Knowing your interest in everything musical and particularly in any new or unfamiliar music . . . I venture to write to you about a fairly ambitious project. . . .
In 1942 Biggs approached arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge with an idea that he had been considering for some time. His initial contact with Mrs. Coolidge had occurred in the spring of 1940, when he was engaged to perform, with the composer as soloist, Marcel Grandjany’s Fantasy Choral for harp and organ at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Coolidge had commissioned the work; Biggs liked it and persuaded her to sponsor an additional performance in Cambridge. That concert grew to involve not only Grandjany but eleven members of the Fiedler Sinfonietta in a program that included the Fantasy Choral as well as Grandjany’s Aria for harp and orchestra, a Handel concerto, and Poulenc’s Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani. It was given at the Germanic Museum on February 24, 1941 to an audience that “just packed the Museum to the limit.” It cost Mrs. Coolidge $600, a tidy sum in those days.
In his highly diplomatic letter to Mrs. Coolidge, Biggs outlined an even grander project. How long he had been thinking of it is not known, but he later stated that it had had its genesis in discussions with CBS music director James Fassett, well known to the radio audience of his day for his “Invitation to Music” program and his weekly commentaries on the Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic.
Biggs stated his case with the astuteness of a trial lawyer. “As you know, the organ literature is second only to that of the orchestra and string quartet, and yet it is practically unknown to the public at large.” Citing musical examples over the whole range of the literature, and deploring the fact that some of Bach’s organ works were known only through orchestral transcriptions, Biggs came to the point in his third paragraph:
It has seemed to me that the radio offers a perfect medium for bringing such music, played on a good organ, to the public; and that while the orchestral and instrumental repertoire has been well represented on radio programs for some years, the organ literature has been completely neglected. In fact—the organ has been thoroughly abused and discredited in its use on the radio. With the technical progress of broadcasting, as of recording, organ tone can now be transmitted faithfully, and the time seems ideal for a really striking series of organ concerts, covering the finest compositions of the very large repertoire. Such programs would have the originality of presenting a completely new aspect of musical life.
Biggs had been doing some groundwork on this project; in the letter he also mentioned that he had discussed it with representatives of the networks, noting that he had already played a successful radio concert from the Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In closing, Biggs sketched out six experimental radio recitals—“though this can easily be expanded to eight or ten if circumstances permit.”
“Your plan interests me enormously,” replied Mrs. Coolidge. But she requested more information about the financial aspect of the proposed broadcasts and wondered if they might originate from the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress rather than from the Germanic Museum. This suggestion did not appeal to Biggs, who knew that the organ in the Coolidge Auditorium was an undistinguished orchestral instrument by Skinner, buried in a deep chamber. In response, he tactfully expressed doubts “that the organ possesses the necessary characteristics for transmission” and cited the extra expense of weekly travel to Washington.
Biggs had been making his own investigations and reported to Mrs. Coolidge that while the NBC Blue Network would provide the air time, it was unwilling to pay the cost of a telephone line to transmit the broadcast to the nearest radio station for network pickup. He also hinted that the network officials favored his choice of the Germanic Museum and the nearby Memorial Church as points of origin for the programs. Mrs. Coolidge balked. While she still liked the idea of the broadcasts, she continued to press for the Washington location, where there were, apparently, no line charges, and where the tab could be picked up by the Coolidge Foundation.
Biggs capitulated—temporarily. He dutifully went to Washington, where he discussed matters with Harold Spivacke of the Library of Congress and allowed that the organ there might be serviceable after all. But Spivacke encountered difficulties in negotiating with the Blue Network and opened discussions with Columbia (CBS) about the project. Biggs must have picked up the reins again at this point, for by September he was able to write Mrs. Coolidge:
This fall Columbia has revised its Sunday morning timetable, and out of our negotiations there comes from them an offer of a weekly program from the Germanic Museum in Cambridge. It would be from 9.15 to 9.45, coast to coast. I am of course very interested, for their proposal of “an extended period” provides a wonderful opportunity to perform the best of the organ literature on the air.
This time there would be no line charges, and although the Washington location would have to be given up, Biggs wondered if Mrs. Coolidge would still be willing to lend her patronage to the project—there was still a little matter of $50 per concert for “remuneration of the player.” Biggs enclosed a program outline for the first ten concerts. It was an ambitious undertaking, in which Biggs’s knack for programing was evident. There was something for everyone, from Bach, Handel, Purcell and d’Aquin, through Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, to Guilmant, Alain, Vaughan Williams, and Sowerby, with a premiere performance of Richard Arnell’s Sonata for Organ thrown in for good measure.
While Mrs. Coolidge still did not understand why something could not have been worked out in Washington with CBS, she was (doubtless to Biggs’s great relief) “not at all sorry to have these concerts take place in Cambridge.” Fortunately she had a fondness for Harvard; while she did not think that the Coolidge Foundation could be involved in the revised project, she was willing personally to underwrite the broadcasts as her own gift to the university. With her letter came a check for $500 to cover the cost of all ten concerts.
At 9:15 on the morning of September 20, 1942, via CBS’s Boston affiliate, WEEI, the voice of James Fassett came over the airwaves to thousands of radios nationwide:
This is the first of a series of ten organ recitals given by Harvard University through the generosity of Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The organ used is the baroque instrument designed by G. Donald Harrison in the Germanic Museum of Harvard University, now a school for Chaplains of the United States Army. The player, at the invitation of the University, is E. Power Biggs, and this series of concerts will present much of the finest organ literature, and particularly the “great” Preludes and Fugues of J. S. Bach.
Response was immediate. Before the first month of broadcasts was over, fan letters had begun to arrive at CBS headquarters in New York from all over the country. They came from a music librarian in Washington, D.C; a nun in West Virginia; the Organists’ and Choir Directors’ Guild of Evansville, Indiana; organ students at Western Maryland College; servicemen who heard the program on Armed Forces Radio; and numerous ordinary music lovers, including one determined soul in Victoria, B.C., who had to get up before six on Sunday mornings to hear the program. The Rev. Arthur R. McKinstrie, Bishop of Delaware, probably spoke for the majority of hearers when he wrote, “The general public has been exposed to mediocre organ playing via the radio. Here is an opportunity for people to know what real organ playing sounds like.”
In early November Mrs. Coolidge wrote to Biggs,
We are enjoying your broadcasts so much, and are hearing so many pleasant things about them, that I am wondering whether the Columbia people could arrange to give another series and how the idea would appeal to you. If it could be done in the same way, I should be very glad to help to the same extent that I did this year for producing another ten concerts.
Of all the letters Biggs received, this one was doubtless the most gratifying. Within a week he had drawn up another series of ten programs to send to his benefactor. He also forwarded some of his fan mail to Mrs. Coolidge, who was impressed by its “unusually sincere and discriminating” nature. In January she volunteered to finance a third ten-concert series.
Up to this point the broadcasts had presented only solo organ works, and, despite the two ten-week extensions, it still had no real prospects for permanence. In March 1943, Biggs, emboldened by listener response and the continued interest of Mrs. Coolidge and James Fassett, proposed some important changes: that the series be continued in the standard thirteen-program network format, and that music for organ with other instruments be added. This of course meant an increase in the financial commitment of both CBS and Mrs. Coolidge. The latter responded with a guarantee of $1,600 for the quarter, and Biggs began to write to some of the composers he knew, such as Sowerby, Harris, and Piston, requesting new works of moderate length for organ and small ensemble. Earlier composers were by no means neglected. For his Easter Sunday program Biggs engaged the Stradivarius Quartet and the Bach Cantata Club for a performance of two Sonatas and a Missa Brevis by Mozart.
Unfortunately, the programs could not continue on quite such a lavish scale. Immediately following the Easter program word came from CBS that it was cutting back on its financial involvement in the program, and Mrs. Coolidge was reluctant to pick up the slack. In order to stay within their budget Biggs and his collaborator, Arthur Fiedler, had to substitute programs involving fewer instrumentalists for some of those originally planned.
During the next quarter (again partially funded by Mrs. Coolidge) Biggs found it prudent to alternate solo and ensemble programs. This format continued, with minor variations, into 1944, and Mrs. Coolidge had joined the ranks of Biggs’s radio fans to the extent that she complained to the CBS management when, for a brief time, the program was “bumped” from her Washington, D.C., station. And she continued to contribute to the funding.
By 1945 Biggs’s program had become a permanent feature of CBS’s classical music offerings, along with the New York Philharmonic, the Budapest String Quartet, and the Beethoven Trio. Biggs had become a respected member of the CBS radio “family,” one who could be relied upon to be on hand when needed. Such an occasion was described by Biggs in a letter to Mrs. Coolidge dated April 18, 1945:
Many thanks for your kind Easter message. Only part of the Easter Day program was carried up here, but we have made up for lost time during the past week. On Thursday evening CBS asked me to stand by, and during the next three days we went on the air six times. Of course, the organ has a wonderful literature for such an occasion, and I was most happy to play, for it seemed the least one could do. I hope perhaps you may have heard one or more of these programs. They were all of Chorale Preludes and other music of Bach and the Chorale Preludes of Brahms, and were carried on all CBS stations. One short period, immediately following the one minute of silence at four o’clock, went out over all four networks, to an estimated seventy million people!
The occasion was the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man whom Biggs admired. In defiance of union rules, Biggs tried to donate his services for the broadcasts, prompting a slightly exasperated letter from Fassett explaining why this was not possible (“The simple fact is that we are not allowed to accept your services gratis”) and suggesting that Biggs might wish to donate his fee to charity.
It is important to remember that the Biggs broadcasts were born in the early years of World War II. Travel was restricted, and wartime finances, gas rationing, and blackouts all conspired to discourage the promoting and attending of concerts. While most homes had a phonograph, often of a rather primitive sort, records were a luxury in those years and were not produced in anything approaching the quantity and variety one finds today. But virtually every home, no matter how poor or remote, had a radio. And on that radio one could listen to regularly scheduled live classical music broadcasts.
Many of these programs—the opera, the symphony, the chamber music, and, of course, Biggs—were not commercially sponsored. They maintained high standards and had no need to pander to anyone’s ideas of popular taste. Biggs was well aware that this cast him in the role of tastemaker. An interviewer for Newsweek (April 22, 1946) quotes Biggs as saying, “The public be damned. Go ahead and play something that is good—and the public will follow right with you.” It was a blunt statement, but a high compliment to the public’s taste. Biggs could not have made it or played the kind of music he played, had he not had an unshakeable faith in the innate good taste of his audience.
And the public never let him down. For sixteen years it listened faithfully while he played all sorts of early and contemporary music that the public was not supposed to like, most of it on organs that many of his colleagues did not like. Indeed, in its appreciation and acceptance of both Biggs’s music and the Germanic Museum organ, the humble radio audience was often several giant steps ahead of the organ-playing profession which, with a few notable exceptions, tended to be defensively conservative during the 1940s. Many professionals grudgingly acknowledged Biggs’s status only because it was quite impossible to ignore it.
Radio, Biggs quickly found out, is not the same as a concert tour, where one can play the same program in each city. In his Newsweek interview, he likened radio to a hungry mouth: “It has one piece of steak and it is ready for the next.” Over the years Biggs proved that he was capable of feeding that demanding maw, and what it got was mostly good tasty steak, sometimes accompanied by a crisp salad or even an occasional rich dessert. But never a single spoonful of pablum or junk food.
Perhaps it was fortunate that the radio programs developed at a time when Biggs was not as involved in concert work as he would later become. He still taught, presided over the music program at his Brookline church, and took part in events such as the Bethlehem Bach festival and the summer concerts at Tanglewood. But his touring schedule was considerably curtailed, and he thus had the time to experiment and develop workable patterns of programing which were never repetitious or dull, as well as to build up a performing repertoire equal to the demand of a new program each week. This required both practice and research, and the latter deserves some comment here.
Biggs was not a musicologist, nor did he pretend to be. He was a practical musician with an eminently practical objective. Yet he had the instincts of a musicologist and an unerring sense for recognizing a good thing when he found it. In his search for interesting material he became a familiar figure in Harvard’s Widener Library, the Boston Public Library, and other libraries in the area.
On the one hand he delighted in rediscovering and performing some forgotten but choice bit of early music; on the other he cornered composers whenever he could with requests for new pieces. Given the certainty of at least one radio performance, most of the Americans readily complied. The Europeans were less interested—perhaps because it was not possible for them to tune in on Sunday mornings and hear their works performed.
One inevitable result of the radio broadcasts was that composers began to deluge Biggs with manuscripts in the hope that he would give them a performance. Biggs always checked out these unsolicited donations, no matter how amateurish, and when he came upon something of merit, he did not hesitate to program it and to encourage the composer. The rest received tactful rejections, but nothing ever went unacknowledged.
Biggs sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to secure interesting music for the broadcasts. Somewhere Biggs had acquired an old pre-war Parisian recording of Concerto No. 3 for two organs by the Spanish Baroque composer Antonio Soler. Efforts to locate a published score proved fruitless, so Biggs played the record over and over while Daniel Pinkham and Walter Piston each took down one of the parts of the duet by dictation, thus arriving at a workable performing score. As there was but one organ at the Museum and no immediate likelihood of securing another, Pinkham brought in his harpsichord, and the work received what was undoubtedly its first American performance as a duet for organ and harpsichord. This arrangement, however, was not authentic enough for Biggs, and early in 1950 (having at last located the scores) he programed another of Soler’s Concertos—this time as a duet with himself. This was accomplished by prerecording one part and playing the second part with the recording live on the broadcast. Still later, by borrowing a Dutch chamber organ from Charles Fisher, Biggs and Pinkham were at last able to play Soler’s pieces as they were intended.
New music and little-known old music contributed to the continuing interest in Biggs’s programs, but so did the frequent inclusion of works involving other instruments. Thus the public heard, often for the first time, such gems as Handel’s works for oboe or flute with continuo, the sinfonias to some of Bach’s cantatas, Buxtehude’s trio sonatas, Gabrieli’s works for brass and organ, Mozart’s “Epistle” Sonatas, some of the English organ concertos, and, of course, many modern compositions. The string, brass, and woodwind players, usually members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, were always of the best quality, and Biggs was not the least reticent about securing suitable fees for them.
Other means of maintaining interest included programs built around the works of a single composer (often celebrating a birth or death anniversary) and programs with a seasonal emphasis. Christmas music of all periods got a good workout every December, the fare ranging from d’Aquin and Bach to Reger and Templeton; and for several years Biggs added a special Christmas Eve broadcast to his schedule. Around the Fourth of July there would be an American emphasis, and it was on one such program, in 1944, that Biggs introduced the works of William Selby, a Boston organist and music teacher of colonial days. Biggs had unearthed the manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he later edited Selby’s Lesson and Fuge or Voluntary for publication.
A publicity release prepared by Biggs in 1947 reported that during the five years he had been on the air, he had played music by 126 composers of all periods, including 242 concerted works by 67 composers and 126 premiere performances of new works. In addition he had aired the complete organ works of J. S. Bach, W. F. Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Hindemith; all sixteen Handel organ concertos; all seventeen of Mozart’s “Epistle” Sonatas; all of d’Aquin’s Noëls; and such esoterica as Haydn’s “flute clock” pieces and the sonatas of Frederick the Great. “So extensive, however, is the musical literature of the organ that so far only a small proportion has been performed.” Biggs obviously intended to tackle the rest of it for as long as the network would let him continue to broadcast. But why perform organ music over the radio?
The Bach Passacaglia heard in a Cathedral may be a greater musical experience than hearing the same music in a concert hall [but] music lovers no longer frequent Cathedrals as they once did centuries ago. [Therefore] for five years CBS has almost literally brought the Cathedral to your living room. . . . For the great organ literature, from Bach to the moderns, forms ideal radio listening. Ideal, because it is music of structure and strength, rather than emotion; and it does not depend on conditions of actual concert performance for its effect. The Romantics wrote “audience music,” but Bach and the Classicists wrote for sheer perfection of artistic and musical content, and a listener may well find this music most stimulating and enjoyable when heard in the privacy of his own home.
Fortunately the program was securely established in the CBS routine by its fifth anniversary, for in 1946 Mrs. Coolidge had found it necessary to cut back somewhat on her personal benefactions. Through the Coolidge Foundation, however, she sponsored Biggs in an ambitious concert for organ and orchestra in New York in the spring of 1946 as part of the 50th anniversary of the American Guild of Organists. The concert drew enthusiastic reviews, and Biggs sent roses to Mrs. Coolidge, who allowed that she was “not in the least surprised” by the program’s success. The following year she sponsored some public concerts at the Museum, including a performance by Biggs of Bach’s Art of Fugue that drew an audience of nearly 800 to the small auditorium.
But Mrs. Coolidge was getting on in years, and most of her charitable work was being handled by the Coolidge Foundation. She was unable to subsidize some ambitious concerts that Biggs wanted to include in the American Guild of Organists’ 1950 national convention. Nor could she fund a series of concerted programs that Biggs hoped to mount in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the radio broadcasts in 1952, although she continued to contribute to the expenses of the broadcasts through that year.
Although Biggs did not realize it at the time, the years of the weekly broadcasts were numbered. In 1950 CBS had slashed his budget for instrumentalists, making him wholly dependent on Mrs. Coolidge for such extras at a time when she was not always able to provide them. After her death in 1953, the programs consisted largely of solo organ music, with only an occasional single instrumentalist. And CBS’s commitment to radio, particularly the nonsponsored programs, was dwindling as it turned its corporate attention increasingly to that fast-developing new medium, television.
During the 1950s Biggs’s recital and recording schedules reached grueling proportions, but the broadcasts went on, still with the Germanic Museum as the base of operations, and in 1957 a contract was signed for a new organ there. But occasional programs now originated from other places in the country where Biggs was concertizing, and guest organists—usually Biggs’s friends and students from the Boston area—were heard more often. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” was still the well-loved theme music that ended the program, but the tape recorder now allowed it, and often the whole program, to be prerecorded, easing the tension of the earlier live broadcasts, when “the announcer and engineer were right there in the gallery, the announcer leaning on the console with the script, and the engineer just by, watching the signal level.”
By 1958 Biggs must have had an inkling that CBS was reshuffling its priorities relative to nonsponsored programs, but all correspondence gave the appearance of business as usual. The new organ was opened with great fanfare in September, and programs were planned for it well into 1959. The bad news arrived unexpectedly, and it caught Biggs in the middle of a concert series in Mexico City. He had already left for some earlier stops on his tour when Peggy opened a letter to him from James Fassett, dated November 7, 1958. In view of Fassett’s long years of association with Biggs, it was probably a difficult letter to write:
For some time I have seen the handwriting on the wall and now at last has come the final blow. As of the first of the year, the CBS network will vastly curtail the daily number of hours it will service its owned and affiliated stations, and all but the commercially sponsored programs and a few traditional public service broadcasts like the Philharmonic will cease to exist as network programs. Your weekly broadcasts, I regret to say, are among the many casualties, and the final broadcast will be that of Sunday, January 4th. . . . Needless to say, I feel the loss of your programs after so many years more acutely than any others which are now to be terminated.
After discussing some matters relating to a special December broadcast, he closed with, “It is very sad for me to write you this letter, but still I have the feeling that some day we will be working together again under brighter circumstances.”
Peggy was horrified; the timing could not have been worse. “I had a great debate with myself,” she wrote Biggs, “about holding off with this information until your four Mexico City programs were past, but it’s dangerous to do this, since it’s possible that some good break might come, and you would not be prepared for it.” She knew that Biggs would fight, that he would immediately start casting around for alternatives, and so she sketched out a few ideas of her own. But she was not too hopeful and accurately saw the root of the problem: “I guess radio just isn’t anything nowadays—except the FM stations and the Educational stations who ride on the coattails. It just seems that one’s own records put one out of business.”
Biggs was not going to let anything put him out of business if he could help it. He went into immediate action, reporting the results to Peggy in a letter written on November 28:
I phoned Fassett today. He told me that he took my letter to him (the one I wrote from here, so I’m glad you sent his on, & didn’t just keep it) into a meeting yesterday. But the result is, unfortunately, the same. He says they are not keeping any sustaining programs, except the N.Y. Phil[harmonic], his “Festivals,” and the Cleveland Orchestra—which “doesn’t cost them a cent.”
I said—that if we did ours with the greatest economy, the obstacle would be only the fee paid me. He said—yes, & unfortunately they wouldn’t pay even that! Because the stations “could make more money arranging their own shows”—(that is, playing records!) than taking a network show! Silly, isn’t it! Well, that’s that. I may send a line to the manager of WEEI, to ask if they would like to consider continuing the show. But I will think about it first.
Biggs was stuck in Mexico, but in Cambridge Peggy kept on working, thinking up more ideas, wondering about the possibilities of FM and TV, and phoning Biggs’s friends to urge them to write to CBS. She hardly needed to do the latter—letters from listeners began to pour in to CBS from all over the country as soon as the cancellation was announced. But all to no avail. Despite Biggs’s efforts to present new ideas and alternatives to CBS as late as June 1959, a rather remarkable occurrence in the musical life of America had become history. Writing on Bach and the influence of radio in the December 24, 1984 issue of Newsweek, critic Alan Rich observed, “For better or for worse, Landowska, Biggs, and a few other hardy pioneers gave back to the world something of Bach’s original sound.”
From the encouraging words that attended the very first broadcasts in 1942 to the protestations aroused by their demise in 1958, Biggs’s radio programs drew a steady stream of fan mail. After 1950, when his concert schedule began to peak and his record output increased, a growing proportion of fan letters came from concertgoers and discophiles. But at the outset, Biggs’s largest and most supportive following was the radio audience.
One of the most faithful groups of listeners, and one toward which Biggs felt a patriotic obligation, consisted of people in the armed services. World War II had been going on for nearly two years when the broadcasts commenced, and from the beginning they were beamed overseas on Armed Forces Radio. For many young people, separated from their families for the first time, the programs were a fragile link with a saner and more peaceful world. In 1943 a Connecticut father wrote, “Before the war scattered my family we listened together every Sunday morning, and now that we are scattered far and wide I like to think that at 9:15 every Sunday we are all sitting somewhere listening to you, one in spirit and the love of what you bring us.”
Some of the servicemen were former students of Biggs’s, including Wesley Day, David Gifford, and Henry Kaufman. Kaufman, describing himself as a “pretty lonely soldier,” was reminded by Biggs’s broadcasts of the “pleasant, peaceful days at good old Longy, when this business of war seemed pretty distant.” A British organist, serving with the R.A.F. in Canada, listened to Biggs in 1943 while “engaged, not too romantically, frying eggs and bacon over colossal hot stoves while your music drifts in like something from another world.” Most armed forces listeners were not homesick organists, however, but simply music-starved music lovers. Some sent requests for music to be played, which Biggs complied with whenever possible; others requested photos and autographs, which he invariably sent. The further away people were stationed, the more eager they were not to lose touch. A sergeant in Australia pleaded with CBS to broadcast Biggs on short wave “for the benefit of America’s vanguard abroad.” A Canadian Air Force man, on the West Coast, listened to the early broadcast under the covers “so as not to wake the rest of the boys in the barracks.” A pharmacist’s mate in New York deplored the fact that his buddies did not share his appreciation of Bach; and Lt. Mary Morrison, writing on behalf of a “group of faithful listeners on the night watches” at Seattle Naval Air Station, voiced the group’s opinion that Biggs was “a peach of an organist.”
Biggs’s radio listeners transcended all age, economic, and geographic barriers. Young people often sent enthusiastic letters. In 1946 a fourteen-year-old wrote, “When I get a little older I want to be a GREAT ORGANIST LIKE YOU.” In 1952 a fifteen-year-old Californian admitted that “you cause a little trouble in the Palmer household on Sundays. Your broadcast. . . comes to the west coast at 6:30 Sunday morning. This interrupts the family’s sleep a little, but I couldn’t miss your broadcasts.” The elderly were just as appreciative, though perhaps for different reasons. In the same year a 71-year-old woman wrote, “Even I who have many friends see them as treasures that cannot be held, with any sense of security, near one indefinitely. So I am always hoping that one or another bit of beauty may remain dependable—as this Sunday morning broadcast of yours. Long may it come over my radio.”
Some devotees went to considerable lengths to hear the broadcasts. People who moved to localities where the stations did not carry Biggs’s program would badger the management until it did. A New Jersey man had a radio installed in his car for the specific purpose of listening to Biggs as he drove to church. Perhaps the most determined listener was a priest in Arizona. En route to his mission duties, he had been catching the program on an Albuquerque station on his car radio, but there were problems: “They always had the first five minutes chopped off. Then they chopped into the end, and finally the whole thing was engulfed in hill billy.” Nothing daunted, the padre acquired a powerful home receiver, changed the times of his masses, and tuned in to Biggs on a station a thousand miles distant in the comfort of his livingroom.
Although it is only too true that one cannot please all of the people all of the time, Biggs certainly tried. Requests regularly came in for favorite Bach, Handel, or Mozart selections, which Biggs always endeavored to work in. But some, who remembered a different sort of repertoire, would occasionally ask for such pieces as Kammenoi Ostrow, Schubert’s Serenade, Sibelius’s Finlandia, or The Lost Chord. These requests were politely sidestepped, but those with lighter tastes were usually satisfied with some of Biggs’s less weighty offerings, such as transcriptions from Handel’s Water Music, Haydn’s delightful flute clock pieces, Mozart’s “glass armonica” music, or an arrangement of the Purcell/Clarke Trumpet Tune. The greatest differences of listener opinion usually centered around contemporary works. When Biggs played Sowerby’s Passacaglia in 1952, a Massachusetts man expressed “Thanks, warm and sincere” for the performance, but a German lady in New Jersey definitely did not agree: “Pfui, pfui! Ach, this was too horrible a composition!”
Some listeners, who were used to electronic instruments and theatre organs, found the organ in the Germanic Museum a new experience. “Certainly a bit different from many organs one is accustomed to hear via radio,” wrote a Canadian in 1943, “usually they are not a thing of beauty.” In the same year a Massachusetts fan wrote, “When you first started the series I didn’t care for the organ you play on, but the more I hear it the more I like it. There is a rich quality not heard in most instruments.” A Connecticut listener of singularly determined open-mindedness offered this testimonial in 1949:
Your Sunday morning broadcasts on that classic organ are having a very bad effect on me! Like dope! I used to be able to turn you off after listening for a minute or so. Gradually I stuck it out for two or three minutes—now, by Jove! I can’t even take a bath while you’re playing—I like to hear every note of the entire program.
Tuning in to Biggs’s program became such a ritual that some listeners became upset when, for whatever reason, there was any change in the format. One Sunday morning the announcer, having forgotten to change his watch to Daylight Savings Time, failed to show up to introduce the live broadcast, and Peggy Biggs gamely stepped into the breach. This prompted an outraged protest from a militant male chauvinist “against the use of any female announcer on your program!” Sometimes, when Biggs was away on tour, local organists such as Mary Crowley, Daniel Pinkham, or Lawrence Moe would fill in. Good as they were, these substitutes were merely tolerated by the faithful. “Your relief organist did a fine job,” wrote a Seattle parson, “but somehow I like to think of you as my friend playing for me.”
Biggs’s sign-off music was his transcription of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” which always faded out somewhere around the middle as air time ran out. By 1951 so many requests had been received for the complete piece that Biggs decided it was time to do something about it. Thus a CBS publicity release for December 5, under the heading “A Full Meal for the Sheep,” announced that,
For the past ten years organist E. Power Biggs has been playing a fragment of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” at the close of his Sunday morning CBS Radio program. Many listeners have written him, to say that they would like to hear the whole piece played right through. Accordingly, the sheep will graze safely all through their meal, as the lovely fragment of a cantata will be played in its entirety in Mr. Biggs’ own arrangement for two flutes and organ on Sunday, Dec. 16. . . .
The general tenor of letters concerning Biggs’s broadcasts was complimentary. The majority of complaints were leveled not at the music, the organ, or the players, but at the cavalier treatment sometimes given the program by local stations, which would occasionally curtail all or part of the broadcast to slip in locally sponsored programs or sometimes cancel the program altogether with no warning. In 1952 a midwesterner wrote:
Sunday mornings are kept from being monotonous by the uncertainty as to whether we will be allowed to hear all, half, or none of the Biggs program. On these occasions when the station switches to “the friendly neighbors of Renfrew Valley and their olde tyme hymnes” I am in anything but a pious mood.
Some had the equipment to surmount these inconveniences—when Biggs was taken off a local station in 1943, a Seattle man switched to short wave and pulled him in from a Baltimore station.
In 1944 an Arkansas professor appealed to CBS on behalf of three local colleges and a sizable group of music lovers to encourage at least one mid-western station to carry Biggs’s program. In 1949 CBS’s rival, NBC, began airing the Bach Aria Group at 9:30 A.M. on Sundays, and a Bach lover found himself on the horns of a unique dilemma. He was sure that it could be resolved, however, if Biggs would program any Bach works at the beginning of his 9:15 program, thus avoiding conflicts of listener interest.
In some areas Biggs’s program was cut to fifteen minutes in 1949, and listeners complained about pieces being chopped off in the middle. When a California station dropped it entirely, patients at the Orange County Hospital protested. In 1952, when a fifteen-minute cut was made by some eastern stations, the complaints again poured in. “What do you mean,” raged an indignant New Yorker, “by cutting E. Power Biggs to 15 minutes? And putting in some lousy program of talk? I’m deeply disappointed.” Within a few weeks Biggs’s full half hour was restored.
While Biggs’s audience obviously included many musicians, far more were like the psychologist who described herself as a “Bach-lover who plays no instrument and who is wholly dependent on the radio for music.” Listeners who did not attend church were both surprised and delighted to discover that the organ had a secular side. On the other hand, a California churchgoer found Biggs’s music “a great relief from the mediocre organ music we get in our churches here.” And a New Hampshire clergyman testified that the radio program got him “into an excellent mood for conducting my church service.”
Perhaps the most colorful of Biggs’s radio fans was Hugh B. Birch, of Lower Lebarge, Yukon, Canada, who described himself as a “telegraph operator, lineman, weather observer, and just about a Jack-of-all-trades.” He tended a relay and maintenance station for the Dominion Telegraph Company between Whitehorse and Dawson City. An independent spirit, he seems to have enjoyed the seven months of isolation his job required of him each winter. For companionship he had his “faithful little pal,” an equally independent-looking tabby cat named Lady Peggy, who was “wiser than many humans and better company too.” He also had a radio, on which he listened to all of CBS’s musical programs via its Seattle station. In 1946 he wrote, “I particularly enjoyed this morning’s broadcast—Reception full and strong, the beautiful tone of the organ just singing in, and I do not think I have ever heard such fine Trumpet music before.” With the letter he enclosed snapshots of himself, sporting a magnificent grey beard, and Lady Peggy, perched atop his woodpile.
Biggs was an admirer of free spirits, and Birch became one of his favorite correspondents. Besides his radio, Birch also had a record player, and in 1947 Biggs sent him a gift of some records and autographed photos of himself and Arthur Fiedler.
A steamboat stopped here early this morning to put off some supplies, mail, etc. Also one express parcel. Imagine my surprise, and great pleasure, when I saw the label on it. Your records had arrived, in perfect condition. You surely did a superb job packing them. A matter of five minutes, and I was playing your Variation, then the other three. I am really at a loss to find words to express my appreciation and thanks for such a wonderful gift, and the music itself, together with the artistry in its performance, is just heavenly.
That was July. No steamboats came up the frozen Yukon in December, but a small plane flew over and dropped three months’ mail, Christmas presents, and a couple of bottles of “good cheer.” In January 1948, Birch wrote,
Although alone here, I had a grand Christmas. . . . The only thing to rather spoil Christmas was that my radio blew up a week before Christmas and I missed out on all the holiday music I love so well. . . . Needless to say I drew heavily on all my organ recordings.
Rising each Sunday at 5 A.M. Yukon Time, Hugh Birch remained one of Biggs’s faithful listeners and correspondents until 1952, when modern technology caught up with his frozen Shangri-La. The Yukon River Telegraph Line, built in 1899, was closed down, and Birch was made manager of the Whitehorse station. Perhaps the worst thing about Whitehorse was that “radio reception conditions here are rotten—far too much high noise level from so many power plants and so on, never do hear your broadcast, or many other old favorites, any more, worse luck.”
Radio fans were by no means the only ones to heap praise on Biggs’s broadcasts. In 1952, the tenth year of the program, Musical America noted that for seven of the nine years in which they had conducted a reader poll of “serious music on the air,” Biggs had received the Favorite Organist award. Perhaps the most unusual tribute to the salubrious effects of Biggs’s Sunday morning broadcasts was penned by David McCord, whose whimsical poem, “More E. Power Biggs to You,” appeared in the April 1948 issue of The New Yorker. Biggs was often interviewed by newspapers and magazines, and he himself wrote a number of articles concerning his radio career for musical periodicals. Certainly there is little doubt that his radio-engendered popularity materially aided his career as a recitalist and a recording artist.