Biographical

Steven Monrotus BA, DMD is a member of the Saint Louis Chapter, American Guild of Organists, and has been playing the organ for 55 years.  He had the good fortune, beginning at the age of 13, to have studied the instrument privately with some very inspiring and encouraging teachers outside his school district.  Organists in the Saint Louis area who helped shape his musical development were Robert Thompson (1963-65), Henri DeKeersgieter (1965-66), and Dr. Mario Salvador, AAGO, (1969) who at the time was director of music of the historic Saint Louis Cathedral Basilica.  Organ study with Dr. Salvador placed him on the direct teacher/pupil succession through Wilhelm Middelschulte on back to J.S. Bach.  Additionally, by a very curious coincidence, he happened to be born in Saint Louis on the very day that Dr. Salvador played the dedication recital on the newly built and installed Kilgen organ at St. Louis Cathedral Basilica on which he took his lessons with Dr. Salvador some 20 years later.

During his high school years at the age of 15, after only 18 months of private study with his first teacher, he performed on stage before a live audience of 500 people in a show with 22 acts and was awarded a first place for his organ playing. Under this early influence he progressed rapidly and at the age of 23 he became organist for his parish churches, first at SS. Peter and Paul in Waterloo, Illinois, and later at Saint Frances de Sales in Saint Louis.  Much later in life he resumed private organ study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with John Weissrock, a grandson of Marcel Dupre, tutorially, who at the time was principal organist at the historic Church of the Gesu on the campus of Marquette University (1999-2002).  In the same way that Dr. Salvador was a legend in the Saint Louis area, John Weissrock was a legend in the Milwaukee area and the first and youngest ever to win the prestigious National Organ Playing Competition held in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Organ study with John Weissrock put him on the direct teacher-pupil succession through Dr. Wayne Fisher, Dupre, and Louis Vierne on back to Cesar Franck, and additionally through Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor on back to J.S. Bach.  More recently he's been coached in composition by Dr. Vidas Pinkevicius, organist of Vilnius Univerisity in Vilnius, Lithuania (2015-2017).  Dr. Pinkevicius is a world class performer, improvisor, composer, teacher, blogger, and the author of hundreds of articles on organ playing and the Secrets of Organ Playing blog and weekly podcasts. 

Dr. Monrotus could have become bivocational, but instead he chose a career in dentistry which he practiced in the State of Missouri for 41 years (1975-2016) until he retired.  During these years he worked as a trusted and respected doctor of dental medicine but still continued his study of the organ and organ playing, partly because he loved it and partly to comply with a promise he gave when he was 16 years old to a very dear teacher, at his teacher's insistence, to never give up playing the organ.  During the last half century he's performed at the organ for many weddings and innumerable worship services and fraternal ceremonies, devoting countless hours of service to the music ministry.  He has arranged for keyboard and recorded on three CDs a large collection of Christian hymns, anthems, and songs for the benefit of Autism Speaks, the Hearing Health Foundation, and to help fund research into the causes and treatment of central auditory processing disorder in children.

He single-handedly researched and successfully unearthed in 1982 a non-musical arithmetic code which explains the ordering of pieces which J.S. Bach presumably had in mind when he composed his monumental collection of fugues and canons built upon a single theme which has come down to us under the title Die Kunst der Fuga (The Art of Fugue).  This undertaking of Bach's, which was begun in the early 1740's or earlier, was to create a number of fugues and canons based upon only one deceptively simple 10-second theme in d minor which would demonstrate everything that could be done with it using the craft of counterpoint.  In this project Bach's robust contrapuntal technique and unrivaled control of harmonic and motivic development are quite evident.  Death overtook the composer before he was able to finish everything in it to his satisfaction, but, even in its incomplete state, Bach succeeded in producing an hour and 10 minutes of beautifully intricate music.  The 2nd edition, which was published a year after his death, contained 4 canons and 14 fugues, one of which was unfinished, and it was at this time that Bach's sons gave it the title it bears today.  The paper which essays the hidden mathematical symbolism in this monumental work was first published in 1996 and has been posted pro bono on this blog as a subpage of the archive.

