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Swinnen, Firmin

Scherpenheuvel, 12/11/1885 > Wilmington, DE (US), 18/04/1972


Swinnen, Firmin

by Annelies Focquaert

His father Tryphon (an unusual given name in Flanders) was not only verger and organist at the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel, the popular place of pilgrimage, but also conductor of the fully fledged symphonic orchestra that was active there in those days. With he passage of time Tryphon preferred a relocation to the more quiet town of Herselt, where he was appointed organist. Of his five children Firmin-Marie-Joseph turned out to be the most musically gifted: he was taught by his father and often replaced him at the organ. 

Firmin went to the Antwerp Conservatory to study organ with Arthur De Hovre, while concurrently attending classes with Paul Gilson, Emile Wambach and Jan Blockx. According to some sources he also took organ classes with De Hovre’s predecessor Callaerts, but if this happened at all, it must have been merely for a spell, as Callaerts died in 1901 when Swinnen was only 15. Swinnen graduated in De Hovre’s class of 1907 and earned the Callaerts prize for organ to boot.

Subsequently he moved to the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen with a view to securing the diploma of verger-organist. Graduating in 1913, he married Augusta Vantilt and became organist at St Walburga’s in Antwerp. When shortly afterwards the First World War erupted the couple fled to the United Kingdom. There "Professor" Swinnen, who was presented as one of the organists of Antwerp Cathedral, played in the period 1914-1915 some 260 recitals for a total audience of about 100,000 people, for the benefit of the Belgian refugees.

In 1916 the couple emigrated to the United States. Within a week after their arrival in New York City Gustave Döhring, an employee of the theatre organ builders Hillgreen-Lane, railroaded a meeting between Swinnen and the impresario Samuel "Roxy" Rothapfel, the owner of the Broadway cinemas and later the founder of the Roxy Theatre (1927). Swinnen was requested to accompany a silent movie, something Roxy enjoyed so much that he immediately hired Swinnen in the most famous New York theatre: the Rialto.   

Around the corner the spectacular Rivoli Theatre opened in 1917, where Swinnen was invited to perform. From then on he proved forever his mettle as an all-round performer and an all-embracing musician. On a four manual Estey organ he played literally everything that could happen in movies, ranging the whole gamut across thunderstorms, airplanes, traffic chaos, and train disasters to sneezing fits, insects, barking, and the uncorking of bottles. At that moment there was a shift in his career from the atmosphere of cathedrals to that of the cinemas, as The American Organist put it in September 1944: "and soon he was justly famous in music circles for the persistent sparkle and spontaneity of his playing on Broadway; it is possibly safe to say that he remained the only organist who could work his full shifts in endless procession, seven days a week, and never deteriorate either in style or content. He had a great memory and was equally great in improvisation."

In 1922 the Swinnens became American citizens and in October 1923 they moved from New York to Philadelphia, where Swinnen was to become chief organist of the new Aldine Theatre. Unfortunately underhand doings caused the theatre’s demise after a while.  Fortunately the secretary of the famously rich industrialist Pierre S. du Pont had enjoyed one of Swinnen’s recitals, and this resulted in his participation in a series of concerts organized by Du Pont at “his” Longwood Gardens. Du Pont had made his fortune in chemistry, but was also a designer, impresario, engineer, naturalist and philanthropist. He had bought the domain of Longwood Gardens in 1906, comprising assorted botanical gardens and nature reserves extending over more than 400 hectares at Kennett Square, Philadelphia. In the winter garden of Longwoord Gardens Du Pont had in 1921 a big organ installed with 63 stops. The idea to own a house organ was in the US intensely fashionable among the very rich: the bigger and more spectacular the organ, the more famous and popular the organist, the better. 

On 19 November 1922 Swinnen played his first recital there, with pride of place for his own Chinoiserie and for the first part of Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony with the famous pedal solo cadenza that Swinnen had composed for it. Du Pont was impressed: in 1923 Swinnen was re-invited eight times, in 1924 even twenty-six times, and from September of that year he was contracted to play a recital every week. His last contractual recital happened on 29 April 1956: it was his 1,516th in Longwood. Swinnen set himself very high standards for these concerts, as he revealed in an interview in The Star in 1934: although he was obliged to play only one concert of two hours each week, featuring about 18 to 20 works, even so he refrained from repeating a piece within four months, except on request. He studied four hours each day and always played from memory.

In 1929 Du Pont invited Swinnen to advise him on the building of a new organ for the Ball room at Longwood Gardens. He decided upon an Aeolian Pipe Organ, designed by Swinnen and built by the Votey Organ Company in Garwood: an instrument that could also play completely independently through a system of cylinders. It boasted 10,010 pipes, 146 stops, 4 manuals and pedal. It contained five 32 foot stops, an acoustic 64 foot stop (aptly named "Gravissima"), 21 percussion stops, among them a real harp, kettledrums, gongs, a celesta and a built-in grand piano that could be played from the organ console. This enormous instrument was and is still hidden behind the walls of the ball room: only the console and the organist (when playing) were visible.

Swinnen was active not only at Longwood Gardens, in 1925 he was also appointed organist and choirmaster at the Episcopal/Anglican  parish of Christ Church (Greenville-Wilmington, Delaware), where he served until 1956. Concurrently he continued building up his career as a concert organist: he was a regular guest at the organ of the Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia (the biggest playable organ in the world, distributed across the seven levels of a department store) and in 1930 he took care of the inauguration of the new organ at Riverside Church, New York. In the period 1930-1936 he also offered at least 63 recitals at the University of Delaware, where the former organ from Longwood Gardens had been relocated.

Although Swinnen is best known for his performances and improvisations, his compositions and transcriptions for organ are still worthwhile as of today. In addition to the organ works mentioned above he also published The Motion Picture Organist, Longwood Sketches, and The Theatre Organist. Several Flemish songs that he composed before the First World War were published in Antwerp; in the US he also published church music on English texts.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)