In one of the twenty-seven rooms of Virgil Fox's stone house in New Jersey, hang two paintings, remarkably well-done. Virgil Fox painted them when he was very young, in the day when he had to make up his mind whether he wanted to become a painter or an organist. And to this day, whenever he describes the various sounds of the organ, he speaks of them in reds, mauves, yellows, browns and crystal clears.
Perhaps the early development of his visual sense opened up vistas to him not seen by organists before him; or if seen by others, not followed through far enough to influence, and perhaps to change, the entire course of an art form.
Virgil Fox in concert presents his audience with more than sound: he gives them vision. He sees the massive organ works he plays in terms of cathedrals, rising to their gothic pinnacles; he describes their austerity, or their baroque splendor. His vision is a clue to his special genius: the ability not only to hear, but to see music.
His playing is nothing like that of most other organists. Some of his colleagues consider Fox's playing of Bach, for example, too free an interpretation, bordering on "distortion." The word itself brings to mind the reactions of past centuries to the "distortions" of many gifted painters: the Fauves, for example; and even to Rembrandt. Time has proven these "distortions" truer to life than the work of other painters. For life is always a distortion of the simple perfection demanded by the simple mind. The distortions in Fox's art resemble the distortions of a third dimension added to a drawing. Look closely: the lines aren't true to the measuring stick. But they are true to life.
Bach himself suffered from the insensitivity of his critics: his St. Matthew Passionone of the greatest works ever composedwas ridiculed as "opera"; his harmonic innovations considered widely dissonant by his contemporaries.
And yet, what must always be said, is that no matter how much great artists are unrecognized for what they are, they are appreciated for the quality of their work, and for their virtuosity. The same is true of Fox. No one disputes that Virgil Foxas he was termed by the official publication of the American Guild of Organistsis the "most fantastically talented of all organists."
He is praised because he moves his audience into the musicas if it were space. In fact, he creates an "inner space" with the music, as carefully as would an architect.
Because the music presented in this album represents the vision of an architect of sound, it can be described in visual and sculptural terms. And one ought to try to see itto see the inner vision of a true revolutionary.
Prelude and Fugue in E minor, ("The Wedge,") by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
We begin with no small work. "The Wedge" is one of the four last, and one of the greatest preludes and fugues Bach wrote. (The other three were "The Saint Anne," the B minor and the C major.)
The first two pedal notes, boldly describing the distance of an octave, immediately begin to create a sense of space: the edifice is begun. Descending pedal cadenzas seek the foundation of the edifice, and ascending cadenzas, the ceiling of the work. The basic lines are drawn over and over again, continually building the inner space of the music.
The three staves on which the organ music is written (one for the feet and two for the hands) divide the space into three parts: the pedal notes describe the foundation; one manual plays the walls of the subject; and the other, the work overhead. Fox contrasts these three different kinds of surfaces, giving each its proper elevation. And in the midst of all this space, we hear echoes of sound, straining from within the swell boxes, from places yet to come.
The piece is called "The Wedge" because the fugue subject, seen in musical notation, is in the shape of a wedge. Bach often used these visual devices, just as Shakespeare used puns. Sometimes Bach's devices are visible only to the scholar; sometimes they are jokes; and sometimes they are used with great seriousness, as when, in one of the most moving moments of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach notates the simple drooping of the dying Christ's head with a musical gesture of four descending notes, as the narrator sings : "And he was gone."
Fox creates a sense of different rooms, within the fugue (the longest of Bach's organ fugues), as if we were in a baroque palace, crossing through the corridors, past room after room, each with its dramatically contrasting, special sound. Each room is baroque, stylized, lavish, yet with the simplicity of detail that distinguishes the baroque period from the rococo (which embellished the embellishments).
With his insistent rhythm, Fox travels through the same corridors, again and again, past now familiar spaces, and we hear more and more of what we heard before: the doors open wider as we pass; the circle narrows, until all the rooms are visible at once, and we are inside one great room, the foundation below us, the ceiling, a giant chandelier, lavishing light in a revolving crystal spectrum. Colors shimmer indiscriminately, playing amongst themselves. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the other: a whirling chandelier as on a whirling carrousel, intensifying its effect on us with rigidly determined speed, until all the colors and lights fuse into one great massive white chord, at the end.
Rejoice, Beloved Christians, by Johann Sebastian Bach,
Few people appreciate the care that a musician must take in planning the repertoire of a concert. For a concert, like a play, is not simply a series of scenes; it is a complete statement, with a unique structure.
And thus, the second work played by Virgil Fox is a much simpler piece than the first (although, in some ways, it is as difficult to play). Again, an element of contrast.
Bach based the work on one of Luther's chorales. It is said that Luther overheard the melody from a traveling artisan.
Few organists are able to perform this work with such speed and verve. The typical performance is much slower: a laboring over the flying animation of the counterpoint a searching for significance in every note.
It is the animation that is significant, not the notes. And so, Fox moves us through dancing circles within circles. The rejoicing is an austere, totally involved dancing of the spirit; wheels within wheels, delicately contrived: a miniature carrousel within the shadow of the piece that went before.
Toccata, by Eugene Gigout (French; 1844-1925).
Most organ music was composed in and for churchesprobably because most organs are in churches. But there is something about the sound of the organ that creates the unrestrained, inner space that fits so well inside the soaring architecture of a cathedral. We hear it in this piece.
Gigout, a student of Saint-Saëns, was best known for his organ works. He was extremely prolific, having written almost 500 works for organ alone. His music was always scholarly and frequently austere, and has been considered more suitable for the church than for the concert hall.
This Toccata certainly proves Gigout to be a virtuoso composer. In fact, the piece is so well suited for the concert hall, it is one of Virgil Fox's most popular encore pieces.
Fantasy on the Chorale, "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," by Max Reger (German; 1873-1916).
Max Reger lived during the lifetimes of the great industrial empire builders. Like them, he was not particularly tactful in his life or in his work. Like them, he was controversial, and throughout his life, a champion of progress. He considered progress important, and waged a continual battleuntil the end of his lifewith the critics, who found his music far removed from what they considered "beautiful."
Although Reger argued (justifiably) that one could find no chord in his music that was not in the music of Bach, he was not interested in any carefully planned and leisurely orchestrated development. His was a new age, with much space to be filled and many possibilities to be explored. His manuscripts are black with notes; he skips from time to time; one observes a kind of cinematic clipping from mood to mood that shatters any steady progression. Chunks are left out; there is too much to be said to say everything.
In this great work of his, the Introduction, Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale, "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," Reger has constructed a monument that bears the austere strength of the new industrial age: the strength of steel girderstall, thin, crisscrossing, beamed networks. Walls arid ceilings fuse. There is more drama; more freedom of movement than before. We have left the baroque palace and the gothic cathedral, and are inside a crystal palace of metal and glass; a giant factory; a monument to man's conquest of material.
The contradictions of Reger's era appear as dissonances, which in their masculine strength, have a certain kind of beauty; and among them, something in the world appears that never changes: a lyric beauty, expressed in the distant echo of the chorale, "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star"as though the sky were seen through iron frames and sheets of glass; a feeling of incompleteness, yet a feeling of vast space, and man protected from the elements, by the elements themselves, enlarged, and molded into shape.
And in the stupendous Fugue, we are moved outside a single space. It is as if we were moved above an entire city, above its monumental architecture: above whole blocks of buildings in conflict with each other, yet all in perfect counterpoint; all obeying the laws of physics: all standing; indomitable; like the spirit of Man, that observes, through the conflict of the new age rising, how brightly shines the morning star, far above the city.
These visual images, which are used to describe a vision of inner space created by Virgil Fox in concert, merely sketch the surface of all that can be seen. What is important is that no impressions would arise at all, except from a performance that can express the artist's understanding so well; a performance that gives space to all the dimensions of the music.
Original Cover - Select image to enlarge
Unlike most of his colleagues, Virgil Fox is truly a concert organist, and not a church organist. In fact, he has spent most of his musical life trying to bring the organ out of the church and into the concert hall, where it can be judged with all the seriousness worthy of any art form.
Although he was, for many years, service player for New York's famed Riverside Church, for the last several years, Virgil Fox has devoted all of his time to concertizing. He plays more concerts than any other major organistan average of fifty each year.
Virgil Fox grew up in Princeton, Illinois. At the age of ten, he already was playing church services on the organ; and at fourteen, he played his first recital before a cheering crowd of 2,500 people in Cincinnati. At seventeen, he was unanimously chosen the first organist to win the Biennial Contest of the National Federation of Music Clubs in Boston.
After graduating as salutatorian of his high school class, he studied for a year with the great teacher of the organ works of Bach, Wilhelm Middelschulte, and won the top scholarship to the oldest music conservatory in America, the Peabody, in Baltimore. In his twentieth year he played five recitals from memory, completed eighteen examinations with the highest grades in his class, and became the first one-year student in the history of the school to graduate with the conservatory's highest honorthe Artist's Diploma. Six years later, Mr. Fox returned to the Peabody to become the head of the organ department.
Before he did, he went to Europe for a year to study with Marcel Dupre, and to give his European debut at Kingsway Hall in London before 1,100 people, including Britain's most demanding critics. And when he returned to the United States with rave notices, he played his first recital in New York City at the console of the same 200-rank organ on which Vierne, Bossi and Karg-Elert had played their New York debutsthe Wanamaker Auditorium Organ. He was twenty-one.
Immediately after being discharged from the Army Air Force in 1946, Virgil Fox performed forty-four major organ works from memory in a series of three concerts, given under the auspices of The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, before sold-out audiences in the Library of Congress. In the same year, he was selected to be the organist of New York City's famed Riverside Churchthe church established from the gifts of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and from whose pulpit Harry Emerson Fosdick preached.
Virgil Fox was organist of the Riverside Church for nineteen years. In 1955, following specifications which he drew up, G. Donald Harrison (builder of the Organ in Symphony Hall, Boston) designed and built the largest pipe organ in New York City for the church, a 141-rank Aeolian-Skinner organ, of which Command Records has made the definitive recording (on 35 mm film) : Virgil Fox at the Riverside Church Organ Plays Johann Sebastian Bach.
Mr. Fox has played three times in the White House. In 1952, he was chosen by the State Department to represent our country at the First International Conference of Sacred Music, in Bern, Switzerland. In 1963, he was awarded an honorary doctor's degree by Bucknell University. And in 1964, he received the Peabody Conservatory's Distinguished Alumni Award.
In his long and brilliant career, Virgil Fox has given recitals on practically every important organ in the world. He is the only non-German who has ever been invited to play at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was organist). He has played at the Domkirche (the Kaiser's church), at Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and at Notre Dame de Paris. He played the first solo organ recital on the Aeolian-Skinner organ in New York's Philharmonic Hall. (Hear, on Command Records, Virgil Fox Plays the Philharmonic Hall Organ at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which, recorded on 35 mm film, was the premier recording of the new organ.)