An interview with Thomas Murray

June 29, 2020

Andrew Schaeffer holds degrees from St. Olaf College, Yale University, where he was a student of Thomas Murray, and University of Oklahoma. He currently serves as the director of music at Luther Memorial Church in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, and as editor-at-large of The Diapason.

Andrew Schaeffer: Let’s begin by hearing a little bit about your formative years in California.

Thomas Murray: I must begin with the single most important thing, which is that my mother and father were unsparingly supportive of my musical interests. I had piano lessons early and was fortunate to be a member of the Pasadena Boy Choristers when it was still directed by its founder, Dr. John Henry Lyons.

When it came time to think about a career, my parents were fully aware of the risk of trying to make a living in classical music. American culture doesn’t support that at all well! I was a keen organ student during high school years with a dream of being a performer both in concerts and in the church. My family wanted me to have a liberal arts education, in part to act as a safety net in case my passion for playing burned out! Very wise! Fortunately I was admitted to Occidental College in Los Angeles—a perfect choice, because that’s where Clarence Mader taught organ! He was one of the very finest teachers of his time, especially in the West. It’s important to note that, as a liberal arts institution, Occidental was not a place where you had the option of living in a practice room ten hours a day. But I was inseparable from music, and to be honest, I’m not sure if my aptitudes would have led me successfully down any other path. 

Where did you land after your years at Occidental?

When I was preparing to graduate, Mader asked me where I hoped to go to graduate school. I didn’t want to move on directly to graduate study, at least not right away. I yearned to be active in the profession, have a church and develop my ability in choral conducting. I have a feeling he privately shook his head with dismay, because the prevailing thought back in 1965 was that graduate degrees acted as secure passports to great jobs. What we didn’t know at the time was just how saturated the church music field would become with people who had advanced degrees.

The single most important thing was that my parents did not try to prevent me from pursuing my dream. As far as events are concerned, a pivotal one occurred in 1966, when I was awarded first place in what is now referred to as NYACOP. The judges that year were Mildred Andrews of the University of Oklahoma, Vernon de Tar of Julliard, and my future senior teaching colleague at Yale, Dr. Robert Baker. A small world!

Tell me a bit about Clarence Mader as a teacher. Is there any contemporary pedagogue that you know of who embodies his style today?

I studied with him prior to the rise of performance practice as a dominant orthodoxy. Mader stressed making the best musical use of whatever instrument one was playing for those there “in the present” to listen. He was deeply influenced by his teacher, Lynnwood Farnam, but was also “tuned in” to many of the contemporary composers of that time. I am certain he was disappointed in me because I had an aversion to much contemporary music of that period. I can embrace dissonance when it has an expressive purpose, but too much music of the late twentieth century I found acerbic and irritating. Dissonance is wonderful as a “spice,” but not when it becomes the “main course.”

When I studied with Mader he was not performing much, except on Sunday mornings at Immanuel Presbyterian Church. He had discovered that he loved teaching—just loved it—once telling me he had taught ten lessons in a day without a break! He was a gifted and avid composer, and I regret that the 2004 American Guild of Organists national convention in Los Angeles did not make a special effort to feature his music, because that year was the centennial of his birth.

What instruments were available to you during your time at Occidental? Did they make an impact on you?

The Schlicker in Herrick Chapel was installed after I graduated, so my time was spent on the 1930 Skinner organ in Thorne Hall. It was built for a Methodist Church in San Francisco that was forced into bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Occidental acquired it in 1938, installing it with the pipes in the back in a space probably intended for balcony seating and a projection booth. The console was located in an orchestra pit at the front. As you can imagine, it was not a comfortable arrangement, and additionally, reverberation was, and still is, non-existent. That organ, Skinner’s Opus 819, fell into disuse but has now been removed and will be restored for the Episcopal High School in Belaire (Houston), Texas.

Occidental had a fine reputation for high caliber organ instruction. Not many remember now that David Craighead taught there for several years before his appointment at Eastman in about 1955. It was Craighead who encouraged Occidental to hire Mader to succeed him. When the administration noted Mader’s lack of any college degree, Craighead, to his everlasting credit, told them “that doesn’t matter!”

Speaking of organs, what were some of the first ones you were exposed to in Los Angeles, and did any of them cultivate your love of the symphonic style of building?

O yes! When I was growing up in Los Angeles, there were still fine pre-World War I instruments built by Murray M. Harris, and there were E. M. Skinners, Kimballs, and pre-World War II Casavants as well. Harris’s organs were characterized by English-type ensembles and a few had imported Tuba stops from England. All Saints Church, Pasadena, and Second Church of Christ, Scientist, Los Angeles, are two that I was familiar with.

And there were some romantically trained organists who were really inspiring to watch and hear. I had the pleasure of knowing Anita Priest who played at First Methodist in Pasadena on their four-manual 1923 Skinner. Like many Skinners of his early period, it only had three general pistons, but Anita magically coaxed twelve out of the instrument! How? When she played a service, she could start with three generals for the prelude. (No one in those days would waste a general for the hymns!) During the invocation she reset them to accompany the professional quartet or the choir. Following that, she would reset them during the scripture readings in preparation for the offering, and finally reset them once more for the postlude. Presto! Twelve generals!

The choir occasionally did major choral works, one of which was an abridged version of Elijah. There was no orchestra involved, but Anita manipulated the organ so creatively that the music sounded thoroughly satisfying and natural. In the 1950s and 1960s, I witnessed the tail end of that style of accompanying, and in later years her style nearly became a lost art.

Now back to your career trajectory. After Occidental, where did you go?

Clarence Mader, who had been at Immanuel Presbyterian for nearly forty years, felt increasingly that he wanted to have his Sunday mornings free. I was enormously fortunate that he recommended me to follow him, and fortunate that the church acted on his suggestion. This led to my playing my first service there in January of 1966.

After some years, however, there appeared new incentives to think of a move from California. The first was the discovery—through the Organ Historical Society—of the old nineteenth-century Boston-built organs, especially those of E. & G. G. Hook. I was determined to experience New England first hand and was discouraged by the overdevelopment, congestion, and smog in Los Angeles. The idea of being surrounded with so much history and living in a brisk four-season climate was irresistible.

During my first trip to Boston, I became acquainted with the Hook organs at Immaculate Conception on Harrison Avenue, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, and others, and I also met Barbara Owen, one of the great advocates of saving these amazing instruments. After that trip, I was convinced that New England, with its four seasons and historical riches, was where I wanted to live.

You recorded on the organ at Immaculate Conception shortly after that trip, correct?

Yes—in 1971, before leaving California. The first was a recording of Franck’s Grand Pièce Symphonique and the Fantaisie in A. Immaculate Conception, which had originally stood in a very Irish neighborhood, was run by the Jesuits who founded Boston College adjoining the church. That organ was so fantastic—almost French in nature, with bright chorus reeds, singing Diapasons, and delicious flutes, all in sumptuous acoustics! It’s in storage now, but all of us who knew it pray it will be heard again in a noble building like the one it left. 

As a complete beginner in the recording field, there was no assurance whatsoever of releasing any recording on a commercial label, so I hired recording engineers Stephen Fassett and David Griesinger, paid for the editing, and afterward marketed it myself to Sheffield Records in California. They had previously released a disc of Anthony Newman’s (it may have been his first), so I figured they were not averse to organ music! Thanks to great good fortune, they liked it and released it to a favorable reception. By the way, I’ve always been grateful to Robert Schuneman, then editor of The Diapason, for a very favorable review of that first disc. One other thing to note—E. Power Biggs had produced a disc on Columbia called The Organ in America with various light pieces by early American composers. But I believe our Franck recording made at Immaculate Conception can claim to be the first commercial recording of any major works on a significant nineteenth-century American organ, and a magnificent instrument it was, too.

So, when did you finally “bite the bullet” and make the move to Boston?

I left Immanuel Presbyterian in 1973 and was appointed interim organist-choirmaster at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston. The Dean, the Very Reverend Charles Henry Buck, had re-established a choir of boys and men a few years before. I was appointed interim because the choirmaster was suffering from poor health and recruitment for the choir had lapsed. Developing and maintaining a choir of men and boys with only after-school rehearsal time is work, as anyone who has done it will tell you! But the dean supported the work of rebuilding the choir, and in due time I was appointed to the permanent position. 

Things then changed considerably in the year after Dean Buck retired in 1978, because the new clergy “management” did not want to continue the choir and yet was unwilling to spend money on starting a choir for girls. But during my years there, before conditions became unfavorable, it was a really exhilarating time for us all!

We managed to take the choir on tour in 1978 to England. I wanted them to hear the best English choirs, so we went the last week of July, which afforded the opportunity to hear some fine London choirs for a week before beginning our own residency at Saint Alban’s Cathedral. We also sang services at Saint Paul’s, London, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and, because we were from Boston, we traveled by coach to Boston in Lincolnshire to sing choral Evensong in the splendid medieval parish church there.

We shouldn’t leave this subject without noting that one of the boy trebles in that choir was Jonathan Ambrosino, now very well-known as an organ consultant and writer on all things organistical, and that Jonathan was influenced by the 1952 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Saint Paul’s, Opus 1207, another organ that has now been removed to make room for an elevator. One of the men of the choir on that trip was Stephen Kowalyshyn, inventor of the “Kowalyshyn Servo-Pneumatic Lever” used on large mechanical-action instruments, and another notable name from the organ world is Robert Newton, for decades the head of Andover Organ Company’s restoration department—he was a fine bass with us at Saint Paul’s.

I know that you were making recordings during your time at Saint Paul’s. Tell us about some of those projects.

Soon after moving in the summer of 1973, I made the first of two LPs of Mendelssohn sonatas on the 1854 E. & G. G. Hook organ at the Unitarian Church in Jamaica Plain. Because of the enormous frequency range of organ sound and the power of organ bass, one disc allowed only about twenty-four distortion-free minutes per side in those days. Sonatas 1, 3, and 4 were on that first disc. The acoustics in the church were so dry that we carried out the pew cushions and stacked them in the narthex. I also brought two blankets from home and built a tent on a 2 x 4 framework so they could be draped behind and above the console to keep the clatter of the worn key action out of the recording. It is a fascinating instrument that has recently received fine conservative restoration work by Scot Huntington. 

To complete all six of the sonatas, we recorded a companion album with numbers 2, 5, and 6 on the 1857 William B. D. Simmons organ at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in East Boston, another rare survival among our pre-Civil War organs. The adventure there was dodging the noise from the Boston airport!

So, how were these instruments perceived when the recordings were released? Were they in fashion? Out of fashion? Or simply forgotten?

Most of them had been forgotten except among Organ Historical Society people. And as I said before, the only comparable record had been made by E. Power Biggs with his album of early American keyboard pieces. For that reason, I am confident these early discs of ours broke entirely new ground in establishing the integrity of our American instruments.

Through your recordings and work at St. Paul’s, you were firmly establishing yourself in the New England organ scene. How did your association with Yale come about?

Charles Krigbaum invited me to do a program in Woolsey Hall in about 1976. Not long before, Robert Baker had left the Union Seminary School of Sacred Music to be the first director of the newly established Yale Institute of Sacred Music. I remember devoting that first program to three sonatas, one each by Rheinberger, Hindemith, and Elgar. It must have left a favorable impression with both Charles and Robert, because late in 1980, Charles called me to say that Yale was creating a junior instructor position in organ and that the search committee would welcome an application! 

So I applied and was interviewed for that in the spring of 1981, playing a lecture-recital on the Beckerath organ in Dwight Chapel. I was enormously fortunate, yet again, that the audition was well received, resulting in the invitation to teach at Yale in the fall of that year. In retrospect, I suspect the new junior position was planned in preparation for Robert Baker’s retirement, because he taught only a few years after that.

When I started, my job consisted of teaching a few organ students, directing the Marquand Chapel Choir at the Divinity School and playing some weekday services there. A little later on Charles Krigbaum stepped away from playing at the University Church (Battell Chapel), and I assumed those responsibilities as well. Around the same time, Fenno Heath, the revered long-time director of the Yale Glee Club decided to give up the Battell Choir so I took that on for about five years. When Charles Krigbaum decided to retire from Yale in 1995, I left all choral commitments to focus on the organ department.

I remain enormously grateful, not only to Charles Krigbaum and Robert Baker, but to Martin Jean, who came to join me on the faculty in 1997. Martin, now director of the Institute of Sacred Music, though under great pressure in his administrative role, has been a cherished colleague, an outstanding coach for his students, an excellent advocate for the organ here, and a dear friend. 

When you arrived in 1981, the Romantic School of organbuilding and playing was still largely out of fashion, and I recall hearing that the organ in Woolsey Hall was not universally appreciated. Could you provide some insight into that? 

That’s true. For several decades, especially after the arrival of the Holtkamp organ in Battell Chapel in 1951, the organ in Woolsey, properly known as the Newberry Memorial Organ, was dismissed by many as a decadent, categorically flawed instrument from a “bad period.” Some give me credit for raising awareness of the worth of this wonderful instrument, but it was really Charles Krigbaum who laid the groundwork for its return to favor. Though he played a wide variety of literature and believed in being a “universalist” about repertoire, Charles had a particular fondness for Widor and the music of Messiaen. He recognized the organ in Woolsey as a persuasive vehicle for that music, and he recorded much of it there—including all ten Widor symphonies!

So, interest was already brewing by the time I arrived. We should all be thankful that during the “dark years” when there was a lack of interest among the students, the organ was conserved in its original form by Aubrey Thompson-Allen, the Yale Curator of Organs. Our current senior curators Nick Thompson-Allen and Joseph Dzeda, and now the younger members of their staff, Nate and Zach Ventrella, keep that legacy alive. Interestingly, as a student at Kent State University, Joe Dzeda had a framed photo of the Woolsey instrument in his dorm room!

Little did he know that his name would eventually be synonymous with its care!

Exactly! He’s admitted that during college, he wondered if he’d ever get the opportunity to see the instrument in person! Not only has he spent his career in it, but upon his demise, he will rest in the Grove Street Cemetery across the street, as he says, “to keep an eye on ‘The Newberry’!”

Speaking of Woolsey’s care, it must be gratifying, at the end of your time at Yale, to see the organ completely restored. Tell us about that process.

Yes, over many decades, the curators made timely repairs to the instrument to keep it in reliable working condition. But as years passed by repairs became more frequent and more urgent. In 2006, Martin Jean and I decided that the time was right to press for the first-ever comprehensive restoration, to be funded entirely by the Institute of Sacred Music. Readers may be surprised to learn that, until recent years, many of the 1915 Steere chests and 1928 Skinner chests were still operating on original leather! Due to the magnitude of the project, it was decided to undertake the work in stages over seven years, a division at a time during the summer months, to keep the organ in use during the academic year. The result is magnificent, and we are greatly relieved now that Skinner Opus 722 is poised for another century of service.

Back to recordings. So far, we’ve focused on your early work, recording historic instruments in Boston. I’d like to hear more about your recordings of orchestral transcriptions. I think its safe to say that you were one of the first to champion transcription playing.

Well yes—and you could say I took risks in doing that, but I don’t think I could have resisted the temptation! There are responsibilities we can’t ignore when playing original literature, particularly where composers are specific about registration. With transcriptions, it’s not that way. The philosophical question a player faces is whether to be faithful to arrangements as devised and published by a transcriber or to be as faithful as possible in translating the original score. I take the second approach, in part because the organs we have now offer flexibility and versatility not dreamed of in Edwin H. Lemare’s day. So I don’t take published transcriptions, even those written by Lemare, to be “holy writ,” though existing arrangements can often be useful as a “working score.”

Over the years, I’ve adapted several piano pieces for the organ. I really enjoy trying to get into the mind of the composer and posing the question: if I were Liszt, how would I orchestrate this piece? Do the figurations on the keyboard suggest an orchestral color? There may be no single right or wrong answer, but we must make a piece sound as convincing as possible in the new medium, the organ. There are two CD anthologies of transcriptions from Woolsey Hall: The Symphonic Organist and The Transcriber’s Art. One is on the Gothic label and the other on Priory. It’s the style of playing that I love, more than the fact that such pieces are transcribed ones. Of course, there is original organ music that invites the same approach as well.

Do you generally write your own transcriptions?

I’ve done only one transcription “from scratch” worth mentioning. Elgar wrote a major piece in the late 1920s, commissioned as a band competition piece called Severn Suite. No surprise that it’s in B-flat major! He must have sanctioned a proposed organ version by Ivor Atkins, his friend and Worcester Cathedral organist. That was published as the Second Sonata but, regrettably, Atkins eliminated a whole movement—the “Minuet”—adding an entire page of his own music in its place! 

Later on Elgar rewrote the piece for full orchestra and transposed it to C major. I decided that I wanted to play this version—the definitive one—in the worst way! It is a superb multi-movement work and every bit as wonderful as Elgar’s original Organ Sonata, opus 28. It was released by Joe Vitacco on JAV Recordings, no longer available on a “physical” CD, but can be downloaded from i-Tunes. Just look for Elgar’s Severn Suite, and you can have it for 99 cents per movement!

In addition to your work as an educator and recording artist, you’ve been a prolific recitalist all across the globe. Care to share some highlights?

I’ve been grateful for many invitations to play programs over the years, many for American Guild of Organists and Organ Historical Society conventions. In fact, there was a time when I was receiving an OHS invitation nearly every year, which led me to worry about folks becoming weary of me! There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing!”

I’ve been fortunate to do many performances in North America and Western Europe. An especially memorable tour was to Buenos Aires, organized by my former student Ezequiel Menéndez. From Australia came an invitation to play one recital in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and there was a recital at Suntory Hall in Tokyo when their Rieger organ was new.

My recital activity has been far from all consuming, though, and entering retirement, I’m happy to retreat a bit from that aspect of my activity. There are so many talented students I’ve had the pleasure of coaching. Not all have their heart set on concert playing, but for those who do I’d like to see them getting opportunities I had earlier.

Though you’ve stepped away somewhat from your recital career, you continue to serve as a church musician. Tell us about your responsibilities at Christ Church, New Haven.

For twelve years now I have been artist in residence and principal organist there, enjoying the spacious acoustics and playing a very satisfying English-sounding instrument. I’ve also mentored organ students from the Institute of Sacred Music who serve as organ scholars. Christ Church adjoins Yale’s campus and is one of America’s finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture anywhere. In my time we have had two fine rectors and a very appreciative congregation. It is a very happy association.

One final question. As you look at the profession, what are the challenges, concerns, and opportunities you see moving forward.

While there is certainly reason to be pessimistic about many trends we see in church music, I remain hopeful for a future that continues to support the music we love, music that nourishes because it is enduring! Churches supporting organ and choral music will not disappear, but they are becoming fewer and resources are diminishing. Too many think of “traditional” music and ceremonial as something stuck in the past. “Museum Church” they sometimes call it. People need to see that it really means being in the tradition—being a part of an ever-continuing creation of music and art that enriches the human spirit. My advice to students is to make sure they spare no effort to become as fine a musician as possible. If you’re among the best, you will have a far greater chance for success. 

Also, if you’re an Episcopalian or Roman Catholic, don’t be lured into thinking that the best jobs are in cathedrals! Good parishes are often better motivated and better equipped to support robust music programs.

Beyond that, we must learn to be far more effective at being advocates for what we do, for its enormous worth in society. I wish more academic professional programs would provide students with the strategies—the tools for advocacy! Every branch of music education, especially the “classical” branch, must rise to meet this need in our time.

Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for a tranquil retirement!

Hearty thanks to you for this opportunity—my pleasure! But “tranquil?” I don’t anticipate that! It’s more a transition from employment to “self-employment,” happily with more freedom to enjoy many things, extra-musical and musical alike.

Photo: Thomas Murray, Luther Noss, and Charles Krigbaum in front of Woolsey Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut