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In Memoriam: McNeil Robinson (1943-2015)

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The following article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of the Newsletter of the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, of which I was the editor at the time.

McNeil Robinson died on Saturday, May 9, 2015 after a lengthy illness. A memorial service to be held in New York is being planned for the fall at a time and location to be announced.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, McNeil Robinson quickly developed a prodigious technique and repertoire as a pianist, studying at the Birmingham Conservatory. In his teenaged years he played with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (now the Alabama Symphony Orchestra) on several occasions. Neil attended Birmingham Southern College as a scholarship student, and in 1962 came to New York City to study at the Mannes College of Music with Leonard Shure as a full scholarship student. He also studied piano privately with Rosina Lhevine and Beveridge Webster. In 1965 he entered Juilliard where he studied organ with Vernon de Tar and Anthony Newman, and composition with Vincent Persichetti.

In his DMA dissertation on the life and work of McNeil Robinson, our colleague Tony Thurman makes the following salient observation: “From early childhood, Robinson displayed an inexhaustible appetite for knowledge and learning. Even after graduation from The Juilliard School, he continued to study. Continuing education has always been a major focus in his life, even after having achieved international acclaim as a soloist, Robinson continued to seek out and interact with the major teachers and performing artists throughout the world.”

In this vein McNeil continued his organ studies with George Faxon, the noted teacher in Boston, and Clarence Watters, the leading disciple of Marcel Dupré in this country at that time. He also continued his composition studies with Yehudi Wyner and Jacob Druckman in New York, and later Allen Forte at Yale. Even in his mature years he continued to coach with Russell Saunders and Catharine Crozier in this country, and Guy Bovet and Monserrat Torrent in Europe. He was a fixture at AGO conventions and NYC Chapter workshops, anywhere he thought he might gain a new insight into a performance practice, something of historical interest or pedagogical advice. And in looking over those in attendance at such events he could be fairly disdainful of those who were not present who, in his estimation, could have used the information imparted—students and colleagues alike. He was not shy in expressing himself in his opinions, and needed not in the least any assertiveness training!

While still a student Neil gained two positions in New York that thrust his name into the front ranks of the profession: organist of Park Avenue Synagogue and organist of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The music lists of each of these noted houses of worship indicate the early use of his compositions and there is much commentary about his prowess as an improviser. His 1970 recording of Dupré’s Vêpres du Commun at St. Mary’s earned him a letter of congratulations from the composer.

Neil came to the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1965 at the invitation of the famous Cantor David Putterman to whom he had been recommended by Leonard Bernstein and Jack Gottleib, and he remained at Park Avenue Synagogue until he retired in 2012. He came to St. Mary’s also in 1965 first as the assistant to James Palsgrove, assuming the directorship of the music program in 1974. He continued in that capacity until 1982. Prior to this time he served at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, even sharing duties there during his early years at St. Mary’s.

As his renown as a performer and improviser increased, prospective students began to seek out McNeil Robinson, and his teaching career began to increase, especially after he left the rigorous liturgical schedule at St. Mary the Virgin. As his private studio increased, he also assumed a faculty position at Mannes. In 1984 at the invitation of John Walker, he joined the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, later becoming chair of the organ department after John moved to Pittsburgh in 1991, a position which Neil held at the time of his death. During this era he taught a succession of students who have gone on to significant careers of their own, and who have won numerous competitions and prizes. A tribute on the web site of the American Guild of Organists notes that he taught more winners of the AGO Improvisation Competition than anyone else.

As a composer his work continued to be performed in venues throughout the world, including several national conventions of the AGO, where his organ concerto was first performed at the National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. His liturgical compositions regularly find their place in the music lists of Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant houses of worship throughout the country. After St. Mary the Virgin, Neil’s church career trajectory took him to a lengthy tenure at Park Avenue Christian Church, and later Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, from which he retired only last fall.

Throughout the history of music there have been notable exceptional masters of the musical art who were equally gifted and proficient in the complimentary disciplines of performance, improvisation, composition, and pedagogy. Clearly McNeil Robinson was one such master musician whose life and work happily intersected with our own here in the New York City Chapter.

May his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, maestro.

Neal Campbell

With Peter Stolzfus Berton and me at the Hancocks' Farewell, Saint Thomas Church, New York, May 2004.

With Peter Stolzfus Berton and me at the Hancocks’ Farewell, Saint Thomas Church, New York, May 2004.

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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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