A Conversation with William Teague
By Lorenz Maycher
William Teague has had a distinguished career as concert
organist, teacher, organist-choirmaster and recording artist. He has spent his entire adult life in
WT: I haven’t a CLUE as to what you’re expecting me to talk about!
LM: Well, how about telling us where are you from originally?
WT: My home was
LM: How did you get interested in the organ?
WT: I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t know I was to be an organist. I don’t remember this specifically, but my mother has told me that even as a very small child I would sit in front of the window, put a hymn book down in front of me, and play my fingers on the windowsill, as though I was playing the organ.
There were other pulls. I thought about going into the ministry, and also had a very strong inclination to go into medicine. I wanted to be a surgeon. And I’m still fascinated with medicine. My grandfather was a doctor, and there are scientists in the family, so I did lean a little in that direction. But, the music won out.
LM: When did you actually begin studying?
WT: I started
studying piano when I was in the second grade.
And, would you believe my first teacher only died this last week? She was 96.
She was wonderful. She got me
started. And, if I had a good piano
lesson, she would let me go have five minutes at the organ. She was the organist at that time at the
When I started organ lessons with her, I would play for the Sunday school’s general assembly in the main church. One Sunday they came to me before the second service and said that my teacher, who was then organist at the Methodist church, had been rushed to the hospital to have an emergency appendectomy and that I’d have to play. I was twelve at the time. It was most embarrassing, for when it came time for her to return to the church, they said they would rather have me stay than to have her. That was quite awkward to, at the age of twelve, replace your teacher.
I had a friend who had been organist at that church named
Helen Horn. Helen had gone on to be a
very fine organist, and was a roommate of Claire Coci at the
Dr. Wiesemann was a very strong disciplinarian, and worked
very hard with me on theory and piano and straightened out some very bad habits
that I had developed. I finished high
school when I was only fifteen. When I
went to register for my senior year, the superintendent said I only needed one
fourth of a credit, and told me the school would just give me that in return
for all the playing I had done for the school.
So, instead of enrolling for my senior year in high school, he suggested
that I enroll for my freshman year at the junior college, which was also based
I had one year at the junior college. Then Dr. Wiesemann felt I really needed to
After studying a year privately with Dr. Wiesemann, for which I was receiving no college credit, my father and mother thought I really should be somewhere where I was receiving credit. Dora Poteet Barclay was the great teacher at SMU, and she had also studied with Dr. Wiesemann. Dr. Wiesemann called Miss Poteet and arranged for me to have an audition at SMU. She awarded me a scholarship. So, I was with her up until my senior year until Dr. McCurdy called one day and said he wanted me to appear on such-and-such a day at the Curtis for an audition. I said, “Why?” and he said, “to be a student.”
To back up just a bit: Dr. Wiesemann always had David Johnson and me play every year for Dr. McCurdy from Curtis, Arthur Poister from Oberlin, and Palmer Christian, from the University of Michigan. And so those three great teachers had been aware of us all along.
LM: They would come
WT: They were on
tour, and Dr. Wiesemann would see to it that we got to them wherever they
happened to be so we could play for them.
They watched us grow. When we
graduated high school, we were both offered scholarships to study at all three
places. My father said I was too young
to go to
While I was in
LM: What kind of repertoire did you play?
WT: Oh, nothing but
jazz music. It was all popular
music. At that time I also had a radio
program every week playing jazz on the organ from WRR in
But, anyway, Donald would come up on weekends and we would
visit while everybody else was skating.
When he finished high school, I told him, “You must go to SMU and work
with Dora Poteet”, which he did. Robert
LM: Can you tell me something about Dora Poteet’s teaching?
WT: She was very,
very strict and had an incredible ear.
She could detect the slightest mistake.
All the times I heard Dora play, I heard her split only one note, and
never heard her play a wrong one.
Splitting that one note, the first note in the right hand of the A Minor
Chorale, threw her into a funk for six weeks.
She could not abide with a mistake that could’ve been prevented. She was a pupil of Dupre and graduated from
the conservatory at
LM: Where did you have your lessons?
WT: At SMU on that awful Hillgreen-Lane organ in McFarlin Auditorium.
LM: Was it really that bad?
WT: Terrible – just
terrible. The auditorium was a dreadful
room, and the organ was a dreadful organ.
But, that was beside the point.
She and Mildred Andrews, for instance, both had dreadful organs to teach
on, but they turned out great pupils.
You just didn’t let the organ get in the way of the music. But, it was a thick sounding organ. I remember when David Craighead, who was also
with us at Curtis, played in
LM: Did you hear any
outstanding organ recitals in
WT: Oh, everybody
came through there, not only in
LM: Were you already
WT: No. Well, I knew about
LM: Roy Perry?
WT: No, I didn’t know
anything about him, either. As a matter
of fact, the first inkling I had of
LM: Tell me about your time at Curtis.
WT: Well, of course you can’t pay and go there. It is a total scholarship school. They accepted absolutely no excuses from anybody for anything. I missed one class one time because one of my air force buddies from the war came through and we were visiting and I lost track of the time and missed a theory class. Within 45 minutes of the time of that class the registrar had me in her office. I started to give her an explanation for missing the class, and she, “We’re not interested in your explanations or your reasons. You simply will not miss another class. Is that perfectly clear?” I said, “Yes. It is perfectly clear.” That’s the way they were.
McCurdy was a slave driver. We had to do seven new pieces a week. We learned them one week, and had to have them from memory the next week – just awful. Our first year we all had a particular project. I had to do the entire Orgelbuchlein. Herbert Nanney had to do all of the six trio sonatas. It seems like someone else had to learn almost the complete works of Karg-Elert! We all had terrible programs. So, I had to do four preludes from the Orgelbuchlein a week, in order – learn all the notes one week without any mistakes, and the next week by memory. Then, you also had three other major works. A prelude and fugue was one work, and you always had a Bach prelude and fugue in the works. So, I had to do seven pieces a week – memorize seven and learn seven new ones. That was just for organ.
All the organ students had to minor in piano. My piano teacher was Vladimir Sokoloff. He was a wonderful piano teacher, and was
also head of the piano department at the Friends of Music, which was a sister
school of the Curtis there in
Then, another funny thing I remember is that Thomas
Schippers, the great conductor, was an organ student there from the age of
14. (He eventually got kicked out because
he played a recital without getting permission.
You absolutely did not do this – play an outside recital without first
getting permission. But, that’s another
story.) In one of the classes we had to
do a lot of reading of transposed instruments from a score. Tommy didn’t have a clue, and I kept feeding
him information under my breath – what instrument was transposed and
where. The ridiculous point of that is,
of course, he later became a great conductor.
After he got kicked out of the Curtis Institute, if I remember this
correctly, he got on the train and went to
McCurdy pushed all of us beyond where we thought we could go. He never demanded that we carbon copy him. Some teachers do, and say, “You’ve come to study with me, therefore you must do it exactly as I do it.” McCurdy was not like that. He wanted us to develop our own individuality. But, if we did something that was stylistically wrong, or used some absurd registration, then he would straighten us out. We all ended up with enormous repertoires because we had to keep every piece we had learned at Curtis memorized and up to performance level at all times. You can imagine how much music that would be if you were learning seven new pieces a week.
In addition to that, I taught piano, organ and theory at the Episcopal Academy in Overbrook, where I followed Richard Purvis. That was a wonderful experience – just marvelous. I loved working with the boys. They were tremendous. What an experience to play for chapel with 700 boys singing the hymns. They had a great tradition, and McCurdy had taught there at one time, and a long line of other very distinguished people had been on the faculty. Richard Purvis wrote his “Jubilate Deo” as a processional for the boys at the Episcopal Academy. And the first time I heard them coming into the chapel singing it I came totally undone, thinking, “Oh, I don’t think I can get through this!” It just made the hair stand up on the back of your neck it was so exciting.
When I first went to
But, then the war came along and I joined the air force and
was gone for four years. The day war was
declared, I remember the organist who was the former organist at St.
Elizabeth’s was to get out and come back there.
And, I had just had an interview with the Presbyterian Church in
Overbrook, and had been offered that job and had accepted it. When I got back to the
When I went home that summer, and was ready to come back to
Curtis, my father said, “Don’t you think you had better check with the draft
board to see if you’re going to be there long enough to make it worth your
time?” Well, the draft board informed me
that my notice was already in the mail.
I did not want that to happen. At
that particular time, they were having a recruiting drive at Perrin Air Force
In the meantime, Lucille and I had married. I would kiss her goodbye in the morning, not knowing where I might end up that day, only to return for supper that night. So, I spent the whole war 30 miles from my hometown, which is absolutely ridiculous. But, it did give me a chance to do a lot of practicing and playing in the area. I did lots of concerts, and they were always very anxious to have military people play.
After the war I went back to Curtis and became Dr. McCurdy’s
assistant. As a matter of fact, since I
was married, Dr. and Mrs. McCurdy asked Lucille and me if we would consider
coming and living in their home and looking after their two children while they
did their big transcontinental tours. (Mrs. McCurdy was a concert harpist, and
sometimes played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) So, Lucille and I moved out to Wynnewood,
where they had a very beautiful home, out on the
We had one choir rehearsal a week on Friday at 6 o’clock,
when everybody left downtown
McCurdy required all of the students in organ class to be present at that rehearsal to learn the repertoire. We never knew which one of us was going to play. He would just say, “Teague, you play” or, “Nanney, you play tonight.” And we would have to sit there and sight-read. I remember one time Herbert Nanney had to sight-read the Verdi Requiem. You know that Dies Irae just goes like crazy! McCurdy was very colorful in his language. Herb kept missing an F-sharp. McCurdy finally turned to him and said, “F-sharp, you ass! F-sharp!” Herb turned to me and said, “What key is this damned thing in anyway?” We never knew what we were going to get into, but it was always very colorful.
And, I remember one time –three of the Presbyterian churches
combined, Second Presbyterian Church, where he was, First Presbyterian Church
where there was a big Casavant, and Chambers-Wiley, which is down on
He always had the idea that if you could survive him and the Curtis, you could survive anything. And, believe me, that’s about the truth.
McCurdy was very colorful in his use of the organ. We registered things to the extreme. He’d say, “I want you to make every piston change and registration change that you can possibly do – not because that is the way you will necessarily want to do it, but because you will be able to play anything.” We all had to learn this, and we called it “playing the console.” We had to sit perfectly still. If you have ever watched David Craighead play, he is the prime example. David can punch more pistons per second, and not move a muscle except in his thumb, than anybody I ever saw in my life. So, we had to do enormous registrations, way beyond the amount that was required.
LM: What was the organ like at Curtis?
WT: That organ was just marvelous – a big five manual Aeolian-Skinner in a dreadful room. Curtis Hall is quite small. It doesn’t seat more than 150 or 200 people. The stage is only the size of a chamber music stage. There were two rows of boxes on the sides where Mrs. Zimbalist and her guests and faculty sat, while the students sat on the main floor. So, it was a nerve-wracking job to play there. You just didn’t make a mistake.
LM: Where did you practice?
WT: At Curtis Hall as much as we could. There was a dreadful little Aeolian practice organ down in the basement. But, we all had churches, and the trick there was to get a church that was heated in the winter time so you could practice. It was very difficult. But, I wouldn’t take anything in the world for all that experience. You can’t buy it. For instance, we had tea every Wednesday afternoon. I thought, “Tea?” It was almost compulsory. Mrs. Zimbalist, who was Mary Louise Curtis – it was her school, literally – would come for tea at 3:30, and she always had a guest. We never knew who that guest was going to be. It might be Toscanini, Bruno Walter, or Lotte Lehmann. It could be anybody who was in town, usually to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. We would all come in to the common room, and they would just be sitting over there on the window cushions and we could go over and visit with them very informally. Or, her guest might be one of the faculty: Rudolf Serkin, Piatigorsky, Marcel Tabiteau, or William Kincaid. We wouldn’t think of missing the tea because you’d never have another opportunity to just visit with someone like that. Leonard Bernstein was there, Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem, too.
LM: While you were a student at Curtis, did you ever play at Wanamaker’s?
WT: Oh, yes, all the Curtis kids got to play at Wanamaker’s. And that was great fun. We always had to have someone with us to help with the registration because the organ was so big. And we only had the organ for two hours the night before to practice. I can’t remember, but it seems like it takes about five minutes to get all the blowers going for it. We didn’t do meticulous registration on it, but painted with a broad stroke. I remember one time when Donald McDonald was doing the registration for me I said, “Donald, I need a French Horn.” He said, “How about five of them? Here they are”, and ran his hand across them. I’d say, “I need a flute solo.” He’d say, “It’s on the fifth manual. Here are six of them”, then brush his hand across all of them. Or, “I need some strings. Where are they?” “Bottom manual, 78 of them.” That was always great fun!
I had a most unusual experience there once when I played Robert Elmore’s “Rhumba.” It wasn’t even published yet, and I had a copy of his manuscript. They had concerts there every day, and still do. After I had played it, the store manager came running up to the organ and said, “Are you the one who just played that piece?” I said, “Yes”, and I was really quite terrified because he was really quite angry. He said, “Never play it again in here. Everybody stopped buying and listened to you play. That piece cost us thousands of dollars!” Well, Bob Elmore got a great, huge bang out of that! It was very exciting to play that organ, but controlling it was quite difficult. But, after you learned the code of the stops – it is all color-coded – then you could cope with it.
That was in the days when Mary Vogt was the organist there. She was one of the store’s original organists. To see Mary get up there and play – she was very small physically – was something. She had a newspaper rolled up and she would just smack the stops.
LM: She really did that?
WT: Oh, yes!
LM: You saw her do that?
WT: Yes, and it was just wonderful fun to watch it. She would also stand up on the pedals because she couldn’t reach the stops at the top, and she’d just BANG them with the newspaper. She played really quite well – for that type of thing, transcriptions and such.
During Lent, they would have a formal Lenten concert with organ and full orchestra in the evening. McCurdy often accompanied them – played the organ part – because he had done them for so long. They would have virtually the entire Philadelphia Orchestra up there on the organ screen. It didn’t look that big from downstairs, but the screen right under the organ display pipes is large enough to put the entire orchestra up there. McCurdy was used to the time lag, and all that sort of business. It was a revelation to hear him do something like the Brahms Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra with an enormous choir.
LM: Did you ever hear Walter Baker?
WT: Oh, yes. Walter and I were good friends. He was organist at the
But, Walter was a fabulous organist – fabulous. Even when he was much older, and close to the time he died, I heard him play in a-recital at St. Bartholomew’s. There were several people on the program. Walter played Maleingreu’s “Tumult in the Praetorium.” We had been sitting together. Right before he played, he turned to me and said, “I am going to play the hell out of this organ. Hang on!” And, he marched up to that enormous organ and did exactly that. It just brought the house down. He was way up in years and in terrible health. But, he always had nerves of steel. Nothing could throw him. He was absolutely brilliant, and his playing just gave you chills.
LM: Did Dr. McCurdy ever talk about Lynnwood Farnam?
WT: Occasionally, but
not as much as I would have liked. He
told us about how Farnam had improvised his famous Toccata for a wedding. And, he said Farnam was a very calm person,
and could forgive you “for making a mistake once. But, only a fool would make the same mistake
twice.” He had heard Farnam play the
complete works of Bach in
LM: Don’t you think Dr. McCurdy’s teaching was probably similar, since he studied with Farnam?
WT: Well, I don’t
know. McCurdy was very hyper. He was very small physically, and was in
constant motion because he had
McCurdy would always have us play the piece all the way through to see what we were going to do with it. And then, if you did anything with which he didn’t agree – he had almost a photographic memory, and could tell you everything he didn’t like and why he didn’t like it, and would suggest what he would do to it, stylistically. He could even tell what fingering you were using without watching your hands, and would say things like, “You didn’t cross under there with your thumb, did you? I would.”
LM: Was he inspiring as a teacher, or just terrifying?
WT: Both. I was never as terrified of him as the others were because I knew him so well – and especially after we moved in with him, because he would tell me what he was going to do in advance. For instance, we had organ class every week. And, that was just enough to kill you.
LM: How many people were in your class?
WT: Well, it varied. When I went there before the war there were, say, maybe six. After the war we all came back, so there was a big mob. And we all had to play. They were terrifying. There would sit David Craighead, George Markey, Herbert Nanney, and Donald McDonald. And you had to play for all of them. Invariably McCurdy would single someone out and just crucify him. When Lucille and I were living with him, on the night before organ class he would say at dinner, “Now, Billy” (he always called me “Billy” – I don’t know why, but it was always “Billy” with him). He’d say, “Billy, who shall we get tomorrow in class? Shall I nail George Markey to the wall? Or, shall I get Donald McDonald? Or, how about Herb Nanney - we haven’t done him recently. Shall we just fix him tomorrow?” I’d say, “Oh, don’t ask me that, Dr. McCurdy. I wouldn’t think of such a thing.” And he’d say, “Well, I’ll get one of them. And, if you open your little pink trap, I’ll fix you the next week.” As we’d get home after class, he’d say, “I told you I was going to nail George Markey to the wall. Wasn’t that fun! Didn’t he squirm like a worm!” It was all pre-planned, but no one ever caught on except me, because I was in on it.
LM: I’m surprised anyone ever came back!
WT: Well, we were pretty terrified. And, the one thing about him that I never really liked was that he used, sometimes, sarcasm in his teaching. He could deflate you in an instant. When I came back from serving in the air force four years, I thought I had kept up my technique and was playing well. At the first class, he said, “WELL, Mr. Teague is back with us. He has maintained his technique, and he is going to show us all how you should play the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor.” I’ll never forget this. I sat down and played it from memory, and I thought it went quite well. When I got through playing – DEAD SILENCE. NOTHING happened for about a full minute, which seemed like a lifetime. Finally, McCurdy said, “Doesn’t it make you ill to think how badly you play now, and how well you played earlier on? I’m just going to go throw up. Class is dismissed.” Well, I was so crushed and so totally deflated that I nearly gave up the organ that day. I went home to Lucille and was in such shock that I didn’t know whether I could go back to school or not.
He knew that I had a great ego. We all had enormous egos, and could all play before we ever got there. And, he would just knock that ego to pieces. It didn’t make any difference who it was. But, then he would build us back up.
But, I came as near to giving up music that day as I have ever thought about doing it in my life. That just about ruined me. He would not always do that in front of others, but he did it to me in front of the whole class. That’s the only time he embarrassed me in public.
But, we were great friends – enormously good friends, and we stayed that way. We stayed in contact constantly up until he died. He stayed in touch with all his students, and we all adored him and would do anything for him.
LM: After all you’ve just told me, his students still adored him?
WT: He would give you the shirt off his back. He would do anything for his students. I have seen him go out of his way to do all sorts of kind things – like get jobs for us. He knew exactly what kind of job each of us needed. He got me the job at the Episcopal Academy. How he knew I’d fit in out there I haven’t a clue. Out of all of us in the class, he singled me out to go there.
We had a great time in
Some things have changed, of course. When we were there the dress was very formal. We wore suits and ties to school – no sports jackets and no sports shirts. All the girls wore dresses, hose and heels. When I went back, they were all in jeans, T-shirts and sandals. It was an awful shock - it had become so informal. I went to a clarinet senior recital, and the boy walked out on stage in a pair of baggy pants and a green T-shirt. I nearly swallowed. I said to the person next to me, “My, the dress code has certainly changed since we were here.” She said, “Yes, but hold onto your seat.” And, I could not believe what he could do with that clarinet. You could not even hear the sound start, it was so pianissimo. It grew out of nowhere, and would disappear into nowhere. He had the most beautiful, long phrases – of course, we’d had that with Marcel Tabiteau, and his great student, John Delancy.
But, there was this kind of playing in all the departments. The school had its own symphony, and if there were someone coming in to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra who needed more practice time, or who was premiering a new work, for instance, it was entirely too expensive to practice with the Philadelphia Orchestra, so, they’d come to the Curtis and practice with the orchestra there. We could go to these rehearsals and hear a new work, or listen to Serkin prepare for a concerto appearance. We weren’t there just to become organists. We were becoming musicians. Everybody there was headed for a concert career. Although the school had been accused of being a factory, and we played the entire repertoire, I never felt like the organ department was just cranked out. I never could figure out what the McCurdy stamp was. You could always tell a McCurdy pupil, but none of us played alike. I don’t play like David Craighead, but we were both in the same class.
LM: Did you know Richard Purvis?
WT: Yes. I think he played the organ more like McCurdy than any of the rest of us – particularly in his use of registration. Did you know he was a prisoner of war?
WT: He was. And, in fact, he was missing for so long that
we all thought he was dead, and there were actually memorial services held for
him all over the
LM: What year did you graduate from Curtis?
WT: 1948. I was a senior at SMU when I was accepted at Curtis in 1941. But, they did not accept credits from anywhere else, so I had to start all over! Then, I was in the service for four years, and did not return to Curtis until 1946. So, with time out in the service, it took me ten years to get a bachelor’s degree! I was the best-educated bachelor in the country! But, the degree from Curtis was the ultimate then. And, academically, you were not required to have the advanced degrees as now.
I did, however, want to go on to Union Theological Seminary
to take an advanced degree. Hugh Porter
was head of the school then. I had just
had my interview with him and we were sitting in his office. He said to me, “I see no need for you to come
When I got there, he told me, “You’re leaving on an early
morning flight tomorrow to see about a church job in
So, I flew down there. It was still cold up here, and I arrived in a topcoat and wool suit and about fainted dead away when I stepped into that heat. It was so hot, and nothing was air-conditioned. I arrived at the church, and there was an E.M. Skinner with no general pistons, but with a beautiful sound. The choir house was an absolute shambles, and so was the parish hall. After I met with the vestry and senior warden they offered me the job. I told them no, I didn’t think I wanted it. They asked me why, and I said, “Do you want me to be truthful or tactful?” They said truthful. I said, “Just look at this place. The parish hall should be condemned.” They said, “It has.” “And, the choir house – I can look through the floor and see the ground! IT should be condemned too.” They said, “It has been.” That took me by surprise, but I continued “And the organ – I’m used to a big five manual organ with lots of pistons. This one doesn’t have any, and it needs an enormous amount of work. I can’t see any reason for me to come down here and get into this mess.”
They said, “Well that really is too bad. We’re sorry about that. We’re aware of the condition of the church
and organ. That’s why we are going to
build a new set of buildings. Wouldn’t
you like to see the plans?” and they got out a set of blueprints. I was very naïve at the time, could tell this
was going to be a major job. I said,
“Let me ask you a very blunt question”, and I turned to the senior warden, whom
I didn’t know at that time – (I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do it later) –
“Is this going to be a reality within our lifetime, or is this just a
dream? If I come down here I don’t want
to be stuck with this mess for years on end.”
They said, no, they were well into the plan and wanted me to come on
board now to supervise the layout of the music suite and new organ and get
everything just right. I said, “But the
time frame – is this ten years away or three?” And they said, “It will be done in three segments: The first will be completed in three years,
then the church in the next three, then the rest in the last stage.” I changed my mind, took the job and have been
That was a glorious experience. I was involved in all the building committee
meetings, was given carte blanche with the design of the organ, and was able to
see to it that we had good acoustics. We
were working with Cram & Ferguson in
The upshot to all that was they bought out the contract with Cram & Ferguson and gave it to the local architect. He was very sympathetic to the acoustics and the music. I had a donor for the organ who gave me carte blanche. We signed the contract for the organ before we signed the contract for the church. Literally, the size and layout of the organ dictated the geometry of what happened with the rest of the building. I did not get the organ put where I wanted it, in the rear gallery. The building committee, and those with influence at the time, did not want it there. They wanted it up in the front, so that’s where it is. I wanted the organ divided on both sides of the chancel until I realized on the blueprints this would put it right by the clergy offices. My practicing would disturb them, and eventually we would have a conflict. So we put it all on one side so that it would be as far away from the offices as possible. It is not the ideal location because the congregation gets a reflected sound. It has to bounce off a wall before they get the sound. It came out well, though.
