My first acquaintance with E. Power Biggs was shared with thousands of other radio listeners back in the 1940s and 1950s. That led to my buying his early Columbia long-playing records and attending his recitals whenever they came within attending range. When I finally met him personally, at an American Guild of Organists convention in 1956, I was already a full-fledged Biggs fan. In fact, I still am.
From that time on, our paths crossed often. I had the pleasure of working with him on occasional projects, and the distant E. Power Biggs of the record jacket and concert stage became the familiar “Biggsie,” frequently encountered in the audience at Boston-area musical events and Guild meetings—not to mention parties, no small number of which were held at the large Victorian house on Highland Street, hosted by his charming and capable wife, Peggy. Familiarity with Biggs by no means bred contempt; it bred affection and a very healthy respect for his remarkable power of organization and the prodigious amount of high quality work this enabled him to turn out. It also bred an abiding admiration of his determination to stand up for his ideals and even go quite far out on a limb for them. We owe him a lot for that alone.
I always felt that Biggsie must have had a particularly high fidelity crystal ball hidden away somewhere. His guesses and predictions with regard to trends and directions were uncannily accurate a very high percentage of the time. Of course, it is anyone’s guess how much he himself had to do with making some of them come to pass.
And I think he expected that someone would write his biography after he was gone. As I began to sort through the mountain of information left behind by a very busy and useful life, I started finding some markers left by Biggs himself, mostly from the period in the 1970s, when his health was beginning to decline. The first was a notebook full of biographical jottings dated 1971, with “B. Owen” written at the top. There is no mystery concerning their origin. In 1971 I was asked to write an article on Biggs for the periodical Music, and I of course called Biggs to ask for suggestions. He then proceeded to outline the salient points of his career (with commentary) in one of his notebooks, and then called back ready to answer my questions. But I never actually saw the notebook until much later. With typical thoroughness Biggs had sketched out more than I had asked for, and all of it was extremely useful.
In 1973 he put down, ostensibly for publicity purposes, a full outline of his career and those events to which he attached the greatest importance. In the same year, in response to a request from John Fesperman for material on the Busch-Reisinger Museum organs, he taped some of his recollections of these instruments. According to Fesperman, the taping was his own idea, and Biggs seemed to enjoy doing it, for he rambled on well beyond the immediate subject matter, again giving valuable insights into his own perspective on his career. Finally, there are the autobiographical articles written between 1975 and 1977—the Cunningham and Koussevitzky reminiscences, and his account of his recording career—which were published just before and just after his death. All these writings give important clues to what Biggs thought was important and meaningful in his life and work, and I have tried to steer my biographical course by Biggs’s own guideposts.
This is all by way of saying that credit has to be given to Biggsie himself for providing, in his usual prescient manner, direction and information for this posthumous biography. Equal credit is also due to Peggy Biggs, without whose help, encouragement, criticism, and general collusion the whole undertaking would not have been possible. In fact—let’s face it—it was her idea, first gently hinted at while the two of us were on our hands and knees attempting to bring order to a chaotic jumble of papers, scores, notebooks, clippings, and programs piled up on her livingroom floor during the summer of 1980. Having lived most of her life with a consummate “idea man,” it was perfectly natural that she should be capable of some rather good ideas herself.
Of course many others contributed to this book, not the least in the area of encouragement, and I fervently hope that they will pleased with the result. Special thanks are due to Andrew Kazdin and Eileen Hunt, who, along with Peggy, read the first draft and offered many helpful corrections and suggestions; to John Fesperman of the Smithsonian Institution and William Parsons of the Library of Congress; to Gail Hennig, librarian of the Longy School; to Allen Kinzey for information on various Aeolian-Skinner organs; to Dirk Flentrop for reviewing chapter 13; to Wesley A. Day, Daniel Pinkham, Robert Covell, Mary Crowley Vivian, and many others for personal recollections of Biggs in the period before I knew him; to Elizabeth Coolidge Winship for giving permission to use excerpts from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s correspondence; to Columbia Masterworks for granting permission to use Andrew Kazdin’s discography and other copyrighted material; and to the Boston chapter of the American Guild of Organists for assisting with copying costs.