John Weaver, one of the America’s finest concert organists, celebrates his 70th birthday on April 27, 2007. The following interview is offered in honor of this milestone.
Dr. Weaver was director of music at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City from 1970–2005, and served as head of the organ department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia 1971–2003, and also chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School 1987–2004.
His formal musical studies began at the age of six, and at age 15 he began organ study with Richard Ross and George Markey. His undergraduate study was at the Curtis Institute as a student of Alexander McCurdy, and he earned a Master of Sacred Music degree at Union Theological Seminary. In 1989 John Weaver was honored by the Peabody Conservatory with its Distinguished Alumni Award. He has received honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2005 he was named “International Performer of the Year” by the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
In addition to his work at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, he has taught at Westminster Choir College, Union Theological Seminary, and the Manhattan School of Music. He has written numerous articles for organ and church music magazines and has served as president of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.
Dr. Weaver has been active as a concert organist since coming under management in 1959. He has played throughout the USA, Canada, Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. He has performed on national television and radio network programs in the U.S. and Germany, and has made recordings for Aeolian-Skinner, the Wicks Organ Company, Klais Orgelbau of Germany, a CD on Gothic Records for the Schantz Organ Company, and a recording on the Pro Organo label on the new Reuter organ at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. His most recent recording, “The Organ and Choral Music of John Weaver,” is available on the JAV label and features his own organ and choral compositions. His published compositions for organ, chorus/organ and flute/organ are widely performed.
He currently lives in Vermont and continues to concertize and lead workshops and masterclasses around the world. The Weavers love to climb the New England mountains, and have a tradition of an annual ascent of Mt. Washington. Marianne is an avid gardener, and John’s hobby is a deep fascination with trains, both model and prototype.
This interview took place July 11, 2005, at the Weaver home in the rolling countryside near West Glover, Vermont.
MICHAEL BARONE: How did John Weaver stumble into the world of the organ?
JOHN WEAVER: We moved away from the little town where I spent the first four and a half years of my life. I have very few recollections of that place, except one of them that’s very strong—the organ at the church where my father was the pastor had a wonderful sound on low E. Something about the 16' stop on that organ resonated in the room in a glorious way, and I fell in love with that. As soon as I learned how to play a few notes on the piano, my favorite thing was to hold down the sustaining pedal and play an arpeggio—slowly at first—and just listen to it ring like an organ. Something in me has always been attracted to that sound.
MB: With whom did you study and how would you characterize those years?
JW: My first organ lessons were with a wonderful organist in Baltimore, Richard Ross. He died at age 39 shortly after having given me a lesson on a Saturday afternoon—just failed to show up the next day at church. Ross was becoming one of the best-known and finest organists in the country. When I first went to him, at the age of 15, instead of auditioning me at the organ, he told me to go up onto the stage of the Peabody concert hall and play for him on the piano. Well, there was a big Steinway up there, but the thing that really interested me was the 4-manual E. M. Skinner. I could hear air escaping from it, and I coveted playing that instrument so badly that I can feel it still today.
Nevertheless, Ross told me that he wanted to hear me play something on the piano. So, I stumbled through my Mozart sonata that was not really very good at that point, and afterward he said to me, “I don’t want you to study organ yet. You need to study at least another year of piano and really work at it very hard.” And then he also said something that I’ve always remembered: “If in the meantime you study organ with anybody else, I will never teach you.”
Well, I took his advice, and I went back to my piano teacher and really did work for a year—then came back the next year and played for Ross again. This time I played the Beethoven “Pathétique,” and I played it pretty well. Ross said, “OK, now you can start studying organ, but you must continue to study piano as well.”
Fortunately I had a very good piano teacher, and I studied with Ross for about a year and a half, until his death. The Peabody Conservatory brought in George Markey as an interim to fill out the rest of that academic year. While I was studying with Markey, at this point as a senior in high school, he said “Where are you going to go to school next year?” I just assumed I would go to Peabody because we lived in Baltimore, and Markey said, “Well, have you considered auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music?” And I remember asking him, “Where is that?” I was soon to find out a lot about Curtis and also about the great teacher there, Alexander McCurdy. I did audition and was accepted, and had four glorious years in Philadelphia.
MB: McCurdy is something of a legend, and the stories about him are numerous. I expect you have more than a few.
JW: I’ve described him on numerous occasions as an Old Testament figure. He was someone you both loved and feared at the same time—certainly, not one to suffer fools. If you went into a lesson unprepared, you were sure to get a dressing down that would do a drill sergeant credit. But when words of praise came, they were so precious and so rewarding that they could light you up for a whole week. He was a very liberal teacher in that he did not insist on playing any piece of music in any certain way. Within that department at that time we had about six students—there was one student who was very much a disciple of E. Power Biggs, and there were others of us who were much more in the Virgil Fox camp. That was sort of the nature of the department, but McCurdy was as enthusiastic about the fellow who was a Neo-Baroquist as he was about the rest of us. That person, by the way, is Temple Painter, who is one of the leading harpsichordists in the city of Philadelphia and still plays organ as well.
MB: What were McCurdy’s techniques to get the best out of students? What did he create in you that might not have been there before? And then how did you take what you learned from McCurdy and shape that with your own personality?
JW: McCurdy had several ways of getting the best from us. I’ll never forget my first lesson: he assigned a chorale prelude from the Orgelbüchlein, which I had not played, and he said, “Mr. Weaver, I’d like you to play this next week from memory in organ class.” Well, right away it was jump-starting; and seven, eight hours a day of practicing became the norm. At my second lesson, he assigned the Vierne Cantabile, from the second symphony, and said, “I’d like you to play that next week in organ class in front of your peers.” Well, that was really a struggle. And he did that for about three weeks at the beginning of the four years. After that, he never assigned a piece again. But he got me into the habit of learning—I knew he expected that kind of production from week to week.
That’s a Curtis tradition that was started by Lynnwood Farnam, continued by Fernando Germani and by McCurdy, and I believe is still the case—each student comes every week with a new piece memorized to play in class. This could be a little one-page chorale prelude for manuals alone, or it could be a major prelude and fugue, a big romantic work, or a modern work—you could repeat something from previous classes, but you always had to have a new piece also. It got us into the habit of assuming when you started to learn a piece that you were eventually going to play it from memory. There are some pieces that I have never been able to play from memory. I’ve memorized a fair amount of Messiaen, but with more atonal pieces, I find that I am just not comfortable playing without the score.
MB: The challenge for the organist, of course, is that each instrument is different from the next and requires its own learning process. The traveling recitalist comes to a church, gets used to the instrument, gets used to the instrument’s response in the room, and then tries to make music with the repertoire that you’ve brought to town. Perhaps it’s no wonder that fewer organists want to memorize these days, but there’s still something about a performer totally connected to and deeply involved in the music that is missing when a score is being read.
JW: There is always the problem of the page-turner—or, if one turns one’s own pages, that has its risks as well. Page-turners can sometimes pull music down off the rack inadvertently, or pull a page right out of the book, or turn two pages—there are lots of risks. Page-turners also have a tendency sometimes to hum or to tap their foot. I’ve even known some who think it’s safe to step on the pedalboard to reach a page that’s far out of the way—that really does produce a catastrophe.
I guess it doesn’t make a lot of difference if the console is completely hidden. I wouldn’t know if someone was playing from memory or not, but pianists, violinists, singers are expected to walk on stage and play from memory. It’s harder for organists, yes. I like to have 12 to 15 hours at an instrument before I’m ready to play a recital on it. If I had 20 hours it would be better still. If I had 25, I would find a few more things to make that instrument come across in the very best possible way and the music to be the best that I could do. That kind of time is rarely available, but 12 to 15 hours is a norm.
MB: I always get the sense watching you that you really enjoy playing. Now is this actually true or are you just a very good actor?
