On June 28, 2016, I met with Charles W. Ore at his home outside of Seward, Nebraska, to interview him on the occasion of his upcoming 80th birthday on December 18. We reflected on his career as an organist, improviser, composer, teacher, and church musician. Many of Charles Ore’s works can be found in the sets of Eleven Compositions for Organ, published by Concordia.
His reminiscences cover his childhood and musical experiences, family, his career as a teacher and church musician, and reveal his deep conviction to music making, particularly the art of improvisation and its important role in his compositional process. Thanks to Kenneth Wuepper, Saginaw, Michigan, for audio transcription, and to Charles Ore himself for his helpful editorial assistance.
For further insights into Charles Ore’s life, visit www.charleswore.com to see Irene Beethe’s April 2015 video interview of him for the Center for Church Music, Concordia University-Chicago. Beethe is the compiler of the festschrift Charles W. Ore: An American Original, released in October 2016 and available from Concordia Publishing House (www.cph.org).
Steven Egler: You were born in Winfield, Kansas, southeast of Wichita?
Charles Ore: Yes, in 1936.
What can you recall about your childhood?
I didn’t live in Winfield at all. I lived on a farm that was 15 miles east of Winfield and a mile and a half from Old Salem School. My mother was a teacher, so the concepts of reading and mathematics were instilled in me at a very young age. Her father, my Grandfather Werling, received his master’s degree in German literature from Columbia University in 1924. So there was a strong academic side to this family. Even though I lived at the farm with my parents, I was with my grandparents in Winfield every weekend. There were nine children in my mother’s family, and I believe that eight of them attended and/or graduated from college. My father’s side of the family was into agriculture, and very few of them attended college. My father attended school only through the eighth grade.
There was no kindergarten in my school since it was a one-room school, Old Salem School in Cowley County (Kansas). I rode a horse named Colonel to school everyday, put it in the barn, and fed it oats. That was the routine. Later on, when I was a little older, I was responsible for bringing in coal for the stove and lighting it, since there was no central heat or electricity. On cloudy days we sat by the windows. It seems like it should have happened 200 years ago, but not quite so.
Tell us about your first piano lessons.
My Grandfather Werling gave me my first piano lessons. This consisted of taping the names of the notes on the keys of his piano. In the hymnal, he wrote the names of the notes that matched what was written on the printed page. So I learned to read notes, and at the same time learned how the hymn sounded. I had a very good tonal memory, so the learning process went fairly quickly.
When I was about 6, my mother took me to a piano teacher, Blanche Brooks, with whom I would study for the next 12 years. Eventually, I became one of her prize students. She was a great teacher, in that she was always demanding, helpful, and was never really satisfied with anything. She always emphasized the importance of practicing and also encouraged me to improvise. At the end of our lessons and even if she was running behind schedule—which she always did—she would ask me to play what “piece” (improvisation) I had brought with me that day. She also would take us to concerts in Wichita and Winfield. Through these trips she helped to open up a world that otherwise I may not have experienced at such an early age.
What I recall particularly about my early years was that, almost without exception, wherever you went, there was a piano in the living room, and people were invited to play. It was so different then, compared to today, in that we produced the music rather than pushed the button to listen to it. Active vs. passive.
Did you play other instruments besides the piano?
I played the tenor saxophone in the band, yet I was always jealous of the alto saxophone players, because it seemed as if they had all of the beautiful melodies. I ended up playing the tenor saxophone because the band director said he needed a person to play it, and there I was!
What did you experience first: organ, improvising, or composing?
Improvisation was definitely first. Composing came later, and it is a more organized, deliberate process. When improvising you can never be sure how things are going to turn out, you don’t necessarily finish every sentence, and you never go back to correct yourself. When you improvise you never make a mistake: you may bleed internally, but it’s rarely fatal. A composition is much more like an essay, in that you have an opening paragraph, a body of material, and a conclusion or a recap of what’s been going on. It’s a much more formal concept.
It’s very satisfying with improvising and composing working together, especially after 1986 when Finale came on the scene and computers came into existence. Those two methods merged very well. You can get a lot of notes on the page quickly, and then the real work begins!
Also with improvisation you may have to go back and clarify or sharpen your ideas and continue to process things. Some music by a variety of composers should have been incubated a little longer. I won’t mention any names and maybe they won’t either!
When did you start to play the organ for church?
That’s a very good question, and it brings back some fun memories. I was 17 at the time. Pauline Wente played the organ at our church, Trinity Lutheran in Winfield, which had a two-manual Kilgen organ of 12 ranks. She was very predictable, and it seemed as if she played the same prelude every Sunday: a series of big chords and progressions, and then the piece more or less stopped. The Voluntary was always soft and sounded essentially the same, maybe with an occasional tremulant. The postlude always sounded like some type of march. I don’t want to be critical, but I watched this lady play every Sunday and was really fascinated with what she was doing.
My Grandfather Werling was also a pastor, so I had many opportunities to be around churches and play their organs. Pauline’s husband Walter was a choir director and on one occasion she wanted to go with him on a weekend choir tour, so she asked me to play for her that Sunday.
I hesitated since I didn’t really play the organ, but she said she’d show me how to do it and that it wouldn’t take very long. We went to the church, and she showed me what to do for the prelude. “See these ‘stops’ over here? You pull them out. Any notes in the bass you play with your feet.” (I sort of had that idea.) She then asked me if I had any questions, and, of course, there weren’t any because I didn’t know enough to ask one!
She demonstrated a bit more as to what the voluntary and postlude should be like. She then showed me some music, all of which I could easily play.
I told my grandparents that I was going to play for church on Sunday, and I think that they went into shock. After all, they had a reputation to maintain in the community, and I was a member of that congregation. Just to be sure that I really did know what I was doing, my grandfather took me down to the church and I played for him. He approved, so I played for church on Sunday and after that I became a part of the rotation of organists. That first Sunday morning, the pastor asked me if I was sure that I could play the hymns and liturgy. I told him that I had been playing hymns since I was five or six, so there was no problem. He listened and agreed.
I noticed with many of my own beginning students that those who were skilled enough to play one of Bach’s Eight Little Preludes and Fugues or chorale pieces would say, “Oh no!” when asked if they played hymns. I knew from the very beginning of my teaching career that basic hymn playing was the key to being a successful organist. Many members of the congregation aren’t always attuned to what you play as incidental music, but if you can’t play the hymns and the liturgy, you may as well just fold up and go home.
Tell us about your organ teachers and the music you studied.
When I graduated from high school, I attended St. John’s College in Winfield, Kansas (closed in 1986), where my Grandfather Werling was on the faculty: he taught German. At St. John’s, I studied with my first real organ teacher, Alma Nommensen, who was a graduate of Northwestern University. She was a character, was fun, and was an artiste, if there ever was one—both in her mannerisms and in her playing. Eventually, she taught me the recital she played at Northwestern University.
I started by playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532—I was probably 18 by then. I also learned Mendelssohn’s First Organ Sonata, and I’m blessed in that there was no recording equipment in the studio. Alma knew how to play the organ, and she introduced me to the basic issues of registration, fingering, and pedaling. Before studying with her, it had been just whatever felt good.
During the summer, between my sophomore and junior years in college, I studied with Garth Peacock who was teaching at Southwestern College in Winfield. After two years there, he began a long teaching career at Oberlin Conservatory. We worked on pieces that I was already studying with Alma Nommensen plus Bach’s E-flat trio sonata. My next teacher after Alma and Garth was Theodore Beck, who was at Concordia University-Seward and also a graduate of Northwestern University. He taught me his master’s recital, which included the Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543. From my study with Blanche Brooks, I had already played big piano pieces like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, Chopin waltzes, and Mozart sonatas. So actually getting the notes was not that difficult: doing it well was something else, and again I’m blessed in that there were no recordings! I learned a sizable portion of Widor’s Fourth Symphony, and of course, I played the Toccata from the Fifth Symphony and worked on the sixth as well. I also studied the Sixth Sonata of Mendelssohn and the A-Minor Concerto by Vivaldi/Bach.
What contemporary music did you learn?
