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Medieval to Modern: A conversation with Kimberly Marshall

June 30, 2015

When meeting Kimberly Marshall, one’s first impression is that of great energy. That impression lingers as one encounters her presence in written publications and recordings—she seems to turn up everywhere and indeed, she has performed and presented at American and European conventions and conferences, has written entries for Grove and other music dictionaries, recorded organ music from the 15th to the 21st centuries, and even made videos to illustrate exercises for organists (Marshall kindly produced one for The Diapason).


A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Kimberly Marshall began organ studies in 1974 with John Mueller at North Carolina School of the Arts. After studies in France with Louis Robilliard (1978–79) and Xavier Darasse (1980–81), she returned to North Carolina and completed her undergraduate studies with Fenner Douglass in 1982.

With a full scholarship from the British government, she pursued graduate studies at the University of Oxford (1982–86), earning a D.Phil. in Music for her thesis, Iconographical Evidence for the Late-Medieval Organ. During her time in England, she won first prize at the St. Albans Organ Interpretation Competition in 1985, leading to a contract with the BBC and a recital on the Royal Festival Hall series.

In 1986, Marshall was appointed assistant professor of music and university organist at Stanford, where she presided over organs by Fisk (dual-temperament, 1984) and Murray Harris (1901). Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1991, she continued her research and teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium in Australia. From 1993–96 she served as dean of postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music, developing a new master’s degree in advanced performance studies, awarded in conjunction with King’s College London. 

From 1996–2000, Marshall was a project leader for the Organ Research Center in Göteborg, Sweden, where she taught and performed. Under the aegis of GOArt, she organized the first conference ever devoted to organ recordings, “The Organ in Recorded Sound,” and has edited its proceedings.1 Appointed to Arizona State University in 1998, Marshall (now Goldman Professor of Organ) oversees the graduate organ studio and presides over the instrument by Paul Fritts (1992). 

Kimberly Marshall has performed and done research worldwide, from a sabbatical in Pistoia, Italy, researching early Italian organ music, to performing on many historic organs, including those in Roskilde Cathedral (Denmark), St. Laurenskerk, Alkmaar (Netherlands), the Jacobikirche in Hamburg, and the Hildebrandt instrument in Naumburg, Germany, which Bach examined in 1746. She has also presented concerts and workshops on early music in Sweden, in Israel, at the 2007 Early English Organ Project in Oxford, and at the Festival for Historical Organs in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Marshall’s publications reflect her eclectic interests. Examples include Rediscovering the Muses (Northeastern University Press, 1993), her edition of articles on female traditions of music making; entries for the Cambridge Companion to the Organ (1998), the Grove Dictionary of Music 2000, and the Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages (2012); and her anthologies of late-medieval and Renaissance organ music (Wayne Leupold Editions, 2000 and 2004). 

Marshall’s recordings (over a dozen, at this writing) cover a wide spectrum, including music of the Italian and Spanish Renaissance, French Classical and Romantic periods, and works by J. S. Bach. Her most recent CD, The First Printed Organ Music: Arnolt Schlick, celebrates the music of Arnolt Schlick on the 500th anniversary of its publication (2012). A CD/DVD set, A Fantasy through Time (Loft, 2009), featured the organ fantasy genre across five centuries, from Ferrabosco and Sweelinck through Jehan Alain. Marshall has collaborated as organist for a recording of Chen Yi’s organ concerto with the Singapore Symphony (BIS, 2003). Her recording of works for organ by female composers, Divine Euterpe, includes music by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Elfrida Andrée, and Ethyl Smyth.

While at Stanford and the Royal Academy of Music, Marshall gave performances of organ works by Ligeti in the presence of the composer, and she has been an advocate for music by Margaret Sandresky, Dan Locklair, and Ofer Ben-Amots. In a recent article, she described the new Gerald Woehl organ in Piteå, Sweden (“The ‘Organ of the Future’ in Sweden’s Studio Acusticum,” The American Organist, February 2013, pp. 62–65). Her publications and recordings can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberly_Marshall. 

Marshall also maintains a vibrant website (www.kimberlymarshall.com) and a Facebook page, and she can be found on YouTube performing everything from Christmas favorites to Widor. Marshall also has created exercise videos tailored to the organist, in which she demonstrates moves and stretches that work on muscles most used by organists. In person and even via the telephone Marshall communicates a passion both personal and professional, and we wished to explore the life and work that has ensued from such energy and enthusiasm.

Joyce Johnson Robinson: Do you come from a musical family? 

Kimberly Marshall: My mother is very musical and had a beautiful singing voice, but she had very little formal training. Her mother had played the piano, so when I was seven, she asked if I’d like to study the piano. We didn’t have an instrument in my home until my parents bought an upright piano for my practice.


What ignited your love of organ music? 

I had the great luck to be born in the town where John and Margaret Mueller were teaching. Margaret is a legendary organist, and she became my piano instructor when I was thirteen. She is a master teacher for young musicians, and she opened my ears to the expressive possibilities of the piano. John attended one of my piano recitals and invited me to study organ with him. What an honor! I began my studies with him on the beautiful Flentrop organ at Salem College, and the next year continued my work as a high school student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Dr. Mueller’s enthusiasm and the range of timbres available on the Flentrop organ sparked my passion for the organ.


What works were some of your first favorites?

I was very enamored of French music from the start, Alain’s Litanies and Franck’s Choral III being two of my early favorites.


You received a full scholarship from the British government for your graduate work at Oxford. Is that unusual for an American?

Each year, the British government awards up to 40 “Marshall” Scholarships to Americans to pursue graduate degrees at British universities. The Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission was set up in 1953 as a gesture of gratitude to the United States for the Marshall Plan. Scholars in many fields have studied on Marshall Scholarships—Thomas Friedman, William Burns, and Nannerl Keohane, to name three—but there have been very few musicians in the 60-year history of the awards. Perhaps the common family name helped me, although I’m not aware of any direct link to George C. Marshall.


You had a contract with the BBC. What did that entail?

This was part of my St. Albans prize, and it started with a recording of my prizewinner’s recital that was later broadcast on BBC. The first contract meant that I was on the books, so to speak, and I was later asked to do other projects, such as recordings at Birmingham Town Hall and London’s St. John’s Smith Square.


You’ve done a great deal of work in the areas of medieval and Renaissance organ music. What are the elements of early music that appeal to you?

My interest in early music was sparked by my experience with historical organs while an undergraduate in French conservatories. As a high school student working with John Mueller at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I had focused mainly on Bach and French romantic music, which led me to continue studies with Louis Robilliard at the Lyon Conservatoire. Every day, I practiced Franck, Liszt, and Messiaen on the beautiful Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. François-de-Sales—it was a marvelous time in my life! After gaining the Médaille d’Or in Lyon, I decided that I should spend some time in Paris working on early music. I was planning to study privately with André Isoir, whom I had met during one of the Salem College summer organ academies, and whom several of my fellow French students had recommended warmly. 

I remember arriving early for the Sunday morning Mass at St. Germain-des-Prés, hoping to go up to the tribune with him, when who should appear but Isoir’s colleague, Odile Bailleux, who hurriedly invited me up the stairs so that she could start the prelude. During the course of the Mass, she played a number of French and English baroque pieces. I loved her playing and her personality and impulsively asked if I might study with her. She agreed, and so I began having lessons in early music with Bailleux at St. Germain. I also went to hear Chapuis play at St. Sévérin in the Latin Quarter whenever possible, and I attended Saturday workshops with him and Jean Saint-Arroman at Pierrefonds, near Compiègne, on an organ built in historical style by Jean-Georges Koenig in 1979. This was a terrific initiation into the performance practice of French Classical organ music, which, with Buxtehude and Pachelbel, was the first pre-Bach repertoire I learned.


So you began with French Romantic repertoire and then started playing the tape backwards, so to speak, moving back into French Classical. What specifically appealed to you about medieval and Renaissance works? 

Again, I was inspired to learn about Renaissance music because of my experiences with historic organs. I remember visiting the gorgeous Piffaro organ (1519) in Siena’s Santa Maria della Scala with Umberto Pineschi and Joan Lippincott in the late 1980s. We were enchanted by the gravitas of the 12 Principale, by the shimmering beauty of the ripieno, and by the delicacy of the Flauto. But Joan and I didn’t know what type of music would have been composed for this instrument—the four-octave compass began at F (without low F# or G#) and was not conducive to baroque music. So we improvised and relished the sounds. Then I started doing some research, uncovering a treasure trove of 16th-century Italian music, including the first “St. Anne” Fugue, composed before 1570! (I published this in my Renaissance anthology for Wayne Leupold Editions, 2004.) 

The desire to demonstrate a historical organ with corresponding repertoire also motivated my research into Arnold Schlick. Years ago, I had the opportunity to perform on the 16th-century Genarp organ in the Malmö Museum, for which Schlick’s music is well suited. I’ll never forget that pedalboard because the sharps were so high that it made playing Schlick’s Ascendo ad patrem meum (with four parts in the pedal) easier than usual, although I had to take my shoes off to do it!

My interest in medieval music obviously did not come from playing historic organs, but rather from my study with John Caldwell at Oxford. As part of my course, I researched the early history of the organ, and I was naturally curious about the sort of instrument that would have accommodated the first surviving keyboard music—the Robertsbridge Codex, circa 1360. Caldwell is an expert on medieval music and English keyboard music, and he encouraged my efforts, giving me insightful suggestions about possible sources and the meaning of obscure Latin references. Another formative influence was my thesis advisor, Christopher Page, who founded Gothic Voices just a year before I began my studies at Oxford. Listening to Margaret Philpot and Rogers Covey-Crump recreating the music of Machaut and Dufay in New College Chapel transported me to new musical horizons. I was taken by the strange beauty of the music, and I wanted to reclaim the organ repertoire from this time. Page was the perfect mentor for me, a scholar/performer of the first order who was able to sell out major concert halls with a program of medieval motets and Renaissance chansons. I was inspired to include 14th- and 15th-century keyboard pieces on my own concert programs. 

Although I have had the chance to perform concerts at Sion and Rysum, I usually play late-medieval music on modern organs, trying to evoke something of its original creation through my articulation and registration. As I tell my audiences, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to medieval replica organs to bring this music to life in the 21st century. What if we hadn’t played Bach’s organ music until we had the perfect Bach organ?


You put a great emphasis on recital program design. Tell us how you approach programming.

I am fascinated by the many different types of organs that have been created and try to share this fascination with my audiences through interesting programming. My concerts often have a theme, such as A Fantasy through Time, a CD/DVD of organ fantasies from the 16th to the 20th century, or Bach Encounters Buxtehude, exploring through organ music the ways in which the Lübeck master might have influenced the young Bach.

I very much enjoy finding ways to link disparate types of music or to help the audience understand the development of a genre or organ type. Organ music preserved from the early 16th century shows the emergence of national styles, as German, Italian, French, and English musicians began exploring the organs they knew. So it’s a great way to demonstrate the distinguishing characteristics of organs in different European countries, many of which also correspond to some national stereotypes of the people in those countries!

Of course, the organ that I am playing must always be the starting point for any program to be successful. I try to show as much of each instrument as I can, sometimes finding unusual combinations that highlight the geographic or chronological variety of the music. If there’s a beautiful Quintadena or Regal, I need to determine how best to feature it. Because the compass required for 14th–17th century music is usually much less than that of contemporary instruments, it is often possible to play pieces up or down an octave, thereby employing different registers of the stop(s) than are normally heard. Building fine programs is like managing a restaurant, determining from day to day the best menus to take advantage of fresh, seasonal foods while also creating a special atmosphere for the establishment. Registering organ music is like being the chef, knowing the intrinsic tastes of each ingredient and finding inspired (and delicious!) ways to combine them.


Has your methodology of programming changed over the years?

Yes, definitely. My changing approaches to programming relate to changing expectations of audiences during the past 30 years. When I started concertizing, I would try to include standards of the organ repertoire, always a major Bach work, another German work (perhaps Buxtehude or Pachelbel), something French (some Couperin, Grigny, Franck, Dupré, Alain, or Messiaen) and at least one “outlier,” some Spanish or Italian music, or a contemporary piece (Albright, Heiller, Sandresky, Ligeti). Organ music was more mainstream then, and audiences knew many of the major works. I would try to give them a sampling of music they would recognize and then add some rarer gems to spice up the program. 

As audiences for organ concerts became less familiar with the instrument and its repertoire, I decided that I needed to introduce verbally the music I was playing. This was difficult for me at first, but I forced myself to do it because I felt that it was important to make a connection with the audience and to tell them what excited me about a particular work. I got a lot of good feedback after concerts, when listeners would say, “I especially appreciated your comments,” or “You really helped me to hear things in the music that I otherwise would have missed.” So I persevered, always planning my comments meticulously and memorizing them. (I later discovered that Winston Churchill had similarly written out his speeches, even including indications concerning their delivery, and memorized them, so that it appeared to audiences that he had a natural gift for public speaking.) 

I found that it helped the flow of my comments to have an overriding theme for the concert, so I began to craft programs that related to a type of music (say, dances or organ fantasias) or that showed influence from one composer or national school to another (such as Bach and the Italian influence or organ music by female composers). With time, the speaking between pieces became easier and more natural, so that now, instead of dreading my time off the bench, I can enjoy looking out at the audience and communicating my ideas to them with words as well as through music. And my themes have become more imaginative, such as “War and Peace” (from early battle pieces through Messiaen’s Combat de la Mort et de la Vie), “Number Symbolism in Organ Music,” and “Bottoms Up!” (a program with my fabulous tuba colleague, Sam Pilafian). Sometimes I am asked to prepare a specific type of program for an event. This happened when I was invited to perform an organ recital for the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in London two weeks before the 2012 Olympics. The festival organizers were using the theme of competition, so they asked me to recreate the competition between J. S. Bach and Louis Marchand that was planned but never took place. I believe that such a programmatic approach can help bring in new listeners for the organ as well as add new dimensions to the experience of organ enthusiasts.


Let’s discuss your teaching. How do you present historical contexts to your students? 

I have a three-pronged approach to this. We study surviving treatises and instruments to learn from them about playing styles. We then develop interpretations of pieces from different national schools and time periods at a specific organ, determining ways to adapt the historical material to real-life performance situations. Finally, I draw links between what is happening in a specific organ school and what was happening in the broader musical, political, and social contexts in which the music was composed. It is vital for my students to listen to great performances of vocal and instrumental music from each of the traditions we study, so that they have a sound ideal in their minds before they try to achieve it at the organ.


How do you integrate web-based information with traditional bibliographic research methods?

The most important web-based information in my teaching is the availability of fine recordings through the Internet. Our university subscribes to the Naxos Music Library, and my students are constantly finding new sources of recorded music (and not only organ recordings!) to inform their interpretations. I also investigate historical recordings as part of my research (as seen in my article in The Organ in Recorded Sound), so I use the International Historic Organ Recording Collection (www.ihorc.com) and the Centre for History and Analysis of Recorded Music at King’s College London (www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/music/research/proj/charm/) whenever relevant to a student’s interests. 

I think my students teach me more about what’s out on the Internet than I teach them, although I certainly add a critical element that can be lacking for the generation that grew up on Google. Just because there’s a video on YouTube doesn’t mean that it’s an authoritative performance! Of course, my students and I benefit daily from music editions available through the Internet, especially public domain scores through IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project: imslp.org). Again, one must exercise critical judgment about the context of the original edition, since many reflect the scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is why they are in the public domain. In some cases the scholarship was very sound, but new sources and approaches during the second half of the 20th century may make old editions obsolete, so one must be cautious and not just latch onto the first edition that pops up in the browser.


Given the ubiquity of electronic devices and technologies, do you find that students have more trouble maintaining focus and patience? 

Since my teaching is specialized, I haven’t encountered this problem directly, but colleagues who teach more general courses often complain of the need to present material in “sound bytes.” Organists have great powers of concentration, so I’m not sure that my students are a barometer of what may be happening more generally with regard to attention spans in our culture. 


Do your students embrace early music as much as you do? 

Some of them do; others don’t. And that’s just fine, because each student is unique and has individual passions that I try to develop through my teaching.


You not only work to stay in shape yourself, but you have created short videos to educate others on ways of preventing pain and injury. What led you to promote exercises for organists? 

I am very committed to helping organists stay fit and able to play the organ without pain. To this end, I have been developing some simple exercises to combat the typical problems encountered by organists spending prolonged periods of time in bad positions.2 By working to open the chest and strengthen the rhomboids—upper back muscles— it is possible to correct for the kyphosis (humped upper back) that often plagues organists. It is also necessary to make the hips more flexible and to strengthen the abdominal wall in order to have a stable core that grounds the body. [Kimberly Marshall has created a video for The Diapason demonstrating warmup exercises. Visit TheDiapason.com and look for Diapason TV.] With a strong core and good position at the organ, the arms and legs can move freely, enabling one to play for hours without repetitive strain.


How did you decide on the muscle groups to work on, and which exercises to do? Did you work with an exercise physiologist?

I have practiced yoga for about 15 years, and this has helped my flexibility and mindfulness. Breathing deeply is the key to so many aspects of our mental and physical performance, so opening wind passages and the diaphragm is top priority! I tend to gravitate towards restorative, yin poses in my yoga practice, so I try to balance that with strength training, especially for the core, shoulders, and arms. For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a fabulous trainer, Larry Arnold. Larry has his own gym in Phoenix and a unique approach to fitness that is rooted in his understanding of the body (his website is www.labodycraft.com). He trains athletes at a very high level, but he’s amenable to improving body function in other activities. I am definitely the first organist he’s worked with, and I’ve taken students to see him as well. We all have the same issues!


Since you have a heightened awareness of physical issues, do you assess any weaknesses with your students?

Yes, my students are often kyphotic (hunched upper back), and they usually have tight lower backs from the strength required to support themselves on the bench during hours of practice. These are problems affecting almost all organists, which is why I developed simple exercises to help offset them. Usually, organists need to strengthen the upper back (so that it holds the shoulders down and back, creating a long, free neck) and to strengthen the abdominal muscles (so that the opposing muscles in the lower back can loosen). Individual students sometimes have other physical issues, so I try to create ways to help them with alignment, strength, and/or flexibility. 


How do you maintain your own fitness when you’re traveling and concertizing?

This can be a challenge, but mainly because of time constraints. Preparing concerts takes a lot of time and energy, so I focus on flexibility rather than strength training when I am touring. I maintain good flexibility through stretches and poses that don’t require lots of space or special equipment, and I’ve even become rather adept at exercising on the plane. You can do small abdominal crunches in your seat to help stretch out the lower back. Neck, shoulder, wrist and ankle rolls help to keep the circulation going and to prevent muscle strains, especially on long flights.


You heartily embrace new technology.

Although I’m of an older generation that actually did research in libraries looking at manuscripts and books, I have learned to embrace several aspects made possible by technological advances in the last 30 years. Scanning projects have made immediately accessible many of the musical sources that used to require air travel and long library stays. Manuscripts, music prints, and recordings are now accessible at the click of a mouse, and this facilitates aspects of my work. Nevertheless, one must be careful to verify information retrieved on the web and to develop a critical sense about the integrity of certain sites. 

I am currently collaborating with David Rumsey on a 4,000-article Encyclopedia of the Organ that provides articles on the history of the instrument in specific countries, with cross-referenced articles giving composers’ biographies, technical information, and organ specifications. We are investigating different online platforms for this in order to make it more user-friendly and to keep it updated. With the speed made possible by new technology, today’s readers are too impatient to look up articles in a book, so we hope to provide links that will pop up almost as quickly as the brain initiates the curiosity to investigate.

Of course, I am delighted to be able to share my own work through online articles, recordings, and videos. The facility of communication makes it easy to get feedback and to carry on stimulating discussions with colleagues. Very importantly, I can now give lessons via Skype with organists who want some tips on playing specific pieces or types of repertoire. This is a great boon to disseminating ideas and to giving instant feedback to those who are experimenting with new techniques.


How have the Skype lessons worked out? 

Remarkably well! I was a bit skeptical at first about whether I would be able to have a good idea of someone’s playing through Skype, and then to convey my ideas back to them. But I have found that Skyped lessons can provide an effective way for me to hear someone playing a specific repertoire and to give them input on aspects of performance practice, such as articulation, ornamentation, and rhythmic alterations. I would not recommend Skype sessions for feedback on registration when preparing a recital or as a substitute for an ongoing relationship with a teacher. There is nothing better than being in the same acoustical environment when working together. But Skype enables me to introduce someone to a new style of playing or to help him/her prepare a specific piece without having to make the trip to Arizona. (In some cases, it inspires them to make the trip later!) 


You have worked all over the world. Are you multi-lingual? If so, do you find it helps your work (or if not, does that hinder you in any way)? 

I am a firm believer that organists should know several languages, and as my students will attest, I make linguistic study a priority. Reading is of course the most important aspect for research, and I help prepare my students for reading exams at ASU. When we travel together to see organs in Mexico and Europe, they see how important it is to be able to speak the local language when I am setting up meetings with colleagues, working out travel details, teaching and introducing my concert programs in Spanish, French, Italian, or German. I haven’t yet mastered Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, but know enough to read about organs in them. I think Mandarin is going to become an important language for the future, as we work to foster an organ culture in China. I’ve been there twice, and I am optimistic about the potential for developing Chinese organists and an enthusiastic following for them.


Is there any other area or type of music that you would like to tackle next? 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been relishing the opportunity to play a wide repertoire on many different types of organs. I’ve become known for my work in early music, which is very gratifying, but I don’t want to be confined to that, unless, of course, the organ I am playing dictates a specific style of music. I’ve always played romantic and contemporary music, so I’m coming back to some of the 19th- and 20th-century works that dominated my student days as an organist. Hopefully I’m playing them now with greater insight resulting from the intervening musical experience! What excites me about playing the organ is the amazing variety of sound possibilities available. What other instrumentalist can play 14th- and 15th-century music in Sion, Switzerland, and a month later (and 3,000 kilometers north) perform music from a seven-century spectrum on a futuristic organ with over 100 stops?3 

Perhaps the most extreme example of this “stylistic schizophrenia” occurred this past summer. At the end of June 2014, I performed during the Boston AGO Convention on the Fisk organ at Wellesley College, in ¼-comma meantone tuning with short octave and split keys. Six weeks later, after a wonderful stay in southern France, I appeared on the Spreckels Organ in San Diego’s Balboa Park, complete with tibias and percussion, playing a program of music by Parisian composers. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love the organ. Vive la différence! ν



1. The Organ in Recorded Sound: An Exploration of Timbre and Tempo. Göteborg: Göteborg Organ Art Center, 2012. Available from the author or from www.ohscatalog.org.

2. Some of these may be found at https://www.facebook.com/KimberlyMarshall.

3. “The ‘Organ of the Future’ in Sweden’s Studio Acusticum,” The American Organist (February 2013): 62–65. 


Kimberly Marshall’s forthcoming recording, A Recital in Handel’s Parish Church, features concerti and passacaglias performed on the new Richard-Fowkes organ in St. George’s, Hanover Square, London. All tracks will be available online in September.


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