Mr. Benn Pitman of the School of Design described the panels on the screen of the great organ as "an open folio, on which is inscribed musical sentiment, history, and poetic fancy."
The Art-Carved Organ Panel Display
The magnificent, art-carved screen that covered the Hook and Hastings Organ was huge, measuring 60-feet high, 50-feet wide, and 30-feet deep.
The screen's design centered on music, of course, and expressed the significance of nature—reflecting music's origin within the early reed instruments, bird songs, and the rustle of leaves.
Within the design, there was a morning theme, and one each for noon and night. The morning-noon-night cycle was placed directly above the organ's keyboard.
On the screen, the names of 15 Western composers were placed on the towers of the organ front. The background for each of those panels features flowers or greenery that is associated with that man, his compositions or his nationality.
Four of the panels represent the seasons:
- the Spring panel contained narcissus
- there were two Summer panels, both showed open blooming flowers
- vine leaves and fruit covered the Autumn panel
- for Winter, the panel featured holly
A Labor of Love
It is estimated that a hundred and fifteen people worked on the screen, mainly women, and all of whom donated their time. The women would take the panels home and devote their leisure time to working on them, returning the panels toward the end of the project for assembly.
Overseeing the carving of the screen were three Englishmen who had settled in Cincinnati: Henry Fry, his son William H. Fry and Benn Pitman. The Frys had their own school of carving and design, while Pitman was in charge of the University of Cincinnati School of Design.
The work was divvied up between the two schools: Henry Fry and his students would design and carve the larger panels which would be placed in the center portion of the organ. Students at the School of Design would carve panels to cover the end sides.
The panels were made of native wild cherry and they include the names of the great composers: Schumann, Schubert, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Rossini, and others.
Over 100 panels were created. Many were signed by the persons who designed and/or carved the panel.
Additional Panels Were Created
In the mid 1890s, when the Music Hall Association announced intent to remodel Music Hall, Mr. Pitman indicated that only half of the contemplated decoration had been done when the organ was installed in Music Hall.
He took the opportunity of the renovation to engage art students to carve new panels for the organ.
During that remodeling, the organ was moved back 16 feet. At that time, the panels covering the rear of the organ were removed completely and returned to Mr. Pitman.
The main panels remained, even when the organ itself was overhauled on several occasions.
In 1971, it was determined that the organ needed to be replaced. The organ screen was removed and dismantled, and the pieces were auctioned off.
The remaining panels were stacked in Music Hall's basement and given to donors. A few were displayed in museums; a dozen were hung in the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, the pit wasn't lowered very often to show off the carvings.Two were on the wall by the north staircase.
The Display of the Art-Carved Panels
Kathy Janson, SPMH VP, has worked tirelessly since 2011 to identify, retrieve and restore as many of the panels as possible. She has tracked down 30 so far. Each was sent to conservator Tom Heller in Nashville, who restored each rare cherry wood panel.
As word spread of Kathy's work, donations came in to SPMH to help fund her efforts. SPMH too is underwriting the renewal and restoration of the panels.
Utilizing space that was once a carriage lane between Music Hall and the south wing, the 2016-2017 Music Hall Revitalization created a new "room" in Music Hall: the Taft Suite. These beautiful works of art are displayed in that room.
While the Taft Suite is not open to the public, SPMH Tours take visitors into this room, and into other areas of Music Hall normally not open to the public.Sign up for a Music Hall Tour!
Below is a video created by award-winning Cincinnati-based filmmaker Melissa Godoy that describes the importance of the art-carved movement and illustrates the restoration of one of the panels.