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 Shreveport, Louisiana, where his contributions to that city’s musical life have made a lasting impact.  Our interview took place on July 21, 2004 in the sacristy of St. Ann’s Church in Kennebunkport, Maine where Mr. Teague is summer organist.

 

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 Gainesville, Texas, in North Central Texas, due north about sixty miles from Dallas.  I lived there until I finished high school, when I moved to Dallas to study with Dr. Carl Wiesemann at SMU.

 

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 First Baptist Church.  And, that’s where I took my lessons, in one of the Sunday school rooms.

 

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 University of Michigan.  Helen had studied, when she was in Gainesville, with Dr. Carl Wiesemann, who was the organist-choirmaster at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, and head of the organ department at what was then called Texas State College for Women, in Denton, which was only 30 miles from my home town.  Helen called Dr. Wiesemann and convinced him to give me an audition and possibly join his class.  And, that’s what happened.  So, all during my high school years my mother drove me to Denton three times a week, where I studied organ, piano and theory, and was the only male enrolled in this girl’s college!  When we had to go each year for registration, they would always pass me up to the front of the line.  And, I remember that it cost $37.50 a semester. 

 

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 in Gainesville.  I called my father, and the idea of me going to college at the age of 15 really shook up the family. 

 

I had one year at the junior college.  Then Dr. Wiesemann felt I really needed to come to Dallas and concentrate with him.  He had another very fine person working with him at the time that went on to have a great career, David N. Johnson. There were two other great organists there, and the four of us grew up together there in Dallas:  Donald McDonald, who was from Waxahachie, and Robert Ellis, who was in Ft. Worth.  

 

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 to Dallas?

 

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 Philadelphia, so that got put on hold.

 

While I was in Dallas, I earned my way through the university by playing at the roller skating rink out at Fair Park.  One time Donald McDonald and a group from Waxahachie came up to Dallas to skate.  I was playing a Hammond organ out in the middle of the skating rink with a little enclosure.  He was so fascinated with it that I don’t think he ever did put the skates on.  Eventually they did have to move the organ, though, because people kept running into me out in the middle of the floor.  After they moved it to a little platform over on the side, Donald would come up to skate every Saturday and Sunday just to visit.  And, I could play all that stuff and talk at the same time.

 

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 Dallas.  And, at one point there was a strike against all ASCAP music on the radio, so we couldn’t play it.  So I had to find another theme song.  They had what they called BMI, Broadcast Music Incorporated.

 

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 was from Ft. Worth, and he had a very wonderful teacher there.  There were several brilliant women organ teachers in the area:  we had Mildred Andrews at Oklahoma, Dora Poteet at SMU, Nita Akin in Wichita Falls, and the one in Ft. Worth, and I have lost her name.  David Johnson got to Curtis first, and then I did, then Donald and Robert.  We were all there at the same time, which was remarkable.

 

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 Fontainebleau with the highest honors of anyone who had studied with him at that point.  Dora never turned the page until the page she was working on was absolutely perfect, and she took infinite time to get everything she was working on just right.  In fact, I played for her funeral many years later, and there was an editorial in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram about her that said, “Dora Poteet Barclay cared enough to take the time to get everything right”, which I thought was a tremendous thing to say - just wonderful.  If she had a flaw, it would be in that she did not do any of the early music – hardly any early French music.  And, I never did understand why because she had studied with Dupre.  She was technically flawless.

 

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 Dallas on his first tour at SMU.  I asked when he got back, “What did you think of the organ at SMU?”  He said, “I felt like the whole place was filling up with dark blue smoke.”  It was an opaque sound.  It was a bad organ.

 

LM:  Did you hear any outstanding organ recitals in Dallas?

 

WT:  Oh, everybody came through there, not only in Dallas, but in Denton, too.  There were two big schools there, North Texas State University, as it is now, and Texas Women’s University, as that is called now.  Both had regular programs.  We got to hear them all and meet them all.

 

LM:  Were you already familiar with Shreveport?

 

WT:  No.  Well, I knew about Shreveport, and had been through there on the way to Baton Rouge.

 

LM:  Roy Perry?

