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A conversation with Morgan and Mary Simmons

April 3, 2003

Roy Kehl has resided in Evanston, Illinois, since 1969. He is a past member of the Bishop’s Advisory Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. From 1981–1985 he served on the Standing Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Church which compiled The Hymnal 1982. In that capacity he chaired a sub-committee on plainsong hymnody and consulted with Morgan Simmons in course of that work.

On March 24, 1996, Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago celebrated the music ministry of Morgan and Mary Simmons, who retired after 28 years as organist and choirmaster and associate organist, respectively. The festivities included several motets sung by the Fourth Church Morning Choir and alumni of that choir, vigorous hymn singing accompanied by Morgan, organ works played by Mary, Roy Kehl, Richard Enright, and Margaret Kemper, and tributes by choir members, Richard Proulx, and the Rev. Dr. John M. Buchanan, senior pastor of the church, followed by a gala reception in Anderson Hall.

Both Morgan and Mary Simmons are graduates of the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, and have long been active in the AGO and the Hymn Society. During the Simmons' tenure, a number of innovations have taken place. Among them is the annual Festival of the Arts, which has featured such artists as Robert Shaw, Dave Brubeck, Paul Winter and Maya Angelou. Since the installation of the 125-rank Aeolian/Skinner organ in 1971, there has been an annual series of organ recitals performed by an international roster of musicians. The church has commissioned a number of anthems, several of which are included in the Fourth Church Anthem Series, published by Hope Publishing Company. Several recordings of the Morning Choir have also been released.  A recent major building campaign has included structural and acoustical renovations, as well as enhancement of the Aeolian/Skinner organ by Goulding & Wood.

This conversation took place on April 22 and 29 at the Simmons' home in Evanston, Illinois, shortly before they left on a trip to England.

Roy Kehl: Mary and Morgan, can you tell our readers something of your backgrounds, where you were born and raised, went to school, how you met, and how you came to Chicago?

Mary L. Simmons: Although I was born in Centralia, Illinois, I spent my growing up years in Carbondale where I was very fortunate to have a wonderful piano teacher  (Juilliard graduate) from the time I was five until I finished high school. At age twelve I began organ lessons with our church organist, but continued piano as my first instrument at the University of Illinois for my first two years when I switched to organ as a major. My teacher there was Paul Pettinga. In September of 1951 I enrolled in the master's program in sacred music at Union Theological Seminary in New York where I was a student of Hugh Porter and studied composition with Normand Lockwood. It was at Union where Morgan and I met and where we were married on May 17, 1953--two days before we received our degrees.

Our years at Union were very special times for us not only because of our developing relationship but also because of the lively stimulation that prevailed at the seminary and the city of New York. Clarence and Helen Dickinson were very much a part of the school's life as were Ethel Porter, Charlotte Garden, Harold Friedell, Madeline Marshall, Peter Wilhousky, Vernon deTar, and Robert Baker, to say nothing of the theological giants such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. The friendships which we made in those years with fellow students remain to this day.

Morgan F. Simmons: Andalusia, Alabama, is my home town. Although I was enthusiastic about music from an early age and had a reasonably good piano teacher from the time I was seven or eight, my music study was not very solid until my last three years of high school. During World War II my father was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I had the good fortune of coming under the guidance of Union Seminary graduate Lee Sistare who put me on the right path to serious organ study. Simultaneously, I studied piano with a very fine teacher in Fayetteville.  During my senior year in high school we had moved back to Andalusia, and I made a twice monthly trip to Montgomery (85 miles away) to study organ with another Union graduate and a master piano teacher with an engaging southern name, Lily Byron Gill, who had been a student of Moszkowski and Ernest Hutcheson.

My undergraduate work was at DePauw University where I studied with Berniece Mozingo and Van Denman Thompson, the latter, one of the most gifted musicians that I have ever known. (He had completed a bachelor's degree at New England Conservatory in one year, done post graduate study at Harvard and was teaching at the college level by the age of 20.) I, too, entered Union Seminary in the fall of 1951, and, like Mary, I studied with Hugh Porter.  Following commencement and after two years in the army, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for study at the Royal School of Church Music in Croydon, England, where we spent a year.  Returning to the states I began a doctoral program at Union while serving as minister of music at the Bound Brook Presbyterian Church in Bound Brook, New Jersey, where we had a comprehensive program with six choirs. In 1961 I completed the doctorate in sacred music at Union with emphasis on hymnology, and in January of 1963 I accepted a joint appointment as minister of music at the First Methodist Church of Evanston, Illinois, and as assistant professor of church music at Garrett Theological Seminary. I continued at First Methodist until the summer of 1968 and maintained my relationship at Garrett until 1977.

On September 15, 1968 we began our work at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago--I as organist and choirmaster and Mary as associate organist (although she was not officially listed as such in the early days).

RK: What did you find when you arrived at Fourth Church in 1968? What was the program like at that time?

MFS:  We found a church with a long and impressive history of church music.  Eric DeLamarter had been the director of music from the time of the completion of the present church and its E. M. Skinner organ in 1914 until his retirement in 1935. His distinguished associates included Leo Sowerby, Palmer Christian, Walter Blodgett and Barrett Spach, who succeeded him, remaining at the church until his retirement in 1959 (with a one year's absence from the position). The organ was in a sad state with 240 dead notes and a lot of blanketing in the chamber to use in case of ciphers.  Plans were already under way for a new instrument at the time I was hired.

There were two choirs: the Morning Choir with 34 paid singers and the Evening Choir which had about 30 volunteers. The professional choir left a great deal to be desired since there were a number of singers who really should not have been there, and it took several years to build an ensemble that came close to my ideal of what a really good choral group should sound like. I discovered early on that it takes much more than finances to foster a truly effective musical program. The volunteer choir drew on the large singles' groups which were a hallmark of the church at the time, and there was a good pool of talent from which to draw.

The Morning Choir provided music for eleven o'clock worship and the Evening Choir sang for the 6:30 vesper service. The two choirs combined for a Christmas pageant and for the Spring Choral Festival which was held in May.  In addition the Morning Choir did a Fall Choral Service and a major work on Good Friday Evening. This schedule of special services had dated from the tenure of Barrett Spach, and I did not change it appreciably.

RK: What changes have taken place in the music program at Fourth Church during your tenure?

MFS: After our first Christmas we abandoned the rather old fashioned Christmas pageant and began the tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols, and we soon began an 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service which we named A Festival of Banners and Light, which necessitated the fabricating of banners to fill the very large space. Over the years we have been through three sets of banners and the service has grown in popularity so that there is now standing-room-only .

In 1988 a second morning worship service meeting at 8:30 a.m. was added to the existing 11:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. services. Vocal music for that service was provided by an octet from the Morning Choir, including one of the soloists. An assistant organist was subsequently added to the staff to direct the Evening Choir and play for the vesper service.

For most of the choral programs we used instrumental accompaniment more than had been done by our predecessors and performed a wider variety of music.  Some of the works performed included:

To St. Cecelia (Dello Joio), Missa Brevis (Kodály), Requiem (Fauré), St. John Passion (Bach), The Great Organ Mass, The Creation, and Stabat Mater (Haydn), Requiem (Brahms), Mass (Stravinsky), Mass in E Minor (Bruckner), Requiem, Grand Mass in C Minor, and Vesperae de Domenica (Mozart), Requiem (Duruflé), Israel in Egypt and Messiah (Handel) as well as lesser known works by contemporary composers.

After the organ was rebuilt and expanded in 1971 we began a series of organ recitals: four evening recitals by outstanding guest performers as well as noonday recitals on the Fridays of October, Lent and June by organists in the Chicago area--many of whom are of stellar caliber.

RK: Share with our readers the way in which you and Mary have shared the leadership of the music ministry.

MFS: Although Mary was not officially designated as my assistant or associate when we first went to the church, she functioned as such, and without her special talents the program could never have gotten off the ground. As I stated to the congregation on our final Sunday, March 3: "Mary has been my ears, my fingers, my best critic and my best friend." Her gifted ear and fine keyboard skills far surpass mine, and she graciously used those skills in a very unassuming manner to undergird the music making that took place at the church. She is a superb accompanist and acted in that capacity at choir rehearsals, morning worship and concerts. Because of her abilities we were able to perform music that I could never have programmed otherwise. We complemented each other's talents; she lent her ear for pitch and intonation to my ear for color, balance and interpretation. She offered steadiness to my exuberance. I did most of the planning and selection of the repertory as well as the registrations for the accompaniments, and she did the execution. In addition she is the organizer of the pair and managed the large and developing music library.

During our early years at the church she had the responsibility of our three children. Later she was employed for eighteen years as a full-time executive with one of the national boards of The United Methodist Church which required a lot of travel and energy. Fortunately, she had flex time and was able to be at the church by noon on most Thursdays for preparation for choir rehearsals. During my first nine years at the church, I still had responsibilities at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston and did occasional teaching in hymnology at Northwestern University's School of Music. That meant that there were many seven-day weeks.

RK: What were some of the challenges you faced at Fourth Church?

MFS: There were and have been few major challenges to the music program of the church. We enjoyed unparalleled support from the clergy and the congregation and were free to express ourselves almost without restraint. For many years there was no music committee as such, and the level of trust that was placed in our judgment was amazing. I did my best never to betray that trust.

One problem which the church in general has faced through the years is the matter of image. Many people have a distorted view of Fourth Church--that it is an elitist institution which caters to the very wealthy and that its financial resources are unlimited. At one time there were rumors that my salary was $100,000 a year, that the pastor had a chauffered limousine, a yacht and a bevy of servants. Actually, the church ministers to a wide variety of people from all economic strata, and its per capita giving has lagged behind the national average for many years. Its location on North Michigan Avenue in a space referred to as "the magnificent mile" and the very handsome Gothic architecture which was made possible by some of Chicago's past wealth reinforces the false image.  During a large part of my tenure, I handled the church's publications and publicity, and I constantly battled to correct the image and to get the message across that this is an all-inclusive community of faith which is open to all.

RK: What are some of the high points of your ministry at Fourth Church?

MFS: That is something of a difficult question to answer because there was a steadiness to the life of the church.  Fourth Church is atypical; we never went through the slump that so many churches experienced during the late sixties and seventies. In fact the membership of the church grew during every year that we were privileged to be a part of its ministry, and when we left we were at an all-time high membership--almost 4100. But there were some peaks along the way: the establishment of the Annual Festival of the Arts in the fall of the year which exposes the church and the participating artists to the important intersection between the arts and religion, the installation of the Aeolian/Skinner organ in 1971 and finally the enhancement of that instrument and the improvement of the acoustics which were completed in 1995. The close relationships which we have had with members of the choir were heightened by three European tours: Germany and Austria in 1987, England in 1990 and Italy in 1994. Singing in the Dom in Salzburg, conducting the choir in Bruckner's Virga Jesse at St. Florian Abbey where the great Austrian composer is buried, and conducting and playing for evensong at Bath Abbey are a few of the highlights of those overseas trips which we will always cherish.

RK: Tell us something about the history of the organs at Fourth Church and the recent renovations that you have referred to.

MFS: I've already mentioned the condition of the E. M. Skinner organ that existed when we went there in 1968.  This had been a landmark instrument when it was installed in 1914 and contained 59 ranks, among them the very first Kleiner Erzähler and Celeste which Skinner built. In the church archives is a letter from him describing the stop and its derivation. He said, "The result is a most beautiful combination, the most beautiful soft effect I ever heard." In 1946-47 the Aeolian/Skinner Company made several changes to the organ, including the addition of a mixture to the Great, a replacement of the mixture in the Swell, the addition of two mutations to the Choir and a Pedal unit (16, 8 and 4). Barrett Spach was very unhappy with the results and never forgave G. Donald Harrison for altering the essential character of the original instrument.

Soon after I went to the church we engaged Robert S. Baker, then Dean of the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, as consultant for an extensive rebuild and enlargement of the organ. He, along with Donald Gillett, president of the Aeolian/Skinner Company, and I drew up the specifications for the instrument that was expanded to 125 ranks. All of the mechanical parts of the organ and the solid state console were new, but certain ranks from the original organ and the rebuild of the 40s were incorporated.  Because we were under the restrictions to make no physical changes to the building, it was necessary to confine the pipework to the original chambers: the very deep (25 feet square) chamber to the left of the chancel and the old echo chamber at the east end  peak of the nave. In the new scheme the Swell organ was buried at the back of the chamber and spoke directly into the large pedal prinzipal pipes. Also most of the organ was on low wind pressure. These factors along with the poor acoustics of the church made for a less than satisfactory installation. When people heard that there were 125 ranks, they would ask, "Is that all there is?" after hearing full organ.  Another common remark about the musical performances was, "It's too bad that the building doesn't sound the way it looks."

When the church projected a major renovation and restoration of the facilities, I began to address the matter of the organ which was a "diamond in the rough" and also the problem of three inches of horsehair felt on the ceiling of the nave. In 1989 we began conversations with Thomas Wood, president of Goulding & Wood of Indianapolis, to determine how some of the problems of egress and enhancement might be accomplished. We also worked with Kirkegaard and Associates related to the acoustics and secured the advice of Jack Bethards of the Schoenstein Company and the church's curator of the organ, Kurt Roderer. It was determined to relocate three divisions : the Swell, the Positiv and part of the Pedal. It was also decided to raise the wind pressures on the Swell, the Positiv and the Antiphonal divisions. A new 32' pedal reed was added as was a new prinzipal for the case of the Positiv which now speaks directly into the nave by way of the south balcony. A subbass of larger scale was added to the Pedal, bringing the total number of ranks to 126. A large part of the organ was revoiced and everything was regulated and finished to complement the new acoustic. The results are dramatic and have fulfilled my dream of leaving the church in a much better state than I had found it in 1968.

RK:  Could you tell us more about the acoustical and architectural renovations?

MFS:  As part of the restoration of the sanctuary of the church, which included extensive cleaning of the stone, refinishing of the pews and all other woodwork, repairing the stained glass and updating the antiquated lighting, it was happily decided to improve the acoustics which had been hampered from the beginning by the application of three inches of horsehair felt to cut down on the reverberation of the spoken word at a time when sound enhancement systems did not exist. The felt was removed and insulation was installed, covered by sheet rock and then hard wooden panels which were decorated to match the handsome polychrome beams.  Although there is not a long reverberation as a result of this work, there is far more warmth and clarity of sound so that the organ, the choir and the congregational singing are all wonderfully improved.

Another aspect of the renovation included the relocation of the Blair Chapel where there was a two-manual Austin organ which had been greatly enhanced in recent years by Brantley Duddy of Pennsylvania. The new chapel balcony will not accommodate the large  Austin chests and so the pipework, much of which is new and viable, has been put in storage in the hope that some of it can be incorporated in a mechanical action organ for the new space. 

The building is now almost totally handicapped-accessible with the addition of two elevators, a wonderful ramped loggia which is ideal for art exhibits, and expanded areas for day care, our very large tutoring program, the day and church schools and expanded administrative facilities. The former chapel space has been converted into a great hall which is widely used for after-church coffee hours, forums and large dinners.

RK: You have spoken earlier about the organ recital programs. Who are some of the artists that have been included?

MFS: Robert Baker gave the dedicatory program for the rebuilt Aeolian/Skinner in 1971, and Marilyn Keiser played the rededication recital in February of 1995. Among the other players have been William Albright, Arthur Carkeek, Robert Clark, Douglas Cleveland, David Craighead, Richard Enright, Michael Farris, Grigg Fountain, Robert Glasgow, Ronald Gould, Gerre Hancock, Charles Heaton, David Higgs, Wilma Jensen, Margaret Kemper, Charles Krigbaum, Joan Lippincott, Marilyn Mason, James Moeser, Thomas Murray, Bruce Neswick, John Obetz, Karel Paukert, Simon Preston, George Ritchie, Wolfgang Rübsam, David Schrader, Larry Smith, Frederick Swann, John Weaver, Todd Wilson and you. The list could go on for a very long time.

RK: You have commissioned a number of anthems. Who are some of the composers, and how did the Fourth Church Anthem Series come about?

MFS: Early on we commissioned Anthony Donato to write a piece for the centennial of the church which was in 1971. Subsequently, Gerald Near accepted a commission for one of our first arts festivals. Richard Proulx was asked by the church to compose a work to mark our twenty-fifth anniversary at the church in 1993. The Fourth Church Anthem Series is a joint venture with the church and the Hope Publishing Company, whose chairman of the board is Fourth Church member George Shorney. When I approached George with the idea, he very graciously accepted the challenge and suggested that the composers who were commissioned share a percentage of their royalties with the church and that those monies be used to help underwrite the Arts Festival. Composers in the series include Richard Proulx, Dan Locklair, Charles Huddleston Heaton, John Weaver, Walter Pelz, Kenneth Jennings and myself.  Last year alone over 3000 copies of the various anthems were sold--a very gratifying record for the promotion of good music in the church.

RK: Morgan, tell us something of your activities as a composer.

MFS: Much of the work that I have done has been for use at Fourth Church: a large number of vocal descants and responses as well as some free organ accompaniments. In addition I have composed works for several visiting organists including Cityscape for David Schrader, Metamorphosis for David Craighead, Conversation Piece--Pan and Cecilia Do Sums and Division for John and Maryanne Weaver, and Recitative and Variants on Fourth Church for Marilyn Keiser. I also composed a piece for oboe and organ for Ray Still of the Chicago Symphony as well as Prelude on a Melody by Sowerby which is inscribed to Mary.

RK: You alluded to your interest in hymnody and the teaching that you have done in that area. Tell us more about your association with the Hymn Society and the work that you have done for recent hymnal revisions.

MFS: Cyril V. Taylor, the composer of one of the most beautiful twentieth- century hymn tunes, Abbot's Leigh, was warden of the Royal School of Church Music when I studied there in the 50s. He taught a course in hymnody in such a fascinating manner that I was hooked and have maintained an abiding interest in the subject. My doctoral dissertation was "Latin Hymnody: Its Resurgence in English Usage," a study of the effect of the Oxford Movement on hymnody and the introduction of plainsong melodies to the English church during the 19th century.

Back at Union Seminary I came under the influence of Ruth Ellis Messenger who served, along with Carl Parrish, as my dissertation advisor. Through her urging I became active in the Hymn Society, serving as a member of its executive committee for a number of years and eventually as its vice president. Later I was secretary-treasurer of the Consultation on Ecumenical Hymnody for several years.

You will recall that in 1987, with your help, I compiled a small spiral bound volume of 87 hymns, Again I Say Rejoice, to introduce the congregation to some newer hymn texts and tunes that were not in the 1933 Presbyterian Hymnal. This collection proved to be a good bridge to the denominational hymnal that would appear in 1990.

I was a reader/consultant for The Hymnal 1982 as well as for The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1990, and I contributed a large number of essays on texts, tunes, authors and composers to the Companion To The Hymnal 1982.  That hymnal also includes two plainsong accompaniments which I was asked to compose, and 100 Hymns Of Hope includes my tune Fourth Church which is sung at Fourth Church every Sunday at the presentation of the offering.  The hymn writer Carl Daw, Jr. was commissioned to write the text for that response.

RK: You and Mary have long been active in the American Guild of Organists.  What have been your involvements with the Guild?

MFS: Mary and I joined the Guild when we were undergraduates at the University of Illinois and DePauw respectively. Mary is a past Dean of the North Shore Chapter and is currently an ex officio member of the board. We were both founding members of the Columbus Georgia Chapter when I was stationed at Fort Benning. I served as Dean of the DePauw University Chapter, Sub-Dean of the Columbus Chapter, Dean of the North Shore Chapter and am currently Director of the Committee on Denominational Relations on the national level.

RK: What is the work of that committee and how does its concerns reflect your thinking about the current state of church music?

MFS: The committee seeks to be a sounding board for the wide spectrum of concerns that face church musicians in various churches throughout the country. One of those concerns is the matter of the use of pre-recorded music for worship. You may have seen the statement on that issue in The American Organist. That statement was the result of a lot of work by our committee to address the critical matter of the sidelining of the human dimension in worship.

We are also concerned about the vapidity and banality of much that is being espoused by those who are advocates of the church growth movement.  This is a movement that considers the organ an antiquated means of enhancing worship and one that dismisses much which we as traditional church musicians hold dear, and declares them to be irrelevant to the so-called "seekers." Personally, and I think I speak for the members of the committee, I feel that there is an abdication on the part of many church leaders to do the hard work of providing substantive elements for worship whether it be in provocative preaching or mind-stretching hymn texts set to solid music. I like to think that is what has taken place over the years that we served at Fourth Church. The commitment to excellence at every level of the church staff is evident and the fact that we are at a record membership says that the church does not have to aim at the lowest level of mentality and taste to have a vital and vibrant community of faith.

RK: Your interests are not confined to the musical sphere. Let's talk about your gardening and needlepoint projects.

MFS: Gardening predates my musical interests. I began gardening at the age of four, but I wouldn't describe myself as a horticultural Mozart, even though I have taken a number of blue ribbons at African violet and rose shows. I have a small greenhouse which gives me a lot of pleasure and allows me to enjoy this abiding hobby year round. In it I have camellias and azaleas which keep me in touch with my Alabama roots. I also have orchids and other plants there. Since retiring I have already expanded the garden to include two new flower beds. We are looking forward to visiting the Chelsea Flower Show in London at the end of May.

Needlepoint has been a hobby from the end of my high school days and I have done quite a bit. As part of the renovation for the church I designed and stitched seven cushions for the chancel as well as a wedding kneeler, and now there are six more chancel cushions on the drawing board which will be begun upon our return from England.

RK: What are some of your retirement plans?

MFS: We hope to do more travel and visiting with our three children and six grandchildren. I plan to continue composing, to do some serious writing and get involved in some volunteer work-- perhaps with children. I have missed the contact I had with young people at the two churches we served prior to going to Fourth Church. As I said at our retirement celebration on March 24, there are still many roads left to travel. There is a lot of gas left in the tank, and I plan to continue to exceed the speed limit.

We look back on our active days as church musicians with a great sense of fulfillment and have remarked many times that we are among the most blessed in this our chosen field.

Thank you for the opportunity of sharing some of our thoughts with you and the readers of this venerable magazine which I have been reading for almost fifty years!               

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