*Moniker assigned to Fred Swann in the printed program for the AGO 2008 Distinguished Performer Award.
Frederick Swann is one of the most well-known organists of the 20th and early 21st centuries. In this conversation, which is really a mini-biography, he reveals much behind-the-scenes information about his numerous high-profile positions, his relationship with the Murtagh/McFarlane Artist Management, and his early musical experiences, along with observations about the organ and church music today. He is an extremely humble man who has met his many challenges and professional opportunities with modesty and dignity.
Swann’s honors and achievements in recent years include: 2002, International Performer of the Year by the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists; 2004, inaugural recital on the organ in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; 2008, AGO Endowment Fund Distinguished Performer Award; 2009, Paul Creston Award by St. Malachy’s Chapel, New York City. In November 2014, he will be honored by the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival.
He has performed inaugural recitals on symphony-hall organs at Orchestra Hall (Chicago), Davies Hall (San Francisco), and Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall (Costa Mesa).
Frederick Swann is currently the consultant for the Ruffatti organ restoration project at the renamed Christ Cathedral, formerly the Crystal Cathedral, where he was director of music and organist (1982–1998). Christ Cathedral is scheduled to reopen in 2016. (See The Diapason, June 2014, pp. 26–28.)
This interview was conducted on May 8, 2014, in Saginaw, Michigan, as Swann was preparing for his May 9 inaugural recital on Scott Smith and Company Opus 3, a project renovating Skinner Organ Company Opus 751. Thanks go to Kenneth Wuepper of Saginaw, Michigan, the recording technician for the interview; the First Congregational Church, Saginaw, Michigan; and to Fred Swann himself for allowing us to interview him, for his assistance with editing, and for providing the photos that accompany this piece.
Steven Egler: Please tell us about your early years and your family.
Frederick Swann: I am the son of a minister, and there were six children—three boys and three girls. I was number five, and there was a big space between me and the four older ones.
From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the piano, and I would frequently bang on it at age 3 or 4. My parents were not particularly happy about that, so they locked the piano. Of course, any three-year-old can figure out how to get into a piano if he really wants to, and I did!
When I was five, they decided that I could have piano lessons from May Carper, the organist of a church near my father’s church in Winchester, Virginia. One day I arrived early for a lesson and couldn’t find her. But I heard the organ going, and finally I found her at the organ console. I was hypnotized watching things popping in and out, lights were flashing, her hands and feet were flying, and I thought, “Oh my! That looks like fun. I’ve got to do that!”
I asked her if I could play, but my legs were so short they wouldn’t reach the pedals. I kept after her, so she bribed me: if I had a good piano lesson, she would let me “bang” on the organ for five minutes before I went home. Then when my legs got longer—when I was about eight—she started showing me things about the organ and that you had to play it differently—not like a piano. They were really not organ lessons, because I just was continuing on the piano, but she still told me a lot about the organ. It was very good that she did because the organist in my father’s church, Braddock Street Methodist Church, suddenly died, and I became the organist of the church—there was no one else to play. It must have been simply awful, but that’s how I got started at age ten, and I’ve just kept on. I was a lucky kid since I didn’t have to decide what I was going to do when I grew up: I just started playing and kept doing it.
Can you recall what those early church services were like and being thrust onto the bench?
Mostly I just played the hymns. The choir director, Madeline Riley, was somewhat of an organist herself, but the console was not located where she could play and direct. I would play the hymns, and she would show me how to play simple accompaniments.
I would practice during the week, and then my Saturday routine was that I always went to the horse opera theater—cowboy Western—for ten cents. On my way home, I’d go by the church and make sure that I had everything ready for the next morning.
I don’t remember too much about the services, except that it was an old Möller organ and setting the pistons made a lot of noise. I would love to “play with” setting the pistons, and the choir director would always come around to slap my hands because they could hear the noise out in the church.
My biggest excitement came one Easter morning. There were certain stops that I was not allowed to use, and one was a great big Open Diapason in the Great. The church, however, was full and they were really singing, so she came by and pulled out the Open Diapason. I was just thrilled to death! I thought, “This is heaven,” since I had not been allowed to make that much noise before.
That went on for a couple years, and then we moved down valley to Staunton in 1943. There I started studying with the organist of Trinity Episcopal Church, Dr. Carl Broman, singing in the choir, and getting a lot of very good musical education at the same time. He was a very fine musician.
You mentioned moving as a PK (preacher’s kid). Was that frequent as a child?
Not so much. I left home to go to school when I wasn’t quite 16, and we had only lived in three places. I was born in Lewisburg, West Virginia, but only lived there six weeks. We then moved to Clifton Forge, Virginia, where my father, Theodore M. Swann, pastored the Methodist church. Six years later, we moved to Winchester and the Braddock Street Methodist Church for six years (1937–1943). Then we moved down the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton, where my father became a district superintendent and later a bishop. We didn’t have a home church as such because he was always traveling to other churches. This is the main reason I was allowed to attend Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton where I was confirmed at age 13. I just loved it—the liturgy and the great music.
What attracted you to Northwestern University?
To tell you the truth, my childhood was not the happiest, and at that point in my life, the farthest place away that I had heard of was Chicago. With my Methodist background and it being a Methodist school, I won a scholarship and went there.
You studied with Thomas Matthews (1915–1999) who is known particularly for his choral anthems. How was he as a teacher?
He was a fine teacher, and a very quiet but very fun man. He was inspiring as a teacher and was willing to let me try anything. He gave me very good ideas.
Most of my lessons were at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, on the fantastic E.M. Skinner organ. By my senior year, I’d started to do a lot of accompanying. Matthews was also the director of the Chicago Bach Choir that, for some reason, met in Evanston at St. Luke’s Church.
In 1952, we did the second United States performance of the Duruflé Requiem. The first had been performed slightly earlier at Calvary Church in New York City. At last count, I’ve played that marvelous work 91 times during my career. I played it many years later at Riverside Church with Duruflé himself conducting.
Tom [Matthews] was a great improviser, so I learned a lot about improvisation and colorful use of the organ, both in organ literature and in adapting piano/orchestral scores to the organ.
I also studied with John Christensen, who was the organist at the First Methodist Church in Evanston, and was his assistant organist during my four years in college. During my senior year, I also became organist and choir director at First Baptist Church upon the retirement of William Harrison Barnes (1892–1980). Dr. Barnes was the author of The Contemporary American Organ (1930) and well known as an organ consultant.
You said that the Barnes family “adopted” you?
When I arrived on the scene at Northwestern University, they heard me play and thought that I was advanced for my age. They also had recently lost a son, and for some reason, I reminded them of him and they decided to take me into the family. They were also responsible for my introduction to Virgil Fox (1912–1980) and took me on my first trip to New York City. On Sunday, they took me to the choir loft of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to meet the organist, their close friend Charles Courboin (1884–1973). During the sermon at the Mass, Dr. Courboin said to me, “Why don’t you play the postlude?” Of course, I had never played in a room like that or on an organ of that size, but I knew the Langlais Te Deum from memory, so I managed to get through it with the crescendo pedal and a general piston or two. Later, I became very good friends with Dr. Courboin, and, in fact, I studied the complete organ works of Franck with him. This was a great privilege, for he was widely regarded as an expert on the works of Franck. He was a very fun-loving and wonderful man. He and his wife were both so good to me, and he never charged me a penny for all of those lessons!
You attended Union Theological Seminary. With whom did you study?
My primary teacher was Hugh Porter (1897–1960), who was the director of the School of Sacred Music at the seminary. The best thing, however, particularly at that time, was just being in New York. Those days were often referred to as the “glory days” because of the great names in church music who were at the other churches in town. On Sunday afternoons, you could hear Evensong at St. Thomas or St. Bartholomew’s. Plus, there were many choral programs and other concerts all of the time, so you learned as much being exposed to music itself in New York as you did with actual classroom or lesson study.
What advice do you have for young people these days who see themselves being organists as their primary calling, attend university, and expect to be prepared for the big, wide world?
I usually remind my students that they really have to love playing the organ and really have to love what they are doing.
As far as becoming a concert organist, one has to realize that the field is very full. There are dozens and dozens of organists under management, many of whom play very few recitals because there are so many organists available.
If you think that you want to be a church organist, if this is something you feel you just have to do, go ahead and do it. But realize that there are not that many full-time church jobs where you are going to be able to make a living. So, learn the organ, play it as well as you can, find a church to play in, but be aware that you may also need other sources of income, maybe teaching or perhaps even something in the business world.
One of my current university students at Redlands is also studying to become a dentist, and he is one of the most talented students I’ve ever had. I believe that he could have a career in the concert field and in church work, but he’s preparing to have some other source of income.
It’s not that there aren’t jobs available: they’re just not jobs at which you can make a living.
I’d like to discuss the sizes of the various organs you have played. One source cites First Congregational Church, Christ Cathedral (formerly Crystal Cathedral), and Riverside Church respectively as the third, fifth, and fifteenth largest organs in the world. You have presided over each one of these instruments.
Theoretically, the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, where I was for three years after I retired from the Crystal Cathedral, contains the world’s largest church organ. There’s very little difference in the size of First Congregational and the organ at the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Passau, Germany, but interestingly, in a book that I picked up the last time I played there, it lists the largest organs in the world; they even put First Congregational’s organ before theirs!
Actually, the Wanamaker organ (now Macy’s) in Philadelphia is the world’s largest operating organ. (The Atlantic City, New Jersey, Boardwalk Hall—formerly the Atlantic City Convention Center—organ is bigger, but most of it doesn’t play at this point.)
Many people are obsessed with size, yet size is not everything. I have played many small and modest-sized instruments that were extremely beautiful and satisfying.
Please tell us about New York and the various pre-Riverside positions that you held.
When I was in school at Union, I had a fieldwork position, the West Center Church in Bronxville, New York, but at that time I had already agreed to substitute for Virgil Fox whenever he was away, which was quite a bit.
My job in Bronxville was with the understanding that I had to be at Riverside when necessary. I was the official substitute organist (at Riverside) for a couple of years. When I graduated, Clarence Dickinson (1873–1969), whom I knew very well, had a heart attack—he was the organist and choirmaster at the Brick Church—and they asked me if I would fill in for him for nearly two years. At the same time, I became Harold Friedell’s (1905–1958) assistant at St. Bartholomew’s Church. I’d play in the morning at the Brick Church at 92nd Street and run down Park Avenue to play 4 o’clock Evensong at St. Bartholomew’s. There was a church in between called Park Avenue Christian Church, and they performed their oratorios at 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I would stop there and accompany an oratorio between playing services at Brick Church and St. Bart’s.
Some Sundays, I also played Riverside! I would finish at St. Bart’s, jump off the bench (Harold [Friedell] would finish the service), run downstairs and out the door where there was a car waiting to whisk me to Riverside. Somebody else would have played the opening hymn, and I’d jump on the bench and play the oratorio. It was crazy and I don’t how I did it, except that when you’re young, you do all kinds of foolish things and don’t think anything about it.
Of course, I assume that you knew the organs and had rehearsed with the choirs.
Yes, plus the enormous amount of preparation for all the other music involved.
And those were with just organ accompaniments and no orchestra?
Yes. Fortunately, the organs were all big, beautiful instruments with every color in the world, and it was a wonderful experience. After a while, I played almost every oratorio in the standard repertory. At Riverside we even did the United States premieres of a couple of works—Stabat Mater (1925–1926) of Szymanowsky (1882–1937) and the Hodie (1954) of Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). It was a wonderful experience, both to learn the music and also to learn how to adapt the scores quickly to the organ.
Were you ever overwhelmed playing those large instruments?
No, but there were many challenges and satisfaction in being able to find solutions.
I can remember Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Chevalier-Duruflé, who were very good friends, when they played their first recital in America at the Riverside Church. They had come for the 1964 AGO national convention in Philadelphia the week before, but Maurice had hurt his back and couldn’t perform, so Marie-Madeleine played the recital.
I’m telling you this because I’m thinking about big organs and how they affect people. When the Duruflés entered the Riverside chancel and saw the console, Maurice put his hand on his head and said, “Oh, mon Dieu!” Marie-Madeleine said, “Ooooooo,” rubbing her hands. She just couldn’t wait to get at it. I don’t think that I ever said “Ooooo” and rubbed my hands, but I was always so thrilled by the color possibilities of an organ such as the Riverside organ.
When I first played at Riverside in 1952, the organ was not the Aeolian-Skinner. It was the original 1931 Hook & Hastings controlled by the Aeolian-Skinner console that had been recently installed. When they began putting in the new organ in 1953, they had to keep the organ going every Sunday for services, oratorios, and everything else. I can remember one time when there were two Greats—the old Great was on one side of the chancel, and the new Great was on the other. I had to flip a switch depending on which Great I was using. It was a real headache and I didn’t get that much time at the organ, but here again when you’re young, you think, “Oh well. I’ll work it out.” It was a challenge.
You mention color and large instruments. I’ve heard you play many times, both in person and on recordings, and I can say that you are an organ symphonist in how you approach your music-making. Obviously, all of these instruments that you have experienced have been an incredible influence upon you.
Absolutely. On any instrument, I explore every stop in the organ, and of course, with a large organ, it is important to find orchestral colors for the oratorio accompaniments. I always feel that if there’s a stop there, it’s supposed be used and you can usually find a way to do it.
Please tell us about your time at Riverside Church in New York City.
In the fall of 1952, I started substituting for Virgil Fox, and in 1957 the staff at the church changed quite a bit. Virgil’s career began to blossom, and thus, he was there very rarely, so they decided they would hire an organist. I was hired as organist, not as assistant organist, at the church. From then until his association with the church dissolved completely in 1965, he very rarely played—probably a handful of times a year, but his name was kept because he was famous.
I was actually in the Army when I was appointed organist. I was not going to be released for another six months, so Richard Peek, who was studying in New York at the time, filled in for me as organist for the next several months. Then in January 1958, I started playing full-time.
Did you ever work directly with Virgil Fox?
Maybe a few times, but very rarely. He was a real character in addition, of course, to being an incredible musician and technician. Amazing!
So William H. Barnes introduced you to Virgil Fox. Was he responsible for getting you in the door at Riverside?
Absolutely. Virgil was born in Illinois and got his career start in Illinois—that’s where he met the Barneses. As a result, I knew Virgil before that first trip to New York.
Please tell us about the choir program at Riverside, which was well known and directed by Richard Weagley (1909–1989).
He was a great musician and wonderful to work with. He retired in 1967, when the program had been reduced from an oratorio every Sunday to just eight or nine a season. There was less work, so they asked me if I would be director of music and organist, which meant that I was the primary organist but was responsible mainly for the choir. Then I was given an assistant organist, and I had some great ones: Marilyn Keiser, John Walker, and Robert MacDonald, to name a few. They were wonderful people, and we’ve remained lifelong friends. I had the whole show, basically, until I left January 1, 1983, to move to California.
One of the first recordings I heard of you was with the marvelous soprano Louise Natale (1918–1992).
Louise was a fabulous soprano. She had sung with Robert Shaw and was one of his main soloists for many years, and we were so fortunate to have her at Riverside. I encouraged her to sing [Jaromir] Weinberger’s (1896–1967) cantata, The Way to Emmaus (1940), and she did it magnificently with that organ to accompany her.
We started doing it on Easter afternoon, and we did it for 25 consecutive Easters! After all of the loud music and the “Alleluias” all morning and then to come at 5 o’clock with the sun streaming across the Hudson through the beautiful windows and to end the Easter Day quietly was a very moving experience for a lot of people, and eventually the church was filled.
Did you position the console so that you were able to conduct the choir from the console?
The console was not movable and worked just fine as far as services were concerned, but for the oratorios I would have to go out front and conduct while one of my assistants played. I think the only time I played and had somebody else conduct was when we performed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. The accompaniment was so complicated and so wonderful that I wanted to hear it using all of that organ. So we engaged as conductor Dr. Harvey Smith from Arizona (now deceased). Of course, I had trained the choir before he arrived.
Could you explain why there was overlapping time before you left Riverside and when you began your position at the Crystal Cathedral?
When the Crystal Cathedral had just been built and the organ installed, there were many festivities to open the organ. Pierre Cochereau came to play with orchestra, and a week later I played the first solo recital on the organ. Additionally, they asked me, as long I was there, to play the Sunday morning service. I played the morning service, and afterwards, Dr. and Mrs. Schuller wanted to meet with me. They asked me if I would become the organist of the church. I told them that they had a very fine organist, Richard Unfried, who was a friend of mine, and that the job did not exist. I said that I knew they were without a director of music and asked them if they’d like to discuss that. They said, “No,” that they only wanted me to play the organ. I indicated that I was not interested, since they already had a fine organist.
So I went home to New York, and four days later, there at my office door at Riverside Church stood Robert Schuller. He said, “I just want you to know that Arvella and I have come light years since our discussion last Sunday, and we’d like to offer you the position of director of music and organist. Would you please fly out to meet with us next Monday to make arrangements.” He then turned around and left!
I flew out to California with no intention whatsoever of moving, but I had already fallen under the magic spell of that fantastic cathedral and the organ, and as is sometimes said, “They made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
The arrangement that we finally made was that I would spend one week a month in California—working with the choir, etc.—and the other three weeks a month in New York. That’s what I did the first six months and then moved full-time to California in January 1983.
I played the last service at Riverside at midnight, December 31, 1982, and then January 2, 1983, I flew to Toronto to play a recital in Roy Thomson Hall, and then flew immediately to California to meet the moving van, set up housekeeping, and get started with the new position.
People would always ask me if I missed New York, and I’d tell them that I didn’t have time to miss New York! The music program was very large (at the Crystal Cathedral) with several hundred people in the program. I had to learn the organ and get the choir going, so I didn’t have time to think—to miss New York.
What was it like working with Robert Schuller (b. 1926)?
It was wonderful. What you see on television with him is what you get. Both he and Mrs. Schuller, Arvella de Haan (1929–2014), treated me beautifully all the years that I was there, and we became very good friends.
Dr. Schuller wasn’t around that much since he was always out speaking and raising money. Mrs. Schuller was in charge of worship and the music.
It took us a while to learn which buttons to push with each other, but we eventually became very good friends. She was an organist herself and told me I could do Palestrina and Hubert Parry’s I was glad anytime that I wanted, but I would have to do “the other things that we do,” too. But they wanted me specifically to bring that type of music—the “big Eastern church music.” They wanted me to provide music they felt would be commensurate with the new cathedral building, a great organ, and a fine choir. Thus, I was able to stretch them in doing a lot of that music, but they also stretched me into various other forms of music.
There was an enormous variety of music. We could have a country-Western singer, a Metropolitan Opera star, an English cathedral anthem, and a Bach prelude and fugue, all of these and more in one service, but the best thing was that whatever we did was done with the best taste, and to the best of everyone’s ability.
Johnnie Carl, a fantastic musician, was in charge of the instrumental program and contemporary music. It was a learning experience for all of us, and I thoroughly enjoyed my 16-plus years there. The people made it: the choir especially.
And you just happened to be on television every week, too!
Yes, eventually I got over being nervous about cameras peering over my shoulder, and occasionally I’d look up and see a cameraman standing on top of the organ console getting ready to shoot something! It was all very enjoyable, and many stories can be told about that!
That’s almost a book.
Oh, easily! One of those stories is about Alicia the tiger that was born at the cathedral. Her mother was one of the 60 animals used in the “Glory of Easter” production. I knew her mother, and her mother’s trainer. After Alicia was about a week old I went to the animal compound and played with her mother a bit, and the trainer gradually moved Alicia closer. Her mother didn’t object, so I picked up Alicia (she weighed only 35 pounds) and scratched her stomach and played with her every day for two weeks after that. Tigers (tame ones, anyway) are somewhat like elephants—they can bond with you, remember you, and when you see them after being away for months they’ll come right over and nuzzle you like a kitten—with the trainer nearby, of course.
It used to scare my staff to death when she’d come to my office and come right over and want to play. She was from an animal training facility that provided animals for movies, and had a reputation for being the most-tame “cat” in the business. She’s retired now. Organists all over the world were fascinated, and wherever I traveled—Jean Guillou’s apartment in Paris, or one in Berlin—there was one of the photos framed.
After the Crystal Cathedral, you went to the First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, for three years (1998–2001).
Right. When the Crystal Cathedral organ went in, their nose went out of joint at First Congregational Church because, up to that point, they had the largest organ in the area, so they set about to make it bigger and better than the Crystal Cathedral organ. About the time that the organ was finished, their organist Lloyd Holtzgraf retired, and they said, “Okay, we’ve got the bigger organ. Now we want the big organist from the other place.”
As Rev. Schuller had done earlier, the Congregationalists made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. At the heart of it was simply the fact that I was really worn out from all that I’d had to do at the Crystal Cathedral. I was playing the organ less and less and doing administrative work and conducting more. So I thought it would be rewarding to play the organ for awhile. I went to First Congregational Church with the understanding that I would only stay three years and retire on my 70th birthday, which I did right to the day in 2001.
That was a wonderful time there, too. Thomas Somerville, a great Bach scholar, was the director of music, and we did wonderful music. The congregation just loved that organ and would remain motionless and utterly quiet during preludes and postludes. It was a great place to make music—a smart move, and I’m so glad that I did it.
And since 2001, you have been organ artist in residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California.
When it came time to retire, I decided not to move back east—I’d already shoveled enough snow! I had many friends in Palm Springs and had visited there a lot and decided to retire there. I’d even purchased a home three years earlier and was able to rent it out until I needed it.
When I moved to Palm Springs, John Wright had come from Memphis to St. Margaret’s Church as organist and choirmaster. I had opened a new organ in his church in San Antonio, Texas, years before. He invited me to practice at St. Margaret’s whenever I wanted, as long as I played a recital during the year. I said, “Okay.” I was still out on the road finishing up several recitals that I had on the books. This went on for a couple years, and he said, “Why don’t you play for church once in a while.” I said, “Oh no. I’ve done that and I’m tired.” But he kept after me and I finally agreed. In recent years, I have been playing at least two Sundays a month and sometimes more often than that, plus all of the festival services. John is then able to concentrate on conducting the choir—a very good choir—and the organ is a large four-manual Quimby. Friends who visit are always amazed to find, out in the middle of the desert, a big choir, big church, big organ. I think they thought that we beat on bamboo! But, it’s been very enjoyable, and it is a wonderful congregation. I can walk in and play and walk out, and I don’t have to attend staff meetings. After a lifetime of doing that, I’m happy just to be able to play the organ.
That takes us to another leg of your journey: your performing career and association with the Murtagh and now Karen McFarlane artist management. As far back as I can I remember, I can see your smiling face on the back page of magazines (The Diapason and The American Organist). When did you start with the management?
Soon after I went to Riverside—I can’t remember the exact date. I was with the management for over 40 years.
Lilian Murtagh was the assistant to Bernard LaBerge, the famous manager of organists and other musicians in this country. After LaBerge’s death in 1952, she continued as head of the organ division (under what had become Colbert-LaBerge). She then purchased the organ division in 1962 and continued until her death in 1976 when Karen McFarlane became president. Murtagh was a dear, dear lady and so very good as a manager.
It was great to get to know all of the famous organists who were with the management: it was a wonderful relationship.
Lilian had gotten to know my secretary at Riverside, Karen McFarlane, and after Lilian became ill and realized that she didn’t have long to live, she asked Karen to consider taking over the management. Thus Karen McFarlane became the manager from 1976–2000.
So you and Karen McFarlane go way back.
We go way, way back! She had done some playing for me and was my secretary at Riverside. Then she became my concert manager. She’s like a sister and is a very dear friend.
When I retired I intended to finish recitals that I already had on the books, but I really didn’t intend to play anymore, so I asked them to please take my picture off the back page. I’ve curtailed my performing to maybe two or three concerts a year, mainly because the travel is becoming more difficult.
Do you have any more recordings in the works?
No, I did my last one in 2010 (Gothic Records) on the magnificent Casavant organ, Opus 1230, in the Memorial Chapel at the University of Redlands. Recording is very nerve-wracking at my age. I can still play adequately as long as a microphone has not been turned on. When that happens, I become the Florence Foster Jenkins of the organ!
Going back to the LP days, I think that there’s a total of about 30 recordings. A lot are from Mirrosonic, Vista, Decca, and, of course, Gothic. It’s not an enormous number—many people record a lot more—and some of those are organ and some are with choir.
Some things I’ve recorded more than once, and I don’t really apologize for that. Marie-Claire Alain was once asked why she recorded three sets of the complete Bach works; she answered, “Because my ideas change or I learn.” It’s the same with all of us, and I would hate to think that we were not constantly changing.
Please tell us about your varied teaching experiences, the positions you’ve held, and your students.
I’ve had a whole bunch. The first formal teaching that I did was at the Guilmant Organ School (1899–ca. 1970) in New York. It was established in the early 20th century by William Carl, who was the organist at First Presbyterian Church, New York City. He had been a student of Guilmant. I came to it late, actually just the last three years of its life, and I had about eight to ten students. Then I began teaching organ and accompanying the choir at Teachers College, Columbia University. I also did some private teaching at Union Seminary where I was also the fieldwork supervisor; I would go out to students’ churches, take notes, and make suggestions.
In 1973, I became head of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music. At that time, it was housed in the old Juilliard School buildings across the street from the Riverside Church, which was very convenient. I held that position for eight years during the 1970s until I left New York for California.
When I first went to California, there was absolutely no time for teaching. But after I finally “retired,” playing almost no recitals and just playing at St. Margaret’s, in 2007 I became the university organist and artist teacher of organ for the University of Redlands, just an hour west toward Los Angeles.
The Casavant organ there, originally installed in 1927, was completely restored in 2002 at the same time that the building was being retrofitted for earthquakes. It’s a marvelous organ, totally enclosed—even the three 32-foot stops. It’s a thrilling sound, even with the orchestra and choir and soloists. Just a short while ago, we were able to fill up all of the blank knobs on the console and add another 20 ranks.
I have very good students there.
What about the composer in you?
Oh, I’m not a composer!
You wrote a wonderful Trumpet Tune.
I don’t know how wonderful it is, but people seem to enjoy it. One man has even made a handbell arrangement of it that is published. There are a few other organ pieces, too.
The other compositions are mainly anthems, and they were all written when I was at the Crystal Cathedral, because I couldn’t find what I wanted to fit with the service of the day or they were not the right length. They all had to be written in major keys, had to be loud, and had to end with the sopranos on high C, so there isn’t a great deal of variety. But the publishers wanted them: because I was the organist at the Crystal Cathedral, and they thought they would sell! I don’t know if they ever did or not—a few of them did, I guess—but I make no claims to being a composer, whatsoever.
There are several hymn arrangements and preludes that are also published. In particular, Toccata on “O God, Our Help, In Ages Past” is fun to watch— it made good television. It has lots of work jumping manuals, which idea I got from Petr Eben’s Moto Ostinato. I played it for him once and he burst out laughing. I said, “Well, it was your idea!”
Please reflect upon your time as President of the American Guild of Organists (2002–2008), which is when I first got to know you.