I actually reduced the size of the organ. It originally had two more divisions on it, a Bombarde division and a Positiv division, and the console was to be five manuals, but with a rather skimpy Choir. We were doing a lot of oratorios at St. Mark’s at that time, and I decided I would rather have a big English-style Choir that would be more useful for accompanying. And, I felt we didn’t need the Bombarde because the organ was just bristling with reeds already, with two sets on the Swell, and reeds in the Pedal and reeds in the Choir, and reeds in the Solo. I wanted a big Solo with lots of color. We brought over the French Horn from the old church, incidentally.
LM: Were you talking with Mr. Harrison at this point?
WT: Yes, Donald Harrison. The organ’s design was all worked out with Mr. Harrison and Roy Perry. I wanted an English Horn, Flute Harmonique and big strings up on the Solo for the oratorios and anthems. The Great was really quite large, and I didn’t see the need for a Positiv. I could kick myself for not keeping that in the design. There were also originally four 32’s, which I thought was too luxurious, so I got rid of two. I wish I’d kept the small reed, because the Contra Ophicleide is just way too big. And, I took out the 32’ string.
LM: What was the music program like when you first arrived at St. Mark’s?
WT: They had a long
history of boys and men, and it had been a paid choir in the early 1900’s. But, this had stopped by the time I
arrived. The choir was mixed, and there
was a good children’s choir. The lady
who was organist there, Bertha Moore, had come to substitute for two Sundays
and had stayed for twenty years. She was
an absolutely wonderful person and we all adored her. The assistant was also the secretary of the
parish, and she helped with the junior choirs.
The funniest thing was, when I got there, I had never heard a choir from
I just started in. At the first rehearsal – and this was before we even had tape recorders and everything was recorded on wire – I said, “We’re coming into a brand new era. I want to preserve what you have been doing, and we’re going to record the Venite and the Jubilate Deo” (because I just could not believe what I was hearing). They recorded it, thinking they were doing something just grand for the archives. Afterwards I asked them to not become angry with me, but the first thing they needed to do was learn to speak English that was understandable. “You don’t put any of the final consonants on the words. I can’t understand a word you sing. ‘The Lord is a Great God’ becomes “The Lah is a Greh Gah’.” So, we learned to speak the canticles, putting all of the word in. On Sunday mornings we simply said the canticles until they could pronounce every word clearly. After about a month, then, we started singing them again. And by then I had won them over. I was from the South, too, and I can sing in a Southern accent, but I don’t like to do that. We became great friends.
I remember the first junior choir rehearsal I attended. They sang the Mozart “Alleluia” for me, and it was pretty bad. I just rolled up my sleeves and said, “Now let’s learn how to sing it correctly.” I eventually had 150 in that choir. They were tremendous. They could sing anything. I never told them anything was too hard or too high, and they sang everything from memory so they could watch me.
I hired an octet for the adult choir because all the
services were broadcast. They had been
on the air for years, and I believe it is the longest running religious
broadcast in the country. The vestry
told me they would give me anything I asked for, just as long as I didn’t ask
for something I really didn’t need.
That’s the way they operated.
When I worked out my first budget, Fr. Walters said, “Now let’s double
it, because they’re going to be so shocked when they see it they’ll probably
cut it by half.” He called me after that
vestry meeting and said to me, “I feel very badly about this budget
business. They approved the entire
thing.” They said it was more than they
had anticipated, but they were going to give me whatever I wanted. I asked him what I should do with this double
budget, though, and he said, “Spend it.
You were under budgeted to begin with.
Start here, and we will continue to raise it
each year.” That was the understanding I
had with the vestry from then on, and that is the way we always worked. So, when I told them I wanted to hire section
leaders to come into the choir, they were perfectly agreeable to it. They were wonderful, and also generous in
giving me time to teach at the college.
(I had gone to
LM: When did you start concertizing?
WT: Well, all of the McCurdy crowd ended up with Lillian Murtagh. She had been the secretary to Bernard LaBerge. David Craighead was the first of our group to go, and I was the second. She took us on McCurdy’s recommendation, knowing he had prepared us for a concert career. David became one of her people while he was still a student, when it was still called LaBerge. LaBerge had already died when I joined, and it was then called Colbert-LaBerge, before finally becoming Lillian Murtagh. I was with Lillian for over twenty-five years.
LM: What was she like as a manager?
WT: She was encyclopedic. She knew every one of her artists thoroughly, and knew every place we were going to play. She kept it all in her head. We could call her up and say, “What about such-and-such a place”, and she’d say, “Yes, that’s a wonderful place to play”, or, “No. Don’t play there.” Or she would book us someplace, and tell us where we were staying, and say “They don’t drink alcohol. Be aware of that”, or, “You may have difficulty getting practice time here.” She knew everything about every situation. We all loved Lillian, and had a very close personal relationship with her.
When I did my first European tour, I booked it on my own
(with her help, of course). This was in
1966, and Lucille and I sailed on the Queen Elizabeth. We spent the last night in
I loved touring, because it was such a challenge to play all those marvelous organs, and Lucille and I enjoyed being with the different people. She always came with me on my tours abroad and took care of change of currency, turned pages, and kept all our financial records. Occasionally she would have to pull stops, too. We had great times and met wonderful people all over the world. Each organ in each country reflects the language of that country, and has its own nuance. I enjoyed all of them, but some favorites were the Schnitger in Alkmaar, St. Bavo in Haarlem, Westminster Abbey, St. Alban’s, and I played at York Minster several times.
LM: Do you know Francis Jackson?
WT: Yes, and the last
time I played there, we stayed in his apartment while he was away on tour. It was such great fun, too, to play different
programs on these organs. What you
played at York Minster was not necessarily what you’d play at Westminster
Abbey. And, to have an entire evening
alone practicing in Westminster Abbey is just wonderful, surrounded by such
history. I had a very difficult time at
Westminster Cathedral. The organ had a
lot of mechanical problems at that time.
And, I played one in Hellmann,
One of my favorite organs in this country is the one at
One time Lillian booked me to play five concerts in one
week. I was so exhausted at one in
I’ve had three three-month tours, and that really is
killing. After I played in
LM: Are you playing recitals at all now?
WT: No. I did two here in
LM: A couple of minutes ago you mentioned David McK. Williams. Did you ever hear him play a service?
WT: Yes, one of the
first times I was in
I remember we were doing a workshop together one time at the
Do you know about David’s early life?
WT: David was
David always said that if he ever made any money, his mother’s every wish would be granted because of the sacrifice she made. He eventually became enormously wealthy because he was at St. Bartholomew’s before they had the income tax. People like the Vanderbilts went to St. Bartholomew’s and advised him on his investments, and this paid off. He worked as long as his mother lived, and her every wish was granted. She did not live lavishly, but everything she wanted she got. When she died, he retired.
We were great friends, and he was also a good friend of Jack
Ossewaarde, who at that time was at the cathedral in
Whenever David McK. Williams
LM: What was Sowerby’s personality like?
WT: Leo had a completely different kind of humor. It was much drier. For instance, he once asked me if I played his Symphony in G, and I said I did. He asked, “Do you like the Passacaglia?” And I said, “Yes, but it is a little long.” He said, “Yes, but have you tried to cut it? You can’t. I did that intentionally. You have to play the whole thing or it won’t work.” He asked if I played the entire work, and when I told him I did, he said, “Well, good. Some people have told me it’s just too long, and when they couldn’t cut it they just stopped playing it.” He once said someone had told him, “Leo, you just have diarrhea of the pen. You don’t know when to stop.” He quoted that!
He had a super choir at St. James, but you were expected to come prepared. The door to the choir room was locked five minutes before the choir rehearsal began – no one dared come late. Rehearsal started on time. The great Rev. Massey Shepherd, probably the greatest liturgist the Episcopal Church has had, sang in Sowerby’s choir. He taught with us, too, and was always chaplain at Sewanee.
I usually went on a three-year cycle: one year I toured
LM: Did you know Mildred Andrews very well?
WT: Yes, I knew
Mildred very, very well. She was at
Mildred and I were great friends. I remember I played for the AGO national
She was a great teacher, and I always thought it was such a
shame that she didn’t even have a decent organ.
I had her come play a recital at Centenary in
And, Nita Akin was playing great music in
Claire Coci was another marvelous
performer and teacher. I mentioned that
she and my friend Helen Horn were roommates in college. Helen gave me one of my first Bach books – of
the Dupre edition, and I can still see the date on it
– 1937. She had also studied with Dr. Wiesemann. He
insisted that everyone play from memory, and he also gave monthly organ
Dora, to put the end on her work, came down with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which gradually became paralyzing. I heard her play for a regional convention up at Nita Akin’s church. She played the “Ad nos”, and it was just stunning. After the program I said, “You must come play this same program at St. Mark’s”, and she said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” (I didn’t know she was already having trouble, so was insistent with her.) She said, “Oh, I’ll do it for you.” Her paralysis started in her feet, and she was having to re-pedal everything, which I did not realize. She came to St. Mark’s and played, and that was her last recital. Unfortunately, the Contra Ophicleide ciphered during the “Ad nos” and ruined the program. I tried to get her to go back in after we got the cipher stopped, but she just could not do it.
As she became more-and-more paralyzed, she was finally confined to bed. I would go visit her, and once asked her husband, “Bill, is there anything I can do for Dora?” Well, I had a radio broadcast for many years from St. Mark’s. He said, “Why don’t you bring the tapes over once a month and let Dora coach you on the pieces?” I thought this was a wonderful idea. So, once a month I would write her a letter telling her what I was preparing, then would take the tapes over for her to listen to. One time, towards the end, she was in the bed and I could tell she was getting very agitated. Finally she said, “Oh, turn it off. Has this been broadcast?” and I said, “Yes.” She said, “Oh, GOSH! - you didn’t mention my name, did you, as your teacher?” I said, “No.” And she said, “Well don’t if you’re going to play like that! You don’t remember anything I taught you. You realize you’re playing pieces that you studied with me. Besides, you recorded these too late in the evening. If you’ll go back and start the tape, I can tell you what time of the night it is by your playing!” She was that sharp. We listened to the tape again, and she was right. Little things happened, like a missed ending to a phrase, a smeared note, or a rushed note. She said, “The later you go, the worse you play. You’re not alert. Now get the score. I don’t have enough life in me to teach this again. I told you exactly what to do with it in 1938 and it didn’t stick. I can tell you are not using my fingering or my pedaling, now get the score and mark it. You go back and learn this right and bring it back the next time.” I did, of course. And that was, when I got it right, the last time I played for her.
After that she only had occasional lucid moments. I asked her husband to, if she had a good moment, to please give her my love and ask her if there was anything I could do. He called me back in the afternoon and said, “Dora did have a period where she was lucid, and said there is something you can do for her. She asked that you play for her funeral.” And, she told him the list of everything to be played. She died that night. She never missed a thing - she was that sharp right up to the very end. She could recall lessons we had way back in 1938 and 1939.
WT: How much more do you want to hear?
LM: Well, we still
haven’t talked about Roy Perry, Kilgore,
WT: We’ve gone into such great detail. You don’t want to hear all that, do you? - surely not!
LM: Just a few more minutes. How did you meet Roy Perry?
WT: When I first came
LM: Did Mr. Perry and Joseph Whiteford remain friends?
WT: Oh, yes, we all remained friends – good friends. Joe still brought people down to hear the organ.
I was over in Kilgore practicing one time and found a dead
C, and then a whole series of dead Cs.
When I asked
LM: When did you first hear William Watkins?
WT: At Roy Perry’s
church in Kilgore. The program was just
staggering, and included the Franck E Major and the Willan
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue.. None of us could believe our ears. We had never heard anything like it. I invited him to come to
We became fast friends, and he had me come up and play for him, too. After his terrible automobile accident it was very difficult for him to talk over the telephone, but he did make a pretty good recovery, although he never played quite the same as he had before that horrendous accident. But, he was one of my idols, and he was destined for a career the equal of Virgil. He had everything working in his favor until he was just smashed. He was a real star that got dimmed through no fault of his own. It was a great tragedy and loss to the organ world.
WT: Please tell me something about your radio broadcasts from St. Mark’s.
LM: Well, one of the
ways I got the organ from the donor was because of the church’s regular
broadcast on Sunday morning, which brought the organ to people without their
having to come to church. Then I was
asked if I would be interested in doing a series of 30-minute recitals every
week in a vacant spot they had right after E. Power Biggs went off the
air. (At that time we were with KWKH in
I used to take my tape recorder with me everywhere, and also
have tapes of my recitals in
I’d love to get the Dupre “Stations of the Cross” put on CD. When I recorded it at St. Mark’s I didn’t know the piece required two disks. In order to get it to fit onto one disk, they cut off the sound of the room at the beginning and end of each piece, so each movement ends abruptly. If they had only told me it needed two disks we would have gone that route. I think the master tape does have the sound of the room, though, and would hope we might re-issue that. I am very proud of that recording otherwise because the piece was just hair-raising on the St. Mark’s organ, and I worked terribly hard on it. It is such a demanding piece of music.
LM: What is your relationship like with St. Mark’s?
WT: We have a good
relationship. I am organist-choirmaster
emeritus, and still go in to practice once a week. They reserve Wednesday mornings for me, and
Don Smith has very graciously given me my own levels of memory (we didn’t have
such a thing when I was there). I’ve
gone back and played for services and have conducted the choir. And, M.L. Agnew, the dean, is also the
chaplain up here at
LM: Let’s go get lunch.
WT: Yes, before we think of something else!
Copyright The Diapason. Published in the October, 2005 issue. Reprinted with permission.