JW: If it looks like I’m having fun, I’m glad for that because in a way, I am. I also am constantly aware of the pitfalls—how many things might happen that you don’t want to happen and sometimes do. But I do enjoy playing. I love playing recitals, though it scares me, and five minutes before the recital I ask myself “Why did I ever agree to do this?” But once I start playing, why, that departs and I really do settle down and enjoy what I love about the music that I play—hoping that people will catch something of what I’m feeling about that music and my devotion to it.
MB: How did you, a former student at the Curtis Institute, come to be the head of the organ department at Curtis?
JW: One fine day Alexander McCurdy called me up and said, “Mr. Weaver, I’m going to retire from the Curtis Institute, and Rudolph Serkin would like to meet with you and see if you might be an appropriate successor.” (Rudolph Serkin at that point being the director of the Curtis Institute.) Needless to say, I went down to Philadelphia and met with Serkin, and he suggested that I play a recital in Curtis Hall—it was never called an audition recital, but I think they wanted me to clear that hurdle before giving me a green light. Curtis Hall is one of the hardest places to play. It is totally dry acoustically, with a 118-rank Aeolian-Skinner in a room that seats about 200 people—probably more pipes per person than any place else in the world. But it’s an instrument that can, if one works with it, do remarkable things. So I did play the recital and did get the job, and was there very happily for many years. I started in 1971 and retired in 2003—32 years.
MB: How would you characterize yourself as a teacher?
JW: I’ve tried to follow the McCurdy mold. When I was at Curtis we continued the tradition of the organ class—memorization and new pieces each week. I also tried to not impose my own interpretation of any given piece upon the students that I was fortunate enough to teach, both at Curtis and at Juilliard. I do believe that everyone should somehow sound like themselves, that there is some part of themselves and their own musical personality that will affect the way that they perform any piece.
I’ve had students who were extremely flamboyant and almost overdone. I’ve tried to curb that a little bit sometimes, but I certainly don’t want to squelch the enthusiasm and the very strong personal interpretations that a student like that can bring. Sometimes I find a student’s playing to be too conservative, just dull note pushing, and then we talk a lot about the music and about its nature—its liveliness or passiveness or serenity or agitation—trying to have the student project something in the music other than just the notes on the page.
MB: Who were some of your outstanding recent students?
JW: Well, without naming any priority, certainly Paul Jacobs, who succeeded me at Juilliard; Alan Morrison, who succeeded me at the Curtis Institute; Diane Meredith Belcher, who’s on the faculty at Westminster Choir College; Ken Cowan, who is on the faculty of Westminster Choir College and is now the head of the organ department there—and a whole host of others. Those are four that are under management, nationally known, and do a great deal of playing—I’m very proud of them indeed.
MB: How did you come to be at Madison Avenue Presbyterian? What are the different demands, delights, and challenges of being a church musician as opposed to being a fancy-free artist in the world of recitals?
JW: For eleven years, I was at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York. While there, my wife and I started the Bach cantata series that continues to this day, and we really made that church known for performances of the music of Bach. In 1970, I knew that the position at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church was vacant. It never occurred to me to apply for it. But one day, a gentleman came into the church office unannounced, no appointment, and asked to see me. When we met he said, “We,” meaning the search committee at Madison Avenue, “were hoping that you would apply.”
Well, having the door opened by him at that point, I decided to follow through with it, and I did so with a great deal of doubt because I had grown up in a Presbyterian church, where the din of the congregational chatter before the service completely drowned out anything that could possibly be done on the organ. And I had the impression that Presbyterians generally did not place a very high value on the quality of the worship, the sermon being the centerpiece of the whole Sunday morning experience. But I met with the committee at Madison Avenue and particularly with their pastor David H.C. Reed, in whom I found a Presbyterian with wonderfully high regard for worship and high expectations for the quality of worship. My fears were allayed. I did go to Madison Avenue in the fall of 1970, and immediately we began changing the nature of the worship service there. The congregation began to sing a great deal more—four hymns every Sunday, plus they began to sing the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
That progressed until the congregation tended to draw people who liked to sing, and so the congregational singing was strong and is to this day. David Reed was followed by Dr. Fred Anderson, who was a musician—his first degree was as a music major—and a great lover of music and of worship. Now one could go to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and the worship experience would be very ecumenical. You would not be certain if you were in a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic or an Episcopal church. It’s very much Presbyterian, but at the same time very ecumenical and very rich liturgically.
MB: Have you considered yourself an organist who composes or have you always thought of yourself as a composer who had to make his way as an organist and a teacher?
JW: Very definitely the former: I’m an organist first and foremost, but I’m an organist who loves to compose. Many composers who try to write for the organ don’t understand the instrument and therefore write pieces that get a premiere performance and are never heard again. In fact, the organ literature that does become mainstream is almost always written by people who play the instrument. One great exception is Paul Hindemith, but he of course was able to write for any instrument, and he always did his research and knew what he was doing—he wrote three wonderful organ sonatas and a concerto.
Years ago, when I was in my early teens, I started going to Vermont in the summer to a music camp for theory. No lessons were taught on piano or clarinet or violin or anything like that. There was no applied music—it was all theory. We had counterpoint classes, form and analysis, and harmony and such, and the result of it was that the students of the camp composed because we had been given the tools of the musical language.
So I’ve gone to Vermont every summer of my life to compose, and now that I live here I hope to do a lot more composing. I’ve also composed primarily things that I myself could use. Although everything I’ve composed for the last 15 years has been on commission, I’ve always written something that I could use in my own work, either in recitals or in church services. I’ve written a lot of choral music and a lot of organ solo pieces and also several pieces for organ and flute because my wife is a very good flutist and we like to be able to play those pieces together.
MB: Do you have any favorites among the pieces that you’ve written? JW: My favorites tend to be the ones that have been performed a great deal. The Passacaglia on a Theme of Dunstable—it may not in fact be by Dunstable, but it was thought to be by him, namely the tune Deo gratias—was composed for the 25th anniversary of the state trumpets at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and I played the premiere performance there. It’s a set of variations in passacaglia form, and one variation is designated for that magnificent state trumpet at the west end of that huge cathedral. Nevertheless, the piece works on instruments that don’t have that particular kind of stop available. The piece has been recorded by a number of people and has been played all over the world—that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s also one of my favorite pieces.
MB: How many compositions have you’ve written up to this point?
JW: I’ve probably composed about 20 choral pieces, that is, anthem-length pieces. I’ve also composed all four gospel settings of the Passion story, and probably a dozen solo organ pieces.
MB: And other than the commission that you just received on Friday, the future is an open book at this point?
JW: Yes, actually that’s the only commission I have in hand right now, but I am trusting that others will come in. And if they don’t I’ll write anyhow.
MB: Someone wanting to commission you would do what? Do you have a website?
MB: Do you enjoy the process of recording? You’ve made some notable recordings. It ends up sounding as though you’re having a good time, even if you might not be.
JW: No, I hate recording. [laughter] There’s something a little bit antiseptic about it. First of all, one does not get that sense of response from a live audience. You simply do the playing, and then there are people sitting around with scores and dials and they’re wanting to do this over again and that over again—or a siren will go off or there’ll be a clap of thunder; things like that can make it very frustrating. When they listen to a recording, people have no idea about how long it takes to make that, because street noises or other interruptions can destroy what otherwise would have been a perfect take. It’s very hard.
MB: You’ve been performing in Portland on the Kotzschmar organ—well, you must have been a boy in knee pants when you started.
JW: It was in 1956—at the end of my first year as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music—when I first played the instrument that had been given to the city of Portland by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, whose daughter was the founder of the Curtis Institute. So there was a wonderful connection there. And I’ve been back every year since. [Editor’s note: Dr. Weaver played his 50th recital on the Kotzschmar in August 2005.]
MB: The organ is a challenge as a musical instrument—it is this device with so many opportunities for color and dynamics, and yet is an incredibly complex machine, which even at its best seems to be intractable. Is this something that organists don’t think about, they just do? Or is making music on the organ as difficult as it might appear to a layman, seeing all of those controls to be manipulated and the separation between the console and the pipework and all of that?
