The late Dr. Virgil Fox (1912-1980) who single handedly brought the organ music of Bach to a wider variety of 20th century audiences, had a special passion for playing Bach.
"Bach is the top. From him all other music comes down. He put it on a plateau that no one else has ever reached. And every composer that has come since Bach has to be Bach's disciple.
"Any man who's
on the stage who's not a natural showman is in the wrong place. This thing of associating with fire and showing no flame in what's doing it is for the birds. If you are involved, you can't possibly associate with dynamite without having a little
"Bach has a universal mind, an overwhelming heart, and a transcendental spirit, and you can't beat that. Once you have a view of Bach, you never again will be the same."
-- Virgil Fox
It was Virgil's colorful and sometimes very free interpretations of the standard repertoire, his Romanticizing of all early (pre-1800's) organ music including
that of Bach, the liberties he took with the printed page, and his showmanship that got him crossways with those of his colleagues who embraced historical performance practice, who viewed every note on the printed page as untouchable, and who understood audience
appeal and "showmanship" as pertaining to the music, not to the performer. His stubborn insistence on every note being memorized also did not endear him to those performers whose habit it was to read from the page during a public performance.
it's true that we have to change the manuscript "mentally" to get clear what the composer wrote on the page, such as by temporarily dropping some low note or two in a big left hand chord so the pedal line can come through, or maybe by playing more detached
and not connecting everything [See blog, Listening For The Listener]. Virgil carried this much further by multiplying the written note and, at times, shifting notes to a different octave wherever he felt the notation on the written page failed to do
justice to the effect he thought the composer wanted or intended, arguing that if the composer were alive today he would be doing the same thing and making use of everything modern piano-based organ technique and the modern organ had to offer.
also was very conscious of his technical abilities and sometimes performed a French Romantic work half again as fast as concert tempo, taking in the countryside at 500 mph, ignoring staccato dots, held notes, and other indications in the score and introducing
rubato, crescendo, and decrescendo where none was indicated by the composer. At times the overall effect was, a lot of correct notes were struck but all of the majestic powers at work on the page were eviscerated. Virgil's recording of the Final
from Vierne's 6th symphony, when compared with the recording made by Pierre Labric, demonstrates this conclusively. The worst part is, this kind of display sets the bar for general audiences interested in being entertained to expect to hear it played
the same way each time and to be disappointed if they don't. Many subsequent recordings of this and other works have been made, and are still being made, at tempos that far exceed anything the composer ever had in mind. Speed is a wonderful gift
to have, but the instrument in its own acoustical environment will suggest a tempo for a written work or improvisation that's appropriate for its own breathing. Bottom line: taking the music at a tempo so fast that it sounds like the organist is
dying to get off the bench ... that's virtuosity but not serving the music [See blog, Tempo, Speed Is An Illusion, Widor 5 Toccata, Part I].
As for early clavichord based organ technique and fingering, working within the limitations of pre-19th century
organ construction (limited wind supply, heavier action, etc.), avoidance of unnecessary motion, historical "toes only" pedaling, narrowing the range of tempos, and use of terraced dynamics with subtle layering of sounds with Bach playing, Virgil threw all
of that overboard. What mattered to him above all was to communicate a language of warmth and meaning to 20th century audiences, and, to do that, all of the features of the modern organ equipped with electro-pneumatic key action, electric stop action,
orchestral stops, combination pistons, and multiple swell shoes (including the crescendo shoe) were to be employed. Virgil looked at it as simply a matter of throwing off a yoke, viz., all those things which he felt inhibited all the fire and fury built
into the music from being realized, and he refused to be "unequally yoked" with historical performance practice.
His disdain for this yoke even extended to all pipe organs, both old and new, equipped with mechanical (tracker) action, and this created
many problems for him with his colleagues. It was as if he was in denial that some of the finest renditions of organ music ever recorded were done in historical performance style on period instruments. But no one could take issue with his love
and command of the pipe organ (or the piano, he was also an excellent pianist) and his prodigious technique which worked for him for well over 50 years. He was born with hands that made for good keyboard technique. Notice the fingers of his right hand
when he swings around on the bench and waves to the audience. His fingers and thumbs are long, and his index finger is longer than his ring finger and very nearly as long as his middle finger. Long fingers and thumbs allow for bigger stretches
on the keys and are helpful in many ways to an organist (little wonder then, why some of his closest friends observed that Virgil had hands that ran over the keys "like a spider"). His lasting legacy will be that he opened the doors of organ music, primarily
the music of Bach, to a much wider group of younger audiences than it hitherto had been.
Other incomparable talents and one-of-a-kind musicians have come and gone from the American organ world of the 20th century who have left their own wonderful and
indelible marks on the audiences who heard them, came under their spell, and learned from them ... names like E. Power Biggs, Richard Purvis, Clarence Dickinson, Alexander Schreiner, and there were many others ... but this video demonstrates, among other things,
that there was, and probably will ever be, only one Virgil. Gone but not forgotten.
Virgil suffered terribly during his final years battling a horrible illness, and his death sent shock waves through the organ world. When he returned to
Riverside Church in New York City in May, 1979 to play his final recorded concert there about 17 months before his death, he performed with 3 broken fingers, a broken wrist, and several broken ribs from multiple myeloma (bone cancer, from contracting prostate
cancer in 1976) which was literally eating away his bones. Even so, he gave it his all and dazzled the audience, as usual. He is missed, even to this day, but we have to be happy for him. He's been released from this mortal coil and has moved
on to a reward for a life well spent on this earth as America's most successful organist ... the reward of getting acquainted with a fabulously powerful instrument situated in the heavens and invisible to mortal eyes [See menu bar, Bio, A Case Study], one
that's unexpected, mind-blowing, and not bound by the limitations of matter, gravity, space/time, the laws of physics, or the natural processes of decay which affect pipe organs in this sphere of existence (anyone who believes in the reality of God has no
reason not to believe that something special like this has been prepared on the other side of the Great Beyond just for them, indeed for all those Who love Him).
This world in fact will probably never again see a Virgil Fox, a Richard Purvis, a Clarence
Dickinson, an Alexander Schreiner, or an E. Power Biggs because the civilization that allowed these musicians to gain the experience required for their blossoming is unfortunately no longer a part of American culture. On a more positive note, "never"
is a long time, and we're extremely fortunate today to have many magnificent performers and interpreters in America and abroad who are continuing to share their considerable talents and are attracting many gifted youngsters especially to the sound of the instrument
and everything it can do.
In the final analysis, despite whatever quirks, foibles, or shortcomings Virgil may have had in this mortal life (what human being does not), his likes and dislikes, and the controversies which seemed to swirl around him, who
can find fault with this musician's attempt to bring the pipe organ and the magnificence of its music out of the shadows for the general public? ... the answer is, no one.
He reached out.