A Tribute: Searle Wright (1918–2004)

November 2, 2004

Ralph Kneeream served as assistant organist and choirmaster
at St. Paul’s Chapel for eight years, from 1958 until 1966.

M. Searle Wright died on June 3 at the age of 86.
See the “Nunc Dimittis” column on page 8 of the August 2004 issue
of The Diapason.

The New York Years

“Let us now praise famous men . . . those who composed
musical tunes . . .”

Searle Wright’s days on earth began in Susquehanna,
Pennsylvania on April 4, 1918. His family moved to Binghamton, New York while
Searle was quite young, and he always considered Binghamton his
“hometown.” From his father Clarence he inherited the traditional,
quiet, and introspective aspects of his personality. From his mother Josephine
he gained not only a name--she was a Searle whose father served in
Congress during the McKinley Administration--but also a great sense of
humor, an entertaining and insightful manner of talking, and especially a joie
de vivre. Searle was an only child and both parents lovingly sought to give him
the very best education, certainly in the field of music.

From an early age Searle, along with his parents, began an
association with “Phoebe Snow,” the famous Erie-Lackawanna
“choo-choo” train. At first the trips were to Buffalo--the city
that gave birth to the “mighty Wurlitzer” and to the Schlicker
Organ Company--to study with the city’s leading organist, William
Gomph. Mr. Gomph was well-known for his abilities, as well as for his
“role” in the McKinley assassination which took place in The Temple
of Music at the Pan-American Exposition: Mr. Gomph “. . . had reached the
highest notes on the great organ, and as he stopped at the height to let the
strains reverberate in the auditorium, two shots rang out.” Years later “Phoebe”
would carry Searle from Binghamton to Hoboken, with a ferryboat link to
Manhattan, for lessons with T. Tertius Noble, the famous organist and
choirmaster of New York’s prestigious St. Thomas Church. Then, after
Searle became a New Yorker, about 1938, there were many trips on “Phoebe
Snow,” returning frequently to Binghamton to conduct the Binghamton
Choral Society and to visit his parents and his friends.

Soon after arriving in Manhattan he took some classes at
Columbia University, an institution he would serve so well for two decades. He
studied improvisation with Frederick Schleider at the School of Sacred Music,
Union Theological Seminary, another institution he would join as a faculty
member. Another individual who had a profound influence on him in these early New
York years was David McK. Williams, the colorful organist and choirmaster of
St. Bartholomew’s Church. I could not possibly remember all the
interesting stories Searle told me of this man--some relating to his use
of striking effects in service playing, others relating to his well-known wit
in dealing with events and with people.

In addition to becoming immersed in the New York church
music scene, he earned the AAGO certificate in 1939 and the FAGO certificate in
1941, and at the time, I believe, he was the youngest recipient of the latter.
So we might say that as Searle moved into his early twenties, he was one of the
most promising young New York church musicians.

At an early age, while still living at home in Binghamton,
he discovered the theatre organ. It was love at first sight. In his teens he
earned pocket money playing the “mighty Wurlitzer” at
Binghamton’s Capitol Theatre just as he would do again, years later in
semi-retirement, playing half-hour programs prior to Binghamton Pops concerts.
Many Friday evenings, Searle, Louise (see below), and other friends and I would
have dinner together, sometimes at Schrafft’s on Broadway at 43rd Street
(“Mother Schrafft’s” to Searle), or at Longchamps on Madison
Avenue at 59th Street. What wonderful evenings they were, much talk of music,
the Broadway theatre, the New York scene, and yes, even “shop.” Why
were the sopranos having so much trouble with this or that phrase, where can we
find a few more tenors, etc.? There was always much laughter, as the most
recent jokes would circulate throughout the evening. A well-made cocktail
and/or a glass of wine always helped to liven things up. But, the pièce
de résistance, on a few occasions, following dessert and much coffee,
was a short taxi ride to Radio City Music Hall where we were admitted to one of
the rehearsal studios high above the main auditorium. It was there that Searle,
or perhaps another theatre organist friend, would “wow” the rest of
us with the very best in theatre organ performance. What a treat! Unforgettable!

Armed with his Fellowship certificate, with great talent,
and solid training in choral directing, organ playing, improvisation, and
composing, he set about establishing himself. His first positions were a small
parish in the Bronx and then one in Queens. In 1944 he was appointed organist
and choirmaster at the Chapel of the Incarnation (the present Church of the
Good Shepherd) on East 31st Street, near Second Avenue. There he began to
establish himself as one of New York’s leading church musicians. The
building has wonderful acoustics. With a small volunteer choir, and just a
handful of paid singers, he prepared ambitious programs of service music, using
both standard and new works in the Anglo-American tradition. He presented, as
well, more extensive works to be sung at frequent Evensongs. In short, his
music program at this small Manhattan parish attracted the interest of many
leading New York musicians, and his reputation both as an expert and an
innovator grew quickly.

When Columbia University was seeking a director of chapel
music at St. Paul’s Chapel in 1952, Searle received this prestigious
appointment. He remained in this position for nineteen years, until 1971.
Concurrently, he was a member of the music faculty of Columbia and The School
of Sacred Music, Union Theological Seminary. yes"> 

In addition to his full schedule of services, concerts, and
rehearsals at St. Paul’s Chapel, he presented recitals and workshops
throughout the United States. He served the American Guild of Organists as a
member of the examination board, as national secretary, then from 1969 until
1971 as national president. He was instrumental in starting the AGO Young
Organist Competition (1952). He was the first American organist to give a
recital in Westminster Abbey (1954). He was co-chair of the program committee
for the 1956 AGO Convention in New York City. He was chairman of the American
“wing” at the 1957 International Congress of Organists, and for
this effort, as well as his accomplishments in the field of church music, he
was awarded the FTCL, honoris causa from Trinity College of Music, London. He
was a member of the committee that designed Lincoln Center’s new
Aeolian-Skinner organ (1963).

As a teacher in organ playing, composition and
improvisation, he influenced an entire generation of American church musicians.
He was an impeccable service player and a fine choir director. As a composer,
he left a corpus of organ, chamber, choral, and instrumental works, both sacred
and secular, that will remain a significant part of twentieth-century music.

It was a family tradition to spend time every summer on the
St. Lawrence River near Clayton in the Thousand Islands region (and did Searle
love Longchamps’ Thousand Island dressing on his salads!). After moving
to New York City, he would join his parents for several days at their vacation
spot on the river. Some of his compositions were first sketched there; he would
also plan his upcoming music schedules. Beginning in the 1950s it was to
England where Searle would return each summer, putting his assistant in charge
of the chapel music program during those months. Based at the fashionable Park
Lane Hotel on Piccadilly, he investigated every nook and cranny in the British
capital and traveled to every corner of the English countryside. The summer
would culminate with trips to Worcester, Hereford, or Gloucester to attend the
Three Choirs Festival, an event that attracted him every year from the
mid-1950s into the late 1990s. He was honored several years ago when the
festival committee programmed some of his compositions. Each year Searle would
return from England laden with a ton of new choral and/or orchestral scores,
many of which were premiered by him in America at St. Paul’s Chapel
concerts.

Searle was admired by legions of colleagues, students, and
friends the world over, including many of the outstanding church musicians of
the twentieth century. My generation and younger generations looked and will
look to this man for guidance and inspiration. Through his compositions, his
improvisations, through his innovative program building, and through his
students and disciples,  the world
of music was and is a far richer place.

I would not be able to end this tribute without speaking of
Louise Meyer, the wonderful individual mentioned above. As music secretary
during Searle’s tenure at both the Chapel of the Incarnation and St.
Paul’s Chapel, she freed him from many tasks--preparing choir
schedules, preparing payrolls and service music lists, preparing recital and
concert programs for the printer, answering telephone calls, correspondence,
etc.--in short, keeping him free to do all the musical things. Louise
loved to sing in the choir, and she was a fine second soprano!

What final tribute can we offer this dignified, impeccably
dressed, remarkable, good-hearted soul, this special human being? Perhaps an
ancient text, a Rabbinic commentary from a Midrash, would be helpful.

Two ships were once seen to be sailing near land. One of
them was going forth from the harbor, and the other was coming into the harbor.
Everyone was cheering the outgoing ship, everyone was giving it a hearty
send-off. But the incoming ship was scarcely noticed.

A wise man was looking at the two ships, and he said:
“I see here a paradox; for surely, people should not rejoice at the ship
leaving the harbor, since they know not what destiny awaits it, what storms it
may encounter, what dangers it may have to undergo. Rejoice rather over the
ship that has reached port safely and brought back all of its passengers in
peace.”

By the same token, it is the way of the world that when a
human being is born, all rejoice; but when the person dies, all sorrow. Rather,
the opposite ought to be considered. No one can tell what troubles await the
child on its journey into adulthood. But when a person dies after living well,
all should give thanks, for he has completed his journey successfully and is
departing from this world with an imperishable crown of a good name.

Searle Wright earned the crown of a good name. Our loss of
him is great--but the gain of those who knew him is far greater still. He
lived well, for himself, for others, and for his God. Requiescat in pace.