This interview with Morgan and Mary Simmons of Evanston, Illinois, longtime musicians (1968–1996) at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, reveals their strong relationship as evidenced in their 65-year marriage (1953–present). We met on July 29, 2017, at their home in Evanston, where they have lived for 50 years.
They discussed their rare collaboration in several positions throughout the years, and they shared wonderful anecdotes about their time as students at the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music, various church positions, and music making in general. The Simmonses shared the importance of their respective families and the influence that their families had on them and their careers as individuals and as musicians.Morgan and Mary also revealed insights into working with two high-profile pastors—the third and fourth respectively—of Fourth Presbyterian Church: Dr. Elam Davies (1968–1984) and Dr. John Buchanan (1985–2012).
Thanks to Ken Wuepper of Saginaw, Michigan, for audio technology support, and to Morgan and Mary Simmons for their careful editing assistance.
Steven Egler: Morgan, let’s begin with you telling us about your childhood and formative years.
Morgan Simmons: I was born in Andalusia, Alabama, April 6, 1929. Although I only had one sibling, my extended family was huge with 50 first cousins. Both of my parents came from large families, and my paternal grandmother was the oldest of 16, 14 of whom I knew.
Since both my grandmothers lived across the street from each other, and I lived only a block away, I got a lot of attention growing up.
Were you the oldest?
Morgan: No, my sister was three years older, and for both of us family was exceedingly important.
Recall for us your earliest musical experiences.
Morgan: I sang in the children’s choir of the First Methodist Church of Andalusia, and I started piano lessons when I was in the fourth grade with a very old-fashioned lady, Josie Lyons, who taught piano in the ladies’ parlor of the Methodist Church. She was a real taskmaster. If we were late to lessons we did not have a lesson, but we were still charged. She was also the organist and choir director of the church and wore very interesting attire for Sunday worship—a white satin surplice with a purple full-length skirt and matching scull cap for winter months; a white lace surplice with black skirt and matching cap for the summer.
I also took up clarinet but never perfected it; then at age 15, I began organ study. This opened an exciting new chapter in my life.
Mary, please tell us about your early years.
Mary Simmons: I was born February 22, 1930, in Centralia, Illinois. When I was six, we moved to Carbondale, Illinois, and I had a wonderful childhood with my sister who was five years older than I and my brother who was three years older.
Unlike Morgan, I did not come from a large family. My mother was one of six children, and my father was an only child. This was the family that I mostly knew.
When we moved to Carbondale, I became a piano student of Helen Mathis, later Vogler, who was head of the piano department at Southern Illinois University. I studied with her until I graduated from high school, and it was good that she took such great interest in me.
When I was in the eighth grade, my mother thought that I was getting bored with the piano and suggested that I would like to study organ.
I studied organ at the Presbyterian Church in Carbondale with Eloise Thalman, who was a very good organist and took me under her wing. I loved it from the first day that I started, and during the summer, I got up early and rode my bicycle to the church to practice because I loved it so much.
After having had a few lessons that same summer, Mrs. Thalman came to my home and said she would be taking her husband to the Mayo Clinic and asked me to play for church. What a shock that was! From that point on, I was hooked.
Morgan: Mary didn’t say that she has perfect pitch, which was discovered before she was six years old. Her native abilities are far greater than mine: I’m not a gifted, natural musician and have always had to work for everything I’ve done, so that has figured in our musical experiences through the years.
It has occurred to me that one of the big factors that has enhanced my life is related to World War II. My father was in the military, and when I was a junior in high school we moved from Andalusia to Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was the beginning of a totally new experience for me.
Shortly after arriving at the army base, I had the good fortune of studying organ with a chaplain’s assistant, Lee Sistare, who was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary’s School of Sacred Music where he had been a student of Clarence Dickinson. He introduced me to Dr. D.’s Technique and Art of Organ Playing and plied me with stories of church music in the “Big Apple.”
During my stay at Fort Bragg, I sang in the Chapel Choir. The chapel was only two doors from our quarters and had a small, two-manual Hilgreen-Lane organ where I was able to practice.
Following my two years in Fayetteville, I returned to Andalusia for my senior year in high school and had lessons with another Union graduate, Henry Whipple, who lived in Montgomery. I took the bus every other Saturday to Montgomery for lessons with Mr. Whipple, who had been a student of Palmer Christian and Clarence Dickinson. On those same Saturdays, I had piano lessons with the distinguished pianist Lily Byron Gill. She had studied with Moszkowski in Paris and was a teacher of the old school, who taught Czerny and Hanon, so I was exceedingly fortunate.
How did you learn about DePauw University?
Morgan: A young chaplain, who was from Indiana and knew about my interest in organ and church music, recommended that I consider DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. I had never heard of the school, yet I was determined to go to Union once I had completed my bachelor’s degree. I was granted a Methodist scholarship and thus attended DePauw for my undergraduate study.
I appeared in Greencastle green as a gourd, having taken the train from Alabama. Alas, I arrived without my wallet! It had worked its way out my hip pocket and went to Chicago on the Monon railroad. Believe it or not, it was returned to me a couple of days later with all the money still in it, so it was another of those serendipitous experiences that has graced my whole life.
My first-year organ teacher was Bernice Mozingo, a graduate of DePauw, and who had studied with Parvin Titus and Palmer Christian. The organ professor at DePauw, Dr. Van Denman Thompson, was very particular about taking first-year students, but at the beginning of my second year, I began my study with him. He was unlike any musician I had ever known.
A larger-than-life individual, he graduated from New England Conservatory in one year, took postgraduate work at Harvard, and was teaching college in Arkansas at age 19. He came to DePauw when he was 20 and taught for 47 years.
His wife, Eula Mae, blind from age three, was a very accomplished musician in her own right. Together they had seven children, the youngest of whom they named Lynnwood in honor of the person known by many as America’s greatest organist, Lynnwood Farnam.
He was also teaching and performing Messiaen and other contemporary composers long before many other organists of the day.
The organ used for teaching was in Gobin Memorial Methodist Church, a four-manual vintage Kimball instrument with fabulous strings, and before I arrived, the Aeolian-Skinner Company had added an unenclosed positive. In 1943, a two-manual “Baroque” organ was installed in the balcony, so we had the best of both worlds.
In terms of teaching, he was unique. During an opening conversation at the console, he would sit facing the stop jams and comment on my playing; then he would leave me alone while walking up and down the aisles of the church, return and say, “I think you’d be better to put your third finger on the B-flat.”
He had an incredible ear. A fellow student said he called up to him during one lesson, “The vacuum cleaner is sounding a flat F sharp. You’ll have to play a little louder.” Besides being a wonderful teacher, he was a fabulous performer and improviser.
Marcel Dupré came to the campus to play in 1948, and l listened in the back of the church while Dr. Thompson demonstrated the organ for Dupré by improvising a lengthy theme and variations. Upon its conclusion, Dupré stood up and shouted, “Prima, prima!”
I had wonderful experiences at DePauw and made life-long friends with such people as Charles Heaton and Maureen and Art Carkeek. It was here that I was introduced to the A.G.O. There was a student chapter, and I got my feet wet during my senior year when I served as dean.
Mary, please tell us about your college experience and study.
Mary: When I graduated from high school, I was determined to continue organ study but also piano. I went to the University of Illinois because that was a tradition in my family. My grandfather, my father, my mother, my mother’s brothers and sister, and their spouses, as well as my sister and brother and their spouses, were all graduates, so it was a given that I would join the “club.”
I started out as a double major in piano and organ, but after two years I decided to drop the piano to a minor and really concentrate on organ. My teacher was Paul Pettinga, a fine pedagogue and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory.
When I graduated, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do; however, my brother, who was a ministerial student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, told me about the School of Sacred Music there.
I interviewed with Hugh Porter, was accepted, and attended from 1951–1953. That was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with Hugh Porter and his wife Ethel, which was enhanced by experiences and the varied opportunities that the city had to offer.
Was two years the typical amount of time that it took to complete the Master of Sacred Music degree, and did it include fieldwork as well?
What was Union Seminary like when you arrived in 1951?
Morgan: Mary and I both arrived at Union the same year—the fall of 1951—and were, of course, overawed by the city. It was the “golden age,” both for the seminary and for the city of New York in terms of church music. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were both at their prime as professors at Union.
Hugh Porter was director of the School of Sacred Music, having succeeded Clarence and Helen Dickinson, who were still around and still teaching. They came on Wednesday, which was known as D-Day.
Mrs. Dickinson was quite a character and was the first woman to have received a PhD from Heidelberg University. She was said to be able to talk the horns off of a Billy goat and that she had talked her way into a required course that had been previously closed to female students. She wrote her doctoral dissertation, in German, on Italian art of the Renaissance.
The Dickinsons taught a course about the history of sacred music, and Dr. D. taught
a course on oratorio solo accompaniment.
Both Mary and I studied with Hugh Porter whose style of teaching was quite a contrast to what I was accustomed. He was very much on-the-bench and over your shoulder while humming and tapping rhythms and penciling, and it took some time to get used to his more hands-on approach.
Would you liken him to anyone more recent, such as Russell Saunders’s style of teaching?
Morgan: Perhaps. He had studied with Lynnwood Farnam, a perfectionist of the first order. I have no first-hand knowledge of Russell’s style, but I had the good fortune to study one summer with Arthur Poister following my doctoral degree. With him the music was paramount—the technique secondary!
I also studied with Marilyn Mason who emphasized technique: careful fingering and pedaling. With Dr. Thompson you learned by osmosis!
In New York, one could experience an oratorio every Sunday. At that time, Dickinson was at the Brick Church, Frederick H. Candlyn was at St. Thomas, Harold Friedell was at St. Bartholomew’s, Norman Coke-Jephcott was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Robert Baker was at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, and Vernon DeTar was at Ascension. DeTar was very smart: he presented his oratorios on Monday evenings, thus avoiding competition.
Those were exceedingly memorable occasions; I remember DeTar conducting Honegger’s King David with the Witch of Endor being portrayed by Madeleine Marshall, who was the diction teacher at Union and a wonderful person. We became close friends, and she subsequently came to Evanston to do a program for our A.G.O. chapter. It was a heady time to be in New York. No question!
Mary, what can you say about your time at Union?
Mary: My experience was a little different from Morgan’s. He more was interested in the theological studies than I was, although I loved being there and making friends. We had chapel five mornings a week and, like many of us who had jobs related to the seminary, I was in charge of the choir robes. I was constantly cleaning the robes, removing candle wax, and replacing collars.
I especially remember having a course from Harold Friedell on writing descants. I loved doing that and composed some pretty good ones as a result. I also studied composition with Norman Lockwood for a very short time.
During my second year, I served a small church in the Bronx with an integrated congregation. In spite of the fact there were so few children in the area, they wanted me to start a children’s choir, so we scheduled the rehearsals for after school. It was an extra trip for me, because I had to take two separate subway lines and a bus to get to the church.
I did, however, manage to get a small choir to perform some decent anthems. It was a learning experience for me, and I especially enjoyed the children.
When Morgan and I were married, one of the fathers brought some of the children to our wedding. It was such a thrill to have them there.
Morgan, please tell us about your fieldwork experience at Union.
Morgan: For two years, I was fortunate to serve a Lutheran church in New Rochelle, which had had a Union person before me. We were able to perform Messiah with outside soloists (“and I accompanied,” whispered Mary).
For the first time I had the joy and privilege of working with children’s choirs. Years later after going to Fourth Church, I realized how much I missed this phase of music ministry.
It was a tradition that the Porters invited the entire student body to their cottage in Connecticut for a retreat at the end of each academic year. That’s when Mary and I became serious with one another. The following October, we became engaged and made plans to be married in James Chapel at the seminary. Because our parents and many friends would be attending our commencement, we set Sunday, May 17, 1953, as our wedding date. Dr. Lewis J. Sherrill, author of a powerful book, The Struggle of the Soul, and my spiritual advisor, performed the ceremony. Like the Porters, he and Mrs. Sherrill became like family to us.
Hugh played for our wedding, and our reception was held on the 15th floor of Riverside Church. We left the city for our honeymoon in pouring rain, drove up the Hudson to a rustic cottage, and returned Tuesday for commencement to receive our Master’s degrees. You can imagine the flurry of activity surrounding all of these events!
Following graduation in the summer of 1953, Mary and I were named as musicians for the first Montreat Conference in North Carolina. We accepted this invitation with the provision that, if I were drafted, I would not be able to fulfill my obligation to the conference. Sure enough, I was drafted and had to return to Alabama to report for duty, leaving Mary alone to complete the term. Upon my return to Alabama, my father was diagnosed with a serious illness for which I got a month’s deferment.
I was in the infantry and trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the crack platoon of the division. The only way that I got through the ordeal was to rely on my sense of humor and say to myself, “If only so-and-so could see me now, crawling with a rifle on my belly under live ammunition!” We were known as the top unit with an A number-one record for performance.
What do you mean by “crack”?
Morgan: “Crack” refers to the discipline that was used in an attempt to “break” (or “crack”) you, but I got through it.
As fate would have it, Frederick Kent, who had been in the class ahead of me at DePauw, worked in the Third Army Chaplain’s Office at Fort Jackson. He asked me where I would like to be stationed after basic training, and I said Fort Benning. This was the closest base to my home in Alabama and where my sister and brother-in-law were stationed. Being another serendipitous experience and following those eight weeks of hell, I ended up with a plum job at Fort Benning. I was able to practice, took a speed-reading course, and enrolled in a French course, knowing that I was going to need it for my doctorate.
Mary, where were you at this time?
Mary: I was with Morgan’s parents in Andalusia. Upon Morgan’s return home after basic training, his father brought out a bottle of champagne for celebration.
Describe your time in Columbus, Georgia, and your activities there?
Mary: After this, we moved to Columbus, adjacent to Fort Benning, where I got a job on the post and did some organ subbing in the area.
Morgan: During that time, we got involved in the church music life of Columbus and were instrumental in founding the Columbus Chapter of
A.G.O., for which I served as its first sub-dean.
Since I was stationed there for 18 months, we also determined that, if Mary got pregnant by a certain time, we’d be able to take advantage of the Army hospital. It worked and our son, David, was born on May 5, 1955. We call it a historic birthday: 5555!
I was released from the Army that June and then attended summer school in New York to begin work on my doctorate at Union.
Please tell our readers about your year (1955–1956) in England where you attended the Royal School of Church Music.
Morgan: Prior to separation from the Army, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, and the following September, Mary and I and our four-month-old son sailed for England where I began study at the Royal School of Church Music at Croydon. At that time and for many years, the Royal School was housed in Addington Palace, which once served as the summer palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary, David, and I had gracious accommodations on the second floor of the magnificent edifice.
Cyril V. Taylor, a very fine biblical and musical scholar, was the warden of the School. He had been with the BBC Radio Ministry, and at the RSCM, he taught courses on psalmody and hymnody. This is where I became interested in the subject of my doctoral dissertation: Latin Hymnody: Its Resurgence in English Usage. Subsequently, I researched the translation of Latin hymns into English and did a fair amount of research at the British Museum in London.
I had a few organ lessons with Sir William Harris who, at that time, was organist to the Queen at Windsor. I took the Langlais Suite Brève to one lesson, and after hearing one page, he shut the book and said, “I will not listen to such music.”
Then I had the audacity to think I could study with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. During our initial session and in no uncertain terms, he informed me that I wasn’t ready for him!
He sent me to William Lovelock, professor at Trinity College in London. Like Van Denman Thomspon, he was also a mind-blowing musician. He could write out a melody, harmonize it by writing the alto line, then the tenor, and then the bass, just one voice at a time. So I had almost a year’s study of basic harmony with Lovelock, which complemented my undergraduate and graduate school experiences.
Gerald Knight, director of the Royal School, was a gracious host to Allen Sever (another Fulbright Scholar) and me and took us on trips to Ely, York, and other cathedral cities.
I also had the amazing opportunity of hearing Lessons and Carols at Salisbury and King’s College, Cambridge.
We were introduced to Prince Philip during a reception for all Fulbright scholars at the English-Speaking Union. Another time, Sir William McKie, organist at Westminster Abbey, entertained Mary and me for tea. These encounters were among the highlights of our time in England.
After being in England for a year, you returned to Union where you pursued your Doctor of Sacred Music degree.
Morgan: Yes, but unfortunately, we had to shorten our time in England because of my father’s illness, so we returned four weeks earlier than had been scheduled.
My father died in July 1956, and we returned to Union that September where I began my doctoral study.
I also assumed the position of minister of music at the Bound Brook Presbyterian Church in Bound Brook, New Jersey, succeeding our friend, Charles Heaton, who had just completed his doctorate at Union. It turned out to be a wonderful experience since the church had a long history of fine church music going back to the days of Ifor Jones, esteemed conductor of the Bach Choir Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Of mention on the current website of Bound Brook Presbyterian Church is: “Many of our former directors of music have become of note in their field. Ifor Jones who was here in the 1930s became the third director of the Bach Bethlehem Choir and has edited many Bach cantatas and anthems. Morgan Simmons was here in the 1950s and went to and retired from Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Other noted names are Charles Heaton and Clifford Case, former U. S. Senator.”
Morgan: Thanks for doing your homework! I had not known of Senator Case’s relation to the church, which is the third oldest church in the state of New Jersey, founded in 1688, and has missed only one service in its history. That was when a battle was being fought during the Revolutionary War on the church grounds.
We had a blizzard one year while we were there, but we held church with 17 in the choir and 50 in the congregation. I was never so proud of a choir!