Dr. Monrotus himself is very driven when it comes to composition for the organ.  As a composer of organ music he has a small but significant body of 23 Opus numbers to his credit, 9 of which may be performed on a one manual pipe organ without pedals, a harmonium (reed organ), a digital keyboard with pipe organ samples, or a piano [See menu bar, Bio, Catalogue of Works].  He's tried to guide his own writing by those same words which Cesar Franck gave to his own composition students:  "Do not write much, but let it be very good."  His writing is inspired by the instrument in the Saint Louis Scottish Rite Cathedral [See menu bar, Photos 3] and is cast in a variety of sizes and styles; some works are long, some are short, they cover the entire range from difficult to moderately difficult to easy, they stay within the bounds of traditional tonality, they're highly idiomatic to the organ, pay close attention to form, and a lot of it is in 3 or 4 part texture.

While this new music is bold and doing all kinds of different things in new and different ways [See blog, Smorgasbord], it isn't in the neo-style.  This perhaps deserves some clarification ...

Today the neo-style of composing which developed during the 20th century isn't quite as avante-garde as it once was, but it's still considered an important element of an organist's education.  As the traditional 19th century tonal system was being stretched to, and even beyond, its furthermost limits, composers became aware of the growing need for alternative means of musical organization.  These experiments led to the development of impressionism, set theory, the 12 tone technique, total serialization, atonality, polytonality, parallelism, the non-resolution of dissonances, altered scales, tone clusters, etc., which are all elements of "the neo-style."  All of this can fascinate student and teacher alike, but it's been difficult if not impossible at times for the average listener to follow it or figure it out.

The listener of today, while (s)he may be forced through an accident of birth to wander through the first half of the 21st century, still expects to be able to sense a tonal key center for the piece of music being performed, to be able to pick out and remember its theme(s) after a first hearing, to discern some connections among its harmonies, and to expect the work to move them, if not thrill them.  The listener's mind also seeks a clear beat, searches for architecture in the music, and expects dissonances to resolve on consonant harmony.  When the listener can't find any of this taking place, when (s)he has to wait for the final chord for the first clue as to what key the music is in, when it sounds like there's no theme at all, when there's 47 different changes in the meter, when every interval is treated as a consonance, or when a rise or fall in volume is the only indication of the structure of the work, the impression it leaves is a hodge-podge of confusion even though it may make perfect sense to the neo-style composer and his/her acolytes who have the score right in front of them.  The listener doesn't have the score in front of him.  The listener doesn't know the notes.

Organists train and study and compose and improvise and perform repertoire to reach general audiences, but the majority of listeners in a general audience don't understand the creative logic behind obscure serial melodies, unresolved dissonant chords, and constantly shifting rhythms in the neo-style, and don't care.  The intellectual expertise with which the writer or improvisor juggles and expands musical materials employed in much neo-style music, while it may be admirable among schooled organists and composers, and while it represents a discipline worthy of study in its own right, doesn't matter in the least to the little boy in the front row or the grandmother in the back row no matter how cleverly it's worked.  The only thing that matters to the general listener is whether or not the music they're hearing is connecting with and communicating a language of warmth and meaning to them, and that's all.  This could even depend upon the size of the instrument and the acoustics.  Certain organ music requires a large instrument in a large, reverberant space for its true, intended effect (those who can't buy into this should check out the reaction of a general audience to a piece composed by Messiaen performed on an organ of 10 ranks or less in very dry acoustics ... under these conditions, no matter how well it's interpreted, this music will have trouble connecting compared with a performance on an instrument of 50 or more ranks in wet acoustics ... that's just a fact of life, the nature of the beast).  Unlike pianos, pipe organs are very different from one another, and they're installed in very different buildings with very different acoustical properties ... which means that not every piece of organ music will come across on every organ (on some instruments, certain organ music will not work at all).

When a composer tries to create music in the neo-style on their first attempt to "think outside the tonal box" artistically speaking (s)he soon learns that there's nothing outside the box but a vacuum.  It's a place where chords have no functional relationship to each other and one's sense of tonal frame of reference is blurred and even lost.  From far outside the box there's no means of production available for a creative artist, no audience, no way for someone's work to make an impact.  It's like being all alone floating in the awful, black, frigid, suffocating, dead silent nothingness of intergalactic space where there's no air, no heat, nothing going on, no sense of up or down, left or right, no idea of where "home" is, no way to exercise the senses, no way to get from one place to another, and, with the exception of a very few faint, very tiny fuzzy spots barely detectable to the eyes on the celestial sphere (which represent far distant galaxies many millions of light years away) there's nothing but terrifying darkness in every direction ... there's no rules there, no reality, no sense of tonal gravity, no tonal fences, no sense of light or shade, architecture, or clear beat, nothing to interact with, nothing to work against [See blog, Thinking].  How someone can create a real musical work of art if they're thinking far outside the box like this, in such a zone devoid of counterpoint which is the life's blood of music, is a mystery.  Anything created from this exanguinated vantage point can be expected to breathe little or no oxygen into the listener and make little or no permanent impact ... some of it is already in oblivion and will stay there ... some of it is attractive merely for its intellectual logic on paper and curious, sometimes jarring, effects ... the ultimate destiny of the rest of it has yet to be determined.  It's fair to say that the majority of people generally don't connect with any specimens of art which make little or no impact on them, and these days they aren't reticent about saying so.  They may applaud "neo-style" music out of politeness and respect or maybe just to appear not to be unsophisticated or ignorant, but the music itself, honestly, doesn't really grab them or thrill them ... which is a kind way of saying they can't make heads or tails of it.

A composer's writing for the organ can, and probably should, be progressive and explorative but originate from a place where (s)he can do their thinking along the edges of the box.  That's where things can actually get done, that's where the means of production are available, that's where the audience is, and that's where their writing can make an impact.  That's what old Bach did with the new music he created (some general listeners of his day even complained about IT!) ... that's what the old Wagnerian Cesar Franck did with his new music ... that's what Vierne did with his new music (his writing after WWI almost leaves the box, but never quite; the tonal fences in some of his compositions after that were shaky at times but still standing) ... that's what many other contemporary composers have done with their new music ... and, not surprisingly, that's what Dr. Monrotus has tried to do with his.

As a composer he likes to think horizontally, his counterpoint is densely packed in places, and he introduces canons into many of his pieces.  In one of his works (Op. 12) the theme is presented as a retrograde canon against itself, both right side up and in inverse movement.  In another (Op. 16) the theme is presented 4 times in 3 voice canon where, in one entry, all 3 moving lines are worked in inverse movement.  In another (Op. 21) a 2 part canon at the 4th and another one at the 5th is introduced.  His writing shows other signature moves:  it's colorful, even spicy at times through the use of altered chords and chromatic harmonies, and his vocabulary is sometimes based on the methods that Louis Vierne had used [See menu bar, Homage/Photos 2]; his 4 part polyphonic writing follows the rules [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX] but when writing homophonically in so-called "keyboard style" (as in Op. 2) he deliberately exceeds the upper limits of the soprano and alto voices (and also the tenor to allow it to be taken by the right hand); save for his Eb Major Trio (a technical study which works the entire pedalboard) he never permits the tenor and bass lines to cross, and the only time he permits adjacent voices to meet at a unison (prime) is when there is no other alternative; in every piece he composes there's at least one place where the moving lines approach each other momentarily at a "near miss" minor 2nd interval or which form a dissonant major 7th or minor 9th, which adds a little sparkle to the writing while still "sounding consonant" [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXI].

As for his 11 fugues, they're all written in 4 parts, all are a product of his own system of fugue writing [see blog, Ten Steps], all have 2 countersubjects, and all push the 4 standard voice ranges to their limits but never exceed them.  One of his Preludes (from Op. 11) is paired with a gutsy, related double fugue worked in quadruple counterpoint with transitions of only 1-2 bars in 4 voices for episodes; this Fugue has a very bold opening exposition which presents the 3rd entry in inverse movement and moves the 4th entry to the dominant of the relative key.  The remainder of his fugues are worked in triple counterpoint with episodes typically carried by 2 voices.  One of these (Op. 13, the A Major "jig") has another bold opening exposition with a redundant (5th) entry and a second exposition which presents the subject and both countersubjects in inverse movement. Another one (Op. 6, the D Major "jig") works every episode in 3 voices, another one (from Op. 10) has only one long central episode, and still another (Op. 22, entitled "Postlude") works the Dorian mode.  There's a lot going on in these fugues of his, and the daring moves they make at times [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Parts I-XXVIII] explore the boundaries of the art; at the same time they all have singable voice lines with no awkward leaps, a compelling beat, and highly animated basses.  His A Major "jig" (along with his F Major Toccata and Eb Major Trio) in fact romps all over the entire pedalboard [See menu bar, Free Stuff].  With respect to technique the Trio is a particularly demanding etude and addresses the most difficult aspect of organ playing, which is getting the left hand and feet to move independently anywhere on the keys and exactly in time with the right hand [See blog, The Hardest Thing].

Additionally, he's the author of the blog Organ Bench (www.organbench.com), a unique and successful coaching resource of material, information, and encouragement for amateur and professional development and all those interested in the pipe organ and its music.  Since its inception in August of 2015 there have been over 38K visits to this web site, and its blog/archive has received some 67K page views.  The scores for his compositions and their related explanations are all posted on this blog for the benefit of his friends for stopping by, and, when cross compared, are a mini-course in how to get started composing organ music.  It very much recalls The Joy of Painting series of public television broadcasts by artist Bob Ross who, starting with a blank canvas, takes one by the hand and demonstates, step by step, in little bits at a time, how to construct an oil painting of a wonderful, imaginary landscape. Organ Bench takes the reader, step by step, through a very similar process of composing organ compositions in various styles, explaining where the creative ideas for these musical "landscapes" come from and how to overcome the fear of failure. These same things learned in writing this type of music can then be applied to extemporaneous composition in the practice of improvisation.  A very great deal about writing organ music, among other things, can be learned from the examples (scores) and cross referenced information (blog postings) archived on this web site.

Through his service to the Masonic fraternity he's become one of the most experienced and versatile fraternal organists actively serving in North America.  This specialized music ministry, extended to include a number of fraternal organizations at the state, national, and international levels, includes a combined record of experience with them, in aggregate, of nearly 100 service related years.  He's performed at nearly 40 Masonic venues throughout North America and has served, and currently serves, as organist for a number of appendant Masonic organizations in Missouri where he is a past presiding State officer for the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons.

At the state level, he's served as musician for the Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free, & Accepted Masons of Missouri 4 times; he's also the current and a 4-time past Grand Organist of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Missouri, the current and a 6-time Past Grand Organist East of the Grand Council of Cryptic Masons of Missouri, and the current and an 11-time Past Grand Organist of the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar of Missouri.  He served additionally for 7 years as Organist and Director of Music for the Valley of Columbia, Orient of Missouri, Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite (See photo below), and for 8 years as a choir rehearsal pianist and associate organist at the historic Kimball pipe organ of 143 stops at the Saint Louis Scottish Rite Cathedral, the instrument which inspired the writing of his compositions [See menu bar, Photos 3].

His national and international appointments have been to the offices of Grand Organist for the York Rite Sovereign College of North America (since 2012), Provincial Grand Organist for the United States of America, Masonic Order of Athelstan in England, Wales, & its Provinces Overseas (since 2012), General Grand Organist for the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International (since 2014), and General Grand Musician for the General Grand Council Cryptic Masons International (since 2014).  He recorded a CD of original music, Christian hymns, and anthems for use in the consecration of new Courts for the Provincial Grand Court of the United States of America, Masonic Order of Athelstan.  He also holds memberships in several invitational Trinitarian Christian organizations and is the recipient of a number of awards and honors for his charitable work and musical service.  Cool