Robert Clark taught at the University of Michigan from 1964 to 1981, and at Arizona State University, Tempe, from 1981 until his retirement in 1998. One of his most noted achievements as a performer was his recording, Bach at Naumburg, on the newly restored organ built by Zacharias Hildebrandt in 1747, an organ tested and approved by J. S. Bach and Gottfried Silbermann.
In the United States Clark served as a consultant to many churches, and was directly responsible for the building of the first two modern mechanical action organs in Arizona: Victory Lutheran Church in Mesa and Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale. He was also advisor for the Richards & Fowkes organ at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Clark has served on many juries for organ competitions, including St. Albans and the Grand Prix de Chartres. In 1992, he received a plaque from the Central Arizona Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, inscribed “Master Teacher.” Clark recently moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Houston, where his daughter, Barbara, will continue her career as a teacher of voice at Rice University beginning in fall 2013.
On May 19 and 20, 2012, the author spoke with Professor Clark at his home in Cincinnati.
Douglas Reed: Thank you for this opportunity to talk. Please tell about some of your early musical experiences that shaped you as a musician.
Robert Clark: It began in kindergarten. In the classroom there was a mockup of a pipe organ that fascinated me. I spent the entire playtime pretending I was an organist. When I was about six years old, I went behind the stage where things were going on at church [First Methodist Church, Fremont, Nebraska] and saw for the first time a Universal Air Chest of an Austin organ. I pushed the flap that opens the door, and, of course, I noticed a great change in pressure. I was totally fascinated.
You’ve mentioned motion or movement training in school.
Yes. The term was not used, but it was pure Dalcroze eurhythmics involving step-bend, step-step-bend, making phrases with your arms, going in circular motion and in advanced cases, walking two steps against three bounces of the ball or vice versa. Dalcroze eurhythmics was part of my training as early as fourth grade, as was moveable-Do solfège. My claim to fame was being able to hear and sing descending major sixth and ascending minor third intervals.
It was a very unusual public school system in Kansas City. I don’t know whether the name Mabelle Glenn means anything to you, but she edited several volumes of Art Songs for School and Studio. In the 1930s, she conducted the Bach St. Matthew Passion at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City. During her long career, she was renowned in music education and, surprisingly, convinced the administration to include music in the daily curriculum of the grade schools in Kansas City.
What other things influenced you as a youngster? Did you study piano?
Oh, yes. From the fourth grade until I finished high school, my teacher was Margaret Dietrich, who had been a pupil of Josef Lhévinne at Juilliard. Much of the elegance and detail in his playing was transmitted from her to her students. Believe me, she was a strong personality and pushed me very hard at a time when I was quite lazy.
Miss Dietrich would probably be 105 years old now, although I did see her when she was in her nineties after she and her husband had moved to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was very good to see her again. She even told me I could call her Margaret!
Did you study the organ during that time?
Yes, much to my piano teacher’s dissatisfaction (laughter), I did take organ lessons. My first piece was Song of the Basket Weaver, one of the St. Lawrence Sketches by Alexander Russell. I had my first church job when I was 14, playing a two-manual and pedal Estey reed organ. That’s when I became fascinated with playing the famous Toccata by Widor.
Then you majored in organ in college. What led to that?
That’s what I wanted to do! I went to a small school, Central Methodist College, in Fayette, Missouri, and from there to Union Theological Seminary, where I did my graduate study in the School of Sacred Music. Orpha Ochse was one of my teachers at Central. I alternated organ lessons between Orpha and Luther Spayde, who was a strict Dupré advocate. Orpha suggested many subtleties not otherwise available. She was also my first-year theory teacher.
Did you study with N. Louise Wright and Opal Hayes at Central Methodist College?
I certainly did. Miss Wright was one of those very colorful, flamboyant people who made you think you were better than you were. Miss Hayes taught Bach and technique, and Miss Wright taught interpretation.
Then you went from Central to New York City?
I did. My first teacher was Clarence Dickinson. I was much too immature and opinionated to understand his breadth of knowledge and approach to teaching. He knew the tradition of Widor and other European masters of his era. Lessons were at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, where there was an E. M. Skinner organ, recently replaced.
That was 1953. Interestingly, I went to the other extreme with Ernest White, who was known for playing as if the keys were hot! He did not force his theories upon me and respected my individuality. I played a debut recital in his studio at St. Mary the Virgin, and that’s probably the only recital I played from memory without dropping a single note.
Ernest White had a series of studio organs, right?
Yes, this was the largest. It was up on the second floor of St. Mary the Virgin. It was quite the thing; it was very controversial and very well should have been!
Tell us about other experiences that you had in New York.
While a student at Union Seminary, I had many meaningful experiences. For example, I heard the New York debut of Jeanne Demessieux at Central Presbyterian Church, the “Carnegie Hall” for organists in those days. Quite a number of us went to hear Demessieux, and we all fell in love with her. She played with very high spike heels, the type that would pull up a grate from the sidewalk! Her pedal technique was built around that. I heard her play her repeated-note etude for the pedals—with the spike heels. Indeed!
One time, you mentioned the Langlais Suite Médiévale in association with your time in New York.
Yes. I was possibly the first student organist to play that work in the United States. Messiaen was even more controversial. The first piece I learned was the Apparition de l’église éternelle. I wrote my master’s thesis on Messiaen and also translated his Technique de mon langage musical before the “official” translation became available.
Let’s talk more about your teachers. You’ve mentioned studying with Gustav Leonhardt.
I knew him when he was not yet 30, on his first trip to the United States. He taught a course on performance practice at a Union Seminary summer session. I had a few lessons on an organ that he disliked and some harpsichord instruction. All of a sudden it wasn’t a case of limiting but of greatly enhancing the possibilities of what a performer could do. He had an incredible stash of information about early sources. Being typically Dutch, he could speak four different languages. So in the class he would read something off in the original language, and finally it occurred to him that no one could understand what he was saying, so he began translating.
We had many good experiences, including a chance encounter one Sunday afternoon as I was taking the uptown subway. We ran into each other on the way up to see the famous medieval complex, The Cloisters. We had a very good time doing that. He had a great deal of knowledge about medieval art. I simply admired his whole approach to music making, which was very elaborate.
When you say he opened up all kinds of possibilities rather than limiting them, what exactly do you mean?
He spoke about different ways ornaments could be played, places where you would or would not play notes inégales—all of the options open to the musician. Would you play over-dotted, double-dotted, neither, or something in between?
I remember a subsequent class he did at the University of Michigan. He spent an entire session on about three measures of music. It was the sarabande from the C-minor French Suite. He talked very much about the expressive nature of this: if we over-hold this, such would happen, but if we don’t overhold, something else will happen. I remember something he told me in the early 1950s and which I strongly believe: dynamics are achieved by variations in touch and articulation and by rhythmic adjustment.
Did Leonhardt perform at that time?
Oh, yes! I heard him perform many times. I heard him perform the one and only time on an electro-pneumatic organ at St. Thomas Church in New York City, and he said, “Never again!” And he didn’t. He commented on what a nice place this would be to have a fine mechanical action organ, and finally Taylor & Boody fulfilled that dream. Leonhardt was also a very fine fortepianist, incidentally.
Are there other teachers or musical experiences you would like to mention?
One of my good experiences was being a fellow judge at the Fort Wayne competition with Arthur Poister. He was very insightful and was usually right in his perceptions of the musical personality and even gender of the competitors.
Let’s talk about Bach. I’m curious about how your perspective on Bach has changed over the years. You mentioned learning with the Dupré edition. What has happened?
We have reached a new level of understanding of articulation in terms of listening. After all, a pure legato or even over-legato are types of articulation, but if one reads treatises like J. J. Quantz’s On Playing the Flute, one learns how wind players rehearsed. It was tonguing that made a difference, and of course listening to string playing makes a difference. Where does one change a bow? These are all deviations from a pure legato. Even a seamless legato is a form of articulation and, in fact, harpsichordists deal with over-legato.
How has the revival of mechanical action influenced your thinking?
