In Memoriam: William Watkins
It is with sadness that we announce the passing of the great American organist, William Watkins. To all who heard him, his eloquent lyricism is unsurpassed. To all who knew him, the memory of his friendship, warmth, loyalty and humility will be forever cherished.
Pictured is William Watkins at the Skinner organ at First Congregational Church, Washington, D.C., circa 1946. See below for a full obituary, written by Vermont Organ Academy adjunct professor, Neal Campbell.
William Watkins, AAGO, an honorary life member of all three Washington area chapters of the AGO, died on June 17, 2004 of acute respiratory failure at the Washington Home. He was 82 years old. The memorial service and interment took place on July 10 at the Georgetown Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., where he was Director of Music and Organist from 1956 - 1997. He held the position of Director of Music, Emeritus, until his death.
Mr. Watkins was born and raised in Danville, Virginia. He began his academic music studies in 1941 at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. After a break in his studies, when he served as a chaplain's assistant in the U. S. Army, he returned to Peabody where he was a pupil of Virgil Fox. There he received the rarely awarded Artist's Diploma, at that time awarded to only 18 organists in the history of the Conservatory, which was founded in 1888.
While a student in Baltimore, he took his first church position at Washington's First Congregational Church in 1945. In 1948 he became organist at Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, sharing his tenure with the well-known Scottish minister Peter Marshall, during which time large crowds filled the church at Sunday morning and evening services for the exceptional preaching and music. During his eight years there he collaborated with G. Donald Harrison and Joseph S. Whiteford in the rebuilding of the Skinner organ in the church.
In 1949 Mr. Watkins won the Young Artist Award of the National Federation of Music Clubs, at the time the most prestigious music competition in the United States. For the competition he chose to play Sowerby's then new "Sonatina," which was the beginning of a life-long association with the composer's work, culminating in his receiving a lifetime achievement and appreciation award from the Leo Sowerby Foundation in 1996 during the AGO National Convention in New York. He was the first organist to win this competition, and it launched a major career that took him throughout the country. He was the first organist to perform with the Dallas Symphony, the first organist to play in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the first organist to perform in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. His solo recital career was curtailed in late 1951 as a result of injuries he sustained in a serious automobile accident.
In the early 1950s he also began a noted teaching career which continued until his death. Many of his students won various competitions and went on to careers of their own in churches and academic institutions. He was a judge for the 1956 AGO National Organ Playing Competition at the nationalconvention in New York. At various times he also taught organ at the Washington Musical Institute, University of Maryland, and Catholic University of America. He recorded for the Aeolian-Skinner "King of Instruments Series," MacIntosh Records, and Washington Records.
Mr. Watkins' professional career culminated as Director of Music and Organist at the Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington. Shortly after his appointment he collaborated with Joseph S. Whiteford in the construction of a new 19-rank Aeolian-Skinner organ of unusual design which he described in a brochure as "not large but extraordinarily resourceful . . . absolutely stunning for its capability, its flexibility, its variety, and its tonal beauty." With the new organ, and the concurrent restoration of the historic church and its good acoustics, Mr. Watkins established the church as an important venue for choral and organ music in the oldest Presbyterian congregation in the nations' capital. He oversaw several additions to the organ over the years.
He is survived by many devoted students upon whose lives he left an indelible mark through his artistry, devoted friendship, humility, and his love of the Aeolian-Skinner organ. Neal Campbell, Richmond, Virginia. Adjunct faculty, The Vermont Organ Academy.
Lorenz Maycher and William Watkins, circa 1996.
Visit the Vermont Organ Academy Archives for Roy Perry's 1950 review of William Watkins' recital on the great Aeolian-Skinner organ at First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas.