An interview with Paul Jacobs

September 29, 2019

Joyce Johnson Robinson is a past editor of The Diapason.

Paul Jacobs’s name first appeared in the November 1998 issue of The Diapason, which noted that he won first prize in the Young Professional Division of the Albert Schweitzer Organ Competition in its inaugural year. His marathon performance in Chicago of the organ works of Olivier Messiaen was described in detail by Frank Ferko (“An Extraordinary Musical Odyssey: Paul Jacobs’ Messiaen Marathon,” The Diapason, April 2002, Vol. 93, No. 4, pages 14–15). Over a decade ago, The Diapason presented an interview with Jacobs, which focused on his development as a musician and his views of music within American culture (“Challenging the Culture: A Conversation with Paul Jacobs,” The Diapason, February 2006, Vol. 97, No. 2, pages. 22–25).

Jacobs has become a vocal champion of the organ and of art music, as evidenced by interviews and articles in such publications as The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is the only organ soloist to have won a Grammy Award, and is recognized as a musician of unique stature through his performances in each of the fifty United States and around the world, as well as his performances with major orchestras, including Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony, to name just a few. Jacobs also serves as chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. Last season Jacobs toured in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

We were able to discuss his work and thoughts during a visit of his with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May of 2018, and present an edited version of his comments here.

The Grammy

Joyce Johnson Robinson: Your awards include a Grammy award—the first and only organ soloist to receive a Grammy award.1

Paul Jacobs: The Grammy was entirely unexpected. I was shocked by the nomination and utterly convinced that it would never materialize.

You didn’t even go to the ceremony.

It would have been difficult to attend, because I was performing with an orchestra the same weekend and didn’t want to cancel; besides, I wouldn’t receive it [the award] anyway. Well, I was wrong about that! This honor was something good not only for me, but for the entire organ profession, for organ playing to be recognized by such a mainstream institution.

Do you think it’s led to additional opportunities, or brought more attention?

On some level, perhaps. But I don’t believe that any one accolade or accomplishment is a silver bullet, which is what I tell my students. Young musicians, understandably, want to be successful and recognized immediately for their work, but there isn’t just one ingredient that’s going to make this happen—one has to commit for the long haul and be patient. Intense dedication to the art form—pursuing it for the right reasons—is crucial, because this isn’t always an easy or lucrative path. But if you genuinely love music, it will sustain you through difficult, even discouraging, times. If you tenaciously persist in the journey, your vocation to music will eventually bear fruit.

People have approached me over the years—many who have stable work and a healthy paycheck—and expressed some degree of envy that I can make a living doing what I actually love to do. It’s a reminder that shouldn’t be taken lightly: making beautiful music for others is a rare joy and a privilege. Be grateful for the music that has been bequeathed to us, that is under our care to pass to future generations. We’re the custodians of timeless works of art and must be fully dedicated to studying and sharing them with the world in any way that we can, large and small.


How did this all get going with orchestras?2

Oh, I’ve always had a strong desire to collaborate with other musicians. The organ can be—but need not be—a lonely instrument. There’s an abundance of fine repertoire for organ and various combinations of instruments. As a student, I played a good deal of chamber music, so much so that, as an undergraduate, I was inspired to double-major in both organ and harpsichord, primarily for the opportunity to play continuo. This cultivated relationships with many musicians who weren’t organists, which has always been important to me. As time progressed, I was increasingly invited by important orchestras to perform with them, something that has brought tremendous satisfaction.

You’ve worked with such important conductors as Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Franz Welser-Most. Many conductors haven’t worked very closely with organ soloists. Is this correct?

That’s right. Let me consider how to best phrase this—my desire is for organists to be taken as seriously as other musicians. But we must earn respect; it doesn’t come automatically. And we have to deliver at the highest artistic level—consistently, every time—while always remaining flexible to the fluid circumstances of live performance. We also have to be easy to work with, personally speaking.

Several conductors have indicated to me that they’ve had less than flattering experiences with organists in the past. Sometimes organists do not help themselves or the art form, which is marginalized enough already. I think it’s crucial that organists become more self-aware of the quality of their playing and how they relate (or not) to other people, particularly those not in their own field.

What do you think about the growth of your work with orchestras, and these new concertos and pieces that are being written for organ and orchestra? Do you see this starting to spread, with other organists doing this? Right now it seems to be just you.

I know, it’s true; but this is also something that I’ve worked very hard to achieve. None of this has occurred without extraordinary effort, not to mention occasional frustrations. To begin with, it takes a bold willingness to want to understand the world of orchestras—entirely different from the organ community—its structure and needs, and what its audiences expect. And usually these audiences do not comprise the same people who attend organ recitals.

Additionally, organists must be capable of overcoming any idiosyncrasies of a given instrument, quickly overriding any problems, which are bound to arise given the non-standardized nature of our instrument and everything that this entails. Frankly, the conductor and hundred or so musicians on stage don’t give a hoot about the very legitimate problems organists face; an organist must simply be able to deliver with the same ease and confidence as they do, no questions asked.

Some of the new works that you’ve premiered, such as Wayne Oquin’s Resilience, were written for you or with you in mind.3

Some of them were, yes. I’m always looking for composers who are eager to write effectively for the organ and encourage my students to do the same. To survive, an art form must evolve and each generation must contribute to it; therefore, it’s important to encourage living composers—composers of our time—to consider the instrument and its unique expressive potential. Maybe not every piece of new music is going to stand the test of time, but a few will. And sometimes contemporary music connects with certain listeners in a way that the old warhorses do not.

And what about future recordings?

Recently released on the Hyperion label is a recording made with the Utah Symphony of Saint-Saëns’ ever-popular “Organ” Symphony. Also to be released later next season on the Harmonia Mundi label is Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva, performed in Switzerland with the Lucerne Symphony. And I’m excited by another recording project with Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony, one which will include Hindemith’s rarely heard Organ Concerto, Horatio Parker’s Organ Concerto, and Wayne Oquin’s Resilience.

International Touring

Having performed on five continents, including his recent European tour, Jacobs traveled to China to perform and to serve as president of the jury for the country’s first-ever international organ festival and competition, held at the Oriental Arts Centre in Shanghai.

What are your impressions of the organ world in China?

There is an exciting and increasing curiosity about the organ among Chinese musicians and audiences alike. Something that I experienced in Shanghai was that the audiences comprise primarily young people—to identify gray hairs is actually tricky! Children and their parents and young adults routinely fill the concert halls in China.

Can you explain that?

Not entirely, but it’s inspiring to witness the emergence of an organ culture in the world’s most populous country. Just as we’ve seen in other Asian countries in recent decades, now we observe something similar in China. Where it will lead, however, we do not know. But there is definitely some very genuine interest in the organ; the Shanghai Conservatory just instituted its first classical organ major degree. Of course, a problem is that there are few churches to employ trained organists. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to witness what is happening on the other side of the world, and to experience firsthand Chinese culture, which has retained some traditions and values that we’ve lost or forgotten in the West—civility, a profound respect for one’s elders and teachers, common courtesy and decorum.

Surprisingly, I actually returned to New York after a sixteen-hour flight feeling somewhat relaxed, and this sense of calm remained with me for a few days. Shanghai’s population is a staggering twenty-three million people, and New York, by contrast, is a mere eight million. Yet, in many ways, Shanghai felt calmer than New York, or many other large American cities, for that matter. Despite the tremendous activity of Shanghai, one isn’t bombarded by honking horns or aggressive pedestrians or motorists. Rather, a Confucian attitude seems to pervade daily life. The Chinese just find their place in society and work into it. Overall, it strikes me as a quieter, more serene culture, despite such a large population.

You’ve done a good deal of international touring, including in Europe. In your experience, how do the American and European organ cultures relate to one another?

Of course, I love Europe. How could one not? Its culture has given the world Dante, Rembrandt, and Wagner. And there’s an undeniable indebtedness that American organists, in particular, acknowledge toward Europe—the spectacular historic instruments and the impressive traditions and performers that have emerged over generations. However, I think we have reached a point in time when American organists need not feel subservient toward the Europeans; rather, we should view ourselves as friendly colleagues and peers. Yes, we can learn from them, but they can also learn from us.

Some American buildings in which organs are situated might be more modest in scale than the imposing, reverberant cathedrals of Europe. This could be just one reason that reflexively prompts some organists to esteem what occurs on the other side of the Atlantic more favorably. It’s true, some American churches or halls might possess a different acoustic or aesthetic character, but this doesn’t mean that the organs within them are any less valuable or effective, if they’re used properly. A Cavaillé-Coll and a Skinner can be equally magnificent, but the organist must be willing and able to play them quite differently. Today in the world, some of the finest organists—and organbuilders—are Americans. And America continues, rightly, to recognize extraordinary European talent; now, we’d appreciate a similar open-mindedness.


Paul Jacobs remains the chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School, a position he assumed at age 26, one of the youngest faculty appointments in the school’s history. Former students of his now occupy notable positions. In academia, Isabelle Demers, noted concert organist, serves as organ professor at Baylor University; Christopher Houlihan, also an active concert organist, holds the Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut; David Crean serves as professor of organ at Wright State University and is also a radio host.

Students of Jacobs also hold positions at prominent churches: in New York City, Michael Hey is associate organist at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Benjamin Sheen is associate organist at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, Ryan Jackson is director of music at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and Raymond Nagem serves as associate organist of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine; in Orange County, California, David Ball is associate organist at Christ Cathedral (formerly Crystal Cathedral). Other Jacobs students include Greg Zelek, the recently appointed principal organist of the Madison Symphony and curator of the Overture Concert Series in Madison, Wisconsin, noted performing and recording artist Cameron Carpenter, and Chelsea Chen, a successful concert organist and composer.4 In addition to Juilliard, for the past six years Jacobs has also directed the Organ Institute of the Oregon Bach Festival.

In your teaching, have you noticed any changes in students over the years, either in the way they’re prepared, or outlooks?

Yes. The students with whom I work tend to be less naive, perhaps, than when I was their age. Part of this, perhaps, comes from their experience of living in New York City. And I wonder, too, if technology has had something to do with this—social media and interconnectedness, everything out in the open, no secrets kept. Many young organists are savvy, perceptive, and hard-working. But I’ve also found it necessary to stimulate discussion about the problems young organists face, some of which they themselves could help resolve. For example, it’s my belief is that there’s an unfortunate separation between the organ world and the broader world of classical music, which is something that I’ve attempted to rectify through my own work, and strongly support my students to do the same. Many of them are already making a positive impact. Another imposing hurdle organists face beyond “organ versus classical music” is the larger cultural problem (at least as I see it) of the enveloping secularization of our society, which I believe will continue to increase the already formidable challenges to the arts, and certainly to classical musicians—not only to organists whose primary employer happens to be religious institutions. This, of course, is an all-encompassing topic, one that can elicit impassioned points of view; nevertheless, it needs to be discussed openly and honestly, especially by dedicated young musicians.

Beyond the decline of traditional church music, what do you think are some of the challenges facing young organists?

I am concerned by the inward-looking attitude that some organists have adopted. There is a sense of parochialism that often suffuses the profession, and it’s time to break out of that mold. In some quarters of teaching, the primary concern is that the students learn the “correct” way to play and interpret music from a panel of “experts.” How stifling! Many young organists spend their entire careers seeking their approval, at the same time showing disregard and even disdain for other dedicated musicians who might choose to do things a bit differently. The world of organists seems, at times, to be made up of fiefdoms, each guarding its own camp. There’s often a lack of unity, which contributes to a certain amount of unnecessary infighting. All this makes it difficult to reel in new lovers for organ music.

The insularity of our profession is a problem. This needs to be said. Too many organists are stuck exclusively in the organ world. To my mind organists need to step out of the organ loft. We should regularly visit museums, attend the opera, the symphony, and chamber music concerts, befriending other musicians who are not organists. Read literature, explore architecture, painting, and philosophy. I feel the need for the organ world academy to open its churchly doors onto a broader landscape that includes all of these things.

I recall hearing my high school organ teacher, George Rau, who studied at Fontainebleau one summer with Nadia Boulanger, say that, in the past, it was almost expected for serious organists to go and study with a European master, and that would “validate” them. But this is not the case anymore. Of course, I would never discourage a student from spending time in Europe—this would be very valuable. It’s simply no longer obligatory, however, in the formation of a fine musician.

We now have our own master teachers.

Yes, and master builders. America has its own impressive, rich tradition, so there’s no reason to possess an inferiority complex, subconsciously or otherwise. We now boast of some of the most versatile organists and organbuilders in the world, pursuing different styles, doing different things, but many with the highest degree of artistic integrity.

Further thoughts

What’s next on your agenda?

I anticipate another exciting season of music-making, of course, always continuing to expand my repertoire. In addition to the recording projects previously mentioned, I anticipate offering a special series of French recitals in New York, then joining several American orchestras as well as ones in Germany and Poland. I’m also looking forward to playing the organ at Maison de la Radio in Paris and dedicating the Hazel Wright organ at the new Christ Cathedral in California, among other adventures.

Do you get any break during the summer?

Yes. There are pockets during the summer that are a bit lighter, thankfully, particularly in August—but much of this period is spent preparing repertoire for the upcoming season. At least these days are not so rigorously structured; the hours can be taken more leisurely. But I long for uninterrupted time to read, reflect, and think about life. (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has been on my reading list for some time!) It’s tempting, when the gerbil wheel is spinning faster and faster, to neglect one’s spiritual growth. But I believe that a true creative artist must take special care of his or her soul, which is different from a person’s physical and mental health.

How do you recharge? Do you go home to Pennsylvania?

Yes, I definitely spend some time there, and it will be refreshing to be with family, both immediate and extended, as well as old friends. I remain deeply fond of the outdoors, taking long walks in the woods, which purifies the spirit and provides time for thought, reflection, and inspiration. I don’t think it’s our job to “change the world”—whatever that means, anyway; it’s impossible, in fact. But I do believe it’s our duty to live in such a way that sets an edifying example to those whom we encounter each day, bestowing in our personal interactions an increased love for music and sensitivity to beauty in life. This we must do.

Thomas Murray, John Weaver, Lionel Party, as well as going back to my high school teachers, George Rau and Susan Woodard—they’ve each set a sterling example, not only regarding excellence in musicianship, but also in how to treat people with sincerity and empathy, never losing sight of the larger picture. Our ultimate goal shouldn’t be mere professional success. I remain exceedingly grateful to have been influenced by these generous and caring individuals, and hopefully I succeed at passing along similar wisdom to my own students.

I remember saying to John Weaver at some point, “You know, John, I’ll never be able to repay you for all that you’ve done for me.” And he said, “Well, you can’t, so don’t try. But do it for somebody else.” That’s the way to look at it. We’ll never be able to adequately repay our mentors, but they don’t care. They just hope we will pass it on.


1. In 2011 Paul Jacobs received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without orchestra) for his recording of Messiaen’s Livre du Saint-Sacrement (Naxos), the first time that a solo recording of classical organ music has been recognized by the Recording Academy. Other awards include the Arthur W. Foote Award of the Harvard Musical Association in 2003, and an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, in 2017.

2. Jacobs has also collaborated with dramatic soprano Christine Brewer; touring together, they also recorded Divine Redeemer (Naxos 8.573524).

3. Jacobs’s work with new music includes premieres of works by Christopher Rouse, Samuel Adler, Mason Bates, Michael Daugherty, Wayne Oquin, Stephen Paulus, Christopher Theofanidis, and John Harbison, among others.

In October 2017, Jacobs, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin presented the East Coast premiere of Wayne Oquin’s Resilience for organ and orchestra. Commissioned by the Pacific Symphony as part of their American Music Festival, Resilience received its world premiere on February 4, 2016, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California. The work is a 13-minute call and response between organ and orchestra and is dedicated to Paul Jacobs and conductor Carl St. Clair.

4. On November 22, 2014, Jacobs and his current and former students from Juilliard presented the complete organ works of J. S. Bach in an 18-hour marathon concert at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, presented by the country’s largest classical radio station, WQXR. Many of the time slots in the six-hour event sold out.