Marilyn Mason dead at 93

May 20, 2019
Marilyn Mason
Marilyn Mason

Marilyn Mason, internationally acclaimed concert organist, longtime Professor of Music, University Organist, and Chair of the Organ Department at the University of Michigan, died April 4 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 93. Mason joined the staff of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1947, became chair of the organ department in 1962, was named professor of music in 1965, and university organist in 1976. She retired in May of 2014 after serving on the faculty for 67 years.

Born in Alva, Oklahoma, Mason earned both bachelor’s (1946) and master’s (1947) degrees in organ at the University of Michigan, studying with Palmer Christian. Beginning in 1950 Mason began doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, as a student of Clarence Dickinson. After several summers at Union and guest teaching at Columbia University, Mason earned her doctorate in 1954. Earlier, she traveled to France in the summer of 1948 to study with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau School of Music. During this study leave she also studied organ with Maurice Duruflé.

Mason’s concert career began concurrent with her appointment at the University of Michigan, with a major recital in 1947 at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Massachusetts, followed by her landmark performance of Variations on a Recitative by Arnold Schoenberg at the 1950 American Guild of Organists national convention in Boston. Her reputation as a formidable performer grew rapidly, and she was added to the roster of the concert management firms of Lillian Murtagh and Karen McFarlane.

Her career as performer, lecturer, adjudicator, and teacher took her throughout the western world, at one point performing more than thirty recitals per year. In 1988, she was described as “among the important influences on the American organ scene in the second half of the 20th century” by the American Guild of Organists New York Chapter when she was named International Performer of the Year.

Mason was the first American woman organist to perform in London’s Westminster Abbey, the first American woman organist to perform in Latin America, and the first American organist to perform in the newly completed Sayyid Darwish Concert Hall in Cairo, Egypt. During one sabbatical leave from her duties at the University of Michigan, Mason’s performing career took her to venues on five continents. She was an adjudicator in nearly every major organ competition in the world. Mason also led a life of service as a church musician, serving various denominations including 27 years as organist at First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor.

Over her career, she also commissioned over 75 original works for the organ. In 1985, a C. B. Fisk organ modeled on the eighteenth-century organs of Gottfried Silbermann was commissioned by the University of Michigan School of Music and named the Marilyn Mason Organ in her honor.

While at University of Michigan, Mason was responsible for starting two signature events. Since 1960 the University of Michigan has been home to the annual Organ Conference. The second signature event was her series of Music Tours of Historic Organs. Using her knowledge of European instruments and her network of colleagues throughout the world, Mason was able to plan, promote, and lead over fifty historic organ tours.

Mason’s mother, Myrtle Mason, served as pianist and organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Alva, Oklahoma. Marilyn began studying piano when she was six years old and continued studying piano through high school. She began her organ studies when she was ten, and she soon became her mother’s assistant and substitute at First Presbyterian.

Marilyn Mason married Richard K. Brown in 1948. With a background as a research scientist working in acoustical physics, Professor Brown spent over forty years teaching in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan. The couple enjoyed a close and mutually supportive relationship over the course of their 43-year marriage until Richard’s death in July 1991. In 1993 Dr. Mason married William Steinhoff, who had served for many years as a University of Michigan Professor of English, and who later taught classes at the Turner Geriatric Center. He died in September 2009.

Marilyn Mason is survived by her two children, M. Christian Brown (married to Margaret C. Brown) of Lincoln, Massachusetts; Edward A. Brown (married to Quincy L. Brown) of Chatsworth, California; and by four grandchildren. Contributions made be made to the “Marilyn Mason – William Steinhoff Scholarship” at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (2005 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2075; contact: Jillian Neill: [email protected]).

Marilyn Mason’s career is described in the book, Reflections: The Organ Department, School of Music, The University of Michigan, edited by Marilyn Mason and Margarete Thomsen, The University of Michigan School of Music, Ann Arbor, MI.

Mason describes her life and work in these interviews: