Remembering M. Searle Wright
an interview with
Ralph Kneeream and Bruce Bengtson
by Lorenz Maycher
in the choir room of
Christ Church, Reading PA
June 26, 2004
The great American organist and composer Searle Wright made his last public appearance at Marilyn Mason's April 4, 2004 performance of Dupre's "Stations of the Cross" at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, PA. The date also happened to be Mr. Wright's 86th birthday, and Professor Mason and a small group of friends helped celebrate with Mr. Wright at a dinner party at the Hotel Bethlehem. At the dinner, Marilyn Mason gave this birthday toast: "Age is like art - it's open to interpretation."
Pictured below are Searle Wright and Marilyn Mason seated at the 1955 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem following her recital:
There is another photo taken that same evening of Mr. Wright trying out the organ, with a delighted Marilyn Mason registering for him. After playing a few chords, Mr. Wright turned to the church's rector and proclaimed the organ to be "quite beautiful and very refined." Here is that photo:
Less than three months later, Ralph Kneeream and Bruce Bengtson met with Vermont Organ Academy director, Lorenz Maycher in the choir room of Christ Episcopal Church, Reading, PA to reminisce about their associations with Searle Wright.
RK: Bruce, I know exactly what you are talking about, because I heard him do the same thing in Ann Arbor in 1997, when he was 79. He did this same thing for Marilyn at her conference. In those days the conference lasted five days, and Wednesday was always the big night. We have wonderful pictures of Searle standing in front of the marquee of the Michigan Theatre with “Teddy at the Throttle” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
BB: In The Diapason there were once two wonderful pictures of Searle: one taken at the console at Westminster Abbey, and the other taken at a horseshoe console. The article was entitled, “The Two Faces of Searle Wright”, the very serious face at Westminster Abbey, and the big smile at the horseshoe, theatre console.
I did not hear this personally, but I was told when I got to Union that at Columbia, when they had commencement services, they would have them as a general rule out in the quadrangle, unless the weather was inclement, in which case they would take the service to St. John the Divine. I had several people tell me that the previous year they had taken it to St. John the Divine, and the academic procession took something like 30 minutes.
RK: I was turning pages.
BB: Well, the improvisation that year, I understand, was incredible, ending with him uncorking the state trumpet at the end as the president or provost entered the procession..
RK: Oh, yes. It was wonderful. They had the main commencement in the cathedral, but the overflow crowd was so large that they also took over the nave of the Riverside Church, as well as the Barnard gymnasium, and it was broadcast to all these various places. But, he did everything at the organ. And, I remember he played “Orb and Scepter.” But, yes, he improvised, and it was a wonderful occasion, with pouring rain outside. Of course we were all upset, including Searle, that we had to lug all our equipment, music and choir robes all the way from St. Paul’s Chapel, which is at 117th and Amsterdam, to the cathedral, which is at 112th and Amsterdam.
Another funny story is, one year we were doing the “Ceremony of Carols” of Benjamin Britten in St. Paul’s Chapel at 12:00 noon. We did it once a year, usually at one of the services or concerts before the Christmas holiday. And, for some reason or another, we were also doing it that year at 1:00 p.m. at Barnard College. We had a tremendous snowstorm, so we had to carry the harp underground through the tunnel that goes under Broadway from the chapel and other buildings over to Barnard.
Another story I remember is, Searle would have a choir party once a year at his apartment, which was at 111th and Broadway on the northeast corner. It wasn’t a large apartment, and you know we had forty or forty-five people in the choir. So, we would pack in there, and other friends would join us, such as John Huston, and above all, Robert Crandell, who had succeeded Robert Baker as organist-choirmaster at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights. I’ll never forget one year at about one o’clock in the morning Searle was playing some obscure work of Gustav Holst, or William Walton, or Herbert Howells on the record player – a record he had brought back from England that summer. All of a sudden, someone said, “I wonder where is Bob. What happened to Bob Crandell?” We looked all over the apartment, but there was no Bob. Somebody said, “Well, try his apartment. I hope he’s all right.” Sure enough, he had left the party, gone to the subway at 110th and Broadway, had taken the subway home to Brooklyn Heights and had crawled into bed before he was ever missed at the choir party at Searle’s!
Every year Searle would sail either on the Queen Elizabeth, or the Queen Mary, for England. In those days, he would spend a good three months in England. Whoever was his assistant at the time would be in charge of the summer program at Columbia. Usually in those days it was a six-week program. We used to tease, saying, “In New York there are only two places open on July 4th – the city jail and Columbia University.” And, we had classes on July 4th.
Searle would always sail for England, and those send-off parties down on the Hudson were MEMORABLE. We all went, Louise and Catherine Meyer, Donna Brunzma and I, to say bye-bye to Searle, “see you the end of August.” This was usually sometime in June.
During the year, there would be three choir rehearsals a week at Columbia – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon from 5:00 to 6:15. All the students were there, and had to attend two of the three rehearsals, as did the professional quartet. They had the choice of either Monday or Wednesday, but they all had to be there on Friday. And then usually after that Friday rehearsal we would repair to Mother Schraft’s on Times Square for a Friday evening dinner. And, Bob would usually come up from Brooklyn Heights, and sometimes John Huston from the Village if he was available. We’d usually have wonderful Friday evenings together.
BB: You talk about Fridays, Ralph – the first year I was there, for some scheduling reason, Searle had to give me my lessons in James Chapel. Of course, Searle had some wonderful things to say about the instrument, as you can imagine, because the room was dry, and the organ was rather thinly voiced, and it was not his favorite instrument in the city, shall we say.
But, the second year, fortunately, I had my lessons at St. Paul’s Chapel. And, they were on Friday afternoon, scheduled for 2:00. But, Searle was not a morning person. He was definitely a night person. So, Searle would come in very seldom at 2:00. It was generally closer to 2:30, and he would come in half awake, like a person just waking up in the morning. He would apologize, “Bruce, I’m so sorry I’m late, but I had to stop on Broadway and get a fresh orange juice.” That was always the line. But, he was always so generous with his time. If I had things prepared, and I knew what to expect, we would start at 2:20 or 2:30 and we would go up to that choir rehearsal time. I would stagger out of that chapel not having had an hour lesson, but two-and-a-half hours or more.
In my lessons, the more I would play, the more excited and animated Searle would get. He would come up and say, “I like the sounds you’re using.” (You know this was on that wonderful Aeolian-Skinner at St. Paul’s Chapel.) “Have you ever tried it this way?” And, he would immediately change all the stops. I would then go for my pencil to write it down, and he’d say, “No, no, don’t write it down. You could also do it this way,” and would change it again! The point that he was making was, use your ears, your good musical judgment – use what will sound best on this instrument – there are other things that will work besides the way you’re doing it. He was so generous with his time and encouraging, always finding something positive to say before he made his “suggestions,” as he put it. He never said, “You must do it this way.” But there would be suggestions. Very seldom was there anything about fingering or pedaling. He just assumed you were mature enough to take care of these things, although he would sometimes say, “I noticed you were playing it this way. Have you tried it like this?”
Searle was able to sit extremely still at the console so that there was an economy of motion when he played.
RK: A wonderful hand position.
BB: Wonderful hand position always. He had very facile fingers and hands. I talked to Bob Baker, and got him to reminiscing about the contests they used to have in T2 of Union as to who could play the “Roulade” of Seth Bingham the longest before they made an error in it. And, Bob Baker said, “Searle always won that contest. He always could play more cleanly than I could.” I told Searle about this and he said, “I don’t know about that. Bob is pretty good.” Of course they were good friends through all the years.
RK: Yes, and they appreciated each other’s art immensely. And, I need to say, Bruce, that Searle always spoke about you as one of his very finest students because you were always prepared. He wasn’t always patient with people who were not prepared, whether they were members of the choir, whether they were an assistant, a student, or an administrator at Columbia or Union. He certainly was the most consummate, well-rounded musician I’ve ever encountered in my life, and I’ve known a good deal of very fine organists and choirmasters, as I know you have. Here we have a man who could improvise as long as anyone wanted him to improvise.
One thing interesting about his service playing, though, however, he could do a free accompaniment to all five verses of a hymn. But, he very rarely did. He believed that the hymn was for the congregation, and his hymn playing was very “Catholic,” if I may put it that way. He followed the score. Occasionally there would be a nuance, or a difference. Or, if he took a quiet hymn to play during communion, he would improvise on the tune. He would often, however, ridicule organists that were showing off with their free accompaniments while the congregation struggled to find the tune. He was very strict about this, and did not appreciate service playing that was too liberal.
BB: He always told me, “Now, Dr. Noble’s accompaniments are fine, but he didn’t always put the melody in the top. If you’re going to do it, try to leave the melody intact, on the top.” That was his philosophy.
RK: So people know what to sing. He was a very quiet service player. We did a lot of early music – the Byrd three part, four part, five part masses. He loved the Tudor period, the Elizabethan period, and we did them in Latin and in English. One of the nice things about working at Columbia University was that the university was paying the bill, and not the congregants. Therefore, he did not have to worry if a certain piece was going to go over well with the congregation or not. It was a rich feast every Sunday morning. We would have some of the finest theologians in the country preaching, Rheinhold Nieber from Union Seminary would preach sometimes, and other of the Union professors, as well as the Columbia professors. The homilies were terrific, and, of course, so was the service music. The congregation was not always large. Sometimes there were 35 people in the congregation and 45 people in the choir. But, we did sing the full service. In those days it was mostly morning prayer. When we did Eucharist, of course, we did a full sung Eucharist. And, people would visit because they knew they would have a rich offering at St. Paul’s Chapel that was well done.
People often say to me how did you meet this person, or that person, or this one? Well, I met them at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. Because, in the late 1950s and 1960s, and early 70s, before Union closed and before the chapel music program at Columbia was curtailed by the university, Morningside Heights had an extremely rich offering. All sorts of people the world over would come there. I met Maurice and Madeleine Durufle at St. Paul’s Chapel in 1964. Searle happened to be in England, and as his assistant, I had the job of hosting them about for several days. They knew very little English, and I knew next to nothing in French. But, we managed. We went to meals at the faculty club, and struck up a friendship which lasted for 35 years. Many of the New York organists, and foreign organists I met were because of and thanks to my association with Searle Wright.
LM: How did you come to be Searle Wright’s assistant at Columbia?
RK: Well, that’s an interesting story. I moved to New York City in 1956, after my military service. A few years earlier the Reading chapter of the American Guild of Organists brought Claire Coci here for their annual recital. It was 1953, to be exact, and she had just lost her husband, Bernard LaBerge in 1952 – the great impresario. But, she continued to tour. And, since Reading was a one-day trip from New York City she drove over with a friend early on a Saturday morning. We had a luncheon for her at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, just up the street from where we’re sitting. Then we went back to the church and she practiced all afternoon, and the recital was that evening. At one point that afternoon she said, “Play something for me.” I had had one year of training with Richard Ross at the Peabody Conservatory, so I played a piece I had learned there. Afterwards she said, “Well, I hope some day you’ll come to New York and study with me.”
Well, I had two years of military service to do first. But, in 1956, I did move to New York, and did ring her up and started to study with her. Of course, she was a good friend of Searle Wright’s. I’m not sure of the exact time I met Searle, but I remember one occasion, when Claire was married for the second time, she had a reception in her eighth floor apartment at 72nd and Broadway, where she had a two-manual pipe organ. Most of the New York organists were at that reception - Dr. Bingham and his wife, Searle Wright, and many others. At one point several of us were asked to play a piece, and I hesitated as I was over 21 and had just had a gin and tonic. Searle always swore that that was the best playing he ever heard me do. So, I said “Maybe I should sit down and have a gin and tonic every time I play a church service”, and we laughed about that for years.
The summer of 1958 – well, two things, in addition to meeting Searle – I had served for two years at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village at 2nd Ave. and 7th St. where I had a professional choir of 12 voices – nice way to start a career, with a professional choir of 12 voices. In those days, one of the New York newspapers would publish on a Saturday the music programs for the following day.
BB: The Herald-Tribune. I still have the clippings in my office.
RK: And, Searle saw my name, and saw that this person in the Village was doing some interesting organ and choral music (he told me this later).
That was one thing. Another was, I met Searle in Houston, TX in the summer of 1958 when I was one of the finalists in the national organ playing competition. Searle heard me. The following September, when Dale Peters decided to return to Texas after finishing his master’s degree at Columbia, Searle needed an assistant, and I was given the position. It was basically a two-year position, and I ended up staying eight years, and would’ve stayed even longer, but it was time to move on.
LM: What were your duties as his assistant?
RK: It was my job to be in charge of the music library, to make sure the 40-45 choir folders were ready, with the new music in place and old music removed, for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday rehearsals. Searle’s assistants usually always had to play the Monday and Wednesday noonday service. In those days there was a noonday service in the chapel on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the story being (how accurate it is, I don’t know) that Columbia University was first chartered by one of the King Georges, and there was something in the deed that said something had to be held in the chapel every day that the college was in session. Searle loved to tease Alec Wyton about this, saying, “You realize we’re the only royal chapel in New York City. We’re the only ones that have the right to wear maroon, royal red robes.” And, this would make Alec Wyton chuckle, because they also had red robes at the cathedral.
On a Monday noon, there was a Lutheran matins, which I usually played (or whoever the assistant was). It was a sung service, and the students had to sing two of the three weekly services as part of their scholarship, which gave us a certain leverage. Then, there was a general Presbyterian service on Wednesday noon for about 35 or 40 minutes. And, then on Friday, we had an Anglican-Episcopalian Eucharist. Sometimes Searle would play on a Friday, especially if Chaplain Crumb was doing the service. Chaplain Crumb, then – John Crumb - later became Bishop of Southern Ohio. First of all he went to the Church of the Ascension at 10th St. and Fifth Ave. Then he was elected Bishop of Southern Ohio, and subsequently Bishop of Western Europe before he retired. Searle and John worked together at Columbia from about 1952 to 1964.
BB: Was that how Searle went to Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati?
RK: No. There’s another story with Southern Ohio.
BB: Because he made his decision to go to Cincinnati when he was out in Lincoln. We had him out there to do an improvisation workshop. And, I would take him places, and it was like a tennis match.
RK: He wasn’t sure.
BB: Today he wasn’t going to do it, tomorrow he was, and this would vary several times during the day. Finally before one of the sessions, he said, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to make the call. Thank you for listening to me.” That’s how he decided to go to Christ Church, Cincinnati.
LM: Was the music program at Columbia already threatened at that point?
BB: Severely curtailed.
RK: Well, to finish about the duties of assistant organist, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there were organ recitals. Searle and I played one a month, and it was my job to be on hand to turn pages for the others. The most rewarding part of the job came in the summer time. Searle was gone and it was the assistant’s job to run the six-week summer program from the first of July to the middle of August. We had to organize a summer choir, and sometimes there were people from the winter choir that also stayed for the summer session. But, they were two distinct groups every year. And, we had four soloists, sometimes from the winter choir.
For those six weeks we had three recitals a week, a Tuesday and Thursday, plus the regular noonday services on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then, on Wednesday evening, for those six Wednesdays, we would have a very special recital. Marilyn Mason would play, or John Weaver, Leonard Raver and Daniel Pinkham. I’ll never forget the evening Richard Westenberg played. He played the Messiaen “La Nativite,” one of the early New York performances of the entire work. And, the New Yorker came out and said Olivier Messiaen was going to play the work himself, so the chapel was packed to the hilt! We laughed about that for years. Marilyn played several times.
In 1961, in my youthful exuberance and stupidity, we gave what was probably the second performance of the Durufle “Requiem” in New York. (Jack Ossewaarde had performed it at the 1956 convention at St. Bartholomew’s.) I decided to do it for the summer session in 1961 and played and conducted from the console. And, who was sitting on the front row but Robert Fountain, who was teaching choral conducting that summer at Union Seminary. He was, at that time, one of the nation’s outstanding choral conductors. I saw him come in and sit down and said to myself, “This was a mistake.” But, we did it and got through it. When I met the Durufles three years later and told them about it, it got me some points with them, I’ll tell you!
That was pretty much it for the assistant’s job. Oh, and Sundays the job was to turn pages for Searle. He did all the playing. Occasionally he was away and the assistant played then. Searle would improvise a prelude, and always play a major work for the postlude – a movement of a Vierne symphony (he was especially fond of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, which this gentleman here plays), a Bach prelude and fugue, or a Buxtehude prelude and fugue – always a major work.
There were three concerts a year, one just before Thanksgiving holiday, one in Lent, and one in May with full orchestra. The one in May was known as the Spring Festival. We would have the orchestra from Juilliard, which was in those days on Morningside Heights. And we would do major works – not just choral and orchestra – but things like the “Egdon Heath Overture”, the “Spitfire”, the whole “Choral Symphony” of Holst, which I don’t think had ever been performed in this country.
Also, the assistant’s job was to play an organ concerto at the Fall concert. And, I had the great privilege of doing the Bingham Concerto, which I had to learn in about four or five weeks because the concerts never started to take shape until the last couple of weeks. We did the Normand Lockwood Concerto, and we did this with minimal rehearsal time and minimal preparation time. But, you did it because you were expected to.
And then, for the Spring Festival, if there was an organ part in the score, the assistant would play it. And, I just have to tell you this funny story: One year for the Spring Festival, Searle decided to turn the whole chapel sideways, with the choir in the south balcony, the orchestra under the balcony, and me up in the choir loft about five miles away trying to watch. We opened the concert with, I want to say, the big Stanford Te Deum, with full chorus, full orchestra, and bombastic organ. The chapel was just overwhelmed with sound. The next piece on the program was the Suite from Henry V by William Walton. Herb Burtis had brought his harpsichord in from New Jersey, which he played. The second movement starts with this little chord on the harpsichord. Herb hit the chord, and a tile fell out of the dome. And the chapel was shut down for months while they redid the dome, or checked it. We all laughed about this, because with all the sound going on in the Stanford everything was fine, but this little chord from the harpsichord made a tile fall out of the ceiling. It didn’t hit anyone. Searle loved to remember that, and we joked about it until recent months, “Remember the time the tile fell out of the dome when Herb hit the chord on the harpsichord?”
BB: The old console had extra tabs on top of the stop jambs to operate the new stops in the dome. These weren’t operated by the combination system. I was playing one of the noonday recitals once. Ruth Ann and I were engaged and she was turning pages for me. Searle and I had worked it out in the “Piece Heroique” of Franck, in the echo section in the middle, that we’d do each one on a different manual, with the last one being up on the Brustwerk. Well, you had to prepare the dome reeds. And, I had forgotten to disable them, so that when I got to the echoes, the last one had the reeds on by mistake. Everybody jumped, including me, but I didn’t skip a beat. That’s what makes organ playing interesting. It is one of the most exciting organs in New York City, and there’s nothing like that room and its acoustics.
RK: One of the performances I remember was of the, talking about the sound of that chapel, “In Ecclesias” of Giovanni Gabrieli.
BB: With the brass in the various balconies of the chapel.
RK: And another time we did the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor, with those acoustics, and a choir on either side. It was a glorious sound.
But, talking about the organ – a few years prior to that, Searle was invited to play at the Guild’s mid-winter conclave in St. Louis. He decided he was going to present a work by Marcel Dupre, the “Vision,” which very few people played. He worked very hard on it and played it at the conclave. That was the year I was playing at the Chapel of the Incarnation, which was his old job. They were without an organist, and Searle excused me on Sundays. He had a place in his heart for that church, and it was Louise’s parish for many years. In fact, that’s where they met, Louise, Catherine, Viola and the whole family.
BB: The Meyer sisters.
RK: Right. Christmas Eve I had a midnight mass there, and got home late and to bed at probably two o’clock in the morning. And, I had a recital to play that following day at St. Thomas Church after evensong. Christmas happened to be a Sunday that year, and William Self had invited me to play the recital that day at 4, or 5 o’clock.
RK: At 8:00 a.m. on Christmas Day, the guard’s office, which was just opposite the entrance to St. Paul’s Chapel, called and woke me saying there was three feet of water in the north chamber of the organ. There was a trap door over the north chamber, and that night we had had a storm, which blew the trap door open and drenched the Great, Brustwerk, and part of the pedal. The guard said, “We’ve got men over there now.” And I said, “Stop, stop, stop! Don’t touch anything!” Searle always remembered that the last piece played on the organ had been “God Among Us”, played by one of the Union students in a noonday recital just before Christmas break. Well, we sure had something among us that morning. I went up there, and that is, of course, when we had to shut down the organ.
And, that’s when the rebuild took place, and is when Searle decided to add the vox in the box, because he wanted that theatrical sound, the electronic 32’ stops, and the big reed we were just talking about. So, that part of the organ was out of commission for a year, although we were able to use the south chamber. So, that flood let to the additions. He had always missed having a big reed, a vox humana, and 32’s. Of course, people said, “You don’t put electronic 32’ stops in St. Paul’s Chapel. How dare you?” But, he knew it would work– his ear told him.
BB: And it worked because of the room. You couldn’t have gotten away with that in a dry room.
RK: No question. Searle had a superb ear, whether it was in running a rehearsal, composing music, improvising, playing organ recitals, playing services, teaching. I don’t care what it was, I’ve never seen a more complete musician.
BB: You talked about the Final from the Fifth Symphony of Vierne. That’s the last thing I ever studied with him. Long after I left Union I stopped up to Binghamton while he was at the Congregational church. He had played it at one of my Friday lessons one time, and I was flabbergasted. It is a fantastic piece. It is a difficult piece in every way, musically and technically.
I had worked on it very hard, and called him to arrange a lesson since I had a business meeting to attend in nearby Hamilton, NY. So, I stopped by on the way back and met him at the Congregational church. He had gotten out his score and had done some work on it, too. That was another two-and-a-half hour lesson, on that piece alone. I still have all his markings and suggestions. It was fabulous, and the time went so fast. He was, again, very complimentary, and he would not take any money for the lesson. I said, “At least let me take you out for dinner.” He said, “All right, I do have to eat. I’m on this diet.” So we went to a restaurant he frequented a lot. This is the kind of generous man he was.
LM: What sort of things did he have to say to you about the piece?
BB: Well, I was playing it too fast, trying to observe Vierne’s metronome markings. He said, “That metronome marking is ridiculous. Slow it down. Just let the piece happen.” (Of course, since then the expose has come out in the magazines that the metronome markings were wrong in those pieces, and that they read the wrong side of the weight in the click metronome.)
He also talked about the construction of the piece, and how you should handle the three episodes before the theme comes back in the minor key, then again in the major with the triplets. He always talked about the pacing and the big line. He said it’s wonderful to get all the details, but if you don’t also have the big line then you lose the shape of the piece. He ALWAYS talked about the shape of the piece. I remember so well studying the Vierne “Triptyque” which includes the last piece that Vierne played before he died at Notre Dame, the “Stele pour un enfant defunt” I studied all three with Searle, and he would take great pains with those three little miniatures, talking about ways to phrase them, and pace them. I have all those markings in my score, and I treasure them. This is what I remember from him: using your ear, pacing, getting the big line, and musical playing. That’s what he wanted, musical playing.
RK: And, as a composer, he was always aware of the structure of the piece. And, it was the same with Bach, not just the French romantic composers. It was a question of clarity.
There are several things that have crossed my mind that need mentioning: First of all, Cincinnati. After I left the chapel, I stayed on at Columbia until 1972, earning a bachelor’s degree in French in 1969, and a master’s degree in French in 1972. My doctorate is in music from Northwestern University. But, my other degrees are in French from Columbia. So, I was still around even though I was no longer Searle’s assistant. In 1968 I went through the big turmoil at Columbia, when the whole thrust of the university changed. And, by 1971,the trustees had decided they weren’t going to fund a chapel music program because everything had become, well, sort of folkloric. The Catholics decided they would finally use the chapel (for years they had not), and we changed the seating so that it became a chapel in the round. This, of course, isolated more and more the so-called organ and choir loft. So, the whole scene changed, and the program became increasingly less funded.
By 1971 Searle was not in the position to do the sort of things he wanted to do. So, when Gerre Hancock decided to leave Christ Church, Cincinnati and move to New York, Searle was offered the position, and, of course, that is what Bruce was just talking about. And, fortunately for Louise, who was devastated after working for Searle for 30 years, she managed to take the job as Gerre Hancock’s secretary at St. Thomas Church. (She wasn’t prepared to leave New York when Searle did.)
BB: She was a native of Manhattan.
RK: E. 31st St., born just down the street from the Chapel of the Incarnation, she and her sisters and brothers. Three of them in particular were active in the choir, Louise, Catherine and Viola.
But, Searle went to Cincinnati, and, unfortunately, was very unhappy there. The dean of the cathedral wanted him to punch the time clock at the cathedral at 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. As Bruce has mentioned, Searle was a night owl, and did his best work between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. The dean gave him a very hard time about this, and there were a number of unpleasant confrontations. So he was very unhappy with this situation. I believe he was finally asked to leave, and the congregation rose up in Searle’s defense. So, he pacified them by staying an extra year. Many years later John Crumb (who knew me as Searle’s assistant, and who also confirmed me at the American Cathedral in Paris, when he was Bishop of Western Europe) told me in Paris, (I was in Europe quite a lot those days, and we would have lunch) “I was Bishop of the Southern Diocese of Ohio then, but I could do nothing. I could not interfere with the running of the cathedral because that was the dean’s precinct, not mine.”
When Searle left the church he stayed in Cincinnati for a year or two, and, I think played in some bars. He was a very good jazz pianist. So, he didn’t sit around idly.
Then, the Link professorship opened up at the State University of New York in his hometown in Binghamton. It was the Edward Link endowed chair. And, Searle knew Edward Link, the man who invented the Link Trainer, that, until recently, pilots would use to train themselves. The professorship was offered to Searle, so he left Cincinnati and moved back to Binghamton.
A student of his was organist at his home church, Trinity Episcopal Church. But, the position was open at the Congregational church, and Searle took that for the last 20 years of his life. He loved the Aeoian-Skinner organ there dearly, and presented Anglican music to the Congregationalists of Binghamton!
Another thing that should be mentioned about Binghamton, is while Searle lived in New York City in the forties (while he was organist at Chapel of the Incarnation), he was conductor of the Binghamton Choral Society. He would take the train up every Monday, commuting from New York City to Binghamton, for the rehearsals.
BB: Were you aware that he gave psychological tests to soldiers returning from World War II? He told me that, because I’m one of the few that plays his “Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue.” You play it, I play it, Fred plays it, and of course Marilyn, to whom it is dedicated.
RK: I just saw Marilyn this week, and told her about the memorial service they’re planning at St. Paul’s Chapel on October 17th, and said “wouldn’t it be wonderful if you played the “Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue.” She said, “Not now.” I still may try to talk her into it, though, and others, too. It’s a wonderful piece, and Searle was very proud that he had one more variation in it than Johann Sebastian Bach.
BB: The reason I knew about the psychological testing was I played the “Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue” on my master’s recital at St. Thomas, and I had to get a background on the piece for my program notes. So, he and I sat in the Pit at Union, where he and I had coffee and I wrote away furiously what he was saying, while I had him pinned down. He talked about his years at Columbia, taking, as you said, the non-degree program. He could have gotten a bachelor’s and master’s degree very easily.
RK: But, he became too involved with music professionally, which was what he was meant to do.
BB: But, then he told me, at the end of the war he gave these psychological tests to boys returning home so that they could be placed.
When did he get the FTCL?
RK: Well, I think he was given the Fellow of Trinity College, London at the ICO in 1957. He also had his FRCO, Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.
Those were wonderful years, and I met all of my professional contacts through Searle. I met Marilyn Mason in 1958 when she came to Union to teach. It was just across the street, of course, so she was over all the time. She had her boys and mother with her, and we had lunch often.
Searle was also the first person to encourage me to go to Europe. I would never have gone on my own. In 1964 my wife and I went, and we were only going to be in London for four days, and Searle had bought up tickets for the Proms, had arranged for Sir William McKie to have us all to lunch at his club, arranged for me to sit in the organ loft while Simon Preston played a Sunday afternoon recital and Searle and Elizabeth sat down in the nave, then afterwards, Simon, Searle, Elizabeth and I went out to a pub down the street, and later ended up at Simon’s apartment at 1:00 and talked until 3:00 a.m.
Searle inspired me to contact Marcel Dupre, which I did through S. Louis Elmer in 1966. And, I had met the Durufles in 1964, and went to Paris for the entire summer for the first time in 1966. Then I went every summer for 20 years, plus taught there for three full academic years, 1970 to 1973. I established all my European contacts mainly through Searle, and really owe him for anything I’ve been able to do.
LM: Did you do many oratorios at St. Paul’s Chapel?
RK: Oh, yes. If we did them in March, they would be done primarily with organ accompaniment. One year we did the Verdi “Requiem”. Searle conducted and played from the console, and I turned pages. Afterwards, the bass soloist said, “Please, please let me take the tape home and listen to it.” Searle thought highly of the soloist, whose wife was also in the choir, so, he very reluctantly let him take it home with him. Unfortunately, he left it on the subway, and none of us ever heard that tape.
BB: Earlier, when we were in the other room, you were talking about the premieres. He would premiere William Walton pieces, too. He premiered “The Twelve.”
RK: And we premiered the “English Mass” of Herbert Howells. I’d never seen a double dotted thirty-second note in my life until I saw the organ part in that piece! I never see that piece being performed – the “Requiem”, yes, but not the “English Mass”.
We did the American premiere of the little mass for boys’ voices by Benjamin Britten, which he used with the girls. There were so many premieres I couldn’t possibly remember them all without getting out the programs, which I do have.
LM: Do you have the tapes, too?
RK: Searle had most of them. I have a few, but I think he had them all.
BB: What’s going to become of those things, Ralph?
RK: Good question. I’ll never forget this one piece of Gustav Holst that has an organ fugue at the beginning, then the orchestra takes over.
BB: The “Choral Fantasia.”
RK: A wonderful, wonderful piece. We did it several times.
And, one year we did Lili Boulanger’s 24th Psalm, for brass, harp, organ and choir for the November concert. This is a funny story. It’s not a work you hear frequently. We could not find a harpist, but someone recommended a harpist that had recently escaped from Hungary. Someone in placement at Juilliard recommended her, and it was my job to get the score to her. I made contact with her, and she could hardly speak English. She told me to leave the score in a bar on the west side, at something like 30th and 9th Ave. I went to the bar, and the bartender said, “Oh, she just left. She’s just down the street,” and gave me the address. So, I found it and knocked at the door, which opened a just a crack, and I passed the score through this crack, and tried to make it clear to her when and where the rehearsal was, all the time talking through this crack! So, I went back up town and told Searle, “We’ve got a cuckoo playing this harp part who doesn’t know right from left.”
Well, sure enough, she showed up for the rehearsal. Rehearsals were always tense, because Searle had a habit of putting too much music on a program. You didn’t mind so much at the program, but the rehearsals were difficult because of the tremendous amount of music to cover in the allotted time. So, anyhow, I had warned him about this woman. She came in and looked at the harp, saying, “Oh, I can’t play a harp with red strings.” (American harps have red strings to show the separation of the octaves.) Searle told her she needed to play, so we began. She really couldn’t play, and just did glissandos. Searle didn’t know what to do, because he wanted to do the piece very badly. For some reason he couldn’t dismiss her, so his solution was to finally put her up behind the altar so nobody could hear her, and he told the brass and me to play louder. We laughed about that for years. I think her name was Fairy Helny.
BB: Bob Baker always said Searle’s programs were comprehensive. Talk about a study in literature! Everybody at Union said, “Whatever you do, get to Searle’s program at Columbia. You’ll be exposed to literature you’ll probably never hear again.”
RK: He’d go to the Three Choirs Festival and bring back works that nobody else had ever heard. When I first went there, Dr. Dickinson, at 92, would come to the concerts, and the Binghams. I’m still friendly with the Bingham family.
BB: Searle would go get Seth Bingham for programs at Union. I remember playing in an organ class for Dr. Bingham when Bob Baker had to be away. Bob always ran organ class, so Searle went and got Seth, who arrived in his beret. He was a nice man.
RK: And, Madame Bingham would sit me down at Chock-Full O’Nuts at 116th St. and Broadway and teach me my irregular verbs because she was Swiss French.
BB: He told us about retiring from Madison Ave. Presbyterian Church, with a twinkle in his eye, saying, “There are three ways to get off an organ bench: You can get off voluntarily; you can die; or you can be removed by the ecclesiastical authorities. I chose option one.”
RK: Both he and Madame Bingham had a wonderful sense of humor. Their son Alfred died a few years ago. His daughter is a good friend of mine. She lives in Chicago, and raised four boys. Eleanor, his daughter-in-law, is 95 and quite alive in California. “Piccolette”, otherwise known as Frances, is in a nursing home outside of New York City. Her daughter is nearby to look after her.
LM: At his 86th birthday party in Bethlehem, I overheard Searle Wright say to Marilyn Mason, “Seth was a young old man.”
RK: And a very generous one. He wrote many reviews for The American Organist, not the magazine we know by that title today. He got me interested in the French school, telling me about his encounters with Widor and others, and encouraged me, along with Madame Bingham, to study French. This is one of the reasons I was able to deal so well with the Durufles.
Searle, as a composer, would work until the wee hours of the morning. His organ and choral works are known, but he also wrote a lot of chamber music that is not well-known. He has a wealth of material.
LM: How did he do it all?
RK: And, there was also his interest in the theatre organ, which I never saw as the primary avenue.
BB: No. It was not.
RK: But, he loved it, and I have been in his presence when he talked to George Wright and Billy Nalle. When I called Billy the other week, where he has retired to his hometown of Ft. Myers, Florida, he was so overcome all I got was silence.
Frequently, after our Friday night dinners at Mother Schraft’s, we would go over to the Music Hall after the show was over, and go up to one of the studios. For two hours, Searle and Billy would take turns playing, and George Wright, if he happened to be in town. Searle would frequently visit George Wright in California, and Searle would teach George a Franck Choral, and George would help Searle with his theatre organ playing. At the 1956 convention, when George Wright was supposed to play the milkman’s matinee at 3:00 a.m. at the Paramount Theatre at 43rd and Broadway, at the last minute he wasn’t able to, so Searle took over, entertaining several hundred organists.
LM: He told me that was his favorite organ in the United States.
RK: That organ was sent to Wichita, Kansas, and they built an auditorium for it called Century Two, and they moved Billy from Morningside Heights to Wichita to play it for fifteen or twenty years.
The theatre organ was always dear to Searle’s heart, but it was not the main thrust of his artistic career.
BB: To Searle, music was a way of life. He ate, drank and slept music. His days started at noon. He played a recital here in the late 1970s, and took the bus down, loving the trip. We had a custodian at the time named Alan Hunter. And, it turned out that Searle and Alan had been to camp together in the 1920s. I just left Searle at the church to practice, and Alan said to me the next day, “You know he practiced until 4:00 in the morning.” One time he was working on a very difficult piece, and called Mina Bell at 4:00 in the morning, saying, “That piece is HARD!”
RK: She must’ve suggested it.
BB: But, he always used to say, “There are no difficult pieces, only unfamiliar ones. Your job as a musician is to make that which is unfamiliar familiar.” And communicate it.
RK: What we’ve done here this afternoon is just the tip of the iceberg. It will take a major biographer skilled in the techniques of biography to cover all this material. All the programs are still in existence, and need to be researched. It was too rich a life to cover.
It was always interesting to have lunch with Searle and his mother and father. He lost his father while I was his assistant, and it was the weekend of a Spring Festival. Clarence died on Wednesday or Thursday, and Searle went up to Binghamton to make arrangements for the funeral, came back to conduct the festival, then went back up to Binghamton that night for his father’s funeral.
Clarence was the opposite of Josephine. She was the dowager empress, very stately and polite. Clarence was very quiet and reserved. A few times we were in Butler Hall when Virgil Fox walked in and joined us. Then Josephine would really laugh. But, she was generally more reserved.
They made two annual trips to New York, arriving for a week for the November concert, and then for a week at the May concert. They did not usually come to the March concert. After the school cut the funding for the chapel music program, Searle went to Cincinnati from about 1971 to 1978, and took his mother with him to live in a nursing home there. That is where she died. She was buried in the family plot in Binghamton.
LM: How did Mr. Wright become affiliated with Union?
BB: Well, he had studied improvisation with Frederick Schlieder, and was hired to succeed him in 1952, I believe. And, they always had several teachers on the faculty there. Bob Baker was a close friend, and Harold Friedell was also on the faculty.
RK: Charlotte Garden would come in from Plainfield, New Jersey several days a week, and Union would avail itself of all the great organists. There were a lot of them, some greater than others, and it was an easy way to get a distinguished faculty.
BB: That’s really what made Union what it was.
RK: Morningside Heights became this Pantheon, like sitting on a hill in Athens. There was a program almost every night at Juilliard, Union, St. Paul’s Chapel, and MacMillan Theatre, where Otto Luening was delving in electronic music. He and Searle were also good friends, and we would often go out to Oriental restaurants in Morningside Heights that he liked to frequent. Thos were interesting evenings.
What can I say? This was certainly better than any university education. Searle Wright’s knowledge was encyclopedic. I cannot imagine a more thoroughly trained, competent, inspiring musician in the field of Sacred Music.
BB: Searle liked to talk, and talk, and talk, and he said, “I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” He was very articulate, not only in music, but was conversant in many interesting fields.
RK: I have to tell you about a funny picture I saw in Ann Arbor last week with James and Mary Ann Wilkes. Dr. Wilkes is retired assistant associate dean of the School of Chemical Engineering, and is an amateur organist. He helped me with my lectures this past week, getting the computer and projector arranged through the school of engineering. The music school didn’t have one. Jim put my documents into power point. We went through all of Searle’s pictures. There was one from 1997 when he was on a diet, and he is standing in front of about 10 bottles of salad dressing, smiling and looking at all these little bottles of Worcestershire Sauce... (End of tape)