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Ernest M. Skinner, 1866-1960
Ernest M. Skinner
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 Ernest M. Skinner was the most prominent organ builder of the early 20th century who believed an organ should be able to play all music effectively and with infinite tonal variety. His organs were highly orchestral in character. The succeeding generation rejected his "all-purpose" organ and insisted upon absolute authenticity in the performance of early music. Many of his organs were rebuilt by them to satisfy this change in opinion. There is, however, a renewed interest in the Skinner organ in more recent years. The pinnacle of Skinner's career may have been the installation of one of his organs in the Washington National Cathedral.

He married Mabel Hastings in 1893, and they first lived at 293 Savin Hill Avenue for 2 years, then another 33 years at 7 Evandale Terrace in Savin Hill. In the late 1890s he supervised the installation of numerous organs made by the Hutchings Company including one in the Pilgrim Church in Dorchester. In 1900 he started is own company, the Ernest M. Skinner & Co. In 1905 it was incorporated as the Ernest M. Skinner Company.


In 1914 the company moved into a new factory building in Dorchester at Crescent Avenue and Sydney Streets. Of his three children, one Eugenia Shorrock moved upon her marriage in 1917 to 259 Savin Hill Avenue at the corner of Evandale Terrace. The company became the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1932, and Skinner's association with the firm ended in 1936. He and his son Richmond opened the Ernest M. Skinner & Son Company at a factory in Methuen, Mass., and it was this company that built the organ for the National Cathedral.

Skinner published: The Modern Organ and The Composition of the Organ.

Under the Aeolian-Skinner name the approach to organ-building changed. On the record jacket for Volume I - The American Classic Organ, the notes make clear the difference: "By 1750 the organ's golden age of tonal architecture had arrived. The romantic era brought a change of climate. Mysticism and sentimentality were rampant on the one hand, and passion and violence on the other. The fine professional finish and craftsmanship, carefully cultivated for a century, were subordinated to size and quantity. The organ became bottled up in enormous boes with adjustable openings which robbed the pipes of their natural harmonic tonal beauty and clarity but achieved the romantic aim of making their steady tone subject to great dynamic changes. In the late romantic period, especially in America, the same qualities which had disfigured Victorian architecture had their counterpart in organ tone; it had become gross, ponderous, opaque and exaggerated in volume and timbre. The organ had found its way into many concert halls where it was intended to imitate the orchesra. A small and valiant group of organists did indeed develop a prodigious technique which could encompass the keys of four manuals with only two hands, manipulate the registers, combination pistons, expression pedals and the pedal clavier in a veritable whirlwind. But such an acrobatic tour de force, enteratining as a spectacle, could scarcely long be mistaken for an aesthetic triumph. As tonal Director of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in the early 1930's, G. Donald Harrison realized what changes were necessary if the organ were to regain its prestige amoung musicians and the musical public and become once again a fit vehicle for all of the great literature."

For more information, see: The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner, 2nd ed. by Dorothy J. Holden. Richmond, VA: The Organ Historical Society, 1987.

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Created: August 17, 2003   Modified: December 7, 2003