My first experience of recording for Columbia began in a giant snow storm. A session at St. Paul’s Chapel, 125th Street in New York, coincided with the great blizzard of 1948. The city came to a standstill. It was perfect for us. The music threaded its way via special cable under the side-walks of New York to the mid-town Columbia studios, where it was cut directly on to a platter.
The chapel mentioned in Biggs’s reminiscent account (which appeared in 1976 in the Bicentennial Tracker) was on the campus of Columbia University. It contained a new 70-stop Aeolian-Skinner organ of five manual divisions with a large and virtually independent Pedal division. This organ embodied many of G. Donald Harrison’s most advanced concepts of voicing and tonal design and was housed in a building of excellent acoustical properties. Thanks to the silence afforded by the traffic-stopping snowstorm, the conditions were nearly perfect for the making of Biggs’s first recording on the Columbia label, a five-disc album comprising four large Bach works. “The only mishap occurred when a hardy individual, seeking shelter from the storm, entered the chapel, stamped the snow from his boots, and sneezed. It’s still on the record, for there was no editing in those 78 rpm days.”
The “78 rpm days” were nearly over, however, for record companies were already experimenting with the new “long-playing” microgroove records. The Bach album was issued in March 1948, and in December of the same year it was re-issued as a single 33 1/3 rpm disc, Biggs’s first. Since many record buyers were still using their old equipment, Columbia released many recordings in both the old and the new form until 1950.
Biggs had a strong commitment to the medium of the phonograph record. The idea of his records whirling around on hundreds of “gramophones” (as he persisted in calling them) was every bit as pleasing to him as the thought of the thousands of radios that received his broadcasts every Sunday morning. And one could play a record whenever and as often as one wanted—altogether a delightful means of gaining converts to the cause of good organ music.
The road to Biggs’s quarter-century career with Columbia had been educational and rewarding if not entirely smooth. Having parted company with Technichord over a legal disagreement concerning royalties, Biggs spent seven fruitful years with Victor, only to be told in December 1946 that the firm planned no organ recordings at all in 1947 and 1948. But Biggs was brimming with ideas for new recordings, and when he conveyed some of them to Goddard Lieberson of Columbia’s Masterworks Division a few months later, he was rewarded with a contract. Lieberson may well have seen the advantage, in the light of recent technical developments, of having a good organist on deck.
Long-playing records were then in their birth throes. Each recording company was developing its own techniques of microgroove recording, and it was obvious that the new techniques would lead to higher musical fidelity and a wider dynamic spectrum. The organ, because of its great range of color and dynamics—not to mention its complex interaction with room acoustics—had always been difficult to capture faithfully with the old 78 rpm technology. Recordings of large organs in reverberant rooms were always disappointing, although smaller organs in more intimate surroundings, such as the one in the Germanic Museum, yielded better results. For this very reason the organ was an ideal medium for showing off the advantages of the new processes, and in the battle between RCA and Columbia as to whether the former’s 45 rpm system or the latter’s 33 1/3 rpm system would become the standard for the trade, every bit of ammunition was needed. One cannot help but wonder what part Biggs’s early Columbia releases played in the final resolution of that conflict.
Columbia certainly felt that it had the inside track with its new “LPs.” In the summer of 1948 Biggs’s producer, Tyler (Paul) Turner, wrote, “If you haven’t already heard any LP records, you are in for a surprise. Advertising aside, they are all that is said for them—quite a revolution.” Shortly afterward, Edward Wallerstein, Columbia’s chairman of the board, knowing of the interest Biggs had in the technical side of things, sent him a Columbia player attachment and some of the new microgroove records. They arrived in October, and Biggs wrote to Turner that “after a bit of expert work with a soldering iron” the player was in operation. As for the records, “They are simply wonderful. Congratulations again for being first in the field.”
There were a lot of differences, both obvious and subtle, between the new LPs and the old 78s. The latter had to be miked fairly close for maximum clarity, resulting in an overly intimate sound, which differed from the way an audience in a hall would normally perceive the music, and in an almost total loss of room ambience. Biggs, who was as good a listener as he was a player, realized that the new recording techniques could capture the organ sound in a more normal way.
Because he knew his Bach recordings would be issued as LPs as well as 78s, and because St. Paul’s Chapel had a fair amount of resonance, Biggs put some of his new theories on microphone placement into practice with his first Columbia release. While trade journals such as The American Organist heaped praise on these recordings for their enriched sound, certain other publications, notably, Musical America, did not. Turner, who shared Biggs’s feelings on the subject, was annoyed. In September 1948 he wrote to Biggs:
Apparently, the current vogue, among critics at least, is for a bald, brash, antiseptic type of sound which no one in his right mind would choose to hear if he were in a recital hall. Imagine listening to a trumpet which was blown straight in your ear, or sitting in the middle of an orchestra If your Musical America critic could not hear the detail in the first part of the St. Anne Prelude, it would seem to me that an ear specialist might be useful.
Biggs rolled up his sleeves and jotted down some ideas for a rebuttal on what he termed the question of “to resound or not to resound”:
For about a thousand years organs have inhabited cathedrals and other spacious auditoriums, and with a consequent independence the instrument refuses to be thrust into the present day “acoustically treated” studios. Resonance is the priceless ingredient which gives the organ and its music character and splendor. The measure in which this essential quality can be transferred to records is the measure of the records’ excellence.
Should resonance, the most essential characteristic of the organ, be omitted on records? As the current interest in listening to organ music via records gathers momentum, what should be the ideal for transferring this magnificent musical literature to discs, and thence to the listener through his gramophone? Should resonance be cut out, or should records aim to reproduce as truly as possible actual characteristics of performance?
It’s quite possible, and an easy way out for the recording engineers, to record a small organ in an acoustically dead room. This has a rather limited and dry effect, totally remote from the splendor of actual performance under better acoustic conditions, and it’s indicative that this method has never found favor with English or European recording companies. The grandeur of organ music cannot be put on discs in this way. Such records may have the questionable advantage of not trying the limitations of the average small phonograph. Neither, for that matter, would recordings of Wagner played by a string quartet. But that wouldn’t be Wagner, and pure Bach is not necessarily sterile Bach.
Add too large a period of resonance to a piano or string quartet, in actual performance or in recording, and you ruin the musical effect. But take away this cushion of resonance from the organ, in actuality or on records, and you divest the instrument and music of its essential quality and grandeur. Fortunately, with modern recording techniques, and today’s phonographs, there is no need to do this.
Aside from the two obvious ingredients, talent and ambition, Biggs had other qualities that contributed to his success as a major concert and recording artist who just happened to be an organist. One was a capacity for hard work; Biggs could and did drive himself (and often those around him) to the limits of endurance and ability. In addition he had an open and inquiring mind and a very astute sense of what might or might not work. He made the best possible use of whatever opportunities and materials came to hand. Faced with the limitations of the 78 rpm record, but convinced of the importance of recording organ music, he found the Germanic Museum organ and the relatively intimate (but by no means acoustically dead) room in which it stood ideal for recording, and the result, from a technical and musical standpoint, could not be faulted.
But Biggs was also aware that this situation was not totally ideal, and when Columbia’s technical advances convinced him that the time was ripe, he was ready to move his recording activities to larger instruments and more reverberant rooms. His use of the Germanic Museum for recording ended when he left Victor Records, and until his first European tour in 1954, all of Biggs’s Columbia LPs were, with one exception, made on the larger organs in St. Paul’s Chapel and Boston’s Symphony Hall. Tyler Turner, in jacket notes written for an album of French music recorded at St. Paul’s Chapel shortly after the Bach recording, showed himself to be totally in accord with Biggs:
Perspective, proportion, the plastic hand of open space, are as necessary to the proper sound of organ tone as they are appropriate to organ music. We are fortunate today that modern methods of recording have made it possible to reproduce not only the notes which the organist plays, but also the atmosphere in which he plays them.
Time has proven that the judgment of Biggs and Turner was sound. Criticism of their “reverberant” recordings quickly died down, to be replaced by criticism of those organists who continued to record on LP in too closely miked, unnaturally sterile situations.
The Symphony Hall organ was not ready for use until the fall of 1949, but even while it was still being built, Biggs was recommending it to Turner as a recording instrument. Two more recordings, a French Romantic album and a 10” Bach/Mendelssohn disc, were made at St. Paul’s Chapel, but in 1950 Biggs realized his plans to use the brand-new Boston instrument. Because it was impossible to transmit over phone lines from Boston to the recording studio in New York, these 1950 recordings brought about another technical “first” for Columbia—the use of magnetic tape for making a master recording. The tape medium was so new that even the engineers were not completely sure how it behaved. Following the Symphony Hall sessions, the chief recording engineer hand-carried the tapes back to New York on the train, worrying all the way that they might be spoiled or erased by magnetism from the electric motors in the railway coach.
Nineteen fifty was a busy recording year for Biggs. Five albums were made, of which all but a single side were taped at Symphony Hall. Although they included the first two volumes of the Bach’s Royal Instrument series, not all were for solo organ; one featured the Poulenc Concerto, which had been performed at the inauguration of the Symphony Hall organ, recorded with the Columbia Symphony (really a pick-up group) under Richard Burgin. So technically advanced was this record that a purchaser, probably not blessed with the best playback equipment, complained to Columbia about a “blemish” near the beginning of the performance. In reality the “blemish” was a soft 32’ low C on the organ, faithfully captured by Columbia’s best equipment. In December the last of Biggs’s 78 rpm releases appeared, a two-record album of Franck works.
Recording was not the only thing that kept Biggs busy in 1950. He had always been an active supporter of the American Guild of Organists; when the Massachusetts (now Boston) chapter hosted an ambitious national convention, Biggs, as program chairman, threw himself enthusiastically into the project. Not only did he and Peggy take on the monumental task of handling all the correspondence relative to the selection and engagement of players, conductors, and lecturers, but their duties spilled over into the realm of writing publicity, laying out the program booklet, and even concocting the delightfully corny verses plugging the convention in the trade publications.
Biggs’s fine hand was everywhere apparent in the program. The list of recitalists read like a Who’s Who of major American organists: Arthur Poister, Ernest White, George Faxon, Robert Noehren, Catherine Crozier, Robert Owen, Alexander McCurdy, Virgil Fox, and several rising young players. The noted German organist Fritz Heitmann was engaged for a recital at Methuen Music Hall; and the choral conductors included Fred Waring, Ifor Jones, Everett Titcomb, and Theodore Marier. Biggs’s friends were also evident in various roles: his pupil Mary Crowley Vivian, Oliver Daniel of Columbia Records, G. Donald Harrison, and English horn player Louis Speyer. Biggs’s old producer from RCA Victor days, the witty Charles O’Connell, gave the banquet address. Biggs’s own artistic contribution was a performance of Sowerby’s Concerto in C major with the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler.
Only the finest organs in Boston and Cambridge (mostly Aeolian-Skinners) were used for concerts; and, contrary to the practice at some conventions, electronic instruments were not officially used, even for the humblest of functions. Aeolian-Skinner installed a small two-manual unenclosed instrument (later purchased by New England Conservatory) in the ballroom of the Copley Plaza Hotel for concerts and workshops; and three other builders (Wicks, Estey, and Möller) were persuaded to send small sample “stock” organs to display and demonstrate. After the convention Biggs wrote to all four builders, thanking them for helping to prove that pipe organs need not be large to be effective and that “authenticity of organ tone is an essential to the presentation of great organ music.” The four organs, all located in the large ballroom, also provided some not-so-great organ music in one of the un-programed lighter moments of the convention, when Biggs and three cohorts commandeered them for a four-organ rendition of “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Biggs is also suspected of having had a hand in a Gilbert and Sullivan style skit entitled “The Organist Who Never, Never Lost a Chord.”
In their planning of the convention, Biggs, Peggy, and their two major co-workers, Ruth Barrett Phelps and Joseph Whiteford, made the most of the new Symphony Hall organ and the fact that 1950 was the 200th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. They also set a standard of quality and organization that had a far-reaching influence on subsequent national conventions. The Boston event was a huge success and turned enough of a profit to establish a chapter scholarship fund.
But 1950, a year not untypical for Biggs in this period, had more activity in store. Recital engagements were scattered all over the year and were international in scope. During the spring he took part in the Toronto Bach Festival; and in August the Biggses took a trip to England, where Biggs performed the Sowerby Concerto in C in a “Proms” concert at Royal Albert Hall, gave an all-Bach recital in Westminster Abbey, and was presented with an honorary fellowship by the Royal College of Music. The couple also paid a visit to Biggs’s old mentor, J. Stuart Archer, bringing him what in those postwar days of shortages and high prices was a precious and much-appreciated gift—fresh eggs.
In the closing months of the year Biggs presented a well-received series of three concerts at Symphony Hall. The second one was an all-Bach program patterned in part after the concert given by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1840, which inspired Robert Schumann’s oft-quoted appellation, “Bach’s Royal Instrument.” Two records in a series bearing this title were issued in 1950; a third, plus an album of concerted works entitled Music of Jubilee, appeared the following year. The Bach recordings received high critical acclaim, perhaps summed up by Delos Smith in the New York World-Telegram for April 29, 1950: “Biggs not only has a musician’s sense and feeling for his instrument; he has sense and feeling for Bach. His organ is the magnificent new one in Symphony Hall, and the recording is expansive and clear.”
T. Scott Buhrmann, the crusty editor of The American Organist, admitted in 1951 that he liked Biggs’s earlier Piston, Poulenc, and Reubke recordings “too well to place anything else above them,” but he enjoyed the colorful interplay between organ and instruments in Music of Jubilee, asking, “What more logical conclusion can we draw than that this is the way Bach liked his music to sound?” The new microgroove medium also came in for praise: “Anyone remember the good old days when the recording companies couldn’t record organ satisfactorily? They’re doing it to perfection now.”
Music of Jubilee was, indeed, an inspired recording; Biggs was to ring the changes on the theme of Bach’s concerted music in three subsequent albums (1953, 1964, and 1976), as well as on his radio broadcasts and in recital. A reviewer in The Gramophone, a British publication, waxed positively poetic over the release in the April 1952 issue:
The title is excellent: here is something to lift the spirit above the day’s woes, now heavy indeed: and Oh, irony supreme, the record comes from the U.S.A. Well, I have had some of life’s best pleasures there: and death should not affright him whose latest joy is Bach. No more exhilarating and caressing concert could well be given.
The writer went on to commend the “rich instrument, not over-powerful” (the Symphony Hall organ), the arrangement of the program, the “diversities of scoring and stimulus,” and the instrumentation. “Here is light for the darkness to come.”
With the success of their first LPs, both Biggs and his producer at Columbia were aware that they had a good thing. A Bach Festival, issued in 1953, was based on the same concept that had made Music of Jubilee such a success. In 1953 and 1954 Columbia made a brief foray into the 45 rpm field, reissuing a few excerpts from Biggs’s previous 33 1/3 recordings, but the shorter discs did not prove popular with the devotees of classical music, and the experiment was soon dropped.
Between 1950 and 1953 Biggs did all his recording, both solo and concerted, at Symphony Hall, where Columbia had installed a semi-permanent recording setup. In January 1952 Biggs received a challenge from his friend Edward Flint, a trustee of Methuen Memorial Music Hall, who wrote:
I shall not be content until you do some recording on the Methuen organ. It is just not right that with all the organ recordings now on the market, the Methuen instrument should not be represented; and who could bring it to the attention of the “record” public better than you?
Biggs was well acquainted with the organ. He had taught at the summer Organ Institute run by Arthur Howes and had given recitals on the instrument both before and after its rebuilding in 1947 by Aeolian-Skinner. He acted on Flint’s suggestion by proposing a two-disc set containing music of Reubke, Liszt, and Dupré.
By June Biggs had engaged a local engineer to make some tapes, which impressed both Biggs and Turner. Biggs would have liked to have put those very tapes on wax but was prevented by problems with Columbia’s union engineers. As a result it was nearly a year before Columbia could be persuaded to send personnel to Methuen to do the job. From this session came a single disc of Reubke and Liszt works, which remains one of the best recordings made on this famous organ. Biggs had lived with this music since his student days and had already recorded the Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm for Victor. The Methuen recording differs in some interesting ways from the earlier one, which was played in Harvard’s Memorial Church and was quite good in its own way. The new version had both polish and vivacity, and it added to Biggs’s growing store of rave record reviews. Flint was delighted and warmly thanked David Oppenheim, Columbia’s music director: “For ninety years this organ has been a headache to its various owners; and if tomorrow it should go up in smoke I should feel less badly than I would have a fortnight ago.”
The recording may have relieved some of the trustees’ headaches, but its release caused one in other quarters. Throughout his career Biggs wrote most of his own his own jacket notes and even assisted in the design of the covers. For the cover of the Methuen record he had found an elegant photograph of the organ before its most recent rebuilding, and in the notes he had given the stoplist and a brief history of the instrument. The original builder, Walcker, was mentioned, but there was no reference to the 1947 rebuilding or to Aeolian-Skinner, which had executed the work. Columbia very shortly heard from Aeolian-Skinner’s lawyer. While the matter was something of a tempest in a teapot, it left some bad feelings and cost both Biggs and Columbia in legal fees. In the end it was simply agreed that credit would be given to Aeolian-Skinner on the jacket the next time the Methuen organ was recorded by Columbia. There seem to have been plans for another Methuen release to follow on the heels of the Liszt/Reubke record, but either not enough of the unreleased material came up to Biggs’s standards or Columbia was unwilling to send engineers to Methuen again, for it never materialized. Biggs did keep his word, however, and the next time he made a recording on the Methuen organ credit was duly given in the jacket notes to G. Donald Harrison. But that was in 1976—twenty years after Harrison’s death and several years after Aeolian-Skinner had closed its doors for good.
Three subsequent Symphony Hall recordings were released after the Methuen album, in 1956 and 1957, but there is evidence that they had been taped at an earlier date and kept “in the icebox” for later release. Biggs was never to record on the Symphony Hall organ again. He later remarked to Charles Fisk that there was “only just so much mileage in an organ,” meaning recording mileage. He had gotten all that he could out of the Germanic Museum and St. Paul’s Chapel organs and was perhaps feeling the same way about the Symphony Hall instrument, which had gone quite a few recording miles in its first five years of life. In some jacket notes written in 1982 for Titanic Records, Fisk expanded on Biggs’s comment: “For each of the organs [Biggs] recorded, whether new or antique, had its day, was caught in the penumbra of his inextinguishable limelight, danced for him his dance, then fell back into the shadows as he moved on.” And in the mid-1950s Biggs was indeed moving on. An important phase of his career was ending, shortly to be superseded by another quite different, but of equal or greater import for the musical world.