Obituary: Edouard Nies-Berger

One of the great correlative benefits of my 21 years in Richmond, Va., was getting to know Edouard Nies-Berger.  He was in his early 80s when I arrived and I maintained a close friendship with him until the end of his life.  I attended his 85th birthday party, he played a recital at St. Stephen’s Church consisting entirely of the music of Marco Enrico Bossi, one of his teachers, and I was in the audience when he played a recital on his 90th birthday at St. Paul’s Church where he was organist emeritus.  I even called on him at his apartment in Colmar in the summer of 1990, and I attended his funeral in early 2002.  I prepared the following obituary for The American Organist:

Schweitzer and Nies-Berger at the organ in St. Thomas Church in Strasbourg, 1959.

Edouard Nies-Berger, sometime organist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and protegé of and collaborator with Albert Schweitzer, died at his home in Richmond, Virginia, January 17, 2002, at age 98 following a brief illness.

He was born in Strasbourg in 1903 when that region was still part of the German empire.  At 15 he saw the French army reclaim the city and the surrounding provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.  In 1922 he came to New York at the age of 19 and remained in the United States professionally for the rest of his life, although for many years he maintained an apartment in Colmar.

He played in various churches and synagogues in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  During his Los Angeles years he found work in the movie studios and recorded the organ music for “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Border Town.”  “They had me play Bach’s great Toccata in D minor while Karloff carried Elsa Lancaster to her execution” Nies-Berger told an interviewer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1991.  “It was not my proudest moment artistically.”

Nies-Berger aspired to be a conductor, so in 1937 he left the United States for Salzburg where he studied with Bruno Walter and Rudolf Baumgartner.  He was preparing for his European conducting debut when the Nazis took over Salzburg.  He moved to Riga, Latvia, and from there to Brussels conducting opera and summer concerts.  Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Nies-Berger caught the last boat out of Rotterdam and returned to New York.

He kept his conducting dream alive for a few years in New York where he founded an orchestra comprised mainly of free-lance musicians.  These concerts were characterized by progressive programming, often featuring Nies-Berger conducting works for organ and orchestra from the console in Town Hall.  He earned the respect of Olin Downes writing in the New York Times.  T. Scott Buhrman, writing in The American Organist (no relation to the present day journal of the same name), was particularly effusive in his praise of Nies-Berger’s offerings. “But after renting the halls and paying the stagehands and hiring the musicians, there was no money left.  I had married and had a son.  It was time to be a responsible father” Nies-Berger acknowledged in the aforementioned interview.  In 1940 he moved to Richmond, Virginia, and to relative stability as the organist of Centenary Methodist Church.  Attempts to start a symphony orchestra in Richmond had recently failed, and Nies-Berger was frustrated in his attempts to organize musical groups in the city.  After only two years, he again returned to New York and began what turned out to be the most fruitful years of his career.

Arthur Rodzinski, the new conductor of the New York Philharmonic, tapped Nies-Berger to be the orchestra’s organist, a position he held for several years playing under such conductors as Walter, Szell, Reiner, Stokowski, and a young Leonard Bernstein.

Albert Schweitzer was a family friend when Edouard was growing up in Strasbourg.  His father and Schweitzer had been students together at Strasbourg University where they were each disciples of Professor Ernst Munch, leader of the Bach circle, and father of the conductor Charles Munch.  By the time Edouard moved to New York in 1942 , Schweitzer was established in his missionary work in Africa.  However, Schweitzer made a trip to the United States in 1949 where he and Nies-Berger were reunited.  “To meet Schweitzer again after so many years was a wonderful event for me” Nies-Berger recalled.

During his 1949 visit to America, Schweitzer visited the Aeolian-Skinner factory in Boston where he signed the console of the organ being built for Symphony Hall.

Their rekindled friendship culminated in a project that cemented Nies-Berger’s and Schweitzer’s association.  Schweitzer had collaborated with Widor in a new edition of Bach’s organ works, the first five volumes of which were published by Schirmer before Widor died and before the outbreak of World War II interrupted the project.  Schweitzer asked Nies-Berger to be his collaborator in the remaining three volumes which contained the chorale preludes.

“For the next six years, three or four months each summer, I went to Alsace or Africa to work with Schweitzer.  He made a little time every day for Bach.  It wasn’t easy–he’d won the [Nobel] Peace Prize already, and everybody in the world was after him for one thing or another.  He was too kind to say no.  To work with Schweitzer was almost like working with Bach.  To know him at such close range was the great spiritual experience of my life.  I have never thought the same, or made music the same way, after Schweitzer” said Nies-Berger.  For the rest of his life, he kept a plaster cast of Schweitzer’s hand on his piano.  By the time the project was finished in the 1960s, the Schirmer Widor-Schweitzer / Nies-Berger edition of Bach’s organ works represented the most current scholarship and was widely used by students and performers.

The demands of professional life in New York became more pressing and Nies-Berger left New York for the last time, as he moved again to Richmond to be the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Church, where he served from 1960 until he retired in 1968.  In his retirement he continued to live in Richmond, but he usually spent at least half of the year in Colmar.  Much of his retirement time was spent writing treatises on music and philosophy, as well as a memoir about his time with Schweitzer.  After multiple rejections from American publishers the memoir (written in English, which by now Nies-Berger considered his primary language) was published in 1995 in a French translation titled Albert Schweitzer m’a dit as part of a series Memoire d’Alsace by the small French firm Editions La Nuee Bleue.  Rollin Smith has since prepared an English translation published by Pendragon Press.  Nies-Berger was also a composer with several published compositions to his credit, one of which, Resurrection: An Easter Fantasy, is still in print in an anthology published by H. W. Gray.

A memorial service, led by the Rev. Canon Robert G. Hetherington, Rector, was held on January 23, 2002, at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond.  Grant Hellmers was the organist, playing selections by Widor, Franck, and Bach.

Photograph of Nies-Berger which appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 13, 2001, showing him with the plaster cast of Schweitzer’s hands.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Obituary: Edouard Nies-Berger

  1. Francis Crociata

    Did Mr. Nies-Berger mention his performance of Sowerby’s Mediieval Poem in Carnegie Hall in about 1942?

    • Good to hear from you, Francis. Edouard never mentioned this piece specifically. He did mention that he did quite a bit of contemporary music, so I’m not surprised. He was quite a man!

  2. Thanks for posting this. I have many fond memories of my grandfather including turning pages for him as a child at St. Pauls and spending weekends with him learning about the piano and going on walks. I think of him often and wish I could have appreciated him then as I do now. Thanks again for the chance to re-connect.

    • David, I’m so happy to hear from you here. I had lots of correspondence with you father, Albert, after EN-B died, but then I lost touch and have been unable to find an address for him. I’d be glad to hear from either of you here, or privately at nealcampbell@ymail.com. Edouard was a great friend to me and was a source of inspiration and was truly a link to the golden age of musicians in Europe and America. Good wishes, Neal

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