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Nunc dimittis: Leonard Berghaus and Walter Hilse

February 20, 2023

Leonard George “Len” Berghaus

Leonard George “Len” Berghaus died January 10, 2023, in Bloomingdale, Illinois. He was born July 16, 1938, in Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, his interest in pipe organs began at his grandparents’ Lutheran church where he would stand by the console and listen to the organist play the postlude. He took piano lessons and then began organ lessons in high school, and additional clarinet study led him to involvement in a Bach cantata, introducing him to Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland. Built by Rudolf von Beckerath of Germany, Trinity’s organ piqued young Len’s interest in organ building, and he spent many hours watching the installation of the instrument, memorizing all the mechanics of the action.

Berghaus attended Concordia Teacher’s College (now Concordia University Chicago) in River Forest, Illinois, from 1957 until 1961, preparing to teach in Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod schools and minoring in music education. During this time, he discovered the 1888 Jackson Pipe Organ Company tracker organ at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Chicago, and began a self-taught course of restoring the instrument to playing condition, unknowingly laying the groundwork for a career in organbuilding.

Between 1961 and 1967, Berghaus was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Grace English Lutheran School and Jehovah Lutheran School in Chicago, all the while continuing his involvement with pipe organs. During this time, he also became a representative for Casavant Frères, Ltée., of Canada and serviced instruments between Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Des Moines, Iowa.

In 1967, Berghaus resigned from teaching and embarked on his organbuilding career full-time. He worked and apprenticed with Paul Jochum and Fred Lake early in his career. These craftspeople imparted their knowledge of slider chests, mechanical action designs, and tonal finishing on Berghaus and created the foundation for his career in the trade. Berghaus in turn imparted his knowledge to many a young organbuilder.

The first instrument Berghaus built was an electric-action organ for Christ Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio (1969), but Opus 1 is considered to be the 1971 mechanical-action organ at O’Fallon United Church of Christ, O’Fallon, Illinois—still in use to this day by the congregation. In 1973, the company relocated from the Berghaus residential garage to Bellwood, Illinois, as Berghaus Organ Company, and again in 2000 to a larger facility. The firm was known in the early years for building neo-Baroque tracker instruments and evolved with changing tastes to build American Classic instruments and to become Berghaus Pipe Organ Builders. Highlights include rebuilding the Schlicker organ at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, in 1986 as well as new instruments at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 2003 and Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago in 2005. Since 1967 the company has built or restored over 225 instruments from Arizona to Maryland, primarily in the Midwest. Berghaus was a member of the Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the American Institute of Organbuilders, the Organ Historical Society, and the International Society of Organbuilders, and his company is a member firm of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America.

Berghaus retired from full-time organbuilding in 2005 and pursued his other interests more fully. A longtime member of Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, he sang bass in the choir for many decades. His other pastimes included model train building and entertaining guests at the family’s Detroit Island house in Door County, Wisconsin.

Leonard Berghaus is survived by his wife of 58 years, Judy, and his children Debbie Conley, Todd (Margie), Brian (Collene), and Sue Hempen (Michael), as well as six grandchildren. A memorial service was held February 11 at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois. Memorial contributions may be made to Grace Lutheran Church (graceriverforest.org), The Bach Cantata Series at Grace (bachvespers.org), or Concordia University Chicago (cuchicago.edu).

Walter Hilse

Walter Hilse, organist and composer, died December 31, 2022. Born July 16, 1941, he grew up in Astoria, Queens, New York, and earned degrees in mathematics as well as in music from Columbia University, including a Ph.D. in musicology and an M.A. in composition. He studied organ with Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Duruflé, Vincent Persichetti, and Bronson Ragan.

As a solo performer he appeared throughout the United States, Europe, and the Far East, making tours of Sweden in 1990, 1994, and 1995. He presented five solo organ recitals at New York City’s Alice Tully Hall, as well as several complete performances of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. He was a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists and recently retired from the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music.

Hilse’s compositions include over 80 art songs, an a cappella Mass for SATB chorus, over 20 anthems and psalm settings, a setting of various Sabbath-morning texts, compositions for solo organ, a piano suite, and numerous works for instrumental ensemble. He was awarded the Joseph H. Bearns Prize of Columbia University (1966) and the Choral Composition Prize of the Boston Chapter A.G.O. (1974). As a musicologist, he specialized in the work of Paul Hindemith and Christoph Bernhard and was a regular contributor to The American Organist magazine. Hilse served as artist-in-residence at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church where he gave numerous recitals, associate organist at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, and organist for Redeemer Presbyterian Church, all of New York City, since 1996.

Walter Hilse is survived by his wife, Patricia (Pat). A memorial service was held January 20 at St. Malachy’s Church, The Actors’ Chapel, New York City.

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