It has influenced my thinking entirely. My first European trip came quite late, in 1977. I played many of the great organs in Europe. The organ at Kampen, the Netherlands, was the last organ I heard in Europe before returning to the United States. The next day, I heard a chiffy Positiv Gedeckt on the organ at Hill Auditorium and thought, “This will not do.” So, I found a way of getting to a tracker-action organ even though it wasn’t a very good instrument. Students would have lessons in an unheated church in the winter simply for this experience. And then I took many groups of students and others down to the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Toledo, where the important Brombaugh organ, now in Rochester, used to be. We learned a great deal from this opportunity.
What did you learn?
I learned about the sensitive interplay between winding and touch, and realized I could find detail in the music that could not be found any other way. Indeed, the fastest key action is not electro-pneumatic. With a good mechanical action, the response is immediate, providing complete contact with the instrument. Contrary to conventional wisdom, many of the great European instruments are not hard to play. Of course, as the pallets become larger, the action becomes heavier. For example, with a typical basse de trompette, the touch and speech of the lower notes affect timing and interpretation. This is as it should be! It shouldn’t be all the same. I tell my students that the only “perfect” action that does everything consistently is the electronic organ!
And when you’re playing with manuals coupled and a huge sound, you tend to play differently.
Of course. If you listen to my Naumburg recording, the last variation of Sei gegrüsset was played with all three manuals coupled, and it becomes very grand. One plays quite broadly when the action is heavier, whereas the other variations call for a lighter registration and touch. In the partitas, particularly in Sei gegrüsset, there are also many things that relate directly to the playing of string instruments.
Think of the difference between playing a violin and playing a cello or a gamba. I’m always very happy with students who have played a wind instrument or string instrument or have had experience singing. Anyone wanting to be an organist should learn another instrument.
Can you speak more about singing?
Articulation involves attack as well as release. If you were singing all legato, there would be no consonants, no words. It would be just one stream of sound, which is vocally impossible.
You’ve said, “Put a D or a T on that note.”
Yes, but only on a good organ with suspended mechanical action is that possible, because it has to do with the speed of attack and release. I recommend A Guide to Duo and Trio Playing by Jacques van Oortmerssen for comprehensive understanding of early fingerings and their impact on articulation.
Let’s talk more about teaching and learning. What are the three most important things to consider when learning and performing a piece?
Traditionally, we say “rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm.”
How do you start an organ student? Do you have a teaching method?
Some of the older teaching methods are outdated. So many deal with absolute silence and space, up and down, no give and take. Music doesn’t work that way. I don’t agree with the idea that we delay learning Bach until we understand historic fingerings. There’s one method that starts with some rather uninteresting music of the Romantic era, but the student is not ready for Bach until he or she knows how to use historic fingerings. Who knows what is “historic” anyway?! Nobody has the same hand. Finger lengths are different. The balance of the hand is different. I think just simple things that are good music are the best way to start: Renaissance pieces, easier Bach, some pieces in the Orgelbüchlein. It is not necessary to delay learning Bach. Early and modern fingering should be included within modern teaching approaches, not as separate entities.
In recent decades, there has been a great deal of emphasis on early fingerings.
You may be surprised, but since I came back from Europe, I’ve been almost exclusively into historic fingerings for early music. That doesn’t mean always doing the same thing the same way, but there are times when paired fingerings—3-4-3-4 ascending and 3-2-3-2 descending in the right hand—work on a good sensitive instrument. The trio sonatas include marked articulations that are very much related to wind and string playing. For me, usually the marked articulation determines the fingering anyway. I tend to write slurs rather than numbers in my music.
Do you have any particular memory techniques? You mentioned using solfège.
Yes, I use solfège, but memory, like doing anything else well, simply takes time and practice. I have no gimmicks whatsoever in memorization. It is an extension of the learning process. The ultimate test is to be in a quiet room without scores, and being able to hear every note in a performance the way you want to hear it. And that’s the most secure way to memorize. Without this ability, one tends to rely entirely on a mechanical approach.
You have a nice selection of artwork in your apartment. How important is study of the other arts—the visual arts, even film—for a musician?
A good example of Baroque performance practice that few people mention lies in the art of Peter Paul Rubens, whose works are among the finest Baroque paintings. They are full of motion, huge sweeps of the brush, and great detail within those. A good place for any musician to visit would be the Rubens gallery at the Louvre.
Please talk about the sense of motion as it relates to rhythm. Many performances are very speedy and metronomic, but without a sense of movement.
Well, Duke Ellington once said, “Man, if it don’t got that swing, it ain’t music.” (laughter)
You have mentioned the term “lilt.” How does one achieve that?
The harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm had her students learn the steps for the dances used in Bach’s keyboard suites. They would learn the choreography of the allemande, sarabande, the courante, and gigue in their various forms, bourrée, gavotte. This is a very good idea. The more we can see things moving, the better!
What about conducting and singing a line? You’ve recommended the Kirkpatrick edition of Scarlatti sonatas. He recommends walking.
Oh, yes. That’s very good basic reading. It’s an essay on rhythm in the first volume of the Schirmer edition of the Scarlatti Sixty Sonatas edited by Kirkpatrick. That’s very good information. It’s in a question/answer format. Question: “How do I sense the shape of a phrase?” Answer: “By dancing it.” Learn the difference between rhythm and meter: meter is regular; rhythm is essentially irregular. Rubato does exist in Baroque music but not exactly as in Chopin. Kirkpatrick said, “Rhythm is the superimposition of irregularity upon regularity.”
Dare we talk about the metronome?
What you should do if you have a metronome is to throw it in the dumpster. It creates arithmetic, not rhythm.
You’ve often mentioned continuo and the value of accompanying, working with other instrumentalists and vocalists.
Working with other musicians, one discovers many of the subtleties of articulation derived from bowing and tonguing. I learned the hard way not to jump ahead of one’s fellow musicians; you have to listen to the breathing of the musician. I would often jump ahead of the wind instrument player, and I’d be playing before he completed taking a breath! Many organists have this panicky thing: “If I don’t get moving, it’s not going to go!” You must leave space for breathing. Not every instrument is like the organ, where you can have a continuous supply of wind.
There has been a great resurgence of interest in improvisation in the American organ world. Can you speak about your views on improvisation and how it relates to performance in general?
In our country we used to have maybe an annual “be nice to improvisation day” and that was the beginning and the end of it. But in France, where the study of improvisation is obligatory, this begins in childhood and continues throughout a musician’s entire career. It’s not a thing acquired quickly or easily.
Particularly in music before the Romantic era, improvisation was par for the course. But if Liszt and other Romantic virtuosos were to play in a modern-day academic setting, matters would be quite different.
These are some fairly major changes from the Dupré method at Central Methodist!
Well, I studied with Dr. Dickinson in 1952. How many years has it been? We’re not doing anything the way we did 60 years ago. Airplanes are not the same. Cars are not the same. The way we dress and the way we think are not the same.
You taught at the University of Michigan for 17 years. Who were some of your closest colleagues at Michigan?
My closest friend in the organ department was Bob Glasgow, who was an inspiration even though we were occasionally different in our approach. Another very dear friend was Ellwood Derr, who was really a historian but taught music theory. He knew an incredible amount about music in general, and you could go to him with almost any question. Another colleague, John Wiley, was very much an expert on Russian music.
At Arizona State University, Frank Koonce, the classical guitar teacher, and I became good friends. The late Bill Magers, the viola teacher, taught my daughter and was recognized as one of the great viola teachers in the country. There are many other former colleagues including Robert Hamilton, a noted pianist.
You have mentioned Louise Cuyler a number of times.
Yes. There are many stories about her. One time she brought to class a 78 recording of a Beethoven string quartet, which did not meet her standards. She grabbed the shellac record off the turntable, tossed it into the waste basket, and then went apologetically to the library.
And what about Eugene Bossart?
Oh, he died recently at the age of 94. He helped so many people. His few detractors were poor musicians, as he demanded only the very best. And 99% of the time, he got it. Yet, he was the kindest person! I remember him calling me once after I had played harpsichord continuo for the St. Matthew Passion. He yelled on the phone, “Hello! Is this Marcel Dupré??” What he really liked was the recitative regarding “The Veil of the Temple.” Yet, he could be super critical and get away with it.
Let’s talk about your recordings, particularly your experience at Naumburg.
Jonathan Wearn, the British recording producer, was very particular in recording. After the initial tapes were made, I spent several days with him editing at his home in England. Many of my recordings have some editing, although my Clavierübung III recording has almost none.
Had you made any recordings earlier in your career?
No. The Naumburg recording got good notices, I thought, so I went back home to one of my favorite organs, built by Paul Fritts, one that I’d had a voice in designing, and made “Bach on the Fritts.” And then “Bach and Friends on the Fritts.” There are seven recordings in all. I really had wanted to record on the Treutmann organ in Grauhof, but this was not possible because of the illness of my wife.
Speaking of the Fritts—after teaching at Michigan, you moved to Arizona State and taught for 17 more years. It was during this time that you led the creation of the new performance hall and the Fritts organ. Could you speak about
That was a battle. In the first place, nobody trusted that type of acoustic. It was not designed for piano recitals. The harpsichordists usually like it, but everybody was concerned, “We’ve got to deaden that some way or the other!” I don’t know how many suggestions were offered. We finally made sort of a dual system where drapes could be drawn manually, and I used that very often in teaching when the room was empty.
What led you to start that project? Was there no good concert hall or teaching instrument at Arizona State?
All we had was an Aeolian-Skinner in Gammage Auditorium. It was one of the late, very thinly voiced Aeolian-Skinners. But since the scalings were surprisingly large, it was revoiced and opened up quite a bit by Manuel Rosales. There was no substantial tracker organ available, except for a few old ones that were quite good up in the northern part of Arizona. There is now a second Fritts in Tucson.
During our first year of recitals, we had overflow audiences. Performances had to be played twice every Sunday, one at 2 pm and the other at 5 pm. There was great appeal among the musical public!
Can you give some background on the Orgelbüchlein edition that you and John David Peterson prepared?
I visited the Stadtsbibliothek in East Berlin, and the librarian there was very American-friendly. In fact, he had travelled in the United States. I was allowed to pick up the original manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion. It was like touching the Holy Grail! Luckily, the librarian mailed me a microfilm of the Orgelbüchlein. I shared it with John, who was working on the same project. I might say that the Orgelbüchlein that we prepared goes back to 1984, and it is an edition that needs to be revised—not a great deal, though, because we were dealing with the autograph, and there are simply variants of the autograph that need to be acknowledged.
Were the Stasi after you in East Germany?
Oh, yes! They were after any American. It was the typical situation where one saw a face in public and then two days later that same face appeared again. One time I was trapped inside the Wenzelskirche in Naumburg because I didn’t know how to work the key, and a man came, speaking perfect English, to explain how to turn the key. As a matter of fact, the tower of that church is the highest point in the town, and the chief spy looked out from there. She knew everything that went on in that city, including my presence!
After the big change I went to what’s called the Runde Ecke. This museum showed many of their methods of interrogation, uniforms, and obscene paintings. Every phone in the country was wired.
What were some of the musical experiences you had in East Germany?
I had wanted to go to Stralsund to hear the organ there. The organist was Dietrich Prost, and we hit it off very well. His English was probably as deficient as my German, but we understood each other; we got to the organ and without saying a word we agreed that there was something important there. And he said, “You play like a German!” “Du bist Deutsch!” We had coffee and cake. Many of the musicians in local churches were eager to meet with Americans. Often we went for conversation, coffee, and cake. I remember being in one of the towns near the border and the local organist was complaining, “Here we are only a few kilometers from West Germany, and we cannot see our closest friends and relatives!”
Did you play any of the Silbermann organs?
I think I played every one in existence except one that wasn’t playing. In Crostau, they said, “The organist is sick, and the organ is sick.” Strangely enough, one of the finest Silbermanns is the least known, in Pfaffrode. There is some speculation that it might have been the original Rückpositiv for the organ in Freiberg.
What about Hildebrandt organs? You mentioned Naumburg.
Oh, yes. That was before the restoration and there was enough there that I could get an idea of what the original was like. Of course, the organ had been provided with electric action in the early 1930s, but there were enough original pipes left that I got a pretty good idea of the sound. Another colleague, Thomas Harmon, did quite a bit of research on that. The restoration didn’t take place until after the reunification of Germany. Christian Mahrenholz was one of the leaders in promoting the restoration as early as the 1930s.
Did you go to Dresden on that trip?
I went to the Katholische Hofkirche, now Holy Trinity Cathedral. We were told by the tourist guides, “Don’t go in there. Nobody’s there.” But we went in, and we met the organist, Dietrich Wagner, who had lived through the infamous fire in Dresden and told us all about that. He was very friendly and made suggestions on my playing—that I deal with the acoustic because I was playing too legato. I sent him some editions of things not available in East Germany. So, that
We’ve been talking about all kinds of professional stuff. Would you like to talk about your family and their part in your life?
I have four children and three grandchildren. My son, Robert, lives in Los Angeles and does technical work with pathologists. My daughter Susan lives in Oxford, Michigan. She is Mrs. Music through the entire area and manages the Rochester Michigan Symphony Orchestra. She’s a fine cellist and plays the piano. She sings and teaches maybe twenty or
The twin of my son is Jill, who is very focused and controlled with everything she does. At the beginning of her career in New York, she won a grant from the Bosch Foundation. Then her husband was moved back to Deutsche Telekom in Germany, and she now works in an executive role in the famous tower in Bonn.
What about Barbara?
I could write a book about her. She’s a singer, very gifted and very devoted to teaching at the Cincinnati Conservatory. I wish she would perform more, because she is at the prime of her career vocally. She knows how to communicate a song in an ever-positive stage presence. That would include eye contact, gesture, and movement.
And your wife, Evelyn?
Evelyn was a singer. She studied at Westminster Choir College and was a good organist in her own right and also had a beautiful soprano voice. She was busy raising the children, but made a point of keeping a voice studio for many years.
What do you think of the combination of organ and piano?
We performed William Albright’s Stipendium peccati for piano, organ, and percussion.
Did you participate in one of the Seven Deadly Sins before that?
The preface of the score encourages all the performers to experience each of the seven deadly sins—but not necessarily together. So, we imagined walking out on stage pretending to be angry, hamming it up, growling at each other, shaking fists, and that sort of thing. We had a lot of fun imagining that, and then we settled down and went out to perform. I also did a work for organ and brass conducted by William Revelli, the only person I know who used the moveable-Do system as I do.
That was in Hill Auditorium?
Yes. John David Peterson was at the piano, and Bill Moersh, a graduate of the Berklee School in Boston, was
You’ve often mentioned Catharine Crozier.
The first time I heard her, I think I was 14 years old, and I was so moved by that. She played the Roger-Ducasse Pastorale. But I could not figure out what she did with the Brahms
Schmücke dich, because it was not what was on the page, and of course, she played the chorale tune in the pedal. I revered Catharine. She was a perfectionist and had incredibly high standards. Some of her interpretive ideas might be out of fashion today, but I love every inch of ground she walked on!
Are there other fine performers you admire?
Any of the fine violinists—Zino Francescatti, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern. Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze, both fine Baroque violinists. Pablo Casals. Fine pianists of any stripe. I like to hear good musicians of any type. I like to hear good oboe players and good flute players. And of course, singers!
Finally, please give your perspective on the current state of the organ profession, especially regarding teaching and learning.
David Craighead advised even his most gifted students to be able to do something else if necessary. Considering the realities of today’s organ world, is this anything but being honest, especially to students who dream about being on the back page of the organ journals?
There are teachers who attempt to transfer their own prejudices to their students. It is our duty to deal with gifted students who are free to ask questions. I can say that some of my best students are ones who disagreed with me or others. In fact, at least two of my students have a background playing the accordion! Sometimes these people can be very annoying or irritating, but they can be brilliant musicians.
Too much teaching is, “Me teach. You do.” Or with some students, it is, “You play. I copy.” The most important thing is to TEACH IMAGINATION!
Recordings by Robert Clark
Bach and Friends on the Fritts. Calcante Recordings CAL CD 018.
Bach at Naumburg. Calcante Recordings CAL CD 041.
Orgelbüchlein & More Works by J.S. Bach. Robert Clark & John David Peterson at the Fritts Op. 12 in Organ Hall, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Calcante Recordings CAL CD 019.
Robert Clark Plays the Brombaugh Organ, Op. 35 at First Presbyterian Church, Springfield, Illinois. ARSIS SACD 405.
Robert Clark Plays Organ Works from the Land of Bach. Calcante Recordings CAL CD 034.
Bach Clavierübung III. Calcante Recordings CAL CD 042.