I learned Suite Breve by Langlais, but it wasn’t until I went to Northwestern that I learned Messiaen. Wow! That was a revelation.
How did you come to study with Theodore Beck at Concordia-Seward (now Nebraska)?
Albert Beck, Ted’s father, was one of the principal organists at Concordia-Chicago at the time, and my Grandfather Werling knew him because Albert often played at conventions of the Lutheran Church. My grandfather wrote him a letter and told him that I was very interested in the organ, and that he’d like to send me to Chicago to study with him. Dr. Beck wrote back informing my grandfather that he was about to retire, and that I should attend Concordia-Seward to study with his son, Ted, who was on the faculty there, finishing his Ph.D. in music theory at Northwestern, and that we would get along very well.
At that time in 1956, Seward was a very ethnically closed community, both by tradition and theology and by a lack of ecumenism: for the most part, church professionals rarely socialized with those who were not Lutherans. There was also a strict code of social behavior, and I got into trouble right away when I was seen walking down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand: this was absolutely forbidden! She was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to allow that because boys would take advantage of you, and holding hands in public created the wrong impression. In four years, this girl, Constance Schau, was to become my wife.
What did you do after graduation from Concordia-Nebraska?
For two years (1958–60), I taught in an elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and during the winter months I studied with Myron Roberts at the University of Nebraska. I learned quite a bit of contemporary music with him including Sowerby, more Langlais, and, of course, his own music, which I really treasured.
During the summers of 1959 and 1960, I studied organ with Thomas Matthews and took classes at Northwestern. Tom was a fine improviser, and he helped me to be more organized in my approach. He was organist at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston where I heard horizontal trumpets for the first time. Tom then moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the end of the summer session of 1960. In August of 1960, I married my wife Constance, and that fall we moved to Evanston, where I became a full-time graduate student.
In the fall quarter of 1960, I became a pupil of Barrett Spach. Barrett was an excellent teacher, and I learned the Dupré Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, the Sowerby Pageant, and Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste.
In early 1961, I played my master’s recital in Lutkin Hall at Northwestern, so it was a long tradition: Alma Nommensen and then Ted Beck, both who were graduates of Northwestern. In the spring of 1961, Barrett had a heart attack and asked me to fill in for him at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. Many changes were happening very rapidly for me: just three years earlier I had graduated from Concordia-Nebraska where I had my own stein at the local pub called Heumann’s. Now I was living in Evanston, the home of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) where you could not buy liquor within the city limits, married to the woman with whom I could not hold hands in Seward, and playing at Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
How were you hired to teach on the faculty at Concordia-Chicago?
Just to clarify: when I taught there it was Concordia-River Forest. Likewise, Concordia-Seward was changed to Concordia-Nebraska.
I had finished my master’s degree at the close of the winter quarter of 1961 and started on my doctorate at Northwestern right away. Shortly after that, I got a telephone call from the president of Concordia University in River Forest. Theodore Beck’s father, Albert Beck, was on the faculty at River Forest. Through Ted I became acquainted with Albert who in turn encouraged the president of the university, Martin Koehneke, to interview me for the open position in organ at Concordia-River Forest.
I wasn’t interested in the job at all! I was in my doctoral program and studying French and German, and getting more acquainted with the wide world of organ playing. Nonetheless, I interviewed with President Koehneke, Paul Bunjes, chair of the music department, and Herbert Gotsch, head of the organ department. We talked in general terms about music and about what their hopes and dreams were and how I might fit into the program there.
At the conclusion of the day, I was back in the president’s office where he offered me the job. I told him that I wasn’t interested because I wanted to continue my doctoral studies at Northwestern. That evening President Koehneke called to tell me that he had my contract on his desk and that it was ready for me to sign the next morning, which included everything that we had discussed during my interview! The classic offer that one could not refuse, I took the job, and it was a great position for five years (1961–66).
I needed to quit my work at Fourth Presbyterian Church so that I could teach at Concordia-River Forest. There was great angst at Concordia that a Lutheran professor would play the organ in a Presbyterian church!
I enjoyed teaching at Concordia immensely. Also during that time I bought a tracker-action Möller organ that had been in a church in Grand Island, Nebraska, hauled it back to Chicago, and rebuilt a part of it in my third-floor apartment. Initially, it had consisted of about 30 ranks, but I reduced it to about six.
Paul Bunjes taught me a great deal about how a mechanical-action organ worked and the names of all the various parts, like “fan frame” and “cut up.” He was a wonderful teacher, and I wanted and needed to learn more about organ building; the knowledge I gained from Paul Bunjes served me well throughout my teaching career.
What courses did you teach at Concordia-River Forest?
I’m sure it’s true today that deans always look at the ratio of how many students you teach, especially with one-on-one teaching of organ students and applied music in general. So I taught large courses, such as Introduction to Music, and perhaps as many as 50–60 students at a time. Actually, after teaching grades 7–9, you can teach anything!
There is one funny story about my first experience teaching at Concordia. I was 23 at that time and walked into the classroom on the first day and sat down in the front row. I blended in with everybody else who was there except that I was wearing a suit and tie. No one knew who I was, so I just waited until a little after the hour. Then I got up and told them that I was their teacher. I can only imagine what they must have thought!
During your tenure at Concordia-River Forest, you were also organist at historic First St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Chicago.
First St. Paul on North LaSalle in Chicago, organized in 1864, is the oldest Lutheran church in Chicago; it has maintained a great tradition in music. I got acquainted with many people with whom I am still in contact to this day. I played the organ (Casavant, designed by Albert Beck) and directed the choir.
The pastor told me that it was critical that I was liked by Lydia Fleischer, a soprano in the choir. He said if she sits down when you ask the choir to stand, that means she doesn’t like you and your job will be terminated. (She had financial clout in the congregation.)
When I asked the choir to stand during the rehearsal, I walked over and put my arm around her ample yet well-corseted middle and held her tight during the piece we were singing. We became very good friends! She told the pastor that I was great!
You began to work on your doctorate in 1961 and finished it at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1986. Please tell us about this.
I started to teach at Concordia-Seward in 1966 and had played my first D.M.A. recital at Northwestern in 1967, yet at that point—the late 1960s and early ’70s, the doctorate was becoming less of a priority. My family was growing in size—two children in 1967—and my composing and performing career was expanding.
In the meantime, George Ritchie and Quentin Faulkner were creating a doctor of musical arts program at the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. I had heard both of them play and had heard about their approach to early music. I was receptive to their “transformative ideas,” and for me it was a complete revelation. I asked George if he thought that we could work together—I asked because we were already friends—and he felt positive about the concept.
Nebraska accepted the transfer of my doctoral study at Northwestern into the new program at Nebraska. In fact in the following weeks I became the first D.M.A. organ student at Nebraska (c. 1983) and the first to graduate with that degree in 1986. It was wonderful: the classes were excellent, the scholarship was demanding, and the musical environment was friendly and welcoming. I graduated with an A+ grade average in the same year that I turned 50.
Bravo to you! You’ve mentioned Connie, your late wife. What can you tell us about her and your children?
Connie and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in 2010, and shortly thereafter, she died of myelodysplastic syndrome and leukemia after having fought the disease for five years.
She was also a fine musician and served for 22 years as director of music at St. John Lutheran Church, Seward, where she was organist, choir director, and junior high music teacher. She was an amazing woman—great cook, mother, and wife—and she fought for women’s rights and equality in the church. I wish that I could say that she had been successful.
Heidi, our oldest (b. 1963), lives in Lincoln, has two children, and graduated from the University of Nebraska. Her husband, Jon Taylor, is from Omaha, and they live in Lincoln where Heidi is the office manager for the State of Nebraska Foster Care Review Board.
Janna (b. 1966) is married to Todd Nugent, has two daughters, and just finished her master’s degree in computer science at the University of Chicago. Both Janna and my son John-Paul graduated from the University of Chicago. Janna is a senior bioinformatics specialist at Northwestern University. We’re all very close, and I get regular messages from them on my Apple watch!
John-Paul (b. 1974) decided to move back home in 2009 because Connie needed a lot of individual care, attention, and I needed help. In Seattle he worked as a digital production assistant and grip. He traveled across much of the planet in this position. He is now finishing his Ph.D. in computer science/robotics at the University of Nebraska and hopes to have one leg in industry and the other in academia. He is currently living with me.
Tell us about your 26 years at Pacific Hills Lutheran Church in Omaha.
Someone once said that it must have been like 200 round trips to the moon! It was an amazing experience.
I drove from my home in Seward to Omaha at least once a week for 26 years. I left Seward by 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning for the 70-mile, one-way trek. I rehearsed with the cantor or the choir for the 8:00 a.m. service and then rehearsed the large choir at 9:30 for the 11 a.m. service and was usually back to Seward by 2:00/2:30 p.m. They were wonderful people, and I had outstanding musicians to work with.
For example, Grant Peters, a wonderful trumpet player, was in high school when I first started at Pacific Hills. Dr. Grant Peters is now on the faculty of the University of Missouri at Springfield. His father Kermit was a magnificent oboe player who taught at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Both Kermit and Grant’s mother, Sondra, sang in the choir. Both Kermit and Grant played regularly for services at Pacific Hills. There were many other very talented singers and instrumentalists.
Originally, I conceived The Seventh Trumpet for Grant Peters. He has such a beautiful tone, and he could hit all of the high notes with ease. I also have an unpublished version for organ solo.
After driving back and forth to Omaha for 26 years and being in an automobile accident in 2001, it was decided, with a lot of insistence from my wife and the medical community, that I should give up my position at Pacific Hills. In the accident my car was totaled, but fortunately, I walked away without a scratch. I think that maybe God was trying to tell me something and that He protected me.
Please discuss your composing, hymn festivals, and recordings.
These days, I am more stingy with my time, and I think that it is age related. Regarding recording, I don’t feel as confident. There is an assuredness that you feel at an earlier age. I don’t feel that way today.
When I did the CDs (From My Perspective, 4 volumes, and Friendly Amendments) in the late 1990s and 2000s, I never needed to stop and start again because of a mistake. I played everything straight out. I would be reluctant to try that today, not only from the energy standpoint but also from the accuracy point of view. There comes a point when one decides whether to give it up or learn to live with it the way it is. I’m still playing very well—that’s my opinion, of course—but there was a time that if I missed one note, I’d be in a funk the rest of the day. Nowadays, I assume that I will miss at least one, or maybe two, which isn’t all that bad!
I started playing hymn festivals because I thought it was important to use new music that I had written and also to use these compositions on a regular and ongoing basis. I don’t know if my A Mighty Fortress is a recital piece, but at hymn festivals I play a lot of compositions in that style and also write for specific instruments and occasions. I thought that was the tradition of organ music I wanted to follow. Hymn festivals have provided me with the opportunity to compose new music and to feel comfortable about it.
I’m not opposed to playing music by European composers. I have tried to be as international as I can be—but I believe that we as Americans have a unique culture and that we should celebrate it. I have always been interested in creating new textures and techniques, and people have sometimes said that my music sounds like popular music or jazz and that they’ve never heard the organ sound quite like that before. I think, “Good! That’s exactly what I am looking for.”
Describe your compositional process.
Driving back and forth to Omaha for 26 years provided me with a lot of time to let melodies and ideas run through my head. Oftentimes, they would ferment for a while and then turn into compositions later. For example, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Set VII, is a work that a lot of people think sounds like a calliope. Around 1996 a man in Texas said, “I really appreciate what you’re doing, but I just don’t think we’re quite ready for you here.” At this point in 2016, What Friend We Have in Jesus seems to be wearing well.
I play it, too, and my students play it as well.
One of the reasons that I’ve called my pieces compositions is that they represent an evolution of ideas—change and growth—throughout Sets I to X. I’ve always been searching for a new language and new ways to use a hymn tune. I prefer not to call them chorales or hymn preludes because to me they are just simply new ways of using the organ.
Something that is missing today is a sense of daring on the part of publishers: they are so careful, maybe because they’re pressured about the bottom line and what’s going to sell. A publisher once asked me, “Can’t you write music that’s easier to play?” My response was, “I’ll take out all of the notes that I can, and what’s left is the essential part.” I’m sure that Max Reger would not have agreed with me, but I think that if Reger could have cleaned up a few scores, we could have played his music without tripling the root of the chord!
I truly think that I have tried to make my music no more complicated than it has to be, but if you take more out of it, something is missing. Maybe every artist and composer feels that way.
In A Mighty Fortress, Set VIII, and I Love to Tell the Story, Set V (with that one 15/16 measure!), there are unconventional rhythmic twists, but that’s part of the beauty, interest, and challenge in your music. Are your unpredictable rhythms reflective of the rhythmic Lutheran chorales?
Yes. I think rhythmic Lutheran hymns are a part of what made me who I am today, and I think I see more potential in some of those rhythms from that time. It’s exciting material.
I recall asking you once about the length of your pieces in Sets I and II as compared with the later sets, and you answered, “I have more to say.”
Not only that, but I think that the technology enables one to write music and to play it back immediately. It is amazing that Bach and Mozart could write music in ink and not rewrite it every other day.
With Finale and my computer, I can write it, print it, and take it to the organ. One of the dangers of this is that you have to be careful that you don’t start writing for that instrument—the “keyboard”—rather than for the organ. I then make corrections, enter them into the computer, and listen to it.
What was your goal with the pieces in Sets I and II, in particular, the unconventional notation?
Freedom. Freedom of the bar line. I was able to try things that I had not done before. The price of freedom of the bar line is worrying about whether or not one is in 3/4 or 4/4. That’s why my students had trouble: they wanted either 4/4 or 15/16, or they wanted it in 6/8. That’s the freedom I wanted, but I wasn’t sure that it really was as effective as I had originally hoped. Even though they are structured that way, all of the rhythm is there; however, you must have the musicianship and skill that’s solid enough to be able to play this music.
It was an experiment, and I have to compliment the publisher in 1971 for actually publishing it. They still sell many copies of Sets I and II every year.
A Mighty Fortress and Komm, Heiliger Geist are now revised and back in print in Sets VIII and IX respectively. How did this come about? Was it difficult?
No. Not at all. Even though A Mighty Fortress was written in 1990, I no longer play it that way. I’ve learned that many composers—Liszt among them—produced several versions of a given composition. The question has always been, “Which is the ‘real’ one?” Truth be known, they all are! Each version at one time was his final word.
With A Mighty Fortress, I was moving on and people would say that I didn’t play it like I had in the past. Just because one puts it on paper doesn’t mean that your brain says that it is finished.
Komm, Heiliger Geist was originally composed without bar lines, and I was beginning to change how it was played. Thus, I entered it into Finale, which meant that I had to “square it up” a bit. At least, Finale accepted the irregular meters.
Is there a Set X of Eleven Compositions in progress?
Yes. I sent it to the publisher in April, and it is now available from Concordia, as of October 2016.
How did you end up teaching for 36 years at Concordia-Seward/Nebraska, your alma mater?
Jan Bender had been at Concordia for five years (1961–66) as composer, professor of music theory, organ, and improvisation. Those were the parallel five years that I taught at Concordia-River Forest. In 1966, Bender accepted a teaching position at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. The chair of the organ area at Concordia-River Forest was a relatively young man, Herbert Gotsch. As a colleague Dr. Gotsch was good to me, but frankly I needed to break out on my own and try to implement new approaches. That opportunity came from Concordia-Seward, and my wife Constance and I decided it would be a good time for us to move our growing family: two children at this point. We would also be much closer to the grandparents in Kansas and Iowa.
The college in Nebraska had 14 new practice pipe organs—several arrived during my first year of teaching at Seward. On the campus was also a 1960 three-manual, 48-rank Kuhn mechanical-action instrument from Switzerland.
Concordia-Seward had 180 organ students! I was in charge (fortunately not the only teacher) and a bit overwhelmed! Shortly after my arrival in Nebraska I had an opportunity to study organ departments across America including such schools as Oberlin, Michigan, Eastman, Juilliard, and to completely redesign the Concordia-Seward organ curriculum using the best of what I had observed.
Also during the academic year 1971–72, I had my first sabbatical and traveled throughout Western Europe studying methods of organ teaching, which included improvisation. Those were very important years for me. Throughout my teaching career I always tried to stress the need to improvise in addition to playing literature.
Please tell us about the music department at Concordia-Seward.
When I started, there were 19 of us on the faculty. Now there are six full-time faculty with about 22 adjuncts. We bring in a lot more specialists than we were ever able to do. I think it is very unfair: many of the adjunct faculty have earned doctorates, but they receive no benefits and have no idea whether they’re going to have a job the next semester. This is a big change as compared to when I was hired at Concordia-River Forest. During my tenure as chair of the music department (1996–2002), we helped to initiate the basic changes in the curriculum so that we could have the department accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). It worked: the president of the university, Orville Walz, found the money to make it happen.
You retired from Concordia-Seward in 2002, but have a church position and are still quite active.
With retirement, you just retire from one thing to something else. I find that I don’t have time to teach anymore. I have over 200 orchid plants, several of which are right behind you.
Besides tending to your orchids and maintaining your green thumbs, what else do you do?
I compose when I have an idea, and I take on a few commissions. One of the reasons that I decided to retire was during a long spring break and working on a commission, I learned that this is really what I wanted to be doing. Not worrying about fingering, pedaling, or playing on the ball of the foot, etc.!
I have several hobbies, one of which is all of the clocks that you see. I also have a Maelzel’s metronome, built in France by the inventor of the inverted metronome, Johann Maelzel (1772–1838).
At this point in your life and career, is there anything that you would do differently?
Yes, of course, because there is so much to do. I think that the hardest thing is to stay focused. On the other hand, it’s easy to keep pursuing different paths. I could live in Paris and go wherever I want to in the world.
I also enjoy accompanying the choir in my current position as organist at First Presbyterian Church, Lincoln, rather than having to be the choir director. Taking orders is fun, even though you may say to yourself, “I don’t think I would do it that way.” I’m lucky that I work with really nice people who are highly trained.
I would do things differently because I’ve already done it this way! I may not have wound up here if had I gone in other directions.
What pearls of wisdom might you impart to the younger generation of organists and church musicians?
Practice. Work. Teach (teaching is a great way to learn). Teach technique rather than pieces. If you teach a student a piece the student will know one piece. If you teach a student the techniques that are required to play the piece, the student can apply those techniques and play many pieces. The moment you think that you have mastered everything, it’s over.
Things are constantly changing. In my lifetime I have seen the overall music scene continue to develop and expand and become more diverse. I would also suggest that as much as you possibly can, try to get in touch with your inner creative being. Be brave, put your fingers on the keys, and see what happens. See if you can find something that you like to do, and then just keep doing it.
I first started publishing 11 Compositions for Organ in 1971, and I believe that I’ve kept growing and changing. My goal is to do “11-Eleven,” and I’ve already finished two compositions for that set, Set XI. At that point, I hope to start other projects. Life becomes a series of imagining what it could be, and then working toward it. What would it be like if . . . ?
One of the exciting things I’ve been doing for several years, every other year now, will be my third European organ seminar next summer. We play original, unaltered instruments associated with famous composers. Our trip next summer will be to France and Switzerland, but primarily to Italy, so I’m getting out my Frescobaldi scores!
It’s a brave and demanding world out there. Don’t be afraid. Go for it! I’m going to have my first electric car soon, and I have my Apple watch. I Google things daily, and I like to do crossword puzzles. I feel energized just talking about these things.
What do you believe your legacy to our profession might be?
That is a tough question, yet I suspect that there are two answers.
1. My students and the influence that they will have on the lives of others. In my years of teaching I have worked with over 900 students. Whatever is meant by legacy will happen with those students and the lives they come in contact with.
2. My music. Art is very difficult to predict. With luck, possibly a few of my pieces might make it into collections that represent our era. Sometimes this music “shake out” takes generations to come to some resolve. Good luck to all those who place money on this horse race.
Thank you, Charles, for sharing your wisdom and insight, for your inspiring music, and for your wonderful zest for life. Here’s to Charles W. Ore: Prince of the Prairie!