Manitoba History: The Golden Age of the Organ in Manitoba: 1875-1919

by James B. Hartman
Continuing Education Division, University of Manitoba

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Fair Organist—“I am sorry you had to give off blowing for us, Giles.”

Giles—“Yes, Miss; the organ don’t sound what it did, do it? Jim, the new blower, be a very good chap, but ‘e ain’t got no music in ‘im. Now, we did used to give ‘em summat worth ‘earin’, didn’t we, Miss?” (Winnipeg Town Topics, 28 August 1909.)

The history of organs in Manitoba is a neglected aspect of the musical, cultural, and church history of the province. A 45-year period around the turn of the century was the “Golden Age” of the organ in Manitoba. More than one-third of all the known pipe organ installations in the province up to the present occurred in this period, many of them in newly-constructed churches. Both the instruments and the recitals played on them were matters of intense public interest. The installation of a new church organ was not only a matter of pride and celebration on the part of the congregation, but it was also a significant event in the musical life of the community. This article presents a brief chronicle of the organ—the instruments, the builders, and the players during this period of slightly more than four decades.

Religious Denominations and Historic Churches

Within fifty years after the displaced tenant farmers from the north of Scotland had arrived in Manitoba’s Red River district between 1812 and 1814, many of the major religious denominations, now well established, had built their first churches. The first Roman Catholic churches were constructed in 1819 and 1822, followed by a series of cathedrals completed in 1833, 1862, and 1908. The Anglicans, whose religion was brought to the country by missionaries and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, built their first Church Mission House in 1822, followed by several other churches along the rivers, including St. Andrew’s on the west bank of the Red River in 1849 and St. James on the north bank of the Assiniboine River in 1853. Holy Trinity, Fort Garry’s first Anglican church, was opened in 1868. The Presbyterians erected Kildonan Presbyterian Church on the northern outskirts of the settlement in 1851; the first Knox Church was established at a more central location in 1868, succeeded by larger buildings on other urban sites in 1884 and 1917. Other Presbyterian congregations constructed places of worship in various sections of the city: St. Andrew’s in 1882, Augustine in 1887 and 1904, and Westminster in 1912. The Methodists founded their first mission at Red River in 1868; their first Grace Church was dedicated in 1871, enlarged in 1877, followed by a new building in 1883; the Wesley congregation established their first church buildings in 1883 and 1898. The Congregationalists arrived in 1879 and erected their first church building in Winnipeg in the early 1880s, followed by a second in 1890. [1]

Music in the Churches

The place of music in religious worship varied according to the denomination. Music was not readily accepted throughout the country by the Presbyterians, for they did not allow organs or hymns; the only singing was metrical psalms, later supported by a bass viol or flute. This situation continued until 1872, when their General Assembly decided to permit the use of organs. [2] In Manitoba some members of the Kildonan Presbyterian Church congregation objected to the introduction of a choir and to the idea of having an organ. In a debate on these issues, one parishioner announced that if an organ were put in the church he would bring around Old Bob, his horse, “and take the ‘kist o’ whustles’ out of the house of the Lord and dump it by the roadside.” When the organ eventually was put in, another dissenting member transferred to St. Andrew’s mission church, unaware that a small melodeon was used in services there, too. However, soon after his daughter was appointed to play the instrument in Kildonan Church he returned there. This repentant parishioner was John “Scotchman” Sutherland, later an elected member of the first Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. [3]

In Winnipeg, where other religious denominations considered the organ an appropriate aspect of Christian praise, things went more smoothly. Grace Methodist acquired a small reed organ in 1873, and two years later a prominent mill owner presented the Baptist Chapel with a similar instrument. [4] Other city churches, as well as those in outlying areas, also purchased reed organs, and they served these congregations for many years.

Reed Organs

The reed organ today exists only as a reminder of a by-gone era, but it played an important part in the musical life of the community around the turn of the century. In addition to supporting congregational singing in the churches, reed organs were the focus of religious devotions and entertainment in family parlours throughout North America.

Source: Manitoba Free Press, 24 November 1885.

It is likely that the first reed organ in Manitoba was not imported but was built here. According to the recollections of an early pioneer, the first organ in St. Boniface Cathedral (the 1833 building destroyed by fire in 1860) was a melodeon made by Dr. Duncan, the medical officer with the regulars. He was “devoted to music and a very ingenious man.” [5] This may have been the same organ acquired by the Grey Nuns sometime after their arrival at the St. Boniface mission in 1844; later they gave the instrument to the parishioners of the Cathedral. One of the nuns, Sister Lagrave, played Dr. Duncan’s organ in the Cathedral, but it was lost in the fire that destroyed the fourth Cathedral in 1968. [6]

An early imported reed organ, built around 1800 by Trayser & Cie, Stuttgart, Germany, was brought from England through York Factory in the mid-1800s, intended for use in a northern diocese of the Anglican church. During the journey the York boat overturned on the Nelson River, but the organ was recovered and brought south to St. Andrew’s, where it was left with a local Sunday school teacher who was also the church choir leader. The organ was designed to be carried by four men using poles looped through metal rings, two on either side of the case; this allowed the organ to be moved to and from nearby St. Thomas Church. This instrument, now nearly 200 years old, is in the museum at St. Andrew’s-on-the-Red Anglican Church, near Lockport.

Although nineteenth-century reed organs went under different names, all of them used wind-blown metal reeds to produce the sound. The smaller varieties, called melodeons or cottage organs, were compact, table-sized, semi-portable instruments. The larger versions were called harmoniums, cabinet organs, parlour organs, or pump organs, and their wind supply was produced by dual foot treadles which powered the bellows. Their fancy cases, decorated with ornate mouldings and carvings, made them desirable pieces of furniture in Victorian parlours in both city homes and farm dwellings. Larger church models had as many as 20 drawstops and sometimes pedal keyboards; these required an assistant to pump the bellows handle at one side of the case. Often they were mistaken by the public for pipe organs, since some of them had imitation pipes mounted on top of the case. [7]

Most of the reed organs in Manitoba churches and homes were built in southern Ontario by a few of the larger companies founded in the 1870s and supplied through their agents or retail outlets in Winnipeg. Before rail connections were established with Eastern Canada, organs were transported across the northern United States to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then north to Winnipeg by river boat. One of the largest manufacturers was the Bell Organ and Piano Company (or the Bell Piano and Organ Company, depending on its priorities); one of their large two-manual, 16-stop reed organs, with “mouse-proof” pedals, was in-stalled in St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Oak Lake, around 1890, and it is still in use. Other prominent Ontario makers included the Dominion Organ and Piano Company, the W. Doherty Piano and Organ Company, and the Thomas Organ Company. A large two-manual, 20-stop, Doherty instrument, built around 1904, originally in St. Albans Anglican Church, Snowflake, is still in regular use in St. Andrew’s-on-the-Red Anglican Church.

The T. Eaton Company sold several models of cabinet reed organs, made by the Goderich Organ Company, through its mail order catalogues around 1900. The basic “Queen” model, with 5 octaves, 10 stops, and 3 sets of reeds, was $29.50; the top-priced “Empress piano-cased” model, with 6 octaves, 12 stops, and 5 sets of reeds, was $75.00 (the lowest priced piano was $150.00). In 1902 J.J.H. McLean’s music store invited the public to informal recitals on an automatic self-playing organ, “The Bellolian.”

There was competition from American sources, however. In the mid-1870s Winnipeg newspapers carried advertisements by a dealer in St. Paul, Minnesota, offering pianos and organs to Manitoba residents, free of duty. The Manitoba Music Store in Winnipeg offered instruments by both American and Canadian makers, as well as tuning, repairs, and instruction. Several reed organs from the Estey Company, Brattleboro, Vermont, were supplied to Manitoba churches through a Winnipeg agent in the 1880s; a one-manual, 19-stop instrument, with ornamental pipes, now electrified, is still in use in St. Andrew’s-on-the-Red Anglican Church.

A pioneer in Deloraine recalled a large imposing instrument installed in the Presbyterian Church there in 1897. The organ had two manuals and pedals, with ornamental pipes, and was powered by the strong arms of older boys or young men who pumped a heavy handle to inflate the two bellows. She remembered that pumpers earned the reputation of “good pumper” or otherwise. Too much enthusiasm on the part of the pumper made it difficult for the organist to adjust the volume, whereas a “good pumper” had more appreciation for the mood of the music and waited for the signals. One time, during an organ recital, a belt connecting the two bellows broke. The pumper was frantically working the handle, hoping to add more power to the remaining bellows, while the organist was giving signals for more volume, more volume! When the ordeal was over, the pumper was exhausted and drenched with perspiration. That pumper still remembered that occasion vividly at the age of 85. [8]

A later development of the reed organ was the vocalion, patented in 1872 and first exhibited in 1885, which had a smoother, organ-like tone. It was the instrument of choice for a few churches, but its relatively high cost made it uncompetitive with that of small pipe organs. One organist-critic called vocalions “atrocities.” In 1890 McIntosh’s Music House in Winnipeg advertised “The Vocalion Organ for Churches, etc; Parlour and Church Organs of every description.”

Another variation was an hybrid instrument employing both reeds and pipes to approximate true pipe organ sounds in a less costly instrument. The Compensating Pipe Organ Company, which was in business in Toronto in the early 1900s, offered these instruments to Manitoba purchasers through a Winnipeg dealer, the Grundy Music Company. The company’s agent installed a two-manual, 14-stop instrument, with full pedal keyboard, in St. John’s Cathedral in 1902, replacing a less powerful model by the same maker:

The St. John’s Cathedral is to be congratulated on the installation of its new organ, not only on account of the quality of the instrument, but also on its having been built for the Cathedral in time for the ordination of the new dean ...

It is to be conceded that it is a very good thing indeed for churches, large or small, Sunday Schools, concert halls, etc., that it is now brought within their means to obtain a high grade organ, producing genuine pipe organ music, one that takes up less than half the space of any other instrument producing a similar musical result, (thus saving expensive alterations), and one that, as has before been said, can produce such beautiful effects with reeds and pipes, played together, (they can be tuned to each other at any temperament) and one which can be bought for half the price that has hitherto prevailed for instruments of similar volume. Similar musical results have never been produced before. [9]

However, the musical qualities of the organ were not highly regarded by one professional organist: “Compensating organs, of which the less said the better, and which the hearer should be very generously compensated for listening to.” [10]

Although many thousands of reed organs were sold during the peak period of their popularity between 1870 and 1910, their decline in popularity accompanied other innovations in musical entertainment, such as the player piano, the gramophone, and the radio, all of which transferred music appreciation in the home from a participatory activity into a passive one. Few reed organ manufacturers remained in business after 1930, and apart from those few instruments still being played in several rural Manitoba churches, the remaining survivors are collector’s items in private homes and museums.

Pipe Organs

The history of pipe organs in Manitoba is largely a chronicle of events in Winnipeg. An expanding urban population, increasing wealth, the growth of the various religious denominations, and the flowering of musical culture all resulted in the construction of a large number of churches within a relatively short span of time. In St. Boniface three Roman Catholic Cathedrals had been erected in succession (1822, 1833, 1862) before other denominations began to construct their houses of worship in Winnipeg. The first major boom in church building construction began in the 1880s and extended to about 1915. Many of Winnipeg’s largest and finest churches were built in these early years. Since many of the business, political, and community leaders, predominantly Anglo-Saxon in origin, were prominent members of the larger city congregations, they undoubtedly exercised considerable influence on decisions regarding the construction of church buildings, as well as on the installation of organs.

The pattern of organ installations in Winnipeg reflected, but did not exactly parallel, the major periods of construction of church buildings. The greatest number of organ installations in the city occurred between 1900 and 1930. In rural centres most of the early churches did not acquire pipe organs immediately, but used reed organs until they could afford pipe organs at a later date. The frequency of known organ installations during the period under consideration is evident in this summary:


Rural Manitoba






















Winnipeg newspapers published reports of the arrival of new organs, along with descriptions of their appearance and mechanical construction, often with complete stoplists. One such account, written by a city organist, assumed a broad educational function by including a lengthy discourse on the place of the organ in church worship, recent mechanical improvements in organ design, and the characteristics of the sound. [11]

In the 1880s Winnipeg had two or perhaps three organ builders, and it is likely that they were related to one another. The two partners H. W. Bolton and A. B. Handscomb were listed as organ builders in the city in 1883. It was this H. W. Bolton, formerly in Montreal, who submitted an unsuccessful tender in 1884 for the installation of a new organ in All Saints’ Anglican Church. There was also Fred W. Bolton, another builder who worked in the city in 1885 and 1886, and Wm. Henry Bolton who was listed as an organ builder only in 1887. In the same year a one-manual, five-stop, pipe organ was installed in the Presbyterian Church, Birtle, Manitoba, by “Messrs. Bolton and Baldwin of Winnipeg.” Which of the Boltons was involved in this venture is uncertain. As for the colleague Baldwin, he might have been one of a number of mechanics, fitters, or carpenters working in the city at that time who may have assisted Bolton on a part-time basis. There were no organ builders by the name of Bolton listed in the city directory in 1888 or in the following years. A Bolton pipe organ installed in the Baptist Church, Winnipeg, in 1883 received a brief compliment in the press:

The chief characteristic of the organ is its sweetness of tone. The range of effects is necessarily limited on account of the smallness of the organ, but the delightful mellowness of tone is a great relief from the screaming effects of large and more pretentious instruments. [12]

Another Bolton organ was installed in Christ Church Anglican, Winnipeg, around 1886. However, if any other Bolton organs were installed in Manitoba churches, none of them survive, and there is no remaining evidence of the builders’ activities in the area. The following sections provide brief accounts of some of the major organ installations in Manitoba in the early years.

St. Boniface Cathedral

The first pipe organ in Manitoba was installed in St. Boniface Cathedral in 1875 by Louis Mitchell, the Montreal builder who accompanied his new instrument across the continent and down the Red River from Moorhead, North Dakota, on the steamboat International. The unloading of the cargo on the St. Boniface side of the river was accomplished with the permission of the customs tax collector at the port of Winnipeg on 14 June 1875; more than fifty men were needed to complete the task. [13]

A large church organ arrived last Monday on the International for the Cathedral of St. Boniface. It was made in Montreal by Mr. Mitchell, the celebrated organ builder. It is the first church organ imported into the North-West, it is 19 ft high, 12 ft 6 in wide, and 11 ft deep. The case, which is already put up, is in the Grecian style, which is well adapted to the architecture of the Cathedral. The Organ weighs 12,000 pounds and costs over $3,200.

We hear that this new organ will be inaugurated on the 24th inst, upon the occasion of the celebration of St Jean Baptist day, and that there will be in the evening a grand concert at the Cathedral, the proceeds of which will go towards the fund for the completion of the church. All the musicians and artists of the Province will be present on the occasion. [14]

The organ was the gift of a group of friends of Monseigneur Alexandre Tache in recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of the date of his departure from Quebec for the mission at Red River, and of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his appointment as Archbishop of the diocese. At the time of the installation of the organ, about $1,100 had been raised by pupils and associates from the seminary in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. Although the specifications of the organ were not given, the dimensions of the instrument suggest that it may have had about twelve ranks of pipes.

The ultimate destiny of the organ was the first instance of organ recycling. In 1921, when the Cathedral purchased a larger instrument from the First Lutheran Church, Winnipeg, the Mitchell organ was removed and divided into two smaller instruments; one went to a school in St. Boniface, and the other to a mission in Lebret, Saskatchewan, both operated by the Oblate Fathers. [15]

Holy Trinity Anglican Church

Holy Trinity Anglican Church acquired its first pipe organ in 1878; it was installed by Samuel Warren & Son, a prominent company in the history of Canadian organ building. Warren, a descendant of one of the passengers on the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower, acquired his technical skills in Boston before emigrating to Montreal in 1836, where he built and repaired organs. The family firm moved to Toronto in 1878 and produced more than 350 pipe organs, along with pianos and other musical instruments, until it was sold to another organ company 1896. The newspaper report of the installation described the instrument in some detail:

The organ is from the establishment of Messrs. S. R. Warren & Son of Montreal and Toronto, and does great credit to that well-known firm. Its price is $3,000, and it is a powerful instrument, containing two rows of keys and full pedale, and twenty-four draw stops. Some of these are of exquisite sweetness, particularly the Claribel Flute, the Viol di gamba, and the Oboe in the swell, and the Dulciana Company, 1912. Casavar and the Harmonic Flute in the great organ.

The case is of chestnut wood with black walnut facings, and the front pipes are beatifully decorated with fleur de lis, and other ecclesiastical designs, in blue, gold and chocolate color. The top is surmounted with carved pinnacles. The body of the organ is contained in a chamber, built specially for the purpose; the front projecting about two feet into the church on the south side of the reading desk, giving a good view to the congregation of the case and ornamented pipes. Mr. Warren having lately visited the principal organ factories in England, France and Germany, now applies to his instruments all the modern improvements, of which we may specially mention the voicing and tuning of the pipes. The present instrument has been carefully constructed in this respect and its builder has succeeded in giving to its notes a softness and sweetness not always heard even in larger and more expensive organs. [16]

When Holy Trinity Church moved to a new location in 1884, the Warren organ was relocated and enlarged by the builder. It was claimed that the renovated instrument was the largest west of Toronto. The organ was further enlarged eight years later. In 1912 it was replaced by a large four-manual, 50-stop instrument, manufactured by the Canadian Pipe Organ Company, founded two years previously in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, by some staff of Casavant Freres who had decided to go into business on their own. The new organ was again described as the finest in the Canadian West.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 1884. S. R. Warren & Son Organ, 1884, 1892. Canadian Pipe Organ Company, 1912. Casavant Freres Console, 1950.
Photo: James B. Hartman

Business card, circa 1885.

St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

The inauguration of a new organ sometimes was marked not just by the performance of a single recitalist, but by a concert involving the church choir and several soloists. One such concert took place on 20 April 1883, on the occasion of the opening of the new organ at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. The event was unusual in one respect; the organ builder, Samuel Mitchell of Montreal, was also the featured recitalist. Probably he was related to Louis Mitchell, who had installed the first organ in St. Boniface Cathedral in 1875. The newspaper report covered both the design of the organ and Mitchell’s recital:

St. Mary’s Church was well filled last night upon the occasion of the inauguration of the new organ by Mr. Samuel Mitchell of Montreal, one of the builders. The organ stands in the gallery just over the main entrance, and presents a very handsome appearance. The case is Moresque in design, and is richly decorated, the arrangement of colors ornamenting the front pipes being most effective ...

The chief characteristic of the organ is its powerful tone, the reeds are voiced to a high pressure, and perhaps a little too coarse to suit the sensitive ear, but upon the whole it is well suited to the purpose for which it is intended.

The medley of National airs played by Mr. Mitchell which came after a short intermission, fully demonstrated the capabilities of the instrument. The imitation of the bagpipes greatly amused the audience, and the last expiring croak at the conclusion of “The Campbells are Comin”‘ elicited the laughter of all. Mr. Mitchell is a very clever manipulator, and the imitation of the fife and drum band was excellent. [17]

Thirty-five years later, the Mitchell organ was replaced by a new two-manual, 18-stop Casavant instrument. This organ, installed in 1918 at a cost of $3,692, would serve the church for a further forty years before being rebuilt by the same company.

Victoria Hall

Winnipeg’s Victoria Hall, built in 1883 and later renamed the Winnipeg Theatre and Opera House, was the site for many concerts, musical events, and other entertainments in the early years. Some church congregations held services in the Hall before their own buildings were completed. One of the ventures of the Winnipeg Oratorio Society, which performed there, was to provide an organ for this building. The newspaper account of the forthcoming installation in 1884 pointed out that the 11-stop instrument, whose builder was not identified, was intended to be used instead of a string band and would equal an orchestra of about thirty performers. [18] The list of stops included many ranks imitative of orchestral instruments: viol di gamba, horn, concert flute, clarionet, flute, piccolo, violin, and bass.

Grace Methodist Church

The first pipe organ in Grace Methodist Church was installed by S. R. Warren & Son in 1885, but a few years later it had deteriorated to the point of receiving an ultimate insult: “The organ at Grace church has arrived at that state of perfection when it is difficult to tell it from a circus calliope.” [19] When a new three-manual, 34-stop organ was installed by R. S. Williams & Son, Oshawa, in 1894, the decrepit instrument was transferred to Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The newspaper account of the new installation consisted entirely of a long discourse on the organ’s technical innovations, which were thought to be resistant to Winnipeg’s severe climatic changes. However, more than half of the report of the opening recital by a Minneapolis organist consisted of a series of observations on the theme that the organ needed “a good shaking down,” for an intermittently-sounding pedal note marred the opening selection, and some of the valves were sticking. Also, the instrument tended to go out of tune before the end of the program, perhaps due to a drop in the temperature of the church on the cold December evening. Nevertheless, the voicing was rated as excellent, as were the English-style diapasons and the reeds, some of them imported from France. [20]

An even more magnificent organ was acquired by the church in 1907: a four-manual, 46-stop instrument built by Casavant Freres, the largest organ in the history of the company to that date. The Casavant brothers, Joseph-Claver and Samuel-Marie, had established their factory in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, in 1879, following several years touring Europe, inspecting organs, and visiting workshops. In the following years their fame spread steadily beyond the towns and cities of Quebec. The first Casavant organ in Manitoba was installed in the Parish Church, St. Norbert, just south of Winnipeg, in 1899. During the period under consideration, the company installed eighteen complete instruments in Winnipeg and five in rural towns.

The installation of the new Grace Church organ was celebrated in the evening of New Year’s Day 1908 by a concert which included the choir, soloists, and a recital. The newspaper coverage of the event reported that the audience of nearly eight hundred people was delighted with the new “chest of whistles” and with the performance by the organist George Bowles (composer of the operetta, “The Manhaters of Manhattan,” a Christmas cantata, and other works, when he was not otherwise occupied as the manager of the Winnipeg’s Union Bank), although it was doubted that the ranks of reed pipes would remain in tune due to the severe temperature variations in a church heated by hot air. [21]

The eventual fate of the Grace Church organ is a unique story in the history of organs in Manitoba. Around 1942 Stuart Kolbinson, then a young man 24 years old, was working with C. Franklin Legge, the Toronto organ manufacturer, servicing a small Winnipeg organ built by a local company, probably Bolton. Legge introduced his assistant to the Grace Church organ, saying, “This will be for sale someday.” Legge’s prediction proved correct. Although Grace Church was regarded as the mother church of Methodism in the west, the wealthy congregation of the downtown church drifted away into the new city suburbs over the years, and the church building was demolished in 1955 to make way for a parking lot. Kolbinson bought the Casavant instrument for $2,000 and transported it to his prairie farm in the Kindersley district in Saskatchewan, where it was stored for several years. By 1963 Kolbinson had constructed a special building to house the organ, and it was ready to play. As stories of the heritage instrument spread, organists from as far away as Oregon came to try it out. Kolbinson left the farm in 1971 to enter the hotel business in Vancouver, then moved to Victoria, leaving his organ behind at the farm. After selling the farm in 1976, he returned there in 1979 to pack up his organ for the trip to Victoria. Although the organ had remained in an unheated building for several years, it played well except for being a little out of tune. Kolbinson, now retired, built a large extension to his Victoria home, including a bell tower, to accommodate the large instrument. In later years he reflected on his experience:

I have had many difficulties, but it is worth it, and I am sure that after I am gone the organ will still be the pleasure of those who will in the future have care of it. There is no reason why it won’t be singing a century from today ...

Occasionally I have a visit from someone who knew old Grace Church in its glory days, but as time passes these get fewer as the passing years take their toll. All the clever hands that built [the organ] so well have long since laid down their tools for the last time. All honor to them, who took leather, wood, lead, tin and zinc and fashioned an instrument whose voice shall always sing their praise. [22]

Presbyterian Church, Birtle

The earliest known installation of a pipe organ in rural Manitoba was in a small town in western Manitoba; it was made by Bolton, the Winnipeg builder active in the 1880s. This chronicle of events appeared in a report of the state of music in the town at the time:

On his arrival here in 1882 your correspondent found only one miserable little melodeon and two pianos in the whole place ... Early in the spring of 1887 the Presbyterians, who had been holding their services in the Town Hall, decided to build a church of their own and succeeded in erecting and opening a very comfortable building by the 19th of June, but not satisfied with this they went a step further and substituted a small but good “pipe organ” for the reed organ they had hitherto used. They now claim [incorrectly] to have the only pipe organ in the country west of Winnipeg. It was built by Messrs. Bolton and Baldwin of Winnipeg and is valued at $1000. At present it has only one manual with four stops, viz:--open diapason, stopped diapason, dulciana and principal and a Burdon [sic] set of pedal pipes, it also has a tremolo and swell box. This is just a start, I have no hesitation in saying that in another year or two there will be an addition to it in the way of a “swell organ” which will give them an A 1 instrument for a small church. On the evening of October 29th we opened the organ with a concert and organ recital ...

In conclusion I think you will agree with me that this is quite a go-ahead little town. This last year we have built two churches worth $5000, placed a $1000 pipe organ in one of them and subscribed over $200 to a band, all this is a town of less than 3000 inhabitants. [23]

All Saints’ Anglican Church

In 1883 a site was selected for All Saints’ Anglican Church at the intersection of Broadway Avenue and Osborne Street, where the present edifice now stands. Within a year services were conducted in the unfinished building. One of the ideals of the founders of this parish was that worship services should place more emphasis on the musical and ritualistic aspects of worship than was customary in Anglican churches in Winnipeg at the time. Accordingly, the nucleus of a substantial organ fund was established by the Ladies’ Aid Society in 1884; even the Girls’ Guild obtained some money from their activities which they wished to save for the organ. However, one aspect of the fund raising activities of the Ladies’ Aid Society received strong criticism in this anonymous letter:

Ch. of All Sts. has just been formally opened by the Bishop of Ruperts Land. 2 things in connection with the church and its opening are public property, and neither is creditable to those concerned ... [One] matter is the illegal, immoral lottery which the church is sanctioning for the benefit of the organ fund. A bed quilt or something of the sort is to be gambled for, the proceeds of the swindle to go to the church. All Saints Church is improperly named, it should be called All Sinners. To expect true Christianity in a fashionable church seems as absurd as to expect to find decency in a monkey house. [24]

Three builders submitted tenders for the proposed organ: H. W. Bolton, S.R. Warren & Son, and Casavant Freres. The successful applicant was Warren, who berated Bolton in several letters to church officials, referring to another organ which Warren had been asked to rebuild:

We are aware that there is a builder in Winnipeg but we should think that your congregation would hardly care to take the risk of entrusting the work to a man who has made so many disgraceful failures as the Queen’s Hall organ in Montreal and in fact everything he has attempted. [25]

The decision on the organ was deferred until the debt on the church building was paid off. Finally, the new instrument was installed in 1891 and duly reported in the press:

Mr. Shaw of Messrs. Warren & Son, Toronto, is in the city placing the new organ in All Saints’ Church, built by his firm, in position. The instrument has been carefully planned and the stops chosen for balance of power and variety of tone. It has two manuals with five stops on each, and provision for two more on the swell and one on the great. Artistically, it will be a great improvement to the church, the front bracketed out into the chancel, projecting about ten feet, and the pipes are tastefully decorated. [26]

During the war years 1914-17 it was decided that a new pipe organ would provide a fitting war memorial, and a committee was formed:

The result of this committee’s work was the placing of an order with Messrs. Casavant Freres of Quebec, the well-known manufacturers, for a new pipe organ at a price of $8,344 to be delivered in July 1917... and it is pleasant to relate that the Ladies’ Aid Society again came to the front and very generously offered to meet each installment of $500 with interest as the same matured. The organ was duly installed as a memorial to the men of All Saints’ who fell in the war and was dedicated on Sunday the 16th September 1917, the Church being crowded. The old organ was at the desire of the Ladies’ Aid Society presented to the Congregation of St. Alban’s Church in the City of Winnipeg. [27]

This three-manual, 37-stop instrument, later enlarged and refitted in 1959, is the present organ in All Saints Church.

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Church had a reed organ until 1894, when it acquired the discarded Warren pipe organ from Grace Church. Then, five years later, D. W. Karn, Woodstock, Ontario, completed the installation of a two-manual, 24-stop instrument; the opening recital on the handsome instrument was anticipated as “one of the most interesting musical events of the season,” [28] and the organ was compared favourably with the one in Holy Trinity Church. [29]

In 1912 the church replaced the organ with a four-manual, 49-stop Casavant organ at a cost of $10,500. This organ, which has undergone several modifications since that date, is the grandest organ in Winnipeg in the Romantic tonal tradition. For this reason it has served as the location for many concerts and recitals by local players and world-renowned organ virtuosos over the years.

Source: Winnipeg Town Topics, 10 January 1903.

St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church

When St. Stephen’s Church was erected in 1903, it acquired a new organ through a rather unusual sequence of events. In that same year the Winnipeg College of Music opened, with a staff of fifteen teachers who offered courses in piano, organ, voice, violin, harmony, and theory. The College had ordered a two-manual $2,000 organ from an unidentified Toronto builder, probably either Warren or Williams, for installation in their building. How St. Stephen’s acquired their organ was reported in a weekly newspaper:

When it came to making alterations in the new college building it was found that it would be impossible to erect the organ there without inconvenience and a large expenditure of space--and the college business is growing so fast that space is a very valuable consideration. So, in this dilemma a convenient arrangement was made with the authorities of St. Stephen’s church by which the organ will be placed in that church, used at the services and be available for college purposes during the week. [30]

The organ was only in use for about three years, when it was replaced by a three-manual, 29-stop instrument, installed by Casavant Freres in 1906 at a cost of $5,050.

Augustine Presbyterian Church

Organ installations received greater publicity when the inaugural concerts were played by touring recitalists. For example, the American organist Clarence Eddy, who had been the official organist at the Paris Exposition in 1899 and who was reputed to have opened more organs than any living organist, played two recitals on the new three-manual, 28-stop organ installed in Augustine Presbyterian Church by D. W. Kam, Woodstock, Ontario, in 1905:

Light and color were transformed into waves of melody at Augustine church last evening before a delighted audience of between seven and eight hundred music lovers, assembled at the first of the two inaugural recitals on the new organ by Mr. Clarence Eddy, a pastmaster on the great church instrument. The church is as new as the organ so there were no grim ghosts of by-gone Covenanters to protest against the introduction of a musical instrument in the kirk, but even had there been they would have been soothed by the carnival of sound which the magnificent instrument produced under the master touch of the world-wide famous American organist.

The organ is set in an alcove on a level with the gallery and above the choir. It was manufactured by the Karn Organ and Piano company, of Woodstock, Ontario, of which Mr. Wright is the local manager. It is a splendid instrument, the largest and best in western Canada, with over 2,000 speaking tubes; and, thanks to its large open diapasons, it has a wide volume of sound which is unequalled by many even larger instruments. Mr. Eddy himself is delighted with it. ‘It is brilliant,’ he said, ‘and it was a pleasure to me to play on it.’ [31]

The Augustine organ is the earliest instrument installed in Winnipeg which still remains active, although it has undergone refitting and renovation several times in the intervening years.

Augustine Presbyterian Church, D. W. Karn organ, 1905.
Photo: James B. Hartman

Other Installations

The arrivals of new organs in other large city churches—Zion Methodist in 1905, Fort Rouge Methodist in 1906 and 1911, Young Methodist in 1907, Wesley Methodist in 1908, St. Luke’s Anglican in 1910, St. Giles Presbyterian in 1913, and others—continued to receive attention in thgfe daily newspapers. However, with some exceptions, inaugural recitals by local players were often ignored, perhaps because they were not stand-alone events, but were part of dedication services involving religious rituals and church choirs. The installation of a new organ also provided an opportunity for local organists to inspect and play the instrument. Five city organists performed at a private trial of the new three-manual Casavant organ at Broadway Methodist Church in 1907. Leading members of the congregation and several city clergymen were present, along with J. C. Casavant, the head of the organ building firm. [32]

Fort Rouge Methodist Church, 1911. Casavant Freres organ, 1911.
Photo: James B. Hartman

Local Players

As soon as trained musicians arrived in Winnipeg, usually from England, they opened music studios in Winnipeg to offer private instruction in voice, piano, organ, and other instruments. Many of these people were also active in local orchestras or served as church organists and choirmasters. Some took employment in local music stores to supplement their meagre income from professional duties. For example, this advertisement was printed in a daily newspaper:

Mr. C. J. Newman (Associate London Academy of Music), Organist and Choirmaster, Holy Trinity Church, is now prepared to receive or visit pupils for organ, piano and voice culture. He is also open to accept concert engagements as a pianist, accompanist, or for organ recitals. For terms and appointment, address, for the present, Prince’s Music Store. [33]

In the early days organ recitals in the larger churches were played before capacity audiences, and they were much more frequent than they are today. Sometimes they were shared performances involving church choirs, vocalists, or other instrumentalists. A number of Winnipeg organists were particularly active, and the newspaper columnists followed their careers with sustained interest.

One of the earliest was Dr. P. R. Maclagan, a native of Scotland, who became a church organist there at the age of eighteen. Before coming to Winnipeg in 1882, he was organist at Christ Church, Montreal, for about twelve years. In Winnipeg he served as organist at several prominent churches: Holy Trinity, Central Congregational, St. Mary’s, and All Saints’, and was in demand as a recitalist at various other churches. Of his recital in 1885, a critic commented:

The recital of organ music given by Dr. Maclagan in St. Mary’s Church on Tuesday evening was attended by a large and fashionable audience, including most every professional and amateur organist in the city. The programme was an unusually heavy one, and contained representative compositions of nearly all the Great Masters, classical and modern ... The technical difficulties of some of the pieces, notably the Guilmant sonata, are enormous; yet they were all performed, not only with apparent ease, but with a degree of artistic finish seldom or never heard in the country ... The performance was probably superior to anything hitherto executed by that talented artist, and his many friends who were present expressed their delight at again enjoying his masterly interpretations. [34]

On one occasion he travelled to New York to play at one of the Episcopal churches there. He was musical conductor of the Musical and Operatic Society, and also of the Madrigal Society, before his untimely death of consumption in 1887 at the age of thirty-six.

Among the organists who contributed to the development of the local musical culture was Kate Holmes, organist at Grace Methodist Church in the 1890s. While a review of her recital at Christ Church Anglican in 1892 was highly appreciative, its condescending tone would not pass late twentieth century feminist criteria unchallenged:

Christ church was well filled last evening by a music loving audience, who had gathered together to hear and appreciate what is not too often heard in this city, high-class music, well played on the organ. To very few women is given such power over the master instrument as to Miss Holmes, who is the organist of Grace church. Without apparent effort, she handles the keys in a manner that proves her exceptional ability, for a woman, on the organ.

The programme which was selected was a very comprehensive one, and was well calculated to exhibit the resources of the fine instrument that Christ church now boasts. [35]

Robert D. Fletcher played his first reported recital at Holy Trinity Anglican Church on 27 September 1898; eventually he was appointed organist at the church, probably due to his demonstrated competence at a number of recitals he played there and at other locations. This enthusiastic amateur was pursuing medical studies (he received his medical degree in 1903) at the time he was awarded a Master of Arts degree from The University of Manitoba in 1902 for his treatise, “The Church Organ—Its Evolution—Some Famous Instruments.” The opening paragraph of his 21-page dissertation accurately reflected current views of the organ as a rival of the orchestra:

There is probably no instrument which has so engrossed the public attention, as well as Musicians generally, as the organ, embodying in its completeness almost all the principal effects obtained from band or orchestra in solo as well as ensemble playing, even surpassing these in some respects, and as capable of the most delicate pianissimo as the thundering forte.

The reviews of his recitals also revealed attitudes towards organ recitals in general that were widely held at this time:

Music—a branch of the art that, speaking locally, does not hold its proper place in public esteem. There is usually an absence of vulgar clap-trap at organ recitals, and in a beautiful church like Holy Trinity the refined and restful surroundings add much to the impressiveness of such occasions. Tuesday’s programme was by no means a formidable one, in fact there was not a “big” number on it; but its performance was characterized by care and skill as to execution, and intelligence as to registration. [36]

There is a danger in organ music of relying too entirely on the mechanical effects for the interpretation of the work and while these effects are very necessary, in fact indispensable, nothing can take the place of a sympathetic, artistic delivery on the part of the performer himself There are very few organists in the west who can entertain an audience as did Mr. Fletcher last evening. [37]

Fletcher’s great popularity can be gauged by the large attendance at his recitals. He had a dedicated following in other social circles, for he also played ragtime piano pieces at “smoking concerts,” where groups of men spent evenings playing cards amid the fragrant odour of superb Havana cigars and being entertained by singers, small orchestras, and instrumentalists. Even so, ragtime generally was denounced as musical rot that makes money. [38] However, a critic deplored the meagre collection received at one of Fletcher’s organ recitals: “His talents will some day be more substantially appreciated than in a community in which an audience of one thousand ‘music lovers’ contribute the magnificent collection of forty dollars and fifteen cents.” [39]

Eva Ruttan was one of a new generation of organists emerging in Winnipeg in this period. She received keyboard training in the city before leaving in 1905 to study with Henry S. Woodruff, organist and musical director of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis. On her return to Winnipeg two years later, she opened a studio to accept students in piano and organ and also became the organist at the new Fort Rouge Methodist Church, where she remained until 1909. Her first public recital in 1907 was praised in print:

The lady shows distinct improvement in her manipulation of the difficult instrument, and plays with fine expression. Her best numbers were “Fanfare” by Lemmens and Lemare’s “Andantino.” Good organists are not so many in the city but that a new recruit to the ranks will be warmly welcome. [40]

J. C. Murray, organist at St. Stephen’s Church, was not a frequent recitalist, but he was well known and appreciated in the musical community. In 1908 a London publisher issued an album of his musical arrangements of Elizabethan lyrics. One of his rare public performances, in 1909, was compared favourably with those of two world-class players, Edwin Lemare and Clarence Eddy, who had visited Winnipeg, in terms of his command of the organ’s resources and his mastery of the art of improvisation. [41] Murray later received a warm posthumous tribute from an organist-diarist:

Mr. Murray had been an occasional pupil of Guilmant, i.e., I think he had benefited on several occasions on courses of lessons designed for pupils, who could have the time to run over to Paris from Great Britain and sit at the feet of the great master. Mr. Murray was a superb player and maintained the highest traditions of organ playing ... [and] his playing had a charm and finish that will not be easily forgotten. [42]

The same diarist also reminisced about George Dore, organist at Holy Trinity Church for a time, who had arrived in the city from Chatham, Ontario, late in 1890:

Professor Dore ... was an elderly gentleman who played for a time at Holy Trinity and subsequently was organist of the Anglican church in Portage la Prairie. He had the hall marks of a fine musician and claimed, I have no doubt with truth, to have been a fellow chorister with Sir John Stainer and Arthur Sullivan. He was a remark-ably clever improviser and a genial soul, and I think of him with kindness as a man with the instincts of an artist and a gentleman. [43]

When Zion Methodist Church installed a new three-manual Casavant organ in 1905, the new organist Fred M. Gee was at the console. Gee emigrated from Wales to Winnipeg in 1902 at the age of twenty and opened a studio to teach piano and organ. In the following year he joined the staff of the Winnipeg College of Music and became organist-choirmaster of Westminster Presbyterian Church. For several years after his arrival in Winnipeg, until around 1907, he was referred to as F. Melsom Gee, perhaps to preserve a family identification with his father, Melsom D. A. Gee, who followed his son to Canada in 1906 and served as organist at All Saints’ from 1907 until his death in 1921. Fred Gee served as organist at several churches, including six years at All Saints’ beginning in 1925, and often played inaugural recitals elsewhere. He established Winnipeg’s Celebrity Concert Series in 1927, later described as the largest on the North American continent. As a full-time impresario, Gee brought many world-renowned musical artists to perform before large, enthusiastic audiences. A few months before his death in 1947, Gee was the soloist in MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the visiting Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Arnold Dann was one Winnipeg organist who achieved prominence in the field of music education. Shortly after arriving in the city to become organist at Grace Church, he opened a studio and secured an academic appointment at Wesley College in 1918:

With the assistance of several talented teachers ... [Dann] will conduct classes in all grades for the study of pianoforte, harmony, musical aesthetics, and interpretations ... Mr. Dann is planning to give a series of organ and piano recitals personally. In addition he will deliver his popular lectures on “Music and War,” “The Complete Organist,” and “The Rise and Development of the Tune.” [44]

Dr. Riddell, principal of [Wesley] College, recognizes the importance of music as a communal asset and the necessity of placing it in Winnipeg on the same footing as other arts and sciences. The services of Arnold Dann, the well known piano virtuoso, and successful director of music at Grace church, have been engaged. He has been given a professorship and a place on the faculty of the college. [45]

Dann’s recitals drew large crowds, and their frequency clearly reflected their sustained success with the musical listening public. Dann served as organist at Grace Church and held his teaching appointment at Wesley College until he left Winnipeg in 1923 for the United States, where he later became organist and choirmaster at a new one million dollar church in Pasedena, California, in 1924.

Visiting Recitalists

Winnipeg was host to some of the world’s most renowned organists during this period; most of them came from the United States, several from England, and prominent Canadian players were also represented. Advance notices of their appearances were followed by lengthy and mainly appreciative reviews of their recitals. The first reported recital by a visiting organist took place at the Central Congregational Church in 1890. It was given by the touring English recitalist Frederic Archer who, according to the English Globe, “is now the greatest of modern organists ... 2,000 organ recitals at the Alexandra Palace.” For an admission fee of 50 cents, the audience heard a program comprised chiefly of transcriptions of orchestral or operatic works by familiar composers. His return to the city early in the following year was again accorded an enthusiastic reception.

In succeeding years, Winnipeg audiences heard recitals by these performers: J. Warren Andrews, Minneapolis, at Grace Church in 1894; Frederick H. Torrington, principal of the Toronto College of Music, at Grace Church in 1898; William C. Carl, the New York organist who was on his way to give an inaugural recital in Dawson City, Yukon, at Grace Church in 1903; Rosa d’Erina, the distinguished Irish prima donna and organist, at St. Boniface Cathedral in 1905; Arthur Dunham, the organist at Sinai Temple in Chicago who had received a testimonial from the famous French organ virtuoso and composer Charles-Marie Widor, at Knox Church in 1906 and 1914; Edwin H. Lemare, the expatriate English organist and Paderewski of the organ who became a performing superstar of the organ in the course of world-wide tours, at Grace Church in 1908; Lynnwood Farnam, the Canadian organist who became a legend in his own time by committing 200 pieces to memory and playing 500 recitals by the time he was thirty-five, at Augustine Church in 1908; William Hewlitt, a co-director of the Royal Hamilton Conservatory of Music and heralded as one of the most brilliant players in the country, at Broadway Church in 1909; Gatty Sellars, the English organist who was accompanied by the King’s Trumpeter, at Grace Church in 1911 and St. Andrew’s Church in 1912; Henry Woodruff, Minneapolis, at Knox Church in 1913; Albert D. Jordan, the Canadian recitalist who had served as organist at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, at Westminster Church in 1915; Herbert A. Fricker, former city organist of Leeds, England, who came to Canada to conduct the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, at Westminster Church in 1919; Ernest MacMillan, who eventually would become recognized as Canada’s musical elder statesman, at Westminster Church in 1919; and T. Tertius Noble, formerly organist of Ely Cathedral and York Minster before settling in New York, also at Westminster Church in the same year.

What They Played

The content of organ recital programs over the years can be attributed to a variety of factors: the performers’ backgrounds, training, musical interests, and technical abilities; reverence for musical tradition and the attraction of new material; the perceived musical preferences of audiences; and the tonal resources of the organs. In Winnipeg in the early 1900s there were only a few orchestras or instrumental groups which could provide public performances of musical masterpieces of the past or of contemporary works. However, access to this realm of musical culture was broadened by the inclusion in organ recitals of many transcriptions of operatic, choral, or instrumental works by major composers. This practice, which was also evident in England and the United States, eventually attracted much criticism, even in Winnipeg. Dr. Ralph Homer, the music director of the Imperial Academy of Music and the Arts in Winnipeg and music editor of a weekly newspaper, later referred to as the “grand old man of music” in the city, commented on this issue in an article which advocated more frequent organ recitals in city churches as a means of increasing public familiarity with good music:

I am not an advocate for playing arrangements of orchestral music on the organ, for the attempt to illustrate or imitate the orchestra only results in disparaging the “King of Instruments,” but in the absence of a Symphony Orchestra these organ recitals can be the means of making people acquainted with orchestral compositions which otherwise they would never hear. [46]

In the four decades preceding 1920, there were 111 reported recitals, consisting of 733 selections in all. Slightly more than one-third of all the pieces performed were transcriptions of a wide range of works by the major composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most frequently performed pieces were derived from Wagner’s operas Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tannhaiiser; and Handel’s choral works, including his ever-popular Hallelujah Chorus and Largo. Haydn was represented by arrangements of his symphonic and chamber works. Audiences also heard organ interpretations of marches by Gounod (Marche militaire), Mendelssohn (War March of the Priests from Athalie), and Chopin (Funeral March), along with arrangements of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Transcriptions of Von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture, as well as of Beethoven’s overtures and some of his piano pieces, were also presented.

As for original works, Alexandre Guilmant’s organ compositions were the most frequently played, led by his Marche funebre et chant seraphique; the earliest reported performance of his Sonata in D Minor, written in 1874, was in 1885. Bach’s toccatas, preludes, and fugues began to be played often, but almost none of his chorale preludes; more than half of their performances were by several visiting recitalists. The first reported performance of his dramatic Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was in 1883. Mendelssohn was first represented in 1885 by his Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, composed about forty years earlier. Pieces by Louis Lefebure-Wely, the fashionable Parisian organist who demonstrated instruments of the leading French organ builder Cavaille-Coll in the mid-1800s, rapidly became recital favourites; one of his works, the Offertoire in G, was played in the first known organ recital in Winnipeg in 1878, about ten years after its publication. However, the works of Charles-Marie Widor were not included in the programs of touring organists until 1905. Interest in the compositions of Edwin H. Lemare escalated following his recitals in Winnipeg in 1908, and local organists included many of his lighter works—particularly his Andantino, later popularized as Moonlight and Roses—in their programs for many years. The compositions of Alfred Hollins, the blind English organist, began to appear in the programs of both visiting and local players at least a decade before his visit to Winnipeg in 1926.

The audiences at organ recitals probably consisted of parishioners of all the major churches and members of the general public possessing different degrees of musical enlightenment, along with the leading musical people of the city—”the tutored and untutored alike,” as one newspaper commentator described them. A “full house” at a large church would have amounted to a crowd of over 1,000 people. The population of Winnipeg around 1900 was about 40,000, and although it more than tripled within a decade, it is evident that attendance at organ recitals was a significant aspect of musical culture. These musical-social events were but one manifestation of intense musical activity that included the forming of bands, church orchestras, choral societies, and choirs, as well as the establishment of several musical conservatories, music teachers’ associations, and music clubs, and the inauguration of the Manitoba Musical Competition Festival.

Theatre Organs and Organists

Moving picture theatres were the chief form of popular entertainment in the cities and towns of Manitoba and elsewhere in the early years of the twentieth century. The larger Winnipeg movie houses also had resident vocal soloists, instrumentalists, and orchestras which gave brief concerts before screenings of motions pictures or during intermissions. Vaudeville acts and sometimes local military bands were featured in these events, too.

Theatre organs first were used to provide musical backgrounds to the action in silent movies. Sometimes these sonic backdrops were improvised spontaneously by the organist, sometimes they were adaptations of composed music. In some respects the theatre organ was a competitor of the orchestra, for the pipe ranks and stop lists of these organs mimicked orchestral instruments. They were also equipped with a variety of percussion devices, such as drums, traps, xylophones, bells, and chimes. Organ consoles were elaborately decorated structures, often of coloured glass backlighted to silhouette the player. Sometimes they were mounted on hydraulically-operated platforms which allowed the organist, seated at the console, to rise dramatically into the audience’s view from beneath floor level, playing all the while.

A bizarre instrument called “The Fotoplayer” was installed in Winnipeg’s Bijou Theatre in 1915. Many of these relatively inexpensive music machines, manufactured by The American Photo Player Company, New York, were installed in theatres throughout the United States and elsewhere, where they added to the public’s enjoyment of silent films. This mechanical wonder included a pressurized reed organ section and perhaps several ranks of organ pipes, along with various sound effects, all of which could be played manually or by means of paper rolls. Some models had a device for shifting quickly from one roll to another to follow the mood changes of the film. The single keyboard was centred between two sound cabinets which housed the electric blower, wind chests, and special effects devices. It was advertised as “The Ninth Wonder of the World, The Musical Masterpiece that Expresses the Griefs, Joys, and Triumphs of the Artists; that Supplies the Unspoken Words in the Pictures—Magnificent Orchestral and Organ Tones.”

Organ recitals of current popular music and transcriptions of familiar light classics took on an independent life of their own with the advent of talking pictures. These performances, like those of theatre orchestras, were additional attractions to the current motion picture being shown, and often featured special music for the Christmas season. It is interesting to note that theatre organists endeavoured to maintain high standards in their selections of music, whether to accompany the motion picture or for short recitals during intermissions:

Modern theatres have for some time been equipped with splendid pipe organs. Good orchestras have been introduced, and are now a recognized feature. The music is one of the chief attractions.

One organist who plays at a large picture house said recently, “besides recital programmes and special organ solos, I gave request numbers to get the musical pulse of our audiences. Only once have I received a request for ragtime or any real cheap piece. On one occasion I had a request for a Bach Fugue.” [47]

Some theatre organists earned a living out of this activity, while others occupied posts as church organists at the same time. Their careers, involving moves from one theatre to another or presiding at the opening of a new instrument, were reported in the entertainment sections of the newspapers, perhaps in the belief that their fans would want to follow them from theatre to theatre.

The installation of the large theatre organ in the Province Theatre in Winnipeg in September 1917 created a high level of interest. The three-manual, electric-action instrument (claimed to be the only organ in Winnipeg so equipped), containing 2,000 pipes, was supplied by the Toronto organ builder C. Franklin Legge. The $20,000 instrument also had a self-playing mechanism which allowed the instrument to perform on its own in the absence of a trained organist. The organ was formally opened by George E. Metcalfe, “The Organist Supreme” from the Pacific Coast, who amused the theatre customers with a steady stream of improvisations on the “Wonder Organ” throughout the afternoon and evening. At the time, the theatre was featuring the hand-coloured film “Mayblossom,” made in France by Astra-Pathe.

The Winnipeg theatre organist Walter Dolman

had a career as a church organist before and after his experience in Winnipeg cinemas. Born in England in 1875, he was appointed organist in a church in Burton-on-Trent at the age of fourteen. After coming to Canada in 1903, he lived in Toronto and worked for a while with F. H. Torrington, principal of the Conservatory of Music, then moved to Chatham, Ontario. He was a church and theatre organist briefly in Detroit, Michigan, before coming to Winnipeg around 1918 to play at the Province Theatre, then at the College, Dominion, and Starland theatres. In 1925 he moved to Brandon, Manitoba, to play at the Strand theatre, but not for long. By the year’s end Dolman was back in Winnipeg, this time at the Capitol Theatre. There he inaugurated a daily series of “twilight recitals” in the late afternoon and early evening, when he presented a mix of music by modern masters, earlier composers, and popular numbers in vogue with the younger set. In 1928 he moved to Kenora, Ontario, to become organist at Knox Church in that town, where he remained until his death in 1947.

The question of the influence of the theatre organ generally on the development of an appreciation for main-stream organ music was the subject of a borrowed newspaper editorial. The fear that “bad” music would drive out “good” was unfounded, according to this writer:

The feeling among musicians that the organ performances given in “movie” shows lower the public taste for dignified music seems to be increasing. In regard to the general influence of “movie” organ music a writer in Musical Opinion says: “When the instrument began to take a prominent part in the ‘movies,’ some of us thought that people, having the organ thus brought to their ears night after night, would esteem it more highly. But this is not likely to provide an exception to the rule that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ We are now beginning to see that the old aloof position of the organ was not a bad thing. True, its public was limited, but if it spoke to comparatively few, the few were devotees. It is not likely to gain new ones from its association with Mr. Chaplin.” [48]

Later Years

The 1920s marked the height of fashion for cinema organs. Several of the larger movie theatres in Winnipeg installed pipe organs in this period, and the arrival of a new instrument was a matter of intense interest on the part of the popular musical establishment and the entertainment industry. However, with the advent of the first sound-synchronized “talkies” in 1928, the role of the theatre organist began to change. With the gradual demise of silent motion pictures, cinema organists still continued to provide musical entertainment before picture showings and during intermissions, but these practices eventually were discontinued as the talking movies came to be regarded as self-sufficient entertainments in themselves.

The Winnipeg Centre of the Canadian College of Organists was established in 1923 by some of the city’s leading organists. This small but enthusiastic group sponsored recitals by local and visiting players and arranged special events for the improvement of church music generally. The 1920s were the peak period of organ recitals, and the 1930s were almost as active. The frequency of new organ installations diminished over the succeeding decades, particularly during the years of World War II, when materials were in short supply. Many renovations of existing instruments were undertaken in the 1950s. However, only a few of the churches built after this time acquired pipe organs, preferring less costly electronic instruments instead.

The past four decades have been marked by renewal, consolidation, and modest growth in the fortunes of the organ. Interest in the organ and its music is still relatively strong today, considering the various musical and performing arts alternatives, as well as the other forms of cultural entertainment now available. However, in terms of organ installations, recitals, and intensity of public interest in the King of Instruments and its players, the period of the “Golden Age” of the organ remains unsurpassed in the history of music in Manitoba.


Research for this project was conducted during the second half of 1992 and the first half of 1993; a six-month period of full-time activity during this time was made available through a research-study leave from The University of Manitoba. This article is an adaptation of one chapter of a book, The Organ in Manitoba: the Instruments, the Builders, the Players, and the Critics, to be published by Windflower Communications, Winnipeg in the summer of 1995.

1. “Les cathedrales de saint-Boniface,” La Liberte,12 July 1972, p. 24; Neil Bingham, A Study of the Church Buildings in Manitoba of the Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Churches of Canada (Winnipeg: Manitoba, Historic Resources Branch, 1987); Kelly Crossman, A Study of Anglican Church Buildings in Manitoba (Winnipeg: Manitoba, Historic Resources Branch, 1989).

2. Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, 1992 ed., s.v. “protestant church music.”

3. W. J. Healy, Women of Red River (Winnipeg: Russell, Lang & Co., 1923), pp. 77-78.

4. Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg: A Narration of the Principal Events in the History of the City of Winnipeg from the Year A.D., 1870 to the Year A.D., 1879 Inclusive (Winnipeg: Times Printing and Publishing House, 1879), pp. 81, 117.

5. Healy, p. 34.

6. “Les orgues de Saint-Boniface,” La Liberte, 12 July 1972, p. 25.

7. T. F. Classey, “19th Century Canadian Organs,” The York Pioneer,1966, pp. 30-32.

8. Ruth Whitlaw, Deloraine, Manitoba, letter to the author, 10 November 1992.

9. Winnipeg Town Topics (hereafter TT), 9 August 1902.

10. “Few Pipe Organs When Winnipeg was a Hamlet: Diary of the Late James W. Matthews Recalls Early Instruments and Players,” Manitoba Free Press (hereafter FP), 13 December 1924.

11. “Opening of the New St. Andrew’s Church Organ,” TT, 26 March 1904.

12. “Baptist Church,” FP, 9 March 1883.

13. “L’Orgue de St. Boniface,” Le Metis,17 June 1875.

14. “The Church Organ of St. Boniface,” FP, 16 June 1875.

15. “Les orgues de Saint-Boniface,” La Liberte,12 July 1972, p. 25.

16. “Holy Trinity Organ Recital and Sacred Concert,” FP, 12 July 1878. A similar account is given in Gegg and Nursey, p. 191.

17. “St. Mary’s Church: Inauguration of the New Organ--The Recital and Sacred Concert--The Church Crowded,” FP, 21 April 1883.

18. FP, 12 January 1884.

19. Winnipeg Town Talk, 21 March 1891.

20. “The New Organ: Inaugural Recital by mr. Andrews of Minneapolis,” FP, 10 December 1894.

21. FP, 4 January 1908.

22. Stuart Kolbinson, Victoria, B.C., “Some notes regarding Opus 301,” for the author, to Casavant Freres, 1992.

23. “Birtle, Man.,” The Musical Journal, 15 April 1888, p. 63.

24. Winnipeg Siftings, 23 February 1884.

25. S. R. Warren & Son, to C. J. Brydges, Ottawa [Land Commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Honorary Treasurer of the Synod of Rupert’s Land], 28 March 1884.

26. FP, 7 November 1891.

27. History of All Saints’ Church, n.d.

28. FP, 15 April 1899.

29. Winnipeg Tribune, 22 April 1899.

30. TT, 31 October 1903.

31. FP, 22 February 1905.

32. TT, 27 April 1907.

33. FP, 18 June 1888.

34. FP, 11 November 1885.

35. FP, 19 May 1892.

36. TT, 1 October 1898.

37. FP, 12 September 1900.

38. TT, 1 June 1901.

39. TT, 5 October 1901.

40. TT, 19 October 1907.

41. TT, 8 May 1909.

42. “Recalling Early Organists: From the Diary of the Late Jas. W. Matthews,” FP, 3 January 1925.

43. “Few Pipe Organs When Winnipeg was a Hamlet: Diary of the Late James W. Matthews Recalls Early Instruments and Players,” FP, 13 December 1924.

44. FP, 31 August 1918.

45. “Wesley College to Inaugurate Music Department,” FP, 14 September 1918.

46. “Music,” TT, 17 February 1912.

47. “Music,” FP, 23 March 1918.

48. FP, 21 September 1918.

Page revised: 13 June 2011