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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: E. Power Biggs

April 7, 2006

Dear Michael,
I’ve just finished listening to your tribute to my all-time favourite organist, E. Power Biggs. In my early organ listening days, the most influential performer I was exposed to was Albert Schweitzer, but then I met Biggs through the radio. As the 1950s wore on, and I plowed my way through high school, I, along with a bunch of like-minded contemporaries, experimented with audio equipment as the hi-fi phenomenon grew and prospered. This coincided with my entry into the working world, and the ability to buy recordings—available now, in Living Stereo! E. Power Biggs joined Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Leopold Stokowski in the library-building process. My collection, which now numbers more than 2000 LPs and 1100+ CDs, includes perhaps a hundred or more organ recordings, notable among them more than a dozen versions of Handel’s concertos (the favourite being the 1959 set by Karl Richter). Anyway, back to Biggs –I have a lovely LP called The Organ in Sight and Sound, in which Biggs gives an illustrated lecture about how the organ works, its history and some snapshots of the different ways instruments speak. I was a little taken aback in your program when I didn’t hear any of his American essays, such as his landmark Organ in Early America. But you set my mind at ease when you mentioned at the end of the program that there was more to come. We all love Fox, Walcha, Curley, Murray, Germani, Weir, Durufle, Guillou, Chorzempa, Bowyer, Marshall et al, but for his sheer energy, his catholic vision of the instrument, his diligent scholarship, his strong bias for tracker-action instruments and his wry personality, together with some excellent recording techniques, Biggs has to be way up there in the history of 20th century organ performance and promotion. I hope your next installment will include Trip to Pawtucket or The Battle at Trenton.

Keeble McFarlane
Toronto, Ontario


Dear Keeble,
A curious coincidence that the first artist by whom we were exposed to organ music was Albert Schweitzer. For me, then came Edouard Commette, then Biggs and Fox in quick succession. Biggs preceded his stereo album (The Organ in Sight and Sound) with an earlier monophonic LP, The Organ produced in a lavish hard-bound book format (large!) with articles, photos and diagrams), and some of the commentary towards the beginning of the later, stereo version is lifted directly from that first release (listen closely; the ‘new’ comments seem to have been recorded in a more ambient environment…perhaps at the Busch-Reisinger Museum…than the earlier ones, done dry in a studio).

Do note that our two programs cover most aspects of Biggs’career…Program #1 devoted primarily to early recordings and the European experience, Program #2 concentrating on America, unusual repertoire, later projects.

For so many reasons, Biggs had a huge effect upon our appreciation of organ music. I do find it curious that, though many think of him primarily as an historically-directed tracker-backer, Biggs was much more than that.

His early (pre-arthritis) recordings demonstrate a consumate, fluid technique (his playing always had its own special energy). He ‘pulled out all the stops’ in ways that were historically ‘inappropriate’ when recording his delicious albums devoted to music for organ, brass and percussion and the Rheinberger Concertos (registered for surround sound, you know; and then there was quadraphonic Bach at Freiburg!), played regular New Year’s Eve programs on the Möller at Saint George’s Church in NYC (decidedly NOT a tracker organ), infectiously recorded Falla and Schubert and Tchaikovsky and Joplin on the pedal harpsichord). Quite a guy, that Jimmy Biggs!




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