Aeolian-Skinner firm, Boston MA 1927, technical director, 1933, president, 1940-56
G. (George) Donald Harrison was born 21 April, 1889 in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England. He was a graduate of Dulwich College, and beginning in 1912, worked as a patent attorney with his father's firm. He was interested in organs and served as patent attorney for Henry Willis. He was a pilot, and served in British forces in France during the first World War. After the war, he joined the Henry Willis firm. He immigrated to the U.S. and started with the Aeolian-Skinner firm in 1927. He became technical director in 1933, and president of the firm in 1940. He died 14 June, 1956 in New York City, NY while finishing Opus 205-A at St Thomas' Episcopal Church.
G. Donald Harrison's foremost contribution to American organ building was the creation of a style that became known as 'American Classic'. When he first came to Aeolian-Skinner, he brought knowledge of English Diapason choruses and both the Willis style reeds and the French reeds of Cavaillé-Coll to the mix that Ernest Skinner had accumulated in his large palette of tonal colors. But with time, he began to seek a new style of instrument, suitable for playing Bach or Widor, but little concerned with the orchestral transcriptions of the previous generation. Moving slowly, through the 1930s he experimented making a change in one instrument, incorporating that change with another new feature in the next instrument. 1
Lawrence Phelps summarized it nicely: "G. Donald Harrison arrived in America with a solid knowledge of English organ building and a fine appreciation of the work of Cavaillé-Coll. To this he soon added a rather detailed knowledge of Gottfried Silbermann's work, and with these tools he set about to realize in practice the ideal organ his artistic consciousness had long contemplated."2
This new style would become the prevalent theme in American organ building in the middle 20th century, and continue to influence instrument makers even as the organ reform movement gained traction and mechanical action instruments patterned after historic models began to proliferate. As Phelps observed in 1967, "... most of the instruments built even today bear a strong family resemblance to either the "American Classic" format originated by G. Donald Harrison or the even more stereotyped and restricted style of Walter Holtkamp."3 Designed to play a variety of repertoires, the 'American Classic' combined 18th and 19th century German and French inspired ensembles and placed them on the electro-pneumatic platform. After World War II, other American firms would follow Harrison's lead and create their own version of the style. Even some of the mechanical action builders were challenged to create an eclectic style capable of playing earlier works in an historically-informed if not absolutely authenic manner that would require a more limited a strict reproduction of the instruments of the past. 4
1) Jonathan Ambrosino, Ernest M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison: Retrospective & Review Lecture delivered at the Organ Historical Society National Convention in Boston MA, summer of 2000. Available on-line at Jonathan Ambrosino website. Accessed Jan. 11, 2016. 2) Lawrence I. Phelps, A Short History of the Organ Revival, (Reprinted from CHURCH MUSIC 67.1. On-line at LarrencePhelps.com), accessed Dec 15, 2015. 3) Phelps, ibid. 4) John T. Fesperman, "Organ Reform Movement," in The Organ: An Encyclopedia edited by Douglas Bush & Richard Kassel (Utah and New York: Psychology Press, 2006), pp. 386-387.
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