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. 

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.

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