Remembrances by Neal Campbell delivered at the Memorial Service for Charles Dodsley Walker
March 21, 2015 in the Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York
I Early AGO
Organists, and other musicians, in the early 1970s who—such as I—were not New Yorkers, would have known the name CHARLES DODSLEY WALKER as the president of the American Guild of Organists. He wrote a column that appeared in the monthly magazine, complete with the picture that is on the back cover of the book of remembrances, together with a facsimile of his distinctive signature—the three names connected in one continuous cursive script.
In the summer of 1972 I was a finalist in the Guild’s young organists’ competition held during the national AGO convention in Dallas, and I went to the whole week of events—and it was there that I encountered Charlie Walker for the first time, though I don’t remember that we actually met. At the concluding banquet Charlie gave a speech that was vintage CDW!
In paying tribute to our host city—Dallas—he composed a doggerel verse, which used in alphabetical order, a word or name which rhymed with “Dallas.”
“There was a young lass named Alice, who found herself convening in Dallas.” . . . that sort of thing.
Well, he continued through the letters B and C and it appeared, for all the world, that he was going to continue through the entire alphabet, and you could see a sort of gleeful trepidation began to appear on the faces of the confreres as they contemplated just how he was going to negotiate the upcoming sixth letter of the alphabet! Then, all of a sudden the work took some sort of funny unexpected turn which had everyone convulsed in belly-aching laughter, and was entirely void of any sort of risqué-ness, and it seemed almost to chastise the audience for thinking it might be anything naughty!
I mentioned this to Charlie once and he said he didn’t remember anything about it—but, Lise, if we ever find that speech, I want a copy to see just how he turned that around!
II Saint Luke’s
Through a fortuitous, and felicitous set of circumstances (felicitous—that’s a word Charlie liked and used a lot ! ) . . . Charlie applied for a vacancy as assistant organist of Saint Luke’s and of course we were glad to have him, but I didn’t want his title to sound quite so junior and student-like, so I proposed Artist-in-Residence, which we settled on and felt covered his position nicely. But he threw himself into whatever he was asked to do with real enthusiasm, which was infectious to all of us. And he welcomed us into his concerts here and in Carnegie Hall.
Early on we settled into a routine. He and Lise would drive out to Darien on Thursday and Sunday. When he would arrive he’d come to my office and—evoking his best Navy manners—would say “aye, aye sir—reporting for duty” . . . and we’d be off. As time went on, he amended his greeting by extending his hand, looking me straight in the eye saying “beloved friend and colleague—it’s so good to see you.” At first I thought he was being playfully obsequious. But as this pattern continued—both on Thursday and Sunday—I realized that he was absolutely sincere. I was his beloved friend and colleague . . . and he was mine—just as all of us gathered here were his beloved friends and colleagues. The organizations with which he was associated really were his extended musical family and I think he really loved his colleagues and went out of the way to sustain and support the many disparate sorts and conditions of his fellow organists and musicians that came under his care.
Anyway—at these Thursday visits, we would quickly dispatch with whatever details we needed to cover regarding that evening’s rehearsal, or the upcoming Sunday service, or the calendar. Then—quite unplanned or rehearsed, we would simply visit for a while, sometimes maybe even for an hour or so, on any number of topics, but usually having to do with the personalities of our profession, past and present. I wish I’d had a voice-activated in-house recording system, like the Nixon White House, for these visits.
But as his 90th birthday approached, I did arrange for a series of visits with the digital recorder on, and the results of those visits are about twelve hours of conversations, which were boiled down to the two articles of interviews published in The Diapason, links to which are on the back of your Book of Remembrances.
Of course we talked about Paris a lot, and at some point he remarked that his predecessor at the American Cathedral had been Robert Owen, the noted organist of Christ Church Bronxville for many years. Well, I knew Bob Owen and Christ Church, so I looked in the recently-published centennial history of that great parish, and—sure enough—there were the references to Robert Owen and the American Cathedral in Paris.
But what I noticed in particular while perusing that book was a tribute to Bob Owen by one of his former choirboys who had become a priest, who was quoted as saying at some event . . .
“I dedicate my remarks and much of my ministry to Bob Owen, who showed me all the wonders of God without ever opening a Bible, without ever preaching a sermon . . . without being anything other than who he was—a superb musician.”
. . . and it occurred to me, that could just as well be said about Charlie Walker: “he showed us all the wonders of God without ever opening a Bible with us, without ever preaching a sermon to us . . . without ever being anything other than who he was—a superb musician.”
Christmas Eve 2007 was Charlie’s first with us at Saint Luke’s. Like many places we offer a half-hour of music before the services, and the choir begins in the back of the church singing “Once in royal David’s City,” the first stanza sung by a soloist, the second by the choir unaccompanied, and the remaining stanzas with the organ and congregation joining as the choir processes to their places in the chancel.
Charlie was at the console, and I was conducting the choir from the back of the nave. At the appointed time and in the agreed upon way, Charlie gave the pitches for the soloist: [sing D-F#-G]. Unfortunately, there was just enough conversational buzz in the congregation that the soloist—one of our best young choristers—didn’t hear it. Now, I don’t have perfect pitch, but I went over to the soloist and got close to her ear and repeated what I thought were the correct pitches. But, I got it a half-step high!
Well, the soloist negotiated it perfectly, but when she got to the third line “Mary was” I knew it was too high and we were in trouble. Verse 2 by the choir was just fine unaccompanied. It actually sounded nice in the key of A-flat, but I dreaded the train wreck I knew was coming when the organ would come in for the third stanza in the published key of G.
But . . . when we got there . . . it was just fine! A bit high for the congregation, perhaps, but it was just fine. Charlie had ascertained what had happened, and simply transposed it to the new key.
Now, this may not be evidence of musical genius. But it is evidence of a thorough training, and an engaged mind doing all that he could to see to it that the wonders of God were conveyed—or at least, not derailed—that Christmas Eve by his being nothing more than what he was—a superb musician.
I’m sure each organization represented here could tell similar tales of his musicianship revealed similarly, in ways great and small . . . obvious and less so.
III Last Visit
The week before he died, I visited Charlie in his room at Lenox Hill Hospital. He was weak, to be sure, but he was alert, had that inimitable gleam in his eye, and his creative command of the vocabulary—so, we visited for an hour or so about all sorts of things, just as we had so many Thursdays in my office. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas and his last concert with Canterbury—so we visited about all of that. I showed him some pictures on my hand-held, including some from our visit at the Lake Delaware Boys Camp last summer. It also just happened to be his and Lise’s 14th wedding anniversary. So we had lots to talk about!
Finally it came time for me to go and I leaned in close to say good-bye, knowing for myself that it was possibly for the last time.
As I was walking out of the room, Charlie called to me saying “I hope I see you again.” All I could manage was a smile and nod . . . and I left.
But, what I wish I had said to him then, and what I say to all of us today is:
“Beloved friend and colleague, I am certain that we will . . . ”
At the console of the organ in Church of the Heavenly Rest following a Canterbury Choral Society concert.