JW: Michael, I believe every instrument has its challenges. For pianists, the way in which the key is struck is so critical, and a pianist’s hands must cover a large key compass, whereas organs have a shorter keyboard, 61 notes as opposed to 88; and organ music tends to stay in the middle register, so, in a way, that’s much easier. Violinists have tiny strings and a fingerboard, and it amazes me that they can play a C major scale. Violin virtuosos are just astonishing. The challenges of the organ are mastering the pedals, mastering console technique that enables you to draw upon the resources of the instrument—and then also to a very great extent, the imagination that you can bring to bear with so many different colors available. Each person will choose sounds to produce the right color, if I might use that word, for the passage that they’re playing in a way that pianists and violinists couldn’t possibly do.
MB: In the 21st century young organists face not only sustaining the presence of their instrument but actually rebuilding an audience for organ music. I see this as a real challenge.
JW: Yes, it is. Every now and then though, one sees very hopeful signs—one of those being the recent installation within the last five to ten years of a great many organs in the concert halls of this country—something that’s fairly standard in Europe; for instance, the renovation of the wonderful Ernest Skinner organ in Severance Hall in Cleveland, a new organ in Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the restoration of the organ in Boston Symphony Hall, the new Disney Hall instrument in Los Angeles. One could go on and on and name any number of places where new instruments have been installed or old instruments have been restored—to me this suggests that the organ will take, again, its place as a concert instrument and not just a liturgical instrument.
On the other hand, it must be said that concert halls are often not the most perfect, acoustically, for organs. Great organ music was written to sound its best in places with fairly substantial reverberation, such as a large stone church. So concert hall organs are wonderful, and I’m glad they’re being built, and they enable us to do organ concerti and sometimes organ solo recitals. But the church, particularly one that has a long reverberation period, is still where the organ seems most at home.
MB: How would you compare the scene for organs and organists in your day? Was this a peak of energy with that marvelous—some would say divisive, some would say energy producing—polarity between the historicists and E. Power Biggs on one side, and the theatricalists and Virgil Fox on the other? We don’t have quite that type of energy today. I daresay the man in the street, if asked to name a concert organist today, might be hard pressed, whereas back in the ’60s and early ’70s, the names of Biggs and Fox were very much in the public ear.
JW: Biggs and Fox, both of them very talented, extraordinary musicians, had a great advantage of working right at the time that the LP recording was becoming common in the American home. RCA Victor and Columbia were the big producers of LP recordings at the beginning of that time in the early ’50s. And there was Biggs and there was Fox, and these two polarities were represented in the recording industry—that did a great deal for the visibility of the organ and the popularity of organ music.
MB: It could be argued that now is both the best of times and the worst of times—there are far more organ recordings available, representing a much larger panoply of artistry and instruments both new built and historic, marvelously represented—and yet there is so much that the focus is lost to some degree.
JW: Yes, I think that’s right. When it was Biggs and Fox, you could expect to find their names in the crossword puzzle. No organist today has that kind of visibility. Another name that was right up there at the top was Marcel Dupré because of his extraordinary playing and also the fact that he had been the teacher of so many organists in the U.S. through the Fulbright program. There isn’t anyone who has really achieved that kind of star status in the organ world, which is not to say that there aren’t a great many wonderfully talented and brilliant performers. Maybe there are just too many.
MB: Yes, it could be argued that the performance quality of the 21st century is higher than it’s ever been. Do you think that it’s possible with so much talent around for someone to distinguish themselves or do they have to almost jump beyond mere artistry and do something odd in order to be discovered? JW: Perhaps it would be best to think in terms of naming names. The name of Cameron Carpenter who studied with me at Juilliard comes to mind. Cameron is extraordinarily flamboyant, both in dress and personality and in playing. His playing annoys the purists terribly, but certain people are simply mesmerized by his performances. And he is a genius—there’s no question about that. Another name that gets a great deal of visibility these days is the young German organist, Felix Hell, whom I also had the honor to teach. Felix, at first, was famous because he was so very young when he was playing recitals all over the world, literally, as he still does. But now he is taking his place among the more mature artists of the younger generation and plays very well indeed—and has made numerous recordings. So these two are a little bit like Biggs and Fox—Felix tends to be a fairly conservative player, not extremely so but more middle of the road, whereas Cameron is way out there in show biz land.
MB: Presuming it’s something different from that marvelous, resonate low “E” that had you mesmerized as a child, when you play and hear the organ, what sort of thoughts go through your mind? What is it about the instrument that still captures your heart and soul?
JW: Who could not be seduced by the instrument itself? Just the mechanics of it and this great collection of pipes, some of them enormous, much larger than most people realize, and most of them very much smaller. I think when a layman sees the inside of a pipe organ for the first time, they’re always astonished—even if it’s a small instrument, it looks amazingly big and complex. And the large ones, of course, are simply mind-boggling. So there’s something about the instrument: its bigness, its history. When I’m playing an organ, if I’m playing Bach I’m thinking about instruments I’ve played that Bach may have played—there’s this great history and great repertoire, and frankly the sound of the instrument has always seduced me.
MB: How would you characterize your playing style?
JW: Probably other people should do that. I would say that I am in the middle someplace. I probably am a little bit on the extrovert side of dead center, but I also am not one to completely disregard the knowledge that musicologists have brought to us of performance practice, of historic instruments—but sometimes I will just say “this piece that I’m playing on this particular instrument cannot be played in a good, authentic, 18th-century style.” Something must be done to make the music and the organ come together in a way that is satisfying and gratifying. And sometimes that means just throwing the rulebook out the window.
MB: Did you set out with goals? You probably didn’t begin your study imagining you would go to Curtis, and then after having studied at Curtis, you probably hadn’t thought that you might end up teaching there, or at Juilliard for that matter. You’re like a natural surfer who has swum out into the sea and found a fantastic wave and you’ve been able to ride that wave through your career with skill, with accomplishment, certainly with a sense of pride. How do you look back at your career from this point?
JW: I would have to say that as with many careers, a great deal of it has to do with being at the right place at the right time, but also having ability to do the job that is required. I’ve often thought that if I had been five years younger, the Curtis Institute would not have thought me an appropriate age to head that organ department. If I had been five years older, it’s likely that they would have chosen someone else from among Alexander McCurdy’s students.
MB: You have moved on from three prestigious positions and you’ve now settled in what used to be your summer home in rural Vermont, up in the marvelous rolling countryside in the northeast corner of the state. Somehow, I can’t think of you as retiring. What projects have you set for yourself for the future?
JW: The mail recently brought a new commission for a new organ piece—that’ll be one of the things. I do want to continue to compose. I’m playing a number of recitals this year including two that I’m extraordinarily excited about, because I will be reunited with the instruments that I had my first lessons on. One of them, the Peabody concert hall Skinner, was put in storage for about 40 years, and then set up at a big Roman Catholic Church in Princeton, New Jersey. A week later I will be playing a recital on the wonderful Skinner organ at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, where my teacher Richard Ross was the organist, and before him, Virgil Fox—a beautiful, perfectly untouched Ernest Skinner that really is quite a marvelous instrument. And I’m playing some other recitals and some dedications around the country.
MB: So, you keep your organ shoes polished and ready to go?
JW: Indeed so.
[Editor’s note: Dr. Weaver has announced that the 2007–2008 concert season will be his last for regular concert activity.]
MB: Tell me about some of your memories from being “on the road.”
JW: The wonderful occasions that I love to think back upon are two recitals that I played—one in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, for a national convention of the American Guild of Organists, in which everything went the way I wanted it to. I loved the instrument, the audience was wonderful, the acoustic was great. And the other one was the Mormon Tabernacle—a recital I played when the Tabernacle was having a three-day symposium to celebrate the restoration of the organ there. Everything was fun, and the instrument was to die for, and of course the acoustics are world famous.
MB: Tell me about your railroad fascination. Where did you grow up? Mauch Chunk?
JW: Yes, Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, is a little town north of Allentown and Bethlehem, about 20 miles up into the Pocono Mountains—it’s in a ravine cut by the Lehigh River, and there was a railroad on both sides of the river that ran through the town. The town is now called Jim Thore, but its historic name of Mauch Chunk has great importance. Anyhow, it was a railroad town, and being in this mountain ravine, day or night you could hear the sound of a steam locomotive. The bells and the whistles and the smell of coal smoke were a constant feature of that place. I can remember standing by the railroad track and holding my father’s hand and counting the number of cars on a freight train as it rolled through. It became a part of my life—a very strong hobby, and we are seated right now in the midst of a model railroad that I’m creating that is 26 by 36 feet and has 390 feet of track in it. This is my last model railroad—if I live to 150 I might actually finish it.
MB: And you had one in your office at Madison Avenue Presbyterian.
JW: Yes, unfortunately when I retired from Madison Avenue that meant the end of that railroad, but all of those trains and the structures and the little people and the automobiles and all that are now a part of the railroad here.
MB: I’m sure the compositions that you created for Madison Avenue Presbyterian remain in the files there for the choirs to sing. It’s too bad that your railroad installation in the office wasn’t kept by your replacement.
JW: In the search for my replacement, a fondness for railroads had nothing whatsoever to do with their choice. So.
MB: What of your siblings and in what directions did they go?
JW: My older brother took piano lessons from the same teacher that I had, and he could see that I was making faster progress, so he switched to violin and became in his high school years a reasonably good violinist—he played second chair, first violin in what was at that time a very good high school orchestra. My younger brother is a wonderful tenor, does a lot of solo work in the western Massachusetts area, teaches mathematics at Mount Holyoke College, has an abiding passion for music and even does some composing—he has been published.
MB: And your parents’ musical backgrounds?
JW: Both of my parents played the piano, my father better than my mother. My father had also studied organ for a year or two, and could get through a hymn—knew how to use the pedals a little bit for hymn playing. My mother was an artist, did a master’s at Carnegie Tech and then studied for a year at the Sorbonne—the walls of our houses are covered with paintings that she did over the years.
MB: With your family’s church affiliation and your being a church organist, it’s maybe not surprising that some of the most lovely works that you’ve created have been fantasies on or settings of hymn tunes. You certainly do respond to the church’s song in your compositions.
JW: Well, I love playing hymns. I especially love hymns when a congregation is stirred to sing really well—that’s a wonderful experience. Very often the reason for writing pieces based on hymns has to do with the nature of a commission that I have received. In fact, almost always when I have composed a piece based upon a hymn tune, it’s been requested by the person who commissioned the composition.
MB: Did your parents live to see the honor accorded their son who went on to great things?
JW: My father was very gratified to live to see my appointment to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. It was one year later that I was appointed to Curtis. By that time, my mother had died, and my father was not at all well. My father did not particularly encourage my desire to be a professional organist. He, as a minister of a medium-size church, saw that as being at best a part-time job, which would mean having to do something else on the side, and that’s always a difficult life. I think he was very happy to see that I had the security of a full-time church position that was also in a church of great prominence within the denomination.
Michael Barone adds: When I first heard John Weaver play, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for the AGO convention in 1984, I was charmed by his physical presence (Mr. Clean in a dinner jacket!), awed by his control of the instrument (and himself), and beguiled by his musicianship. Subsequent convergences have confirmed my first impressions. John is a modest man of major accomplishments, a patrician artist and persuasive virtuoso who has fostered and encouraged the talents and individuality of an inspiring array of youngsters. He is a musician whose own playing leaves a lasting memory, and whose compositions touch the soul. He’s a guy I’ve been both honored and delighted to know. Happy birthday, John!
John Weaver will be the featured guest/topic of a Pipedreams broadcast (#0717) during the week of April 23, 2007, which will remain available 24/7 in an online audio “programs” archive at www.pipedreams.org.
See the interview here.