E Power Biggs versus Virgil Fox: Despatches from the Organ Wars
Created | Updated Oct 7, 2019
'I loathe what that man stands for.'
- Virgil Fox, a professional organist, about E Power Biggs, another professional organist.
'Who Is the World's Best Organist? Ask Virgil Fox', Sunday (NY) Times, 29 September, 1974
When musicians talk about music, differences of opinion may arise. But this depth of vituperation, seriously? And organists? Surely the organ is a dignified instrument, if ever there was one? What could have stirred up such ire on the part of an organ superstar?
At stake in 1974 were Fox's plans for the Hammond1 Castle Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Fox wanted to become its artist-in-residence, refurbish its pipe organ until it was the 'largest instrument on the face of the earth', and achieve even greater fame and fortune.
E Power Biggs wanted to restore the Baroque glory of the pipe organ, discourage people from playing or listening to electronic organs, and warn the museum people and citizens of Gloucester that Virgil Fox was bad for business. But why did anyone care? Wasn't organ music a big yawn by the 1970s? Why were music fans in the US stirred up over the 'organ wars', anyway? To answer that, we should probably go back to the beginning of the 20th Century, or even before.
The Gilded Age Loves Organ Music
'Skinner organs could roar like elephants or warble as sweetly as nightingales.'
- Craig Whitney, All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, p 15
America embraced the pipe organ slowly and somewhat reluctantly, especially in the intellectually trend-setting northeastern US. Boston's Puritan forebears had regarded the organ with religious suspicion as a sort of devil's instrument, which accounted for the popularity of William Billings' stirring a capella compositions. But early America also had lots of German settlers, and Germans liked their organs. By the mid-19th Century, organ building was a growing industry, and churches were installing organs, even in staid New England.
An organ builder in the 19th Century was a rare combination of musician, inventor, engineer, and cabinetmaker. Before the mid-19th Century, the air for pipe organs was mostly provided by hand-pumped bellows. Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914) of the Wirral in the UK, was a pioneer in the development of the electro-pneumatic action, which uses electric current to open and close valves within wind chests, supplying the air the organs need to breathe. Electro-pneumatic action meant, for one thing, that an organist didn't need to pay a muscular helper 15 cents an hour to pump the organ. For another, it meant that organs could get more inventive.
Hope-Jones got very inventive: his idea of a really good organ was one that could replace a whole orchestra. He invented all sorts of new stops never dreamed of by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach. One was called the diaphone. This organ sound didn't make his one-time business partner, Ernest M Skinner, very happy, but it delighted the US Coast Guard. They bought it and adapted it for use as a foghorn. Skinner and Hope-Jones parted company over this and other innovations, and Hope-Jones found a more congenial coworker in George Wurlitzer.
Organ builders like Skinner, Hope-Jones, and Wurlitzer found a growing market, not only in wealthy churches, but also in civic auditoriums, large theatres, and even department stores2. And not just public venues: by the 1890s, the super-wealthy, such as Andrew Carnegie, were having pipe organs installed in their homes. Carnegie, an ardent music lover, hired a full-time organist at an annual salary of $10,000 to play for him when he was in residence in New York City. His colleague, US Steel president Charles Schwab, followed suit. Soon, conspicuously cultural Gilded Age multi-millionaires were even installing pipe organs on yachts.
1900 was a good year to be an organ builder. The growth of the (silent) cinema, public skating rinks, and other forms of popular entertainment kept the organ business good pretty much up to the beginning of the Great Depression. Which made it a good time to be an organist, too – and meant that when you thought of organ repertoire, hymns weren't necessarily the first things that came to mind.
E Power Biggs (1906-1977)
'He has flutes, he has drums,
He has fingers and thumbs,
He has feet – and they're ready to render....'
- David McCord, 'More E Power Biggs to You! (9.30am every Sunday: E Power Biggs, organist; Station WEEI & a National Network)'
The New Yorker, 1 May 1948, p 51
Edward George Power Biggs was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, but his parents moved the family a year later to the Isle of Wight. His father was in poor health, and hoped to recover there. Alas, he didn't: the Isle of Wight's climate was salubrious, but the Biggs were Christian Scientists and eschewed medical help. Biggs was orphaned young. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music, and, after selecting 'E Power Biggs' as the most effective stage name, set off to New York to make his fortune as an organist.
Biggs was more than successful. His CBS radio broadcasts were heard nationwide weekly from the 1930s until the late 1950s. When president Franklin D Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, the radio network called upon Biggs to play comforting music for the listeners, which he did, as usual, on Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum's Flentrop Tracker organ.
Biggs was not a big fan of the 'romantic' organ, with its exotic stops and attempts to replace whole orchestras. More than anything, he wanted people to be able to hear classic organ compositions as they were originally intended to be played on those old, pre-electric instruments. After the Second World War, Biggs toured Europe with his wife Peggy in a Volkswagen microbus loaded with recording equipment. He performed concerts all around the continent, while making recordings that allowed music lovers in other places to appreciate the rich sounds of Europe's older organs. He ventured as far east as possible, producing albums such as The Art of the Organ, and only being stopped by recalcitrant communists suspicious of all that Western recording equipment.
Biggs introduced organ classics to new audiences. He did this at some considerable personal cost: by the late 1950s, the organist was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. He kept on playing, practising for hours in pain to keep his fingers from stiffening. The cortico-steroid treatments he took made his bones brittle, and probably shortened his life. Biggs really loved his music.
So why did Virgil Fox express such loathing for him?
Virgil Fox (1912-1980)
...there are those who would be so unkind as to call his Bach appallingly vulgar.
- Harold C Schonberg on Virgil Fox, quoted in All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, Craig R Whitney, NY: 2003, p 122
In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Virgil Fox was the other organ superstar. Fox's style was quite different from Biggs', to put it mildly. Where Biggs wanted to restore the original clarity of Baroque instruments, Fox wanted to push the envelope in the opposite direction. Bells and whistles were Fox's thing – in organs and in dress. Fox sported a red-lined cape. His feet danced over pedals in rhinestone-studded organ shoes. Fox was a show-off with a flashy performance style.
US-born Fox was also known to the White House: during the war, he entertained troops as an army staff sergeant, and gave concerts and recitals at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt. After the war, Fox worked as organist for Riverside Church in New York City. This Manhattan church, built by John D Rockefeller, Jr, is justly famous. For one thing, it's huge. For another, it's built in Neo-Gothic style. Riverside is famous for its progressive views and support of social action. Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke there. The job of organist at Riverside, with its powerful Aeolian-Skinner organ, was both prestigious and well-paid. Fox worked there from 1946 until 1965, while also going on concert tours.
Fox and Riverside parted ways after he and his partner of 30 years, Richard Weagly, had a falling-out which led to a breakup. This was a problem for the church, not because the two were gay, but because Weagly was the choirmaster. The two feuded so vehemently during rehearsals, and even during church services, that eventually even a broad-minded congregation had had enough. The breaking point came one Sunday, when Fox used an organ toccata to drown out the (a capella) choral benediction, which prompted two ladies from the congregation to assault the errant organist with an umbrella and attempt to drag him from the organ bench. Both musicians were dismissed.
When Rodgers Instruments built him a Virgil Fox Touring Organ – electric, of course – Fox stepped up his touring, and went psychedelic. He called his new style 'Heavy Organ'. He played Bach – accurately, but very fast and with verve – while awash in a light show. He egged the audience on to clap, dance, and generally enthuse. Hippies showed up and mixed with non-hippies. Fox appeared on television, in his element as a musical guru.
Virgil Fox deprecated E Power Biggs and other musical 'purists', as he disdainfully called them. When Fox set his sights on the Gloucester, Massachusetts museum, Biggs stepped in to warn them about what he saw as Fox's somewhat dodgy practices. Biggs' prediction – that the castle would lose money on the deal, and that the rival organist's demands would stir up no end of trouble – turned out to be accurate. In the end, Fox lost money, too, and had to sell his palatial home.
The 'organ wars' were titillating culture news in 1974, but soon both Biggs and Fox were history. Biggs died in 1977, worn out by broken bones and operations brought about by rheumatoid arthritis and attempts to treat it. Fox followed in 1980 after a battle with prostate cancer. Both fine performers were mourned by the music world.
The Guns Are Silent, But the Organs Aren't
Alles, was man tun muss, ist, die richtige Taste zum richtigen Zeitpunkt zu treffen.
- Johann Sebastian Bach
[Translation: All you have to do is hit the right key at the right time.]
So who 'won' the organ wars? In a way, everyone did: Virgil Fox and E Power Biggs helped to revive interest in organ music, both playing and listening. Both of them helped to spark the fandom for Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and other Baroque organ masters that continues to grow today. Biggs' work encouraged restoration of organs on two continents. Fox, of course, showed that lack of access to a building with a pipe organ need not be a barrier to the keyboardist with a love of the repertoire and the willingness to put in the practice.
Was one musician 'right' and the other 'wrong'? You decide. Is there room in the world for an echoing pipe in a cathedral and a roaring, warbling Leslie in a concert hall? Why not? As Bach said, 'All you have to do is hit the right key at the right time.'
For Your Listening Pleasure
May I please suggest that the canned music you inflict on your captive audience during the half hour or so of loading is really most unwelcome. As you must know, it's just musical drivel, from which, unfortunately, there's no escape.
- E Power Biggs to Eastern, United, and Delta Airlines, 17 April, 19633
Charles Ives, 'Variations on "America"', played by E Power Biggs. No information available on the organ or venue here, but the recording is from a 1948 radio broadcast. Yes, this is the same tune as 'God Save the Queen'. But try getting the irascible Charles Ives to admit that. Ives composed this highly idiosyncratic work when he was 16. It might have been lost among the debris in the Ives family barn had not Biggs contacted the composer asking for organ pieces to perform.
Johann Sebastian Bach, 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor', played by E Power Biggs on the 1958 Flentrop tracker in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard. Biggs supervised the installation of, paid for, and donated this instrument, which effectively demonstrates his goal of keeping alive the traditions of Baroque organ playing.
Sir Arthur Sullivan, 'The Lost Chord', played by Virgil Fox on the Aeolian-Skinner organ at Riverside Church, New York City. Romantic organ is on display here: the acoustics in Riverside Church were much improved by innovations suggested (well, insisted on) by Fox as church organist. The trustees didn't like to spend the money, but Fox could be very insistent.
Tea for Two, a duet between Liberace (piano) and Virgil Fox (electronic organ) on the Mike Douglas Show. Note the rhinestones on both musicians – Fox has them on his shoes.
Virgil Fox's 'Heavy Organ' tour. Light shows, lectures, and flamboyant flourishes introduced the organ to a new generation accustomed to electronics and pyrotechnics.