In Memoriam, Lawrence Phelps

When I first started working with Larry Phelps, he was Artistic Director at a large Canadian organbuilding company and already had a reputation for finding solutions to the problems no one else was able to solve, technical problems, management problems, etc. He had an enormous capacity for working out solutions.

I learned with time that he had trained himself to respond to the many challenges he encountered in his career. He went from a music school to an engineering school in order to acquire the knowledge he needed in the organ field; when he designed the large organ for The Mother Church (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston), he developed a pipe scaling method which he would use all through the some 40 years he spent designing pipe organs; when he went from artistic director to president of a large organbuilding firm, he took an accounting course and studied management methods; he was involved in all aspects of the operations of the company.

He had his own way of interacting with the workers. He said he always expected people to do their best and people did their best; they rose to the challenge and performed under his direction, sometimes exceeding all expectations. He had a way of firing someone's enthusiasm, which probably originated in his own inspired approach to his art.

When the 200 or so employees of the company went on strike and the negotiating team could not work out an agreement with the Union, Mr. Phelps was asked to help, and he did. The employees trusted him, he understood their point of view, and strike was settled in a very, very short time, to the satisfaction of all parties.

He went to Europe early in his career, and that trip was a turning point for him, and for organbuilding in America. He visited Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, and maybe other countries, and took notes on some 60 organs - complete specifications, characteristic tonal compositions, architectural dispositions, scaling methods, etc., and studied what made them successful in their own style and national identity. He then adapted the knowledge he gained from that study to his own tonal designs and developed a unique instrument perfectly adapted to the vast literature for organs, which would fill the need in America for an organ capable of playing all of the organ music in the way it needs to be played.

Mr. Phelps was an intellectual giant. He loved books and had a voluminous library. Anyone who visited his home soon found out how varied his interests were and how fascinating it was to browse through those books. He had books on art, on history, technology, philosophy; and his thirst for knowledge never stopped.

He was a private person and did not discuss his personal beliefs with more than a few fiends. But anyone who explored that facet of his life soon discovered that he was an avid student of the Bible and he loved to exchange ideas on metaphysics and philosophy. He found inspiration in the Bible and studied it extensively. It was part of his life from his childhood until the very end.

-- Claudette Bédard


When I first began working for Larry I assumed I would be learning just about organ building. After all, that is why I moved to Pennsylvania -- to work at Lawrence Phelps and Associates and to learn from Larry. I soon realized I would be working WITH Larry, not FOR Larry and my education would not stop with organ building. He was not only an Organ Builder; he was a Musician, an Historian, a Teacher and a Friend. He taught me about music, about the orchestra, about the organ as a musical instrument and of course about organ building.

Larry and I voiced nearly all of the organs built at Phelps and Associates. During the many weeks and months we would be on the road working on organs, I absorbed as much from him as was possible. He always had time to explain to me or to others his ideas, his reasons and his methods. Larry was a very patient teacher to those who wished to learn.

His sole purpose for building organs was to produce a musical instrument. He was not intrigued with the mechanism of the organs nor of just building a copy of an historic instrument. Larry's organs were of the 20th Century and beyond. The end product, that is, the music, was of utmost importance to him.

I will miss Larry and I will miss the fact that we will have no new organs bearing his artistic stamp. Larry's legacy, his organs, will outlive us all. I am most fortunate to have known and learned from him and to be able to call Larry my friend.

-- David E. Young


Larry Phelps had a very clear vision of what he wanted to achieve in each of the instruments he built. This, coupled with his abilities in all aspects of organ design and construction, could have made him a demanding mentor. Ideally, he would have liked his assistants to be extensions of his eyes and ears and hands. He realized, however, that there are many ways to achieve an end and had the wisdom to collect around him people who shared his goals and could, in a collegial atmosphere, help him reach his supreme and only objective, Organs which serve Music.

It has been said that to have any chance at being a work of art, an organ must be first a good machine and then a good musical instrument. All elements must be present, for what good is tonal and physical beauty if they cannot be relied upon for use? Larry Phelps built works of art, and to further that end he made sure he thoroughly understood the engineering fundamentals which must underpin the mechanical and tonal design of any great organ. In this he was unique among his contemporaries.

-- Clive R. Webster


Many years ago, I was attracted to the organ because of its power to move me. I deliberately switched from the piano to the organ and started to discover the technical side of the organ. I especially noted the contrast between the charming little instruments in the country village churches with their tracker action and rudimentary pedal sections, and the grand but "tubby" affairs to be found in large buildings. Already I started to wonder how the best aspects of the organ - as a musical instrument - could be brought together. I was fortunate enough to "go up" to Clare College, Cambridge - England and sing under first Peter Dennison and then John Rutter. The most astonishing piece of good fortune, though, was the tutelage of Dame Gillian Weir who would appear in Cambridge from time to time and summon us to the 1971 Beckerath to perform. Not just to discuss fine details of technique - that also, of course - but to really get to the heart of the music and how to perform it. After that I was never afraid to practice in public places!

In those days I was a Metallurgist - and indeed that is what I teach now in the remarkably pleasant environs of the Steel City where one of Larry's Casavant instruments is my regular practice venue. As a student, I had gradually become aware of the exquisite instruments that Lawrence Phelps had built, both in Casavant days and then Phelps & Associates. I could not imagine any better career than combining my interests in (materials) engineering and music. Imagine my delight then when offered the opportunity to join the best organ building enterprise in the world! I would like to be more specific: as an active player of the organ and a firm believer in its status as the King of Instruments, not just an vehicle for accompaniment, I still think that Larry's unsurpassed combination of attention to engineering detail and musical realization is still needed in the world. The organ has a rich, varied and challenging literature that deserves the best instruments for its realization. Too many have built for a sound only and too few have built organs to enable the performer to realize the widest practicable range of music.

As luck would have it I only was able to stay with the enterprise for barely two years but it was long enough to learn much about Larry's remarkable ability to create musical instruments which also had many very carefully engineered solutions for stable wind pressure, attack-sensitive touch, tremulants, compensating tracker actions, electronic stop control (long before the commercial systems were available) etc. What was also remarkable about Larry was the way that he interacted with people. Now that I have accumulated a good deal of managerial and administrative experience, I recognize that Larry had a gift for leadership. Leadership in the modern mode, that is, with concern for the individual but a determination to sustain the highest quality. Needless to say, Larry has always been a role model for me. I'll end here - I am privileged to have known someone who contributed so much to the world.

-- A. D. Rollett


While my professional admiration for Lawrence Phelps was boundless, and my admiration for his skill and knowledge immense, it is Larry the dear friend and good companion that I most cherish in my memory. This genius, who could positively obsess over the tenths of millimeters governing the detail of a pipe-scale, possessed a sense of humor and sense of play which charmed and comforted and shone brightly from twinkling eyes and a remarkable laugh. Whether sitting quietly after the work day recalling days past, or welcoming one's parents to his table when they came to visit - my own beloved mother carried with her to her last days the fetching image of a gracious dinner with Gillian and Larry at their home, and watching Larry bravely tackling his first artichoke - or pouring over some knotty problem in the layout of a new instrument, he could magically refocus the direction and lessen the intensity with his very special brand of niceness, of concern, of happiness. I will never forget watching him stretched back in his enormous desk chair, talking to some great personage on the telephone, with my cat Max - an occasional visitor - lying stretched out on Larry's generous chest, possibly kibitzing, but surely adoring his good pal. Larry, seemingly oblivious to a known sensitivity he had to cat dander, would not disturb Max; preferring their shared and mutual admiration to mere sneezeless comfort.

While Larry could be a taskmaster when needed, it was his posture as a supportive and sharing co-producer of musical art that taught me some of my most important lessons in the organbuilding practice; and never let me forget that in Larry's own words: "We [were] not in the organ business, we were in the music business. We just happened to build organs!" In more ways than I could recount, he changed my life; and always made me feel that I had brought some additional dimension to his. He was a teacher, and a model -- but mostly, he was my friend. Always, and in all ways.

-- Ken W. List


The years I spent as part of Lawrence Phelps & Associates are years of great personal and intellectual growth.

Larry at one time told me he had no patience with people who passed through this human experience not leaving the world better for having passed through it. Well done, Larry Phelps, well done!

-- Lawrence K. Sinz


Lawrence Phelps focused and defined musical organbuilding for a generation in North American. He was a scholar, an artist, a mechanic, an engineer, a designer and of course, an organbuilder. But most of all, he was a musician who understood that for a pipe organ to be responsive and relative, it must transcend its component parts to become a vehicle for musical communications in the hands of a sensitive musician. To this end, he devoted his life's work.

Like his distinguished teachers, G. Donald Harrison and Walter Holtkamp Sr., Larry's work stemmed from a personal understanding of the history of the organ and its musical basis, but it slavishly copied no historical style. But unlike his predecessors, he was a highly trained musician who had a personal knowledge of the organ literature and did not depend on other musicians and organists for guidance in discovering his path toward musical organbuilding. And as one whose musical training was grounded in the wider musical world and not primarily centered on one instrument, he brought a cosmopolitan perspective that also would shape significantly his quest for the musically communicating organ.

Throughout his career, whether in designing the monumental masterpiece in The Mother Church or in creating many of the pioneering mechanical action instruments in North America, his work was unified by a common thread of integrity and musicality. Organs in their highest form are works of art, and few organbuilders have left a richer legacy of instruments worthy of this high accolade. May we -- and those of generations to follow -- seek to appreciate, sustain and preserve the timeless musical lessons taught by the art of our friend and colleague, Lawrence I. Phelps.

-- Burton K. Tidwell


Since my uncle, Lawrence Phelps, spent so much time away and had such a busy schedule, when he had the time, he used the old fashion art of writing letters to keep in touch with friends and family.

In one of the many letters he wrote, he talked about the potential of computers. He felt that computers would one day play a vital role in society at homes and in businesses. He saw the day when computers would change the way in which we all communicate with each other and conduct our business.

Now, such a letter today would hardly raise an eyebrow since we pretty much all know that to be true. But the truth is, this letter was not written this year or last year. Nor did my uncle write this letter in this decade or even the last one. And it was not written in the 1970s or the 1960s. This particular letter was written by Lawrence in 1954, nine years after the end of the Second World War, two years into the administration of Dwight Eisenhower and long before the space age had begun. In 1954, at the dawn of the television era, Lawrence Phelps saw the enormous potential of something that for most people in the world of science and technology was more for Buck Rogers than the reality that it is today.

That was what my uncle was about. He was not afraid to dream and reach for the future. For Lawrence Phelps, life was an exciting adventure. To my uncle, ideas, thoughts, new concepts and innovations were something to be grasped, explored, embraced, studied, cradled, nurtured and shared.

One of the enduring things which attracts many of us to people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin is the depth and scope of their interests. My uncle was cut from the same mold. There was a lot more to him than his love of music and building of great organs. He loved exploring and learning and searching for new ideas and concepts. Among his interests, he studied art, physics, music, architecture, science, history, philosophy and religion. He even looked into the New Age movement. Not everything he studied was in the field of technology or deep thought. He even tried to teach himself gourmet cooking. And he was a fan of fiction and old programs from radio's golden age.

His home was filled with catalogues. Even after his wife Gill went on a weeding quest through the abundance of such catalogues, the collection was back to its usual overflowing size in no time.

He loved to collect new gadgets to play with. My uncle was always willing to dive into the cutting edge of everything. He drove small sports cars in the 1960s, long before it was fashionable. As a child, I recall that for two straight Christmases, he gave me large boxes of Lego and this was in the 1960s, at least 10 years before those little building blocks were well known.

But it is in his accomplishments in music that he will be perhaps remembered the most. He leaves behind a wonderful legacy of excellence in the organ field that will remain for decades to come. His love of music began at an early age. My mother, who is 11 years younger than my uncle, recalls that as a little girl, Lawrence taught her about music. He even taught her how to conduct a symphony orchestra as a child. As a result, my mom, who is an excellent pianist in her own right, learned a deep appreciation for music - something which she passed on to my brothers and sisters and me. And it is a gift for which I am externally grateful today because it has added so much value to my life.

My uncle loved to work. I'm sure that the very thought of full retirement was something he was not looking forward to. Let's face it, Lawrence Phelps would not have been happy with a retirement life of Bingo, balloon volleyball and remember-when games. It would have been agony for him to have to hang out in front of some nurses' station waiting for the next mealtime to arrive. That was as far away from his nature as one could get.

I only have one regret when it comes to my uncle and it is that I didn't get to see more of him. I fully understood and accepted the fact that his travel schedule certainly didn't allow for many visits. But I did get to share in many of things he that did. His parents and my grandparents, Rudy and Hobart Phelps, were proud of all three of their children. Of course, they loved hearing from Lawrence either by phone, letters or post cards. He used to keep them informed of the places he went and the things he was doing. I recall in my younger days reading letters he wrote to them talking about the progress and challenges he had in building organs in various places around the world. He took the time to share with his parents in such a way that it was like taking them along on the journey. For my grandparents, who didn't get a chance to do much traveling, it was their way of being able to see parts of the world they could never get to themselves. It was his way of bringing them along on the journey. Like us, they were really very proud of what he was able to do and certainly there was a lot to be proud of.

Yet, at those times when we did get to see him, usually at Thanksgiving or Christmas family gatherings, we could see another side of him. He really had a quiet, shy nature about him. Even with all he had accomplished, there was nothing blustery about him - a refreshing change in a world where too many people are fast to blow their own horns in deafening tones. He was far from being a braggart.

Actually, he'd rather talk about his wife Gillian than himself most of the time. There is no doubt that he had a deep love for her. A look around his apartment in Boston with all the photos of her and tapes of Gill's many concerts show that she was never far from his mind or heart.

I recall when he was getting over an illness a few years back, Kathleen and I went to visit him as he recovered at my Aunt Phyllis' home in Natick. This was the first time Kathleen had met him. The topic of conversation was barely about him; he wanted to talk about Gill. He even showed us a tape of a TV series she did. I know that the time Lawrence had to spend away from Gill was extremely hard for him. He loved her very much and was extremely proud of what she has been able to accomplish in her life.

My uncle never had any sons or daughters, although he certainly liked kids and had a great way with them. Even so, I think it is fair to say that he leaves behind a great number of children. For you see, every one of those organs he built or worked on are like his own children. He leaves behind in each one of them a part of himself. And every time one of those organs plays, if you listen very carefully, you will hear his voice among the notes, inviting you to share, enjoy and cherish this gift of music.

I suspect that if my uncle were up here now and he was prodded to leave behind some message for us, it might be to never limit ourselves or give up on our dreams. He would encourage us to seek out and explore everything this beautiful world has to offer, savor its treasures and uncover the layers of its mysteries. This is the way he lived and it's what he passes on to us through his own example.

For my uncle, his journey is complete and he is finally home. He may now rest in the company of his parents, Hobart and Rudy and his brother Donald. He did what he set out to do in life and that was to bring to us God's beautiful gift of music in a way it's surely meant to be heard. That's something for which we can all be truly thankful.

-- Wayne Braverman


Lawrence Phelps Obituary

Obituary: LAWRENCE PHELPS, of One Cumberland Street, Boston, died February 22, 1999, in Boston.

Born May 10, 1923, in Somerville, he was the son of Hobart Phelps and Ruby Kerr Phelps. He was a long-standing member of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston. Lawrence Phelps was married in August 1972 to Gillian Weir, who survives him. He had previously been married to the late Ruth Barrett Phelps. A sister, Muriel Pedersen, of Bedford, also survives him, as well as a sister-in-law, Phyllis Phelps, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and several nephews and one niece, and their children. He was preceded in death by his parents and his brother, Donald Phelps, of Natick.

Lawrence Phelps studied conducting and performance at the New England Conservatory of Music, and engineering at Northeastern University, and had a long career as an innovative and distinguished organbuilder. After his apprenticeship with Aeolian- Skinner in Boston, where he trained as a voicer and tonal finisher, his art had taken him to Cleveland where he worked with the Holtkamp Organ Company; he then returned to Boston to design the large Aeolian-Skinner organ for the extension of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and to supervise its installation. After a period with the Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania, he was appointed consultant by the Canadian firm of Casvant Frères Limitée, then the world's second largest organbuilding company, and soon became Casavant's Artistic Director and eventually its President. Several hundred pipe organs, much admired for their musical integrity, high quality of craftsmanship and ingenious technical innovations, were built under his direction. After founding his own company, Lawrence Phelps moved back to the United States and established his new firm in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he again designed and built several remarkable instruments, including his celebrated organ for Hexham Abbey, England, marking the Abbey's 1300th anniversary. This remains the only organ built by an American for England.

Lawrence Phelps then rejoined the Allen Organ Company as Director of its Custom Organ department, before moving back to Boston to supervise a major refurbishment of his organ in the extension of The Mother Church. Designing and building better organs for America and the world was his life-long pursuit. He also wrote extensively, and lectured on various topics related to his vision of musically excellent instruments. His influence permeates all aspects of his profession. His outstanding contribution culminated in the awarding by Colorado State University (1993) of the degree, Hon. D. Litt. His archive will now be held at CSU, Fort Collins, CO.

A private committal service was held on February 26. A memorial service will take place on April 17, 1999, at 2:00 PM, at Trinity Church, Copley Square, preceded by a recital at 1:30 by Edwin Starner.

A Lawrence Phelps Award has been established, which will be presented for outstanding and inventive work reflecting the spirit of his own. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Lawrence Phelps Award Fund will be welcomed, and may be sent care of Pro Organo Pleno XXI, 1717 Hillside Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80524.