (beginning in 1901), Skinner left an indelible mark on American cultural history, implementing innovations that almost single-handedly raised the organ to the premier status it gained in the first half of the 20th century.
- An organ is an acoustic wind instrument.
- The organ’s pipes range in size from one-half inch to 32 feet.
- The apse in the Rodin Gallery is lined with thin cloth, painted to look like stucco in order to allow the organ to “speak” through the fabric.
- Three high pressure turbines with a total of 48 horsepower provide the main wind supply for the organ’s pneumatic system.
- Skinner was famous for building organs with the capacity to imitate orchestral colors, such as the English horn, clarinet, French horn, and oboe.
- The organ includes percussion instruments, a set of large tubular chimes, and a thunder pedal.
- The organ’s console is made of walnut, with ivory and ebony keys and stops.
- During the 1990’s renovation, the Arch Clarion’s original 44 note compass was increased to 61 notes, completing the rank for the first time in the organ’s history.
- The frieze over the main entrance to the museum can be cranked open on rails so that the music flows out into the Court of Honor. Therefore, this is possibly the first organ in the world that can be considered “indoor/outdoor.”
About the organist
Jonathan Dimmock is a recitalist, accompanist, ensemble musician, nonprofit founder, and writer. A graduate of Oberlin and Yale, he was the first American to hold the prestigious position of Organ Scholar of Westminster Abbey. He has also served three American cathedrals: St. John the Divine in New York, St. Mark’s in Minneapolis, and Grace in San Francisco. Jonathan lives in San Francisco where he is principal organist at the Legion of Honor, organist for the San Francisco Symphony, director of music at Congregation Sherith Israel, organ instructor at Sonoma State University, organ conservator of the Manuel Rosales Opus 16 at First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, and a regular freelance performer. He is cofounder of the highly acclaimed American Bach Soloists, founding director of Artists’ Vocal Ensemble, and founder and executive director of the Resonance Project. He is one of the few organists in the world to tour on six continents.
The Legion of Honor’s Spreckels Organ concerts are made possible, in part, with support from the Joseph G. Bradley Charitable Foundation.