E.M. Skinner, Opus 816
Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio
The Norton Memorial Organ in Severance Hall is considered to be one of the finest concert hall organs ever built. Designed specifically for symphonic use and specifically for Severance Hall, the Norton Memorial Organ was created by the renowned organ builder Ernest M. Skinner in Boston in 1930, and it was installed just before the hall’s opening on February 1931. It was dedicated on March 6, 1931, in a special recital performed by Palmer Christian, the prominent American organist from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The organ was named in memory of Mr. and Mrs. David Z. Norton, recognizing a contribution from their children, Miriam Norton White, Robert Castle Norton and Laurence Harper Norton, to build the organ. David Norton and his wife had served on the board of trustees of the Musical Arts Association, the parent organization of The Cleveland Orchestra, and Mr. Norton was the Association's first president.
Skinner concert organs are known for their tonal sophistication, mechanical reliability and comfortable touch. To build an organ that would neither compete with nor dominate an orchestra, Skinner created unique voices that blend with and enhance the sound of an orchestra. In addition, he contoured instruments for concert halls around unison pitch rather than the vertical tonal design of the classic organ.
The 94-rank Norton Memorial Organ includes 6,025 pipes made of lead and tin alloy, zinc, and wood. The largest pipe, made of wood, is 32 feet in length, and the smallest, made of metal, is approximately seven inches in length.
The original placement of the organ high above the stage did not meet the Orchestra's acoustical expectations, as the small fly space did not allow the voice of the organ to be fully heard. The installation of an acoustical stage shell in 1958 during the tenure of George Szell rendered the transmission of the organ's sound even more challenging, and it had to be amplified by speakers. From 1958 until the late 1970s, the Norton Memorial Organ was still used in concerts, but it finally fell silent in 1976.
With the strong advocacy of The Cleveland Orchestra's sixth music director, Christoph von Dohnányi, restoring the organ became a key component of the Severance Hall Renovation Project, which was planned during the mid-1990s. In 1996, the Musical Arts Association selected Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acousticians, Inc., of Norwalk, Connecticut as the renovation project's acoustical consultants and David M. Schwarz Architectural Services, of Washington D.C., as the renovation project's head architect, to be assisted by the local architects-of-record, GSI Architects Inc.
The Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio, was charged with restoring the Norton Memorial Organ as part of the larger project. The company, founded in 1873, is recognized as one of the foremost builders and restorers of pipe organs in the United States and is the oldest such company still under the management of the founding family. In July 1997, the Norton Memorial Organ was removed from Severance Hall and transported to the Schantz factory. The pipes remained in storage during the completion of Severance Hall's renovation (1998-2000), which included the construction of a new concert stage that features organ façade pipes across the back of the stage. A new organ chamber occupies the space immediately behind this façade, one level above the stage so that the organ speaks directly into the hall.
Once the home for the pipes was completed, the full-scale restoration of the organ pipes and mechanisms proceeded. In June 2000, the Schantz Organ Company began reinstalling the organ pipes within Severance Hall. Throughout the summer and early fall of 2000, experts from Schantz tuned and voiced the organ to return to it the tonal character that Mr. Skinner had created. The reinstallation enabled this magnificent organ to be heard once more ― both as a solo instrument, and in its intended role as sonic partner to The Cleveland Orchestra.
The rededication of the Norton Memorial Organ took place on January 6, 2001, at a gala celebration concert featuring the renowned British organist Thomas Trotter and members of The Cleveland Orchestra’s brass section. It marked the final milestone in the Severance Hall Renovation Project and the beginning of a new life for the hall and its reknowned pipe organ.