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Obituary: William Watkins

My obituary for William Watkins, my organ teacher from 1967 to 1972, which was published in the November 2004 issue of The American Organist:

Copyright 2004 © Neal Campbell

William Watkins, AAGO, 82 years old, June 17, 2004, at Washington Hospice in Washington, D. C., of acute respiratory failure.  An honorary life member of all three Washington-area AGO chapters, Mr. Watkins was director of music and organist at Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C., from 1956 to 1997.  He held the position of director of music emeritus until his death.  William Watkins was born and raised in Danville, Va.  He began his academic music studies in 1941 at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Md.  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 artist’s diploma, at that time awarded to only 18 students in the history of the conservatory, which was founded in 1888.

While a student in Baltimore, he held 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 rebuilding the church’s Skinner organ.

 

Publicity flyer from the early 1950s.

In 1949 Mr. Watkins’ career was launched after he competed in and won the Young Artists Award of the National Federation of Music Clubs, at the time the most prestigious music competition in the U. S.  The first organist to win the competition, Mr. Watkins played Leo Sowerby’s then new Sonatina.  This was the beginning of a life-long association with Sowerby’s music, 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 City.  He played solo recitals for national and regional conventions of the AGO, and was a judge for the 1956 National Organ Playing Competition.  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, D. C.  His solo career was curtailed in late 1951 as a result of injuries he sustained in an automobile accident.

Aeolian-Skinner Organ, Opus 1306 from 1957, in the gallery of Georgetown Presbyterian Church, Washington, D. C.

In the early 1950s he began a noted teaching career that continued until his death.  Many of his students have won competitions and developed careers of their own in churches and academic institutions.  At various times he also taught organ at the Washington Musical Institute, the University of Maryland, and Catholic University of America.  He recorded for the Aeolian-Skinner “King of Instruments” series, McIntosh Records, and Washington Records.  Mr. Watkins’ professional career culminated as director of music and organist at Georgetown Presbyterian church in Washington.  Shortly after his appointment  he collaborated with Joseph S. Whiteford on 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 restoration of the historic building 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 nation’s capital.  He oversaw several additions to the organ over the years.

William Watkins leaves 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.  A memorial service and interment took place at Georgetown Presbyterian Church.  A musical memorial tribute is scheduled at the church on April 2, 2005.

–NEAL CAMPBELL

With Bill Watkins with Lorenz Maycher, 1995.

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Reviews of “In the Spirit’s Tether: Choral and Instrumental Music of Harold Friedell”

The following review by Michael Barone appeared in the September 2000 issue of The American Organist:

IN THE SPIRIT’S TETHER: Choral and Instrumental Music by Harold Friedell (1905-1958).  The Choir of St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond; Neal Campbell, organist and choirmaster; Deborah Cuffee Davis, assistant organist (1951/66 Aeolian-Skinner), with Robert Murray, violin, and Melba Williams, Harp.  Pro Organo CD-7096 [DDD]; 67:47.  Produced by Frederick Hohman (available from Zarex Corporation: 800-336-2224; www.zarex.com.  [Anthems: Psalm 25; Draw us in the spirit’s tether; The Way to Jerusalem; Thou Son of God on Christmas Day; The shepherds had an angel; Sweet little Jesu; Modal Communion Service; Orisons; Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F; Psalm 121; Organ solos: Lullaby; Prelude on St. Columba; Elegy (with violin and harp).]

Respected and appreciated for his dozen years of service to New York City’s St. Bartholomew’s Church and as an inspiring faculty member of the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seiminary, Friedell was one of the notable East Coast American church musicians of the mid-10th century.  Active in the AGO and maintainer of exemplary programs at the churches he served, Friedell left a small body of useful compositions that reveal a sure hand and a full understanding of the needs of the liturgical church.  Texts are set clearly and without complication, harmonies and melodies are chaste and effecient, yet also confident and reassuring, and everything is accessible to Sunday singers and worshipers.  Though many of the works have been published, two items, which were not, should be: a brief organ Lullaby, with its aura of Delius’s Walk in the Paradise Garden, and the moving soprano solo setting of Psalm 121.  The Mag/Nunc pair is as fine as any by an American, and the plaintive Elegy touches heartstrings, too.  Campbell’s forces are period perfect, and Hohman’s recording of them is spacious, transparent, and totally effective.  No anthem texts are provided in the otherwise informative booklet (and are not really necessary, so clear is the choir’s diction). No useful data is provided about the organ either, this omission being one of Pro Organo’s few recurring bad habits.

This second review, also by Michael Barone, appeared in the July 2001 issue of The American Organist in a column celebrating the 15th anniversary of Frederick Hohman’s Pro Organo label where Barone reviewed a dozen recent Pro Organ releases:

In church music circles, Friedell’s reputation still stands, based on his teachng at Union Theological Seiminar and his years at St. Bartholomew’s and Calvary Church in New York City.  Since his compositions are almost entirely for the church, awareness of his work beyond these precincts is virtually nil.  Thus, Neal Campbell’s dedicated performances (amplified by five booklet pages of his reflective annotations, drawn from his doctoral researches) are both welcome and necessary, at the very least as a document of an aspect of our culture (the serious church musician/composer) that is very much on the decline.  Friedell’s style is harmonically uncomplicated, mildly modal and lyric, easy to follow, and a bit proper as much utilitarian church music is (from any generation).  Little of his music is memorable in the way a Howells or Britten or Walton anthem might be, but that may come from an intent to create works that a totally amateur choir could manage.  These performances present the scores in a natural environment.  The marvelously clean enunciation of anthem texts seems to have been achieved, in part, by a microphone placement that emphasized individual voices (whose diction is flawless) rather than a more blended choral sound.  The chorus responds to Campbell’s sensitive direction, and if their ensemble is not as refined as some professional groups (vibrato in the female singers is rich), it still represents a quality level very high on the scale of American volunteer liturgical choirs.  All of the music is well within the scope of decent singers.  The solo Lullaby (which builds to a modest climax), and the haunting Elegy (in which guest violinist Robert Murray and harpist Melba Williams join Mr. Campbell) would all make satisfying recital interludes.  But in what has become an unfortunate Pro Organo tradition when the organ is not the sole focus of attention, little or no mention is made of it in booklet notes.  Here, even the organ tuning is credited (justifiably, since the instrument sounds superb), but we are told neither the date of completition, nor size, nor any historical background concerning the instrument.  I obtained the data elsewhere.

The following review by Bernard Durman appeared in the April 2000 issue of The Diapason:

This CD is likely to be viewed as the odd-lot recording from Pro Organo, because it features a choir that does NOT model itself after a typical English cathedral choir.  Instead, we have a mature, American mixed adult choir, with a rich, come-as-you-are vibrato.  The CD features the St. Stephen’s Choir, a choir not unlike that found in the majority of choir lofts in America, and one which approximates the choral blend and choral sound that one would have been likely to hear (and which this reviewer is old enough to remember) coming from the larger New York City area churches during the early 1960s.  Oddly enough, it is precisely this choral sound that does much to convey the warmth and quasi-operatic drama of the music of Harold Friedell.  Dr. Neal Campbell’s dissertation was centered upon the life and works of Friedell, and he draws upon his experience as he interprets and conducts these works.  Friedell was noted for his work in several New York City churches, his last and most memorable post being at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue.

For the program of this disc, Dr. Campbell has included an engaging instrumental track–the lush Elegy for violin, harp, and organ–as well as a couple of organ solo tracks and one very impressive soprano solo from Lisa Edwards-burrs (a setting of Psalm 121).  To this he has added some fine choral singing of service music, and both well-known and little-known Friedell anthems.  As one continues to listen to this album, one can begin to identify many of the harmonic progressions, modal flavors, and rhythms that are Friedell’s musical thumbprints.  For those of us who only know Harold Friedell from his “hit” anthems, such as Draw us in the spirit’s tether and The Way to Jerusalem, this CD will give the listener a finer understanding of this mid-century church musician/composer.  While the choral ensemble and diction are in fine form, and the recorded sound excellent, we are still miles removed from the sound of the Anglican cathedral men and boys choirs.  The value of the CD for the church musician is primarily for the opportunity of gaining insight into the dramatics, even the theatrics, of Harold Friedell’s sacred music.  The dramatic element must be understood by all who would conduct this music in order that it be delivered with the spirit of dignity and serenity that no musical score alone can convey.

The Choir of St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.

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Review of Aeolian-Skinner’s “King of Instruments” series of recordings, Volumes 1-3 remastered by VTOA

Review which appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Diapason

Copyright 2011 © Neal Campbell

The King of Instruments Highlights, VTOA, Op. 8

The King of Instruments, Volumes 1-3.

Order from:

www.vermontorganacademy.com or by mail for $23.50 (post paid) from

Vermont Organ Academy

P. O. Box 2069

Kilgore, TX  75663-2069

The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company was not the only major organ company to use sound recordings to advance sales or to articulate its tonal philosophies, but at a total of 30 volumes the complete “King of Instruments” series was considerably greater in scope than typically need be contemplated purely for promotional purposes.  As was typical of Aeolian-Skinner, the artistic and musical interests of their endeavors trumped the purely practical nature of the enterprise.  In this case, the series of recordings was of sufficient musical merit that each volume as it was released was announced in the New York Times and was briefly reviewed in its columns of new recordings.  [The entire “King of Instruments” series is chronicled in detail by John A. Hansen in April 2003 issue of The Diapason.]

In 1942 G. Donald Harrison narrated two sides of a 78 rpm recording titled Studies in Tone, which used the organ at Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass., Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1007, for the musical examples.  Volume I of the new “King of Instruments” series featured Harrison narrating in a way similar to Studies in Tone, which may have been the impetus for Joseph S. Whiteford as he initiated the new series.  But the “King of Instruments” series of recordings was Whiteford’s project, and it was he who directed all facets of its production.  In fact Whiteford, a competent organist himself, actually played some of the examples that accompanied Harrison’s narration.

Taken as a whole the 30 volumes are a recorded documentation of the work of Aeolian-Skinner following World War II until it closed for business in 1972, as played by the leading organists of the day.  This era divides itself into three distinct periods of tonal style: Harrison until his death in 1956; Whiteford, who was Harrison’s assistant and ultimately his successor; and Donald Gillett, formerly the head finisher who became President and Tonal Director after Whiteford retired in 1966.   Harrison’s work has come to be generally accepted, studied, and documented, and rightly so.  But as Charles Callahan presciently says in the introductory notes to his second book [Æolian-Skinner Remembered. Minneapolis: Randall Egan, 1996]:

“The pendulum of taste and opinion is constantly in motion.  Caught up in the enthusiasms of a particular moment in time, it is all too easy for anyone to belittle others’ achievements.  Perhaps Joseph Whiteford and his work are overdue for a fair assessment.”

I would proffer that these three master organ builders led the modern American response to the principles of the Orgelbewegung movement to a pinnacle of creativity and workmanship that has not been surpassed.  The complete 30 volumes of “King of Instruments” and other modern recordings of these existing organs provide, in part, the tools for the fair assessment Dr. Callahan calls for in his remark above.

Trompette-en-Chamade, First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas

The master tapes for the complete “King of Instruments” series of recordings came to the archives of the Organ Historical Society after Aeolian-Skinner closed, and there they have since languished in a state of gradual inexorable decline.  It is from these original masters that VTOA has produced these CDs.  Daniel Colburn, who during his relatively brief tenure as executive director of the OHS facilitated access to these master tapes, is to be congratulated for allowing them to see the light of day.  The sound reproduction quality of these new compact discs is remarkably clear and vibrant in tone, relatively free from pops, scratches, and tics, and they compare better than favorably to most historical remasterings.

Volume 1 consists of  Harrison discussing the different types of pipe construction and the tones they produce.  Sixty years later his concise language and colorfully correct technical information is imparted in a manner that is at once elegantly understandable, yet inevitably practical and useful.  All organists ought to listen to this commentary as they take their first lessons!  At the same time the seasoned serious listener is compelled to consider the content of his message with deference.  This narration is enhanced by brief, succinct performances by Thomas Dunn, George Faxon, and Roy Perry playing the organs in Symphony Hall, Boston, the Cathedral of St. Paul, Boston, and First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas—each new organs in the early 1950s.  Joseph Whiteford plays the examples at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, including the closing page of the Franck B-minor chorale and the fanfares on the State Trumpet.  Volume 2 consists of Dunn and Faxon playing the same two Boston organs, Robert Owen playing Christ Church, Bronxville, New York, and Perry and William Watkins playing at Kilgore.  Volume 3 consists of Robert Owen playing a recital at Bronxville.

Robert Owen at Bronxville

There have been prior transfers, both private and commercial, directly from good copies of the LPs to CD of some material from Volumes 1-3, but you will want these new editions not just for the enhanced sonic luster of the master transfers: there is a significant amount of material that never made it to the original LPs because of time limitation technologies of the day which are restored here—entire pieces, such as Purvis’ Thanksgiving and Repentance recorded by Roy Perry at Kilgore, two Bach chorale preludes played by Thomas Dunn at Symphony Hall, and even some narration and examples in Harrison’s Volume 1.  Particularly poignant is the identification for the first time in print of Thomas Dunn and William Watkins, two players identified ignominiously on the LPs of Volume 2 simply as the “staff organist” since they were each members of the musicians union.  As an aside, although not presented here, Volume 5 of the series featured Richard Purvis playing an album of his own music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and he is similarly identified with the same generic appellation.

Produced as a “teaser” prior to the release of Volumes 1-3, the Highlights volume contains selected material from the complete set of master tapes, including tracks from Volumes 1-3.  But, again, there is material presented which never made it to the original LP’s and has therefore never been heard.  Notable are performances of Norman Coke-Jephcott playing his Toccata on a National Air at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé playing the Tournemire Fantaisie-Improvisation sur l’Ave maris stella on the Whiteford-Gillett organ of Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis.  Also included on the Highlights album are performances by Albert Russell at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford and John Weaver’s heart-melting performance of Mozart’s K. 594 Fantasy recorded at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York for Volume 20 in the mid-1960s.

Charles Munsch, E Power Biggs, and G Donald Harrison at Symphony Hall, Boston

Let us hope that Vermont Organ Academy will continue to release more from this historic series of master tapes.  On several levels they are of significant musical and historical content, interest in which will only be enhanced as the pendulum of taste and opinion continues its swing and pull.

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