Ifor Jones and E. Power Biggs had been contemporaries at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and both came to the United States in 1930. Although Jones was an organist, Biggs excelled in organ and Jones in choral work.
The Bound Brook Church offered abundant opportunities to put into practice what I had already learned and was continuing to learn.
We had a large children’s choir program of six choirs and enjoyed annual subscriptions to children’s concerts in New York City for six Saturdays each year. They heard orchestral music, took boat trips, and learned about city life—a testament to the generous support of the congregation.
There was a good choir library, also. During our first year, we did the Bach Magnificat, about which the chairman of the music committee was initially very uncertain, but she was delighted that we could actually “pull off” something like that!
Was Mary with you in that position?
Morgan: Oh, yes. Mary was always there accompanying.
So Mary, were you playing all of those oratorio accompaniments before they became published scores for organ?
Mary: Yes. I always loved accompanying, even in high school.
Morgan: Our second and third children were born while we were in New Jersey—one between children’s choir rehearsals on a Saturday morning, and the other between church services on a Sunday morning.
Mary: We had a good apartment that came with the job, good train service into New York, and made lifelong friends.
Morgan: At Union, I was studying during the summer with Marilyn Mason (as mentioned above) who was also working on a doctorate. Plus, I studied with John Huston, organist at First Presbyterian Church.
Also mentioned earlier, my doctoral dissertation centered on Latin hymnody. It included the study of plainsong hymns being introduced to the Church of England during the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century.
The dissertation was accepted by Oxford University Press in New York but was rejected by the London office, so it was never published. Mary did all the typing of the 300-page document, and I penned in more than a 100 musical examples in four copies, no less.
Did you include footnotes?
Morgan: Oh yes!
Mary: And I was pregnant at the time!
Morgan: In addition to the dissertation requirement, I had to write annotated program notes for six organ concerts and six choral programs.
Now, tell us about your move to Evanston and your job at First United Methodist Church.
Morgan: After six years at the church in New Jersey, I received a joint appointment here in Evanston at First Methodist Church, which became First United Methodist Church, and Garrett Seminary, which became Garrett- Evangelical Theological Seminary. That appointment began in January 1963, and I succeeded Austin Lovelace in both of those positions. Once again, we had the opportunity to do excellent repertory at First Methodist.
Before Alice Millar Chapel was built in 1962, the church was closely associated with Northwestern. It was the site of many of the university choral concerts as well other musical events.
Shortly after we arrived, the church was the venue for an all Randall Thompson concert with Randall Thompson himself in attendance. On many occasions, we collaborated with the choral forces at Northwestern.
Mary was technically not on the staff, but she did all of the organ accompanying for the church. We made many close friends, both at the church and at Northwestern.
Mary, how did you deal with the orchestral reductions to piano that were then the only available keyboard scores for these large choral works. Did you think that this was a difficult task at all?
Mary: We did consult the orchestral scores, and I could pull out things that were important. Most of the time, however, I used the accompaniments in the vocal score in order to figure out what should be highlighted.
Morgan: One of Mary’s specialties was the Brahms Requiem, which we performed both in Evanston and later at Fourth Church. In addition to the organ, we added timpani and harp.
With other scores, such as the Mozart Requiem, we used orchestra, although the first time we did the Mozart at Fourth Church, we used just the organ.
Speaking just a bit ahead of ourselves, what was the condition of the organ when you first went to Fourth Church?
Morgan: It was the original 1914 E. M. Skinner organ that had undergone some additions and changes in the late 1940s, but there had been no mechanical changes. There were no general pistons, yet it had three master pistons that controlled divisional pistons number four, five, and six but not the couplers. We also used one of those master pistons as the general cancel since there was none, and it was important for silence. Needed sound could be provided by the crescendo pedal!
That first year, Mary played the Mozart Requiem without general pistons, and it was quite something. Also, the organ had 230 dead notes when we went there!
Why did you move from First United Methodist, Evanston, to Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago?
Morgan: Essentially, I was not reappointed to my position at the church in Evanston, not on musical grounds but rather ministerial difficulties. There was much turmoil going on in the church at the time, and I was going to be without a job.
One Sunday in June 1968, a distinguished gentleman appeared after the postlude and introduced himself as chairman of the music committee of Fourth Presbyterian Church. I knew that Fourth Church was looking for an organist, but I also knew that it was the sort of place where one did not apply. He said that they were looking for a new organ and wanted to know what my opinion was. He gave to me the names of three companies that they were considering, complimented me on the service, and left.