I was amazed that I got elected, and I’m sure the only reason was because of television and concerts. A lot of people don’t know most of the people who are ever nominated for office, so they usually vote for the ones who are best known. I enjoyed it very much. We had a wonderful group of people on the National Council—you were there—everybody worked well together and with the administration of the Guild. It was a very happy time and I feel that we accomplished a lot of things. In addition to the POEs (Pipe Organ Encounters), there were many highlights of my years there. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve the Guild in that way.
What do you see as the function, the purpose, and even the future of the AGO?
I think that the Guild is very much alive. It is still very influential—it’s the largest and oldest organization (founded in 1896) of its kind for musicians and for instruments in this country.
The only other musical organization that is older is the Royal College of Organists in London, which in 2014 is celebrating its 150th anniversary. They used to wield an enormous amount of power, and even had a big office building. The organ and organist had been well thought of in halls and cathedrals, but a recent article in the New York Times said that they have fallen on bad times and there are not as many jobs. They are now focusing on reinventing themselves by reaching out more to the general public. I don’t how they will do it, but they are determined.
Generally speaking, I believe that the Guild is on firmer ground now than it’s ever been. I’m very optimistic about the future of the AGO and about the organ in general. There are many naysayers who think that the organ is dying and that there are too few people interested in becoming organists. This is simply not true.
Some of the major organ builders no longer exist, but there still are organs being built—some of them very large and expensive—as well as smaller organs. Along with all of the recordings that exist, I feel very optimistic about future of the organ, and I don’t believe it’s going to die anytime soon.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I don’t have a lot of free time, although I try to walk one to two miles daily—I am not in shape to do any great physical activity, but I do enjoy walking. I live in a two-story condominium, just so I can have the exercise of going up and down steps many times a day. I like reading, going out to eat, and I love being with friends.
There are many retired organists where I live in Palm Springs, many of whom I have known for years. It’s fun having a very nice social life, too.
Very little grass grows under your feet.
No. I learned several years ago—and I practice it religiously—that when you get into your ninth decade, you do not want to sit and stare at the wall. The day may come when I have to do that, but until it does, I’ll keep as physically and mentally active as I possibly can. I do crossword puzzles and everything I can to stay active.
Do you practice everyday?
I’m embarrassed to say that I do not. I should, but I practiced a lot in recent weeks to prepare for the recital here.
Here is where humility must be brushed aside for the sake of honesty. You have everything on your résumé: you are without a doubt the most well-known and most visible organist of our day . . .
. . . fading fast, as there are some real barn-burners coming along nowadays who are really going to go right to the top and who are creating a lot of stir in the organ world. I’m thankful for them because we need to keep the organ world alive . . .
What do you see being your important contribution(s) to our profession?
Regardless of what some people might think, I’m really modest and somewhat shy. I have been given wonderful opportunities in my career, such as having been blessed to serve in church positions most organists can only dream about. I’ve played close to 3,000 recitals in various places around the world, including a lot of daily recitals in churches, as well as being on television for over 16 years.
With the combination of things like that and teaching, I feel that I’ve helped to contribute to keeping the organ alive. I don’t believe that I’ve done any one thing in particular that I could cite as being outstanding. Rather, I’m grateful to have been given so many opportunities. I’ve tried to make the most of those opportunities for the advancement of the organ and its music. I’m more embarrassed than pleased when people compliment me.
At this point in your life and career what occurs to you as the most pleasurable reward resulting from your more than 70-year career?
That’s easy! In addition to being grateful for all the music making I’ve been fortunate to do, it’s the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve been able to bring joy and encouragement to others. One thing that has surprised me in recent years, and keeps happening more and more, is hearing from colleagues in the profession that my service playing or a recital or teaching, often on a very specific occasion, was a life-changing event for them in their career path. I am so very grateful for these expressions! More important, it makes me aware that all of us should take time to consider the influence we may unconsciously be having on others.
Good advice for all. Thank you, Fred. You are the gem of our ocean!