Remembering Charles Dodsley Walker

April 1, 2015

Charles Dodsley Walker, 94, died in New York City on January 17. At the time of his death he was the conductor of the Canterbury Choral Society, organist and choirmaster emeritus of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City, and the artist-in-residence of St. Luke’s Parish, Darien, Connecticut. 

For most of the 20th century—continuing into the 21st—Charles Dodsley Walker was active and prominent in New York City cultural life, directing musical activities for churches, schools, and secular organizations. He was also a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists and was president of the AGO from 1971–75.

Born on March 16, 1920, in New York City, his family soon moved to Glen Ridge, New Jersey. There, at Christ Church of Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, he first sang in a choir and played the organ. In 1930 he was admitted to the Choir School of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where he sang in the cathedral choir directed first by Miles Farrow, and shortly after by Norman Coke-Jephcott who was young Charles’ first teacher, with whom he studied organ, harmony, and counterpoint in weekly lessons. Upon graduation Charles went to Trinity School in New York, while continuing his study with Coke-Jephcott. He soon assumed the duties of school organist at Trinity, playing for daily chapel services. As he told The Diapason in a 90th birthday interview in the March 2010 issue, “They then brought in a French teacher to play the organ who simply couldn’t play, so I went up to the headmaster and said ‘I can play’ and so I became the school organist.”

Upon the advice of Channing Lefebvre, organist of Trinity Church Wall Street, CDW went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. It was his desire to receive a liberal arts degree while still studying music seriously, as his goal was to have a classroom teaching career in addition to being a church musician and organist. So it was that he pursued a major in modern languages with concentration in French, while also studying organ with the college’s organist and music professor, who just happened to be the leading proponent of the French school of organ playing in America at that time: Clarence Watters, a protégé and friend of Marcel Dupré. While at Trinity College, CDW held his first church appointment at Stafford Springs Congregational Church in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, about halfway between Hartford and Worcester, Massachusetts.

After graduating from Trinity College, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, studying musicology, choral conducting, theory, and composition with Walter Piston, Archibald T. Davison, and Tillman Merritt. While at Harvard he was assistant organist of Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working under W. Judson Rand. 

His studies were interrupted by service in the Navy, where he served in a number of non-combat capacities. Following military service he completed his master’s degree at Harvard in 1947 and was appointed simultaneously to his first two New York City jobs: organist and choirmaster of St. Thomas Chapel (a chapel of St. Thomas Church, now All Saints Church) and director of music at Trinity School, his alma mater. He was all set to embark upon a secure career as a church musician and teacher in New York when a thoroughly unplanned and felicitous (his word) event occurred: he learned of the opening for organist and choirmaster of the American Cathedral in Paris. The dean of the cathedral was a New Yorker who just happened to be in town, so Charlie called on him and was offered the job on the spot! He took a modest cut in salary to move to Paris, but did so gladly to immerse himself in the French culture and music he had grown to appreciate during his undergraduate study. At the cathedral he succeeded Robert Owen, who was in France studying on the GI Bill. While in Paris he made the acquaintance of and collaborated with the leading French organists and musicians of the day, including Pierre Duvauchelle, Nadia Boulanger, Francis Poulenc, a young Ned Rorem, Maurice Duruflé, Andre Marchal, Marcel Dupré, Olivier Messiaen, and Jean Langlais, with whom he and his family remained particularly close. In Paris he also met Janet Hayes, an American soprano studying with Boulanger in France and performing throughout Europe. After a brief courtship they were married in the American Cathedral. 

While in Paris CDW was also the director of the American Students’ and Artists’ Center, a comprehensive educational and social organization with nearly a thousand members, which was administered under the auspices of the cathedral and its dean. He held this full-time, non-musical job concurrently with his position at the American Cathedral, and it provided a secure living including an apartment. But the demands of this entirely administrative job soon left him looking for a change and, when he heard of the vacancy, he applied for the opening at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 90th Street in New York. Armed with letters of recommendation from Canon Edward West from St. John the Divine, the Rev. C. Leslie Glenn, and the Rev. Francis Bowes Sayre (later dean of Washington Cathedral), his clergy colleagues from Christ Church in Cambridge, he was offered the position. One of the unsuccessful candidates, from whom CDW unknowingly had asked a reference, was his old teacher, Clarence Watters! Donald Wilkins succeeded CDW at the American Cathedral.

CDW began his duties at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in January 1951, and he founded the Canterbury Choral Society in Advent of the following year. Initially conceived as an adjunct Evensong choir for the church’s music program, the choral society soon adopted the pattern of inviting members of the community to join the church choir by audition for presentations of oratorios with full orchestra at three concerts each year in the Church of the Heavenly Rest. The group continued to operate under the aegis of the church until 1988 when CDW left the church, at which time the choral society became an independent organization, even though they maintain a close relationship with the church and still present most of their concerts there. On special occasions the Canterbury Choral Society did present concerts in other venues such as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Avery Fisher Hall, and Carnegie Hall, including several performances of the Mahler Eighth Symphony assisted by various choirs of children from area schools and churches.

Concurrent with his position at Heavenly Rest and Canterbury, CDW at various times taught at Kew Forest School, Chapin School—where he was head of the music department for twenty-four years—New York University, Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music, Manhattan School of Music, and SUNY Queens College. In 1969 he co-founded, with his wife Janet Hayes Walker, the York Theatre Company. He directed the Blue Hill Troupe, performing all of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in fully staged productions several times during his thirty-five-year tenure. He was a founder of the Berkshire Choral Festival in 1982 and was the organist of Lake Delaware Boys Camp for fifty years in the summers from 1940–1990. Given the number of organizations he led and the length of his tenures, it is not an exaggeration to say that Charlie Walker’s sphere of influence reached thousands of persons, young and old.

In what others would call their retirement years, Charlie Walker never lessened his professional activity. From 1988 until 2007, he was the organist and choirmaster of Trinity Church, Southport, Connecticut, directing the church choir and a community chorale, sometimes in joint concerts with the Canterbury Choral Society in New York and Southport. From 2007 until his death, he was artist-in-residence at St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut, where he assisted in playing and directing weekly rehearsals and services and taught young choristers in the RSCM Voice for Life curriculum. During all this time he continued his vigorous leadership of the Canterbury Choral Society, never missing a concert until close to the end of his life. 

Janet Hayes Walker died in 1997, and in 2001 Charles Dodsley Walker married Elizabeth Phillips, who survives him, as do his children Susan Starr Walker and Peter Hayes Walker, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service for CDW took place Saturday, March 21, in the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City, with  interment in the family plot in Niles, Michigan.

In a follow-up to his 90th birthday interview in the June 2010 issue of The Diapason, when asked how he would like to be remembered, CDW said: 

“Well, I feel that to be a good church musician, doing your job from Sunday to Sunday, is a very worthy thing to be doing, and if you have the good fortune to be able to develop more elaborate musical programs—that’s good, too. But our job as church musicians is to provide, with the resources available, the best possible music for our church, week by week. I like that.”