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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “7 comments on Biggs”

April 23, 2006

Dear Michael
Not a question, a statement. I’m right now listening to EPower to the People, Part 1, on WFMT, and I am in tears…of joy. E Power Biggs was one of the first classical musicians I remember, along with Arthur Fiedler, from the age of five, listening to hisprograms on Sundays before going to church on KMOX, Saint Louis. I have many of his recordings, by no means all, and I grew to revere him for precisely the reasons you state so well in your broadcast. I was shocked that he passed away so soon. I am also shocked that he and Virgil Fox could not get along (Wikipedia) since both had SO much to contribute to the state of the organ art at the time, and both are so equally revered and respected in my estimation.

I have something of interest which I have been keeping hidden for over 35 years…a letter, hand-written, to me from Biggs himself, around 1969 or 1970. I had written him asking him if he would record Leon Beollman’s ‘Suite Gothique’, since I had heard it as filler music at a Public TV station where I worked. Yes, filler music on TV. He wrote back that Boellman was not at fashion at that time but that at some point in the future he might consider it. Obviously, he never got around to it.

The only rumor I had ever heard about Biggs centered around his health. According to this rumor, Biggs later in life suffered from arthritis which ultimately affected his technique though not his musicianship. If so, that is a double tragedy. He could never created enough music in his lifetime to satisfy me or, for that matter, I suspect, for the rest of us.

Arthur Reis
New Lenox, IL

Dear Art,
Thanks for your note. The polarization of Fox and Biggs was unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable. Might it have been necessary, though, since one cannot have day without night, and the heightened popularity the two achieved was intensified, in a way, by that rivalry.

However, the more I listen to Biggs, the more I am aware of the similarities in overall effect that he and Fox engendered in listeners…both convey a deeply passionate involvement with their music through different means. Both were ‘showmen’. We think of Fox as the extravagant one, but recall the Biggs album covers where he’s dressed in Revolutionary-era period costume, smilingly holding the Stars and Stripes, or in a natty white suite with blue pin-stripes, straw hat and walking stick posed in front of a river steamboat…always with that infectious smile. Fox became almost a charicature of himself, Biggs was not above seeming a little ridiculous to make a point. And they both gravitated, inevitably, to the music of Bach. Fox played the Allen and Rodgers electronic instruments and used them for their dramatic effects. Biggs played the electro-pneumatic Möller organ at Saint George’s Church (and what colorful, yet period-inappropriate registrations he uses in his Rheinberger Concertos!) and recorded on the multiple organs at Freiburg Cathedral because of their dramatic effects. Remember that the Möller (e-p) and the Busch-Reisinger Flentrop (tracker) organs both date from 1958, and Biggs played and recorded on them with equal vigor. And if you want fleet fluidity, listen to the Music of Jubilee performance of Bach’s Sinfonia to Cantata #29…those fingers fly!

Also, listening to the direct-to-disc performances from the 1940s (by both performers), one is struck by the extraordinary unedited facility of Biggs in his prime. Unfortunately, even as his stereo (taped) performances were coming online, his rheumatoid arthritis began to challenge him (it was a fact; look at pictures of his hands in his later years). But listen to the late recording of the Joplin rags and hear graceful and fluid playing of the best sort…not showy, but totally communicative.

As for Boellmann, Biggs had recorded the entire Gothic Suite in a 78-rpm set (RCA, I believe, MM-802, issued in 1949) of French Organ Music (also including Widor’s Toccata (#5) and Marche Pontificale, Vierne Final (#1), Alain Litanies, Gigout Grand Choeur Dialogue and Dupré I am black but comely)…with the Boellmann simultaneously issued as a ‘single’ (#72737)…performed on the Aeolian-Skinner at Saint Paul’s Chapel of Columbia University.

Both Biggs and Fox created music of many sorts which can provide a lifetime of listening pleasure. But perhaps the lesson we should take from this remarkable pair of supremely gifted artist/communicators is that no one lifetime can cover all the ground…particularly when there is so much from so many excellent sources to inspire us.

Love them both, listen to them both, and be warmed by the heat of their continuing energy.

jmb


Dear Michael,
More of a comment on the E.Power Biggs tribute #1, and the Biggs tour recordings. It’s somewhat disappointing that Helmut Kolbe, acoustician from Switzerland passed on a few years back.

I had the opportunity to chat with him extensively during the New York City Convention of the Audio Engineering Society in the Fall of 1991. At least for most of the stereo and multi-channel recordings, Helmut Kolbe had been the recording engineer—and did much more than just the engineering.

He informed me that during the year, he would come up with a “short list” of potential organs for recording interest, check them out and make the arrangements for the following years recording sessions - for which he did the engineering.

Helmut was the individual who installed the console for controlling the 4 antiphonal organs at Frieburg from which the early Quadraphonic LP’s were issued. During our conversation in 1991 Helmut informed me that unfortunately the cathedral authorities had removed this console. Thus the recording extravaganza is not possible of duplication until another console is installed by another intrepid recording engineer.

In the later years of Biggs recording career the condition of arthritis became so severe that almost all the final recording production releases were the result of very judicious editing and splicing of the various takes. Biggs became less and less capable of completing the music successfully without a number of dropped notes.

The success of the performances and LP productions is very much due to Helmut Kolbe’s masterful tape editing techniques.

Hopefully, we can give some credit where it should be recognized.

Warmest regards,
Norm Kinnaugh
Lawrence, KS

Dear Norm,
Thanks for the additional information concerning Herr Kolbe, who definitely deserves credit for picking up the ball (and recording gear!) that Georg Steinmeyer had carrined on the first of Biggs’European junkets and continuing as Biggsy’s collaborator and friend through the many further adventures.

Biggs’s success may have been a communal effort (whose is not), but his was the galvanizing energy that ‘made it happen’.

jmb


Dear Michael
In you first program about E. Power Biggs you state that his recording The Glory of Gabrieli, CBS Sony CD-42645, 1968 has been re released on CD. Do you have a source? I have not been able to find anyone who is selling this cd. I remember listening to it while in college in the very late 60s. Thanks for any help.

Dear Larry,
I played from the original CD reissue from Columbia Masterworks (MK-42645), which may be available in second-hand stores.

However, you must not have tried the ‘magic word’ during your search, as I am happy to report that this same material has been reissued by Sony Classical (who bought up Columbia some years ago) as CD-62426 (Gabrieli in San Marco) with contents identical to the Columbia incarnation.

http://sonyclassical.com/music/62426/

The Glory of Gabrieli is another, different disc, which includes Biggs-inspired performances of Frescobaldi and Gabrieli organ solos and organ-and-brass music (plus some brass-only tracks).

The Sony site represents both of these as ‘available’, and I found them listed (at an attractively low prices) on the Amazon website.

jmb


Dear Michael,
Thanx for two programs of E. Power Biggs. Does your archives have the live recording from WQXR of Bigg’s midnight performance at Radio City Music Hall? I was there!

One of those great lines as he turned to the audience and said something to the effect that as he travels around the country he is regularly asked if he has ever played the organ at Radio City Music Hall. His answer, “My God, No!”

It was quite an evening.

Donald Hoger
Hyde Park, Ny

Dear Donald
I think a bit of that commentary was included in A Tribute to E. Power Biggs, a four-record (LP) album issued by Columbia Masterworks shortly after Biggs’death (M4X-35180). Radio City may be a landmark destination, but the organ there, despite its size, sadly has never been regarded as one of ‘the great ones’.

JMB


Dear Michael,
Thanks for the heads-up about the E. Power Biggs programs. I have just finished listening to both of them and you are right - he was an amazing talent! It was also a chance for me to reminisce, as I owned and listened to most of these recordings when in high school and college. The records must been heavily worn from MANY playings, since detailed memories of organ timbre, registrations, phrasing idiosyncracies and even out-of-tune pipes on certain notes all came flooding back during this recent listen. It would seem we owe him quite a debt of gratitude for doing so much for the pipe organ during his time.

Louie Patterson
Benicia, CA


Dear Michael,
My modest collection of organ LPs contains many of the albums from which you played selections on the Biggs programs. A favorite is the French Festival on the Möller at Saint George. On a NYC holiday tour of churches, perhaps in the mid sixties, I came across the flyer of Biggs and Brass on New Years Eve…and I could not imagine a better way to celebrate. I have not had the opportunity to hear the Möller live in concert. Even at that time I was apprehensive for the future of the church and the Möller. Reviewing their web site one speculates the organ may no longer be in use. Do you have any update?

Biggs played at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee in October 1965 on the 1964 68 rank Phelps Casavant. To mitigate the financial impact of his substantial fee, he agreed to play an afternoon and an evening concert and both drew crowds filling the 1000 plus capacity church.

I do not recall the program other than Ives Variations on America. But I took particular note that the swell shades of both enclosed divisions remained fully open throughout the concert!

As you may know, decent radio reception of Pipe Dreams is quite a problem here in the Milwaukee area, so the on-line service is truly appreciated.

David Totten
New Berlin, WI


Dear Michael,
I enjoyed your recent broadcasts featuring the organ music of E Power Biggs. I know a couple of them have been re-released by Sony on CD. Is there any possibility that other CDs will be made available? I am interested in the music of the Spanish organs and a set I have on vinyl where Biggs narrates how the pipe organ works with examples from many organs throughout the world.

Sincerely,
Art Wenzel
Fort Wayne, IN

Dear Arthur
Sony has shown little interest in reissuing much of the Biggs back-catalog. As per our website links, some of the LPs can be purchased in CD-transfers from www.haydnhouse.com, and the stereo disc of Spanish music (not the monophonic, early album) is part of that project.

The narrated volume, The Organ in Sight and Sound is not likely to be reissued, though I do use some cuts from that in the second Biggs broadcast.

These days, hearing the sounds of organs around the world is much easier than in Biggs’ day…as so many more of them have been recorded and issued on CD. Check the www.ohscatalog.org site.

JMB


 

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