Missionary Zeal: E. Power Biggs & Virgil Fox

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Every age has its stars, the luminaries who raise standards and leave behind legends. Within that class lies a further subset: the missionaries. For this brand of player, the desire to make music often transcends the music itself into a campaign for new channels and new audiences. This type of musician stands distinct from regular prominent players: the difference between, say, Edwin H. Lemare and G. D. Cunningham, to take two early 20th-century English examples. The missionary zeal often extends to seeing the instrument in cultural jeopardy, a sentiment that can be traced to the early 20th-century. From the cinema organ of ’20s and the first electronic substitutes of the ’30s, to the divisive turbulence of post-war organ reform, the pipe organ’s prominence and ‘seriousness’ was increasingly seen as coming under threat.

Two current events highlight the 20th-century’s two most prominent American organ missionaries. 2002 is the 25th anniversary of the death of E. Power Biggs, five years shy of his centenary in 2007. His life was ably chronicled in Barbara Owen’s 1987 biography; his legacy continues through an astonishing discography and dedicated fans who feel he has never quite been replaced. Meanwhile, the technicolor Virgil Fox has been memorialized in a new book, Virgil Fox (The Dish), a curious, somewhat jumbled yet refreshingly candid book. With an authenticity of chronicling few biographies can claim, the book is one of the most riveting you’ll find about any organist.

Of the two men, Biggs was the senior. Born in 1906 near London, he began organ study in 1924 with J. Stuart Archer, and continued with G.D. Cunningham. A 1929 American tour with a London chamber group was a mixed experience but must have whetted Biggs’ appetite, for in September 1930 he came to the States for good. In 1932 he accepted a position at Christ Church Cambridge (an old Tory parish in the shadow of Harvard Yard); he would remain in Cambridge for his remaining days. By 1935 he was under the illustrious management of Bernard Laberge, who had brought Cunningham, Dupré and Germani to American shores.

Biggs’ relationship to organbuilding was immensely significant. In 1937 another Englishman, G. Donald Harrison of Aeolian-Skinner, was eager to create an uncompromising instrument for the performance of Bach and other baroque organ literature. Biggs was instrumental in having the resulting unenclosed, unencased 24-stop organ placed in the ‘Germanic Museum’ at Harvard University (later known as Busch-Reisinger), a wonderful room for sound. Biggs made recordings on it, introducing the ‘classic’ style it represented, then made it famous with regular Sunday morning broadcasts on the CBS radio network from 1942 forward.

As the 1940s progressed into the ’50s, Biggs’ allegiances moved beyond electric action to tracker, progressing from G. Donald Harrison to Herman Schlicker to Dirk Flentrop. The arrival of Biggs’ 1958 Flentrop at Harvard, and his recordings on it, hastened the pace of the tracker revival, and in many ways came to define its first American chapter.

Born in 1912, Fox distinguished himself as a keyboard virtuoso early on. His formative years were in Baltimore, where he studied, then taught at the Peabody Conservatory, winning numerous awards along the way. In 1946 Fox and his partner Richard Weagly accepted the positions of organist and choirmaster, respectively, at the Riverside Church in New York City. Within two years, Fox had a new five-manual Aeolian-Skinner console to control the church’s 1930 Hook & Hastings; by 1955, he had a new Aeolian-Skinner organ as well. As Fox’s career flourished, Riverside remained the nerve center of his career, a platform for recording, and a 200-rank do-everything electric-action organ that came to epitomize his approach to music-making.

Released last year, Virgil Fox (The Dish) is, in the strictest sense, an autobiography of one of Fox’s students, Ted Alan Worth. Imagine a many-hundred-pages–long Christmas card of gushery, edited down and made more tolerable by old friends with better language skills. What emerges, however, surpasses mere autobiography; it’s an unexpectedly meaningful self-portrait of a life encounter with an idol. So intimate a story serves as a credible popular history of the great organist, at his best, worst and every point in between. Cameo essays by many in the Fox circle round out the emerging picture. The final profile is helpfully influenced by editors Richard Torrence and Marshall Yaeger, both in the editing and through their own contributions (Torrence managed Virgil’s career for years; Yaeger wrote stylish publicity).

Through the eyes of Worth and the other contributors, we enter Fox’s career in the midst of its triumphant crescendo, and witness the cranky and frenzied internal workings of the publicity machine that propelled him into the sphere of mid–20th-century bigger-than-life entertainment. The eccentricities of the artist are revealed in all their delight and oddity. Fox might test the limits of his friendships, but just as strongly did he win the loyalty of those around him. He is portrayed as a delirious combination of extremes: generous one moment, cheap the next (even to the point of charging guests for food and drink); delightful today, implacable tomorrow (forcing many an organ tuner into the instrument over and again to adjust the tremolos and get other details ‘just right’). If (The Dish) never quite manages to be a good book, it is still a moving one. It also gets the highest marks for sheer honesty. Fox’s homosexuality, and its implications on his life, is dealt with in admirably straightforward terms. The occasional catty inclusion does not mar the huge strides such a book makes over the typical organ-related biography.

Where Biggs’ recordings and broadcasts seemed the focus of his career, it isn’t possible to think of Fox without the live concerts. The public persona was paramount; come concert time, Fox was his own marquee. He had a phenomenal memory for names and faces; once introduced, he seemed never to forget anyone, making the greeting line as much a feat as the performance itself. His verbal program notes were unique; you can hear them on the 1979 recording of his return recital at the Riverside Church. With his cape, unmistakable stage presence and pink Cadillac convertible, Fox had few peers in the competition for flamboyance.

Not in recent memory has a book portrayed so sharply one side of the intense polarization that faced the American organ community in 1950s and ’60s. The chips fell with a McCarthy-like doctrinaire, be it Baroque vs. Romantic, purists vs. moderns, electric vs. tracker, electronic versus pipe. Indeed during that time, Biggs and Fox can only have appeared as such comic opposites. Biggs was the staunch ‘Classicist’, passionate advocate for tracker action, lover of old organ music, always pushing the envelope of those new things that incorporated an ‘old’ twist. Fox viewed himself as the defender of ‘Romanticism’ (at least its mid-20th-century definition), an amorphous evil under increasing attack by the enthusiastic tide of organ reform.
In reality, Biggs was fundamentally a romantic organist, even if of great chastity. He stood ready to evolve a personal style from contact with fresh experience, whether it came in the form of old European instruments, the first wave of imported tracker organs, or his own Challis pedal harpsichord. Even if he rarely touched a swell pedal near the end, Biggs owned his phrasing, his touch, his style. That it was no more ‘authentic’ than, say, Landowska’s Bach seems beside the point. First and last, Biggs was a communicator, a musician who knew that his mission relied on developing a recognizable musical posture. His playing was one component of a larger persona that drew in a particular audience; though his ‘scholarship’ was everywhere praised, it was really his curiosity he was best able to convey.
Fox’s style was a unique combination of 20th-century obsession for steady rhythm coupled to an ultra-Romantic approach to registration, dynamic phrasing and rubato. Particularly in the earlier years, Fox was the organ’s Horowitz: a huge technique assiduously kept at peak condition through rigorous practice, a knack for perhaps overdoing things, yet striking a feverish nerve that drove audiences wild. Throw in the fact that he would remember your name after the show, and how could there be any doubt that you were in the presence of a star?

With hindsight, the similarities between the two men become more interesting to examine. Each seemed to revel in a sense of nonconformity; each was tireless in searching out new audiences and promoting new or forgotten repertoire. It is as if each stood staunchly on his perspective, saying “The organ world is going this way; come follow me.” Both men were quick to realize the potential of recordings, particularly as the long-play 33rpm record, stereo and ultimately quadraphonic technology continually improved the recorded sound of organ tone. If today someone wanted to record Bach on the four organs of Freiburg Cathedral from a central electric console, in order to showcase quadraphonic technology with numerous antiphonal effects, it would seem more along the lines of Fox’s theatricality. Yet it was Biggs who triumphantly produced such a disc in 1974 to great acclaim. The ‘hook’ was the thing, and both men had a sixth sense for what would sell.
Faced with an instrument they loved but feared to be in decline, both men devised innovative solutions to keep interest sparked. With Fox it was his electronic touring organ on the one hand, large relatively unknown works such as the Jongen Symphonie Concertante on the other. His insistence on bringing the music to new audiences culminated in Heavy Organ, a music and light show in a New York rock concert auditorium at which Virgil played nothing but Bach at ear-splitting levels to a packed house of screaming youngsters. There has been nothing else like it before or since, and it toured for years to great success.

Biggs was tireless at devising fresh recording concepts, either making old music new to modern audiences, or taking his audience on a journey. His recorded tours of famous European instruments made every listener an impromptu Fulbright scholar. Yet he was just as savvy at producing appealing recordings that showed his versatility, from chestnuts on the pedal harpsichord and American music on old Yankee organs to a smashing recording geared to the 1976 bicentennial spirit.

Nor was either career crisis free. Biggs had to suffer the demise of his beloved radio broadcast in 1958, though he recovered through ever more recordings — and, alas, arthritis. Fox never got the touring pipe organ he’d dreamed of, and was finally compelled to leave the Riverside Church in 1965. His final years were beleaguered by cancer. Both had to vie with ever-increasing competition for audiences, a syndrome that only intensified with the ever-engulfing rise in simplistic entertainment.

Could our world support a Biggs or a Fox were each to start today? Perhaps that isn’t the real question. Each man achieved his unique place through an unmistakable playing style, a distinct stance on the musical art, an engaging persona, and fresh promotional ideology. Both seemed to have discovered that, in the end, missionaries have only their uniqueness to sell. Biggs died in 1977, Fox in 1980. As in the piano world, with the passage of Rubinstein and Horowitz, no one has quite come to replace these two grand men of the organ bench.
Reproduced with permission from the July/August 2002 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005