That afternoon I received a call from Elam Davies, pastor of Fourth Church, who said that Mr. McLeod and his wife had attended First Methodist Church that morning and liked what they heard. He then invited me to have lunch with him the next day and told me that they were looking for a new organist. We met for an interview, after which he offered me the job. He said that he had plenipotentiary power and was able to do this if I was interested. I told him that the offer was very enticing, but that I had an appointment with a pastor from another church and was not yet in a position to make a commitment.
The next evening I met with Louis Evans, Jr., pastor of the Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, California, who did not have plenipotentiary power and who was not in a position to offer me the job.
The next morning, Elam called me and inquired where this church was. I told him, and he soon got back to me after having looked up the statistics and said, “It looks like a good church, but there’s only one Fourth Church!” I told him that I thought he had majored in persuasion in seminary, and the rest is history. I never had a contract, never had a secretary.
What about the administration of the music program at Fourth Presbyterian?
Morgan: I did all of that myself as well as all of the church publications for a time. I did all of my own typing, along with Mary’s assistance in proofreading.
Right at the beginning of my tenure, the organ was front-and-center: they were definitely going to replace the instrument.
Mary: I’d like to intersperse here that it was Elam who suggested that I should be on the payroll. Thus, I became a regular member of the paid staff as associate organist.
Morgan: Unlike any other pastoral relationship that I had prior to this, there was a bond with Elam right from the beginning. We worked together from 1968 to 1984.
At one point, there were a couple of disgruntled choir members who tried to get me fired. Elam said that, even if there were no choir remaining in the loft, I would still be organist and choirmaster. That’s how strong his support was for me. Even after his retirement to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, we remained close friends.
One of my biggest responsibilities was developing the choir. Dr. Davies gave me the authority to hire and fire as necessary, but it took me four to five years to create the choral sound that I carried in my head.
The choir was all paid, and as a result, one always exchanges one set of problems for another. Having never worked with a paid singer before, let alone an all-paid choir, I was presented with a whole bevy of challenges and potential for tension in the ranks as well as dealing with prima donnas.
Please talk about the installation of the Aeolian-Skinner in 1971.
Morgan: Elam Davies did not have a good experience with the organ in his previous church in Pennsylvania. As a result, he was determined that the organ was going to be an Aeolian-Skinner, and we engaged Robert Baker as the consultant. We also worked closely with then president of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, Donald Gillette.
The organ was finally installed in the fall of 1971 and was essentially crammed into a very tight and remote space. It replaced the E. M. Skinner instrument of fifty-nine ranks with one of 125 ranks, which made for even tighter quarters.
The big problem was that Aeolian-Skinner was essentially bankrupt at the time, and they cut all kinds of corners on the mechanics of the console, including the combination action, which was very unsatisfactory and which eventually had to be completely replaced. Robert Baker played the dedicatory recital, and we had an organ recital series during the rest of our tenure.
Considering that you were there as the organ was being planned, what input did you have regarding the stoplist?
Morgan: I insisted that we had to have a Harmonic Flute on the Great, yet I had to fight for it since in those days 8′ stops were not in vogue! I also insisted that we retain the French Horn. We also saved as much of the original E. M. Skinner pipework as possible.
The very first Kleine Erzähler was included in the 1914 organ, and there is a letter in the archives from E. M. Skinner in which he says the following:
I have invented a new stop through my study over this case. I wanted to [include] a Flute Celeste of which I’m very fond; [however] it takes a considerable room and I set about finding a way to take less room. I wanted to make the stop softer than usual, so I had some pipes made to a small scale from the model of my Erzähler. The result is a most beautiful combination—I think the most beautiful soft effect I have ever heard. The sheer beauty of this stop gives me a very great asset and adds another to my list of original stops. I call it Kleine Erzähler which means ‘Little Storytellers.’ The stop is so talkative I have always said it named itself.
It has been retained in the new instrument by Quimby Pipe Organs, along with the Harmonic Flute (1971 Aeolian-Skinner, Opus 1516) and the French Horn (1914 Ernest M. Skinner Company, Opus 210).
Considering that Rev. John Buchanan was such a prominent figure in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., describe your day-to-day working relationship with him?
Morgan: John and I had a very good relationship, but it acquired a new dimension because it was my first time to work with a senior pastor who was younger than I.
Initially, I intuited that John felt I was still “wedded” to my relationship with Elam. It took some time to convince him that this was definitely not the case and that he had my total respect, admiration, and affection. He was very supportive of the music ministry, bringing to the equation his own accomplishment as a trumpeter and love for brass music that eventually led to the establishment of a fine ensemble that continues to enhance worship.
Elam was very much a hands-on pastor; for instance, he’d tell the young assistant pastors when they needed to polish their shoes. I missed that with John because there were times when I thought staff needed to be called to account.
Elam also had a mind like a steel trap, came to staff meeting with no notes, took no notes, and yet quoted verbatim what was said and who had said it. He kept a calendar in his head, and you knew that he was on top of everything that went on in the church. If he trusted you, you had his total support, yet his was a different style of administration as well as a different style of preaching which was very dramatic and frequently went off topic. By contrast John’s sermons were perfectly crafted, informed by insatiable reading, and on point—qualities that led to his international prominence.
Upon your retirement from Fourth Church in 1996, the following quote from the Chicago Tribune speaks volumes.
Quote of John Buchanan, Chicago Tribune, March 27, 1996, “Organist Retires On a High Note.”
Pastor John Buchanan, while praising his [Morgan’s] ‘impeccable musicianship,’ also noted one job drawback for Simmons. Over 27 years, Simmons had sat quietly, between musical offerings, through ‘2,688 sermons and 1,700 weddings,’ a patience required in few other art forms.
Among your many activities, you’ve enjoyed success as a composer. What can you say about your composing?
Morgan: Most of my compositions can be described as “occasional” pieces. For instance, the impetus for Cityscape was the 1992 annual Festival of the Arts at Fourth Church, “Faces of the City.” It is based on a three-note descending scale (C-B-A) which comprises the opening notes of the popular song, “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town.” Coincidentally, these same pitches are the beginning of Old Hundredth (sung every Sunday at church) and are incorporated in the concluding movement of the work, “The Magnificent Mile,” an allusion to the location of Fourth Church.
Reflections for Oboe and Organ was written for Ray Still, renowned former oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and premiered by the two of us in a recital at Fourth Church in 1976.
Because I am not gifted with a keen ear like Mary, composing is an arduous task, most of which is done at the keyboard. I may get a musical idea, but I don’t commit it to paper without checking it out at the piano. The sounds of the Fourth Church organ and the acoustics of the building also influenced the coloration of many of my compositions.
Prelude on a Melody of Sowerby features the Kleine Erzhäler and Celeste, which Sowerby would have heard and played. The piece builds to full organ after a blast from the Festival Trumpet, which dates from the 1971 Aeolian-Skinner.
On the occasion of the Fourth Church Morning Choir tour to Britain in 1990, I composed settings of the Canticles and responses for Evensong, which the choir sang at Bath Abbey, a service at which my mentor Cyril Taylor and his wife were in attendance. The highlight of that tour was the singing of his magnificent hymn tune Abbots Leigh in his presence and in that awesome building.
Your hobbies include gardening and needlepoint. Please tell us how you became interested in these wonderful, non-musical activities. (The photos included here of your garden and needlepoint are testaments to your skills and artistry.)
Morgan: I began doing needlepoint at the age of 18 under the guidance of one of my aunts. The gardening goes back to age four when I was given a dedicated space in our yard for my own plantings. Addiction to the plant world has only grown through the years.
The needlepoint includes over 30 pieces for Fourth Church—mainly the chancel cushions, a cross with attendant panels and replicas of stained glass—plus the large 4′ x 4′ tapestry of The Burning Bush which hangs in the new building at Fourth Church and which was created in honor of the musicians who have served the church.
Morgan: It is therapy: I don’t sit still well. I guess that it has had something to do with my itchy fingers!
In a statement that you sent to me before the interview, you said the following:
I was always sensitive to the fact that I had BIG shoes to fill. In Isaac Newton’s words, ‘If I have seen further than others, it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants.’ I wouldn’t dare to presume that I’ve seen further than others, but I am acutely aware that I have a BIG debt to those who have gone before me.”
Because you are a giant in our field, what do you have to say to those of us who are standing on your shoulders?
Morgan: I’ve spoken about the fact that I don’t have outstanding, native musical ability. Whatever success I’ve had has been a combination of managerial and musical abilities. Additionally, I believe that I have a good balance of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Quotient).
My IQ is not “off the charts,” but I think that my emotional quotient and my personality play a large part in my ability to relate to people. This is particularly important in working with choirs.
The voice is difficult to teach because you cannot see it, so you have to use your imagination to convey ideas. I would make comparisons between fabrics and sound—beige chiffon or “tweedy” and other such comparisons—to which people could relate. I often quoted the maxim expounded by William Self: “No one is a soloist; everyone is a soloist,” superb advice for creating a unified quality of sound. This is difficult for me to talk about, and, if anything, it might be perceived to be conceited.
I don’t think that you are being conceited. Rather you are being honest and, as you feel comfortable, revealing of your skill in working with choirs.
Morgan: Through the years, I’ve gone through much self-searching and self-evaluation, and I’ve tried to conquer (not necessarily “the demons”) but various issues. I’ve experienced Dalcrose Eurythmics, yoga, acupuncture, and Alexander Technique.
My sister used to say that the definition of an A-type personality is one who smacks one’s face against the automatic door because you get there before it opens for you. Needless to say, she and I were both A-types and could recognize the trait in each other.
Are you saying that this is something you’ve had to conquer over the years?
Morgan: Yes, it’s been both a bane and a blessing—a compulsion to measure up to the goals and responsibilities that I’ve set for myself. There is a big dose of “driveness” in my makeup that comes from my inner drive and my family background.
Do you have something else to share about experiencing the world at an early age?
Morgan: As a child, I had the good fortune of being exposed to the outside world. My mother was an incredibly independent woman and well ahead of her time. In 1940, she organized an 8,500-mile driving trip from Alabama to Portland, Oregon, and back. There were seven of us—my mother, sister, and I, an aunt, and a friend of my mother, and her two daughters—piled into a 1938 Buick!
We stayed with friends and relatives along the way as well as in motor tourist camps (as they were called then), and this was long before the interstate highway system! We saw the Grand Canyon, the World’s Fair Exposition in San Francisco, with Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams. Additionally, we visited the Mormon Tabernacle, Carlsbad Caverns, and Yellowstone Park. This was just the start of the world opening up to me.
In the summer of 1949, I joined my family in Germany where my father was stationed. That was the first year of the Salzburg Festival, which we attended, and we also visited Bayreuth where I had the opportunity to play Wagner’s piano.
During our time at Fourth Church, we took the choir on three European tours: Salzburg and Vienna, England, and Italy.
How did the Fourth Presbyterian Church Anthem Series (Hope Publishing Co.) come to be?
Morgan: This was a result of our friendship with George Shorney, who was at that time president of Hope Publishing Co. He became a member of Fourth Church—and I don’t want this to sound immodest—because of the music.
There are 16 anthems in that series: 11 were composed during our years and five were added after our retirement.
Who initiated the Morgan and Mary Simmons A.G.O. Scholarship for Young Organists?
Morgan: John Buchanan’s older daughter Diane married Rick Andrew, whose parents, Edith and Edward Andrew, initiated the scholarship with the A.G.O. upon our retirement from Fourth Church in 1996. It is presented annually for students attending a P.O.E. (Pipe Organ Encounter).
I’d like to add that I think the P.O.E. program is one of the best things that has ever happened to the Guild.
You also developed an arts series and organ recital series during your tenure at Fourth Church.
Morgan: Before Elam Davies retired, I proposed an arts festival, which he strongly supported by designating funds for its inception. Robert Shaw, Maya Angelou, Dave Brubeck, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other luminaries were featured on this series, which continued until our retirement.
Might you comment about the future of our profession?
Morgan: The drop in A.G.O. membership is alarming, yet better and better organists and instruments are appearing on the scene.
What do you think is the reason for the decline in A.G.O. membership?
Morgan: I think that it’s a reflection of society: people are generally not “joiners” anymore.
Might it have something to do with the organ’s role in current-day worship?
Morgan: Case in point: some years back I attended a study program at St. Olaf College, and while there I attended a Lutheran church in Northfield. Sitting silent in that church was a fine, tracker instrument while the service was led by piano and guitar. This was disturbing. I’m sorry to say that this is not an uncommon occurrence!
Another common thread among those whom I have interviewed is that they have all said the same thing: they became interested in the organ due to their early exposure to the organ in church. Unfortunately, young people are not being attracted to the organ and its music like in the “old days.” This has adversely affected the number of those who are entering the profession.
Morgan: As an early teen, I thought that I was going to enter the ministry, but I eventually realized that my speaking voice was not of the right caliber to occupy the pulpit.
Do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to our readers as well as to the next generation of organists and church musicians?
Morgan: I wish that I had some words of wisdom, but I can honestly say that some of these young players are just fabulous. I believe that the future of the profession is in good hands if they can persevere with grace and commitment in the challenging times in which we live.
Thank you, Morgan and Mary. You are the great musicians of the Magnificent Mile!