 

WT:  No, I didn’t know anything about him, either.  As a matter of fact, the first inkling I had of Shreveport did not come until I graduated from the Curtis.  I thought I needed to go on and get other degrees, because that was just a bachelor’s degree.  But, at that time a bachelor’s degree from the Curtis was the equivalent to a doctorate anywhere else.  It was pure hell to get through there with McCurdy.  It was awful – just simply dreadful. 

 

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 Philadelphia.  We all had to take solfege, and we used the fixed do.  Madame Solfrey was from the Paris Conservatory and she always got her American accents wrong.  We had MELodic dictation, and HARmonic dictation.  Everything came out wrong.  We had to be fluent in all seven clefs, beat the time and sing the syllables, with sometimes three or four clef changes per measure.  It was an absolute nightmare.  Everybody had to take this class, whether they were instrumentalists or singers.  And, I remember the last year I had that class, David Lloyd, who became a great tenor at the Met, and Frank Guerrera, who became a great bass at the Met, were sitting on either side of me.  And, one class I thought I was doing really quite well.  I was just singing, beating the time, and reading in all the clefs.   Finally Madame Solfrey said, “Oh, Mr. Teague, please stop.  Don’t sing any more.  Your heart is willing, and your mind is willing, but the voice, it is full of DIScrePANcies.  I will just give you the A.”

 

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 New York to the Met.  He could sight-read absolutely anything.  He presented himself and applied for a job as accompanist and got the job.  He came to the attention of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti.  They were so impressed with his enormous talent that they took him under their wing and trained him.  Then, of course, he went on to become a great conductor.  I was talking to Tommy one time and said, “You know, your being asked to leave the Curtis was a great blessing in disguise.  If you had remained at Curtis, you would have had a great career as an organist, but nothing like the great career you have now as a great symphony conductor.”  He agreed and said, “But we didn’t know it at the time.” 

 

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 Philadelphia I was organist-choirmaster at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, which is a very, very high church, liturgically speaking, in South Philadelphia, with a wonderful priest named Francis Roseboro.  He had been the chaplain at Yale, and knew everybody, like Toscanini, Bruno Walter.  It was always fascinating to talk to him, and I lived in the rectory with Fr. Roseboro and his adopted son.  That is an Italian and Polish neighborhood, and I had three choir rehearsals a week just to get the music ready for the Sunday morning mass.  We never sang an anthem, per se, except for the occasional Palestrina motet.  Everything was plainsong, with the propers out of the English gradual.  Well, that was a new ballgame for me, too.  I had very little background in plainsong, so had to have a crash course in it.  Those contacts lasted for many, many years.  I loved being down in South Philadelphia.

 

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 69th St. Station in Philadelphia, there was all this mad rush of people in uniform, particularly navy people because there was a huge navy yard there.  I didn’t know what was going on, but it was utter bedlam with all of them to try to get back on the trains to get back downtown to the navy yard.  Then we found out that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. 

 

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 Base in Sherman, Texas which is just 30 miles east of my hometown.  I went over there to see if there was any way I could enlist, and they said yes, that they were desperate for someone to come in and take over music in the chapel as the chaplain’s assistant.  So, that’s what happened.  I went into the air force, and was stationed at Perrin Field.  I eventually went to a chaplain’s assistant school at Lockland Air Force Base in San Antonio.  I did not know – none of us knew – that if you made above a certain grade on your final exams you were frozen in the job where you were.  The test was so easy, as far as I was concerned, that I made a very high score on the test and, so, was frozen in my work at Perrin Field.

 

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 Main Line.  And, we lived there with them and took care of Sandra and Sandy.  In conjunction with that, he made me his assistant at the First Presbyterian Church.  Now, that turned out to be a horrendous responsibility, because they did an entire oratorio every Sunday afternoon from the first Sunday in October through April.  I never knew whether I was going to turn the pages, play the oratorio, or do nothing.  As the assistant, I had to be prepared to play an oratorio every Sunday afternoon. 

 

We had one choir rehearsal a week on Friday at 6 o’clock, when everybody left downtown Philadelphia.  We never went through a whole oratorio – we just did spots – because everybody in that period already knew the entire repertoire and performed it every year.  Each year we would do Elijah, The Creation, The B-minor Mass, The St. Matthew Passion, The St. John Passion, The Verdi Requiem, and The Faure, and The Brahms Requiem, and The Mozart Requiem.  This was just part of the regular routine.

 

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 Broad St.  We would have the morning service at Second Presbyterian, the afternoon service at First Presbyterian, and the evening service at Chambers-Wiley.  One time we came in to First Presbyterian, with the large Casavant, and were to do Elijah.  There was a huge snowstorm – a blizzard going on outside.  McCurdy had always thought it was silly that we changed our shoes to play the organ.  Being his assistant, I was at the organ with him.  He looked down and saw I was in my galoshes (I had just barely gotten there on time because of the storm).  I was turning pages for him, and he poked me in the side (he would always poke you in the side with his elbow) and said, “You take over.  I’ve got to go to the john.”  So, I had to sight-read Elijah in a public performance in galoshes.  It scared the socks off me.  Well, he didn’t go to the john.  He just went around the corner and left me there to play.  The thing I had to read was “Hear Ye, Israel” at the beginning of Part II.  He had marvelous soloists.  You could not throw them they were so dead solid.  After about fifteen minutes of my playing in galoshes, he came back and punched me again and said, “Get out of the way!  I’ll take over now!  Thought you couldn’t play in those, didn’t you!”  So, we never knew what he was going to do next.

 

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 First Baptist Church.  And, I have a very funny story with Walter Baker:  Walter did all these oratorios at his church, too.  McCurdy did them in the afternoon at 4:00, then Walter did his oratorio with a much smaller, but very select choir, on Sunday evenings.  Several times a year they would combine choirs and do the same service twice, once at McCurdy’s church and once at Walter’s church.  One time we were at McCurdy’s church doing a large work by Gustav Holst, which had a place for chimes.  McCurdy had big orchestral bells and a very fine hammer that you just touched the top of them with.  I played them, and was listed as the “campanilist” on the program, which I thought was quite wonderful.  We repeated it again that night over at the Baptist church.  Well, Walter didn’t have that kind of bells, so he just took the chimes out of the organ and put them on pegs on a rack in the rear balcony.   He was downstairs with the soloists, and the two choirs were on the two sides, and I was back in the rear gallery with these chimes.  He said, “You’re really going to have to hit these hard so they’ll sound.”  Well, I was on the wrong side of the chimes and I did not know that.  When I hit the first chime, it FLEW off the peg and went rolling down the steps.  As I went to retrieve it, the other chimes went clang, clang, clanging against each other.  Poor Walter nearly had a stroke downstairs, and McCurdy nearly died laughing.  That was my one and only time of playing the chimes in public.

 

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 New York, and he was never the same after that – it was such a revelation to hear Farnam play Bach.  But, he didn’t talk about Farnam’s teaching to us – at least he didn’t to me.  So, I don’t know much about that. 

 

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 Westminster Choir College, the Curtis Institute, this big Presbyterian job, and a Jewish temple.  And, he carried on an enormous correspondence with people all over the world.  One of the things that I did when I lived with them was; in the evening after dinner he’d get out the correspondence.  He never let a letter go unanswered overnight.  Sometimes he had two typewriters, and he would dictate letters to me while I typed, while he was typing another letter on the other typewriter.  It was simply amazing.  But, he was very hyper.  So, his teaching was probably not like Farnam’s.  The two of them were so very different.

 

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 Philadelphia, and we all had tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra every week.  We knew everyone in the orchestra because they either taught at Curtis or had been students there.  And, we would never miss a recital at Curtis because the performances were just wonderful.  In fact, I did not go back to Curtis for many, many years because I was afraid I had over-romanticized my experience there - that it did not really have the high standard I remembered.  Well, I went back for the fiftieth anniversary of the school, and I was just breathless.  The playing was just as good, if not better than anything I could ever remember.

 

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?

 

LM:  No.

 

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 United States.  When he finally was released, he was not the same person.  It was very sad.  He never recovered from that.  There were times when he would be just fine, and others where you would say hello to him and he would just be blank – as though he didn’t even recognize you.  I don’t know how he was able to function, and don’t know how he ever kept that job at Grace Cathedral.

 

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 to Union as a student.  Would you be interested in coming here as a member of the faculty?”  I was flattered, but that had never occurred to me.  At that point, the telephone rang, and Dr. Porter said, “It’s for you.”  It was Dr. McCurdy.  When I answered the phone, he said, “Come home!”  He was very abrupt.  I said, “Why?” and he said, “If didn’t want you back here I wouldn’t have called for you.”  I told him I had just been offered a position on the faculty at Union, and he said, “Come home now!  I will talk to you when you get here!”  When we hung up, Dr. Porter said, “My, Alex is as testy as ever.”  He had heard every word. I had no idea what McCurdy wanted, but went back to Philadelphia.

 

When I got there, he told me, “You’re leaving on an early morning flight tomorrow to see about a church job in Shreveport, Louisiana.”  I said, “Why on EARTH would I want to go to Shreveport, Louisiana?”  He said, “You know, you really are a snob, aren’t you”, and I said, “Probably.”  McCurdy said, “I have just had a conversation with the Rev. Frank Walters who called me at the Westminster Choir College needing a new organist-choirmaster to come and take over the music program at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  It’s a tailor-made job for you.  YOU are the person that needs to go to Shreveport and take that church!  I have a feeling it will really bloom and you will have a career.  And, secondly, Lucille is a Southern Belle, and you need to take her home.  She hates living in the East, doesn’t she?”  I said, “Well, she’s not too thrilled.”  Then he said, “And, remember you never say ‘no’ until you’ve looked at the job.  They are flying you down there to interview you, and you can interview them, too.”

 

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 in Shreveport ever since, and was at the church for thirty-nine years.

 

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 Boston.  They were a vast disappointment.  They would come down and we would go over every detail with them, then they would go back and supposedly translate this into new drawings, which they would send back to us.  Well, it was like they had sent us the wrong drawings -they were paying no attention to what we wanted.  They sent us one drawing that looked like the feed store down in Manning, Louisiana.  It was the most dreadful looking building I ever saw.  I came into the rector’s office one day and saw a new set of drawings on his desk, and said, “Oh, you’ve got some new blueprints.  May I see them?”  He said, “Are you in a really good mood?  Perhaps you’d better not look at them if you aren’t.”  I thought, “O Lord.”  I eventually saw them and promptly had a fit.  Someone had decided we were putting entirely too much emphasis on music - we did not need a pipe organ, and could use a Hammond and save all that space and money just have two little openings for speakers.  I went right through the roof.  When I came back down, they said, “Calm down. Calm down.”

 

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 the Deep South do Anglican Chant.  I went to a service there the first Sunday we were in town, and I could hardly keep a straight face while they sang the Anglican Chant with that deep Southern drawl and no ends to the words.  It was the funniest thing I have ever heard.  When Lucille and I went home for lunch that day, she said to me, “Oh, I’m afraid we’ve made a dreadful mistake.  We should pack and get to New York as soon as possible.”  I told her we’d try it for one year, and she said, “But what can you do?”  And I said, “Everything.”

 

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 Shreveport also with the understanding that I would teach at Centenary.)  And, when my concert career started to take off, the church was very understanding about this, too and gave me time off to do my tours.

 

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 New York with John and Marianne Weaver, and Lillian came down to see us off on the ship.  She said, “I don’t have your itinerary.  Do you even know where you’re staying?”  I said, “No. I only know where I’m playing.”  She said, “I can’t bear the thought of one of my artists going off and I don’t know where you are going to be!  Suppose I need you.  I have never let an artist leave like this.”  She was very upset.  But, Lucille and I loved to do things on our own and liked to find our own accommodations.  We might see a nice little bed and breakfast and decide to stay there.  Lillian could never get used to that idea.  She said, “Well, I can’t wait ‘til you get back so I can find out where you’ve been!”

 

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, Holland where the music rack was recessed, and the stops pulled out for about a foot, and the action was very stiff.  My arms ached when I finished there.  But, the sound was so wonderful I didn’t care.  I also enjoyed the organ in the cathedral in Melbourne, Australia.  The organs in Japan were a challenge.  I played one that was run by computer, and I didn’t know anything about it at that time, and couldn’t read anything about how to operate it because everything was in Japanese!  There was no one there to help me, and even the stops were in Japanese.

 

One of my favorite organs in this country is the one at Trinity Church in Tulsa.  I love the organ there, and Tom Matthews and I were such good friends for so long.  That organ is very much like the one at St. Mark’s, but he didn’t make the mistakes that I’d made.  He kept the Positiv and the Bombarde.  And, Hill Auditorium at Michigan was fine, and I played my New York debut at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia.  That was a wonderful organ.  And, I met such wonderful people, too –like Sowerby, David McK. Williams, Francis Jackson, David Willcocks.  We were all great friends, and it was a wonderful time.  It was a golden era.  The organs were great, and we were all playing lots of concerts.

 

One time Lillian booked me to play five concerts in one week.  I was so exhausted at one in Lockport, NY that I fell asleep during the reception.  I was so embarrassed.  When I woke up, everyone was gone!  All that traveling and playing and preparation had really worn me out.  I called Lillian the next day and told her I’d learned my lesson.  “From now on I cannot play any more that three concerts a week.”  I just didn’t have the physical stamina.  Just that one week I had played in Lockport, NY, West Point, Flint, Michigan and in Evanston and one other.  I was a wreck both physically and emotionally.

 

I’ve had three three-month tours, and that really is killing.  After I played in Triere, Germany I turned to Lucille and said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”  I’ve always known in my career when it is time for a change.  I told her, “I’ve lugged you all over the world and never given you any say.  Let’s keep traveling because we both love it, but from now on you pick out where we go and we’ll do it and just have fun.”  The first place she wanted to go was Alaska.  Then we had our fiftieth anniversary in the Greek Islands.

 

LM:  Are you playing recitals at all now?

 

WT:  No.  I did two here in Kennebunkport last year because it was the 350th anniversary of the village and I was asked to play two programs.  I would play if it were a place I really wanted to play and had time to get the program prepared.  When we were with Lillian, we had three programs that we had prepared and ready to go at all times.  She wanted to know she could call us one night and have us play the next day if needed.  I just can’t do that any more.

 

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 New York I went with a friend of mine from Dallas to St. Bartholomew’s.  This was my first year at Curtis, and I was kind of goggle-eyed over the whole idea.  I thought the organ playing was just terrific.  But, then all-of-a-sudden, after the anthem, when they started to bring the oblations forward, it was like someone turned on a light.  His assistant had played the service up to that point, when David had taken over - and it was a whole different ball game.  He understood that organ like nothing you’ve ever heard.  His playing was unbelievable, and his accompanying was miraculous.  David and I became great friends, and I have so many stories it would take entirely too long to tell.  He would drop in to St. Mark’s, Shreveport completely unannounced and lean over the organ while I was playing the postlude and say, “Music for the Angels”, and I’d think, “Oh, it’s David.”  We had great times together.  He could be very earthy, or just as elegant as you can imagine.  He and Roy Perry were also great friends, and they often did things together.

 

I remember we were doing a workshop together one time at the University of TexasRoy, David, Leo Sowerby and me.  Leo was very precise in everything, and he had the first class.  He’d say he wanted something done this way, and this way, and this way, and you could only breathe here, here, and here.  He laid it out and was very particular, organized and planned.  Well, David had the next class.  He always rolled his tie while he was talking.  He started his class by saying, “Now, children, Leo says you do thus and such and thus and such and you take a breath only here.  But, I say take a breath when you run out of air.  Leo means well, but he’s not very musical.”  Leo turned beet red, but then realized he was just pulling his leg so we all died laughing, including Leo.  This kind of banter went on all the time between the two of them, and no one took offense because they had been close friends for ages.

 

Do you know about David’s early life?

 

LM:  No.

 

WT:  David was originally from Denver.  His father abandoned the family, leaving the mother to raise them alone.  They were very, very poor and his mother took in washing and other work to support the family.  They didn’t even have a floor in their house – it was a dirt floor.  David, as a child, was caught one day downtown during a blizzard with no coat and no shoes.  He wandered into St. John’s Cathedral, where the choir of men and boys was practicing.  When they found him he was absolutely transfixed.  The long and short of it was the people at the cathedral took him in and looked after him.

 

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 Houston.  When Jack left Houston to go to St. Bartholomew’s, he had David come to Shreveport to see if he could coerce me into coming to Houston, making me “heir apparent” to the job at St. Bartholomew’s.  This didn’t make any sense because by the time Jack got to retirement age, I’d be retirement age, too!  And, that isn’t the way things work anyway.  But, David did recommend to the cathedral in Houston that they hire me to succeed Jack.  The Dean, whom I knew quite well, had me down to Houston and I was just wined and dined and it was glorious.  They offered me the job, and also a teaching job at the University of Houston.  But, this was just at the time the work was being completed at St. Mark’s, and the organ hadn’t even arrived yet.  I felt like I had such a commitment to the church in Shreveport it would be very wrong of me not to see that completed.  So I did not go to Houston.   Bill Barnard was hired instead, and had a very long career there.

 

Whenever David McK. Williams dropped into Shreveport, he would come over to our house for lunch.  I would ask him, “Well, David where are you supposed to be?”  He’d say, “My darling sister thinks I’m in San Francisco.  I’ll send her a postcard when I get to Egypt.”  He loved to just get on a boat and go – from Manila to Singapore to Hawaii.  That’s how he wrote the great tune “Malabar” – he was visiting India (this was one of his trips where his sister thought he was someplace else.  He loved to play pranks like that and had a marvelous sense of humor).  I taught with David and with Leo Sowerby a lot out at Evergreen.

 

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 Europe, the next year I’d teach at Sewanee, and the next I’d teach at Evergreen.  We always just thoroughly enjoyed this.  Jack Ossewaarde and Ray Brown also taught with us, and we were very active and did things together and were just the best of friends.

 

LM:  Did you know Mildred Andrews very well?

 

WT:    Yes, I knew Mildred very, very well.  She was at University of Oklahoma, and I was just in Texas right below her.  We were great friends, and a funny thing that is not widely known is - you know her great thing was having her students keep their knees together.  Well, she got that from Roy Perry.  She was down recording some things on the organ in Kilgore and was doing some Lubeck.  She kept missing a pedal note, which was not like her because she just did not miss notes.  Roy finally said to her, “Mildred, put your knees together and it will work!”  She did, it worked, and that’s how that got started.  It became her trademark.

 

Mildred and I were great friends.  I remember I played for the AGO national convention in Houston at Christ Church, which has miserable acoustics but a good organ.  Roy Perry was sitting right behind Mildred, and they were also good friends.  This was at the time when Mendelssohn was out of vogue (his popularity comes and goes).  I played the first sonata on that program, and Mildred turned to her seatmate and said, “Well, I hope I never have to sit through that again.”  Roy tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Mildred, I have news for you.  When you die you’re going straight to hell, and you’re going to have to play nothing but Mendelssohn on red-hot keyboards for your penalty.”  She just loved it, and told that story over and over.

 

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 Shreveport, and she played the CharpentierL’Ange a la Trompette” and it was hair-raising.  She was a wonderful organist, and her sense of style and proportion were tremendous.  She built her climax so you didn’t get there too soon, and she saw the music as a whole as well as the various parts, and was able to convey that to her pupils.  She turned out more good students than anyone I knew of at that time.

 

And, Nita Akin was playing great music in Wichita Falls before any of those people knew what great music was.  There certainly wasn’t any culture in Wichita Falls!  Nita did so much good with all her money.  There is no telling how many people she and her husband put through school that no one ever knew about.  They gave many scholarships – at SMU and various places – all anonymously.  She and Jake, her husband, made a lot of money in the oil business, but they shared it.  And, she was always very generous in letting people come use the organ there at First Methodist.  She was a marvelous hostess, and also a fine teacher – a totally different kind of teacher than Mildred. 

 

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 recitals in Denton.  I remember going to one once and he used his music.  I was twelve, but must have been an awful twelve.  At my next lesson I put my music up and he said, “You’re supposed to be playing this from memory.”  I said, “You didn’t use the music for your recital on Sunday.”  He asked me if I would like to hear him play the recital from memory.  I said, “Yes”, and he sat down and played the whole recital from memory.  That really put me in my place!  I can still play those pieces I learned with him, and with Dora Poteet.

 

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, Longview, William Watkins, and your work with Catharine Crozier & Harold Gleason…

 

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 to Shreveport, I played a recital at St. Mark’s as my introduction to the town.  Roy came to the recital and I met him in the sacristy (this was in the old St. Mark’s downtown).  He was introduced as Roy Perry, and I thought “Good Heavens, there must be two”, because he was bald, his eyes crossed, his hands shook and he had a pot.  I thought, “Good Heavens, this is something.”  Well, within a minute you weren’t aware of his physical problems because he had such a marvelous personality.  We immediately hit it off.

 

Roy is the one that started this “Uncle Billy” business that you hear everyone calling me.  He had a name for everybody.  Before I would go on tour, I would go over to Kilgore for several days.  He would lock me in the church and I would practice all day, stopping only for a hamburger at lunch with him.  Then I would play the program for him at the end of the day.  He would critique it and make suggestions.  He had a great ear and was terrific with registration.  Then we would go back to his apartment and drink gin.  The next day we would repeat the entire process.  By the time I had gone through 2 ½ days of this concentrated work, with no one bothering me, and no telephones ringing, I was ready to go on tour.  Well, you’re never really 100% “ready”, but it was a good starting place.

 

Roy advised and did all the tonal work on the organ at the new St. Mark’s.  Mr. Harrison had died by the time the organ arrived, and Joe Whiteford had replaced some of Harrison’s designs with his own experiments.  For instance, he tried a ¾ length 32’ reed, and it just sounded like someone was trying to tear up the street.  Roy and Jimmy Williams installed the organ, and Roy would listen to things as they were put in and say, “No, no, no!”  They went through and revoiced every single pipe on that organ.  It made Joe furious.  That’s why the organ was never used on the Aeolian-Skinner “King of Instruments” series – because it had become Roy Perry’s organ and not Joe Whiteford’s.  When Joe came to hear it he realized it was so glorious and so beyond what he had imagined it to be that he would not allow it to be recorded.

 

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 Roy what was going on, he said he knew how much I coveted the strings in Kilgore, so had sent the Cs back to Boston so they might be duplicated for St. Mark’s organ.  When we got the strings at St. Mark’s – and this happened twice, once with the strings and once with the harmonic flute – he said, “Uncle Billy, I can either leave these alone and they’ll be fine, or I can make them beautiful beyond belief. I can’t not do it right for you.”  So he redid every pipe and, when he had finished said, “Yours are better than mine.”  I just told him why not agree that his fit his church, and mine fit mine, and we left it at that.  In the first place, the organ at St. Mark’s has more strings and different acoustics than Kilgore, so there is no reason to compare the two.  Both organs suit their churches beautifully.

 

Roy pulled himself up by his own boot strings.  He was from Lake Charles originally, and went to Kilgore when it was a boomtown.  He was self-made, and had gone to school in Denton.  He threw the most marvelous parties, and was a gourmet cook.  He would sometimes call me in Shreveport and say, “Uncle Billy, I’ve just made the most wonderful dessert.  Come over.”  If I could get free from what I was doing, I’d hop in the car and go over to Kilgore in the middle of the afternoon, have dessert, then get in the car and drive back to Shreveport!  He was also a very generous man – a great supporter and friend, and would just give you the shirt off his back.  He was generous to a fault – he would just give everything away, and buy things for people that he could not even afford.

 

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 Shreveport to play the same program that following year at the old St. Mark’s.  Well, he did play the program, and it was just every bit as exciting as it had been in Kilgore, and on a greatly inferior organ.

 

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 Shreveport, an affiliate with CBS.)  I recorded the programs at St. Mark’s, gave them to Centenary College and they were broadcast and became well known.  The radio station provided me with the recording equipment, and I would have to do the recordings late at night when everything was quiet both in the church and outside.  The organ console is on a hydraulic lift, and I’d raise it up and put the microphone up in the air so that it was level with the pipes and record all those things with Lucille or my daughter turning pages.  This would go ‘til 2 or sometimes 3 o’clock in the morning every week.  Then I had to write all the program notes, and there were organ departments all over the U.S. that required their students to listen to my programs for the repertoire and for the program notes.  I still have the master tapes, and we are thinking about putting them out on CD.  They are very good quality recordings, faithful to the sound of the organ. 

 

I used to take my tape recorder with me everywhere, and also have tapes of my recitals in Europe.  One time I asked Langlais if he minded if I taped myself playing the Franck Chorales at St. Clothilde.  He said, “Don’t ask.  Just do it.  I don’t need to know.”

 

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 St. Ann’s in Kennebunkport where I am summer organist.  We come up here the middle week of June and stay through Labor Day.  The people who come to church here don’t want soloists or choirs, vestry meetings or Sunday school.  They treat it strictly as a summer church, and do not want to have to fool with all the politics they have at their home churches.  All I have to do is play the organ for church and for all the weddings.  And it is a just wonderful.

 

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.