“One thing I know for sure…Sebastian Bach is glad – you – are – here!”
With those words, Virgil Fox opened many a “heavy organ” concert in the 1970s, playing to packed houses at the Fillmore East and Carnegie Hall, and not once being respected or even acknowledged as a “serious artist” by the critical fraternity. Fox (1912-1980) had once been the darling of the organ world back in the days when even a really “distinguished” organist like Charles M. Courboin played the huge instrument at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, but once the vogue for “authentic organs” was ushered in during the late 1950s by Helmut Walcha and, a few years later, by E. Power Biggs, Fox with his riot of colors and flamboyant fingering was considered a pariah in the music world. Forget the fact that J.S. Bach himself loved traveling to other German cities and playing organs that could produce richer tones and the sounds of bells; that didn’t matter. The lousy little organ he played in Leipzig is the one everybody had to emulate because…he was stuck with it.
As you can tell, I’m not a fan of wheezy little organs any more than I am a fan of whiny, snively “straight tone” strings and winds (see my article, The HIP Movement in Classical Music: Reality and Myth) because they rob the music of its emotional power. And this, even more than the lack of color, is what Virgil Fox fought against all his life, but never more so than during the last two decades of his life when the full weight of the Critical Community worked against him.
While I admit that the music of Purcell and even Bach didn’t sound like this on the instruments of their day in terms of color, I find absolutely nothing wrong with Fox’s Bach performances from a musical level. He didn’t rearrange or distort the music itself, but played it straight in a manner than would have been the envy of any other organist. A child prodigy, he was giving concerts and studying with serious teachers by age 13, and by 1936, after finishing his studies in France with Louis Vierne, he was playing at the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore while teaching at the Peabody Institute. When asked how a farm boy from Illinois came to play classical music on the organ, Fox once laughed and said he was convinced that he was an organist in a former life, because the first time he sat down at an organ he played himself into a trance and didn’t come up for two hours. And that is the kind of out-of-body experience he was always trying to recreate, not only for himself but for his audiences.
After making his first recordings for RCA Victor in 1941, Fox volunteered for the U.S.Army Air Force and took a leave of absence from his posts. He achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant, giving more than 600 concerts until his discharge in 1946. Returning stateside, he was hired as resident organist at the Riverside Church in New York, where he greatly expanded the organ there. According to legend, there was a rectory next door to the back of the organ pipes and the priests there ended up banging on the walls trying to get Fox to stop practicing, which he did well into the middle of the night.
Through most of his later career, starting with his concerts at the Fillmore East in 1970-71, Fox was completely dismissed by serious music critics as a bad joke—except that his performances were as serious and fastidious as ever. Moreover, in his interviews and TV appearances, Fox made it clear that he was thrilled that young people were flocking to hear not just him but Johann Sebastian Bach. He felt that he was simply the messenger for the composer, his advocate, but was at the same time very proud of his spectacular technique and flawless memory. Fox could play up to 250 works, including the complete organ symphonies of composers like Widor and Vierne, from memory. In fact, we should step back a bit and realize that the majority of 20th-century organists, including Courboin and France’s beloved Marie-Claire Alain, based a great deal of their style and ear for color on the French organs and organ composers, whose work exploited color and volume. In other words, there was nothing wrong with Fox’s approach UNTIL Walcha and the “authentic organ” crowd came along. I personally have nothing against hearing what those instruments sounded like—as a matter of fact, I doubt that many people know that Fox actually played Bach’s organ back in September 1938—and Walcha’s recordings are certainly stylish, probably the best ever made on that instrument, but to say that it is the preferred or only way of listening to Bach is absurd, and this is what Fox fought to his dying day.
I saw Fox in person only once, and it wasn’t in New York. It was in Cincinnati’s Music Hall in December 1977, shortly after I moved from New Jersey to the Queen City. It was snowing lightly when I embarked for the concert although heavier snow was predicted to come around 9:30, while Fox was still playing. As it turned out, that was the night of a blizzard; by the time I got home it was 12:45 a.m. and my car was sliding all over the street. A great many prospective concertgoers, in fact, decided to skip the concert entirely. I don’t think there were 100 people in the auditorium when Virgil came on stage…but it didn’t faze him one bit. He poured his heart and soul into his performance, verbally introducing each piece in his inimitable way, playing his custom-built touring instrument—a new one, built by Allen Organ Company in 1976 with a then-revolutionary digital computer drive, which he was very proud of. With its four manuals, it produced a tremendous sound. Had it not been death-by-snow when he finished, I would certainly have gone backstage to shake his hand and talk to him. Virgil Fax was the kind of artist who you never felt was classist or snobbish. His mission was to bring music to the people, the music he loved and lived for and went into a trance when he played, and nothing was going to stop him.
Always a pioneer in recording technology, Fox was tremendously proud of his Heavy Organ at Carnegie Hall album because he felt it captured the tone colors and registrations of his organ with perfect fidelity. He also made the first digital recordings in the United States, issued on two LPs (and later one CD) by Bainbridge Records as The Digital Fox.
When he was finally diagnosed with prostate cancer two years later, he wasn’t depressed or sad. He was angry. He felt that he still had a lot of playing left in him and didn’t want cancer to stop him. It also didn’t help his mood that he didn’t even know he was ill until it was too late. He would undoubtedly have continued playing up until he drew his last breath had the cancer not affected his fingernails, which became cracked and brittle, making performing painful and difficult. One of his last concerts was the one he gave at Riverside Church on May 6, 1979, which was fortunately recorded and issued on CDs as Soli Deo Gloria. You can hear the entire concert/recording here.
You can hate Virgil Fox all you want. You can push your Helmut Walcha and Biggs recordings as much as you like. But you will never, ever erase the memory or legacy of Virgil Fox. He was THE titan of the organ, the greatest and most emotive Bach player who ever trod this earth, and if you can’t hear that you have no soul.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley