Richard Torrence spoke about Virgil Fox at Gnessins' Academy of Music, Moscow, at the Second International Symposium on the Organ in Russia, March 23, 2007. Professor Alexander Fiseisky is standing on the left.
VIRGIL FOX was the most famous American-born concert, church, and recording organist of the 20th Century. Born in 1912 in a small town near Chicago, he died in Florida in 1980, having lived much of his life in New York. In 1976, he celebrated 50 consecutive years of playing concertsat the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, where he was a Founding Artist. His last concert he played with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra just one month before he died, after several years of fighting painful cancer.
27 years after his death at 68, he is still the most famous organist in the United States.
He was not a composer, so his legacy was made entirely as a performer. All of his organ teachers were European. Through his most influential teacher, Wilhelm Middelschulte from Germany, with whom he studied for three years while still in high school, his heritage is traced back to Johann Sebastian Bach and the Thomaskirche of Leipzig by way of Karl Straube. Following Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he graduated in only one year after receiving the highest honors Peabody ever gave an organ student, he studied in Paris with Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne, and Joseph Bonnet. When he returned, he became head of the organ department of Peabody Conservatory of Music, replacing his Dutch teacher, Louis Robert, upon his death.
Despite his European teachers, he was uniquely American in his approach to the organ. He was not interested in a historical organ, but rather in the contemporary American concert organ. His favorite organ builder in Europe was Aristide Cavaille-Coll of Paris. In America, it was Aeolian-Skinner of Boston, which closed in 1974. Subsequently, he chose Fratelli Ruffatti of Italy to build new instruments such as the one at the Crystal Cathedral in California, which incorporates the Aeolian-Skinner from Lincoln Center in New York, an instrument he inaugurated in 1962.
In his long career, he was first well known as the Organist of The Riverside Church, which John D. Rockefeller, Jr. built in New York City. Although he played mostly in churches until he was 50 years old, when he died he was most famous for playing in concert halls. In 1970, when 59, he performed "Heavy Organ," an all-Bach concert with a psychedelic screen light show, at New York's Fillmore East, a famous rock 'n' roll concert hall. That made him a sensation with young people, to whom he had a special appeal despite his age, and it gave him his greatest public success.
He first had concert management was when he was very young, after returning from Europe. He quickly became the management's most successful artist. In the 1950s, he decided that he needed more personal representation, so he made his secretary his manager; but she soon married and moved to Boston. In 1962, he invited me to New York to be his personal manager. I was his manager until 1979. My partner, Marshall Yaeger and I, developed the first touring electronic organ program for him. It allowed us to create "Heavy Organ" in 1970, which was inspired by our seeing a piano concert, with lights, of the music of Scriabin. "Heavy" was a popular slang word in the 1970s, and it meant "important" or "serious." It is one of those words that retains its meaning, even today.
The first business I did for him was to get him a recording contract with Command Records in 1963, so we will begin with works from what are regarded as his most mature and important recordings. I will give you a copy of this album, Command Performances.
We will start with Bach, the Vivace movement from the "Trio Sonata No. 6 in G major." You will hear that Fox played Bach beautifully, with great expressivity and a formidable technique. This was recorded on The Riverside Church organ, an instrument that was built specifically for Virgil Fox.
Now here's another facet of Fox and Bach: his own arrangement, made in 1939 for the Wanamaker Organ of Philadelphia, of the Lutheran chorale, "Come, Sweet Death." The Wanamaker Organ, in a department store atrium, is the largest organ in the world; a unique American symphonic organ. This audiophile recording was made in 1964 by Command Records, and re-released by us in 2005. "Come, Sweet Death" was one of Fox's most famous pieces, and today's young organists are still playing his arrangement in churches and concerts throughout the US.
Leopold Stokowski, the great conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and himself an organist from London, had made an orchestral arrangement of "Come, Sweet Death" that inspired Fox to make this to perform for the 1939 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists.
After Bach, Fox was best known for his playing of French musicand, indeed, members of the American Guild of Organists believed that he played Bach in a style that was not "correct," and French music in a style that was very French. That amused Virgil, because he said that there were no interpretive indications in Bach, but there were many specific ones in French organ literature. In fact, he often found the French composers' markings academic and boring, so he invented his own interpretations. As for Bach, Fox played it liked he believed it should be played; and the way he thought Bach might have played it on a contemporary organ. Still, the academics preferred hearing him playing French repertoire.
Fox was famous for playing the music of César Franckespecially the "Grande Pièce Symphonique" and the three Chorale Preludes. Here is Franck's "Final in B-flat," which he played quite unlike any French organist! As a visual for the screen while we are listening to music, I have collected a number of unrelated photos of Virgil Fox; they are not artistic to watch, but of some anecdotal interest. The organ is the 1950, four-manual, 82-rank Aeolian-Skinner at Boston Symphony Hall.
Max Reger fascinated Fox, largely because he was the greatest contrapuntalist after Bach. The entire "Fantasy, Introduction and Fugue on the Chorale 'How Brightly Shines the Morning Star'" is on the Command album that I will give you, so here is just the Introduction and Fuguewhich is what he played in concert until this recording was to be made in 1965 at Boston Symphony Hall, for which he learned the Fantasy in order to complete the work.
Another side of Virgil Foxand of special interest to record companies because of the commercial nature of Christmas in Americawas his approach to church music. Here is "The Virgin's Slumber Song" by Max Reger from The Christmas Album made on a 1965, four-manual, 80-rank American M.P. Möller organ in New York. Fox loved the human voice, and felt that musical phrasing should be related to singing. Here the singer is Louise Natale, soprano soloist at The Riverside Church.
Immediately following "The Virgin's Slumber Song," on the same recording is heard "Near the Cradle" by Paul de Maleingreau. It combines the Latin plainsong chant, "Come, Redeemer," with a musical imitation of a cradle's rocking motion.
He made a famous recording of hymns on the five-manual, 183-rank, 1956 Aeolian-Skinner organ he designed for The Riverside Church, and here is one of the most famous of Protestant hymns, "The Church's One Foundation," to the tune "Aurelia" by Samuel Wesley.
Virgil Fox was always interested in playing with symphony orchestras. He made the world premiére recording of Joseph Jongen's "Symphonie Concertante" at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1961, and he played it throughout the USnot only with orchestra but also in a solo arrangement he had made for himself. Here is the final "Toccata" movement, recorded with the Paris Opera Orchestra. The organ is a large Cavaille-Coll, the conductor is George Prètre.
Finally, let's go back to his greatest love, the music of Bach. Because of "Heavy Organ," Virgil Fox's most famous concerts were, after all, entirely of the music of Bach. Here he plays the "Prelude and Fugue in E minor," known as "The Wedge" for its Fugue motive, on the four-manual, 89-rank, 1970 Fratelli Ruffatti organ in St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco. This was recorded during a live concert that drew 5,000 people, most of them young, during the week that Fox, then 64 years old, was diagnosed with cancer. Fox played two, two-hour, all-Bach concerts that week, and the encores were monumental: Franck's "Grande Pièce Symphonique" after the first concert, and Louis Vierne's entire "Symphony No. 2 for Organ" after the second!
It was difficult to imagine that a performer could have a lasting impact on the organ in America, but Fox didand, increasingly, American organists are turning to the style and instruments that he loved. I will also give you a copy of a recording made in 1965 by Ted Alan Worth, one of his two principal protégé's, on a four-manual, 100-rank, 1963 Aeolian-Skinner in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a live concert recording, so not note perfect, but it shows how Fox's first important student followed in his innovative style.
I will give you one more recording, which was made on an organ that was built in 2003 by Fox's other principal protégé, Douglas Marshall. The instrument is in Trinity Church Wall Street, New York, and it is a "virtual pipe organ" (all digital) using recorded stops of Aeolian-Skinners. It is a three-manual, 85-stop instrument with two consoles, each console controlling its own complete set of 120 recorded stops for a total of 240 possibilities. It is played by Cameron Carpenter, whom many call the 21st Century Virgil Fox; not for his performance style, because it is different, but for his success as a concert organist who appeals to a general public. Carpenter plays his own arrangement, from the piano score, of Modest Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," plus "New York City Sessions," his own improvised seven-movement work. You will hear him use every stop on this 21st Century instrument.
Please enjoy these recordings. Information, master classes, photos, and interviews are available on www.virgilfoxlegacy.org.
For information about the Trinity Church organ, including "on demand" performances during the Trinity Church International Organ Festival 2006which my distinguished friend, Alexander Fiseisky, inaugurated last June, go to www.VirtualPipe.Org.
Finally, here is a program of the 2005 Virgil Fox Legacy 25th Anniversary Memorial events in New York City. The front cover is an adaptation of a poster for "Heavy Organ." And, for 30 people, I have brought a book that I co-authored with Marshall Yaeger about Virgil Fox, based on Ted Alan Worth's memoirs. It is in English, so I think that 30 copies will be sufficient.
It is my personal opinion, incidentally, that if Russia had been encouraged to develop its own organ building industry in the 20th Century, the results would have been similar to America's: an eclectic combination of German, French, Italian, English, and American sounds, just as Aeolian-Skinner developed in America. For me, Russians and Americans have at least two things in common: borrowing from other cultures, and building the very bestwhile including elements of their own national spirit.
It has been my pleasure being with you for this International Organ Symposium at Gnessins', and I hope that I have been able to bring to you some of the contemporary American sounds of the organ and its leading concert organists. Virgil Fox wanted very much to play in the Soviet Union, because he had been told that organ concerts were popular in Russian concert hallsand because he knew that Russia had concert hall instruments built by Cavaille-Coll of Paris. Unfortunately, I could never get Gosconcert to answer my letters! Now, thanks to this Symposium and Alexander Fiseisky, he has finally been "presented" in Russia!