Then two things happened. It became possible to put in the organ at the G[ermanic] M[useum]. And Leo S[owerby] wrote a concerto for me. K[oussevitzky], who was interested in new ideas, programmed it. Perfectly awful organ. . . .
In his autobiographical notes of 1971, Biggs thus linked his interests in both old and new music. In 1938 he not only completed his Bach series at the Germanic Museum but also gave the premiere performance, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, of Leo Sowerby’s Organ Concerto in C. It was not the first such performance for Biggs; in 1933 he had premiered Howard Hanson’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. His interest in the music of Sowerby was also not new, for he had done much to popularize that composer’s ambitious and controversial Symphony in G for organ solo.
In the last magazine article he ever wrote (Music, March 1978), Biggs related the genesis of the Sowerby Concerto:
When I came to the United States, I brought from Sir Henry Wood a promise that if I could turn up a large-scale concerto for organ and orchestra by an American composer, preferably a new work, Sir Henry would program it at the Queens Hall “Proms.” Quite brashly, I wrote to Leo Sowerby, the Chicago composer—then at the height of his fame—asking if he would write such a piece. He replied that he would think about it, but made no commitment. However, within a month or two a postcard arrived saying that the first of the three movements had been sketched out.
Just at that time, fate took a hand. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was playing in Chicago, and at a luncheon Dr. Koussevitzky happened to be sitting next to Leo Sowerby. “And what are you writing now,” inquired Koussevitzky. Sowerby described his piece. “Fine,” said the conductor. “I will play it, but I must have the first performance. And you will be the soloist.”
When the time for the performance approached, however, Sowerby recommended that Biggs be the soloist, and Koussevitzky engaged him on the strength of Sowerby’s word. But the hoped-for Queens Hall debut never occurred. It was not until after World War II that Biggs performed the Sowerby Concerto in England—and then not under Wood at Queens, but under Malcolm Sargent at Royal Albert Hall.
The premiere performance of the Sowerby Concerto in C was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 22, 1938. Biggs had planned to perform the work from memory, but as it turned out the console was placed so close to the viola section that he could not adequately hear the rest of the orchestra, so for safety’s sake he had to use the score. The “perfectly awful” organ was the large 1901 George S. Hutchings instrument in Symphony Hall. One of the first significant organs with electro-pneumatic action to be built in America, it had never had a really major overhaul, still had its original Skinner-type “bat wing” console, and was rapidly approaching senility. Biggs described its tone as “woolly.” Considering that Sowerby conceived most of his organ music for the elderly Austin organ he played in St. James’s Church, the Concerto was probably not totally unsuited to the resources of the Symphony Hall organ. And, as reviewer William Zeuch observed in The Diapason, “The bravura passages flashed brilliantly despite the archaic instrument. . . .”
Sowerby was present, there was a full house, and the critics were pleased. Alexander Williams of the Boston Herald found the new composition “a brilliant and effective work . . . which neither scorns virtuosity nor exploits it for its own sake.” He admired the middle movement, but expressed concern that the work required “closer attention than the average Symphony Hall patron is willing to expend.” Moses Smith of the Boston Evening Transcript found portions of the work “difficult to grasp,” also favored the more melodious middle movement, and observed that the organ occasionally “waged an unequal battle with the orchestra.” The seemingly more sophisticated Boston Daily Globe reviewer, however, saw Sowerby essentially as subsequent generations have classified him—“a moderate among present-day American composers”—and found his new composition “vigorous and healthy, harmonically up-to-date yet neither cacophonous or confused.” These sentiments were echoed by William Zeuch in The Diapason, who also mentioned a detail that may explain the popularity of the middle movement: it opened with an exposition for organ solo, “played by Mr. Biggs on the 8-ft. Gedeckt, with tremulant, on the Swell.” The player was not forgotten in the reviewers’ preoccupation with the new music. Described as a “consummate artist,” Biggs was praised for having “surmounted the difficulties of the score with ease and taste.” The Sowerby work became an important part of his concerted repertoire, and he later performed it with other major orchestras, including those in Chicago and Cincinnati. Unfortunately, he was never able to record it.
Biggs continued to encourage the composition of new works and introduce them to concert audiences. Five years later he was responsible for the writing of Walter Piston’s Prelude and Allegro for organ and strings, which received its first public performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky on October 29, 1943. The actual first performance, however, had occurred two months earlier on a radio broadcast from the Germanic Museum, played by Biggs and a group of Boston Symphony string players conducted by Arthur Fiedler. The Piston work, which is dedicated to Biggs, became one of his favorites, and was the first contemporary concerted piece he recorded. It was recorded in Symphony Hall and issued as a 78 rpm RCA Victor disc in March 1947, the only record ever made by Biggs in collaboration with Koussevitzky. Another Piston work was the Partita for violin, viola, and organ, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and inspired by some of her favorite passages from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes. It was premiered by Biggs at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, in October 1944.
In an article in the June 1945 issue of Church Music Review, Biggs listed some of the more notable new works that had received their initial performances in his concerts and radio broadcasts. Besides the Piston and Sowerby works, they included Howard Hanson’s Concerto for organ, string orchestra, and harp, Roy Harris’s Chorale for organ and brass, Quincy Porter’s Fantasy on a Pastoral Theme for organ and strings, and two additional Sowerby works, Classic Concerto for organ and string orchestra, and Poem for viola and organ. Daniel Pinkham’s Sonata No. 1 for organ and strings might also have been included, as it was premiered on a radio broadcast early in 1944. All these works are by American composers, but Biggs also gave the first American performances of European compositions such as Marcel Dupré’s Heroic Poem for organ and brass and Francis Poulenc’s durable and popular Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani.
Biggs’s CBS radio program, begun in 1942, provided even more opportunities for the performance of new solo and concerted music than did the concert hall. However, the size of the budget and the length of the programs precluded large symphonic works while encouraging performance of more-accessible short works involving small ensembles or solo instruments. By 1947, the fifth year of the broadcasts, Biggs’s repertoire of new music had grown impressively. In addition to works by the composers mentioned above, Biggs had aired pieces by Gardner Read, Ned Rorem, Alec Templeton, Emil Kornsand, Cecil Effinger, Ellis Kohs, Robert Noehren, Rayner Brown, and Seth Bingham, among others. Bingham in particular took up the challenge of Harrison’s Germanic Museum organ and produced Baroques, a suite of five pieces for solo organ in quasi-antique style. Dedicated to Biggs and published in 1944, it gained considerable popularity with performers during the heyday of the “American classic” organ.
While Biggs was not alone in encouraging the writing of new solo organ music, his active interest in ensemble music was almost unique among his peers. In a 1945 Musical America article, he pointed out that conductors such as Serge Koussevitzky and Eugene Goossens recognized that “the combination of organ and orchestra has an immediate and direct appeal to the public” and that, besides “attracting listeners beyond the circle of organ fans,” the organist himself benefited musically from the association, particularly in the areas of articulation and phrasing.
Certainly every orchestra throughout the country, where there is an organ in the hall, owes it to its public to present first-hand [the literature for organ and orchestra], and the pick of this deserves to be played by organists with far greater frequency than is sometimes the case.
Conductors were supportive of Biggs’s cause and interested in the literature. In a letter dated May 4, 1944, Pierre Monteux commented on works by Piston and Sowerby (probably the Prelude and Allegro of the former and the Classic Concerto of the latter):
I must say that I was more interested in the Sowerby, which, for me is more personal, more original than the Piston, although this one was very good, if a little conventional [in its] treatment of the organ. . . . Sowerby is most interesting, because it [does] not suggest anything religious, it is really a concert work that I would be delighted to present in San Francisco if we had a real organ in the opera house. . . .
Alas for both Monteux and Biggs, it was not until 1983 that a real organ appeared in a San Francisco concert hall.
Monteux’s high regard for Sowerby’s music was obviously shared by Biggs, for despite the fact that a large portion of his prolific output was written for church use, Sowerby was also capable of producing secular works totally free of the taint of “churchiness.” In some unpublished notes jotted down shortly after Sowerby’s death in 1968, Biggs recorded his impressions of the man:
Leo Sowerby was obviously devoted to the church, to composing music for the church, and to his many pupils. His time was carefully organized. One might say that he gave too much time to teaching, but that was his way. Certainly there are countless pupils greatly indebted to him.
Meeting LS, you would not suspect him to be the highly imaginative and original genius that he was.
His musical idiom, as we all know, was essentially “romantic modern.” His concepts of the organ (as an instrument) were based on the large Austin in St. James’ Episcopal Church in Chicago. Brevity of composition was never his style.
As a person, LS gave the appearance of being reserved, though this changed to greater assurance in later years. He had a wry and engaging sense of humor. It is perhaps a pity that throughout the long years of his best orchestral writing he made no effort to promote the works with conductors or orchestras. (However, Koussevitzky did perform some of LS’s symphonies and piano concertos.) Nor did LS choose to be involved in musical politics generally. Some substantial support from managers or press, influential in the whole field of music, could have obtained for LS far greater currency of his works during his most creative years.
Of course, LS has always had countless performances and admirers in church circles, but that is not the field in which I knew him.
Biggs’s former student, Wesley Day, is the source of an anecdote relating to Sowerby’s lack of brevity. Following Biggs’s premiere performance of Sowerby’s Suite for organ and brass at an American Guild of Organists’ convention in Houston in 1952, Biggs remarked to Sowerby that the Suite was a very fine composition, but rather long. Whereupon Sowerby is said to have replied, “I know, I know, but everything I write seems to get longer and longer!”
Biggs remained a lifelong friend of Sowerby’s and a staunch promoter of his secular compositions. With Louis Speyer he premiered Sowerby’s Ballade for English horn and organ on his radio program; William Primrose was Biggs’s collaborator when Poem for viola and organ was broadcast on Easter Sunday 1942 from the Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts (then the home of the moneyed and eccentric inventor, John Hays Hammond). In 1952 Biggs played the West Coast premiere of Sowerby’s Concert Piece with the Pomona College Orchestra, and in 1958 he gave the first performance of his Festival Musick.
Biggs summed up his indebtedness to Sowerby in his contribution to “A Symposium of Tribute,” a memorial to the composer published in the October 1968 issue of Music: “How can a mere player repay a composer for such gifts? Leo Sowerby was a great artist, a great man, and a wonderful friend.” There was no false modesty in Biggs’s opening statement. He stood in awe of very few things, but the art of musical composition was one. Having made a few ineffectual attempts at composition in his student days, he early concluded that he had no gift for it, and, with the exception of a short “Spoof Bach Suite” (written for one of the lighter moments of the 1950 national American Guild of Organists convention), he made no further attempts.
Biggs first became acquainted with the organ music of Charles Ives when the composer was in his declining years, although the work Biggs was to popularize belonged to Ives’s youth. Biggs recalled that “the composer obligingly dug out the music from a pile in a barn . . . in Connecticut. The score had remained undisturbed for almost half a century.” The music was, of course, the Variations on “America,” written when Ives was but sixteen years old. Although the idiomatic concept of the work owes a lot to sundry popular variations on “God Save the Queen,” by composers such as Rinck and Lemmens, it also contains much that is pure Ives, with definite intimations of things to come. When one realizes that it had its first performance (by young Ives himself) in 1891, the atonal interludes and other idiosyncrasies appear even more remarkable for their daring.
Charles and Harmony Ives, in their correspondence with Biggs, shared recollections of early performances of the variations. The pedal part in the last movement was, according to Ives, “almost as much fun as playing baseball,” and he likened the fast manual changes at the end of that same variation to the give-and-take of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In a letter written shortly before Biggs’s first radio performance of the Variations in July 1948, Harmony Ives added some further background:
Mr. Ives father would occasionally play with him but always insisted that the 4th variation be omitted because it was, in his opinion, a kind of polonaise which had no place in our country and also because it was in a sad minor key. The Brass Band joining in and the loud pedal variations were considered more appropriate.
Sometimes when [the tune of] America would appear to their ears some of the listeners would join in even if occasionally it made the boys go marching down the aisles. Usually, as he remembers, many of the boys had more fun watching the feet play the pedal variations than in listening to the music.
Biggs’s association with the Ives Variations by no means ended with that first radio broadcast. Although Biggs admitted that the piece “seemed like a joke at first,” it ended up becoming “almost a classic” and remained a popular item in his recital repertoire. He played it only once in Canada, however. On that occasion one of the critics, like Queen Victoria, was “not amused,” condemning the piece as a tasteless parody on the British national anthem. Biggs took the hint and never played it north of the border again. But he recorded the work twice, in 1959 and 1969, and continued to program it in recitals. It was his performance of the Ives Variations at the opening of New York’s Lincoln Center in 1962 that inspired William Schuman to make his well-known orchestral transcription of the piece.
In 1949 Biggs edited the Ives Variations for Mercury Music, along with a short hymn-prelude on “Adeste Fidelis.” The latter has some of the characteristics of certain other Ives works, such as the short song on the hymn tune “Serenity.” According to Ives, the high, soft chords at the beginning and end of “Adeste Fidelis” “should be like distant sounds from a Sabbath horizon.”
Biggs maintained cordial relations with all the composers whose works he performed, and he was always anxious that his performance meet the composer’s expectations. With a writer such as Sowerby, who was himself an organist and thoroughly familiar with the organ idiom, it was merely a matter of the two agreeing on tempi and dynamics. Other composers had to be encouraged to familiarize themselves with the organ. When Roy Harris took the trouble to try his work on a nearby organ, he found the complex harmonic structure of the full organ sound perplexing. This led to revisions, concerning which he wrote to Biggs in August 1943:
After trying a large organ out here, I decided that the more advanced harmonies do not have the luster that they should have on an organ, and I have, for that reason, tried to use a more basic kind of harmony so that the overtones which are so rich on the organ will not get too mixed up in the upper partials. . . . As a matter of fact this medium is quite difficult to write for because of the harmonic implications which you must accept with the medium, if you want to write something which has body and mood.
The resulting work was Chorale for brass and organ, which Biggs subsequently performed on a radio broadcast, and it was not the last piece Harris would write for the organ.
Biggs first performed Poulenc’s Concerto with the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch on November 14, 1949 (at a benefit concert for Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s African hospital). In preparation for a planned recording of the work, he corresponded with the composer during the summer of 1949 concerning its interpretation. Poulenc was delighted with the idea (“Quelle joie pour moi d’apprendre que vous avez l’intention d’enregistrer mon Concerto pour Orgue et orchestre . . .”), especially if the conductor was to be Charles Munch, whom Poulenc felt would provide the necessary pungency and lyricism (“le mordant et le lyricisme necessaire”). While Biggs did in fact record Poulenc’s work that year, for some reason it was not with Munch and the Boston Symphony, but with Richard Burgin and a smaller group dubbed the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra.” The solo timpanist, violist, and cellist were all members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, however.
In response to Biggs’s request, Poulenc wrote twice giving his suggestions for performance. The second letter went into considerable detail, but the first gave a nice overview of Poulenc’s concept:
Forget Haendel—play very much in the French style, pompous, gay, and pungent (pompous in the introduction)—the two andantes shouldn’t drag, strictly in time, no rubato—the solo cadenza should be very allegro and sprightly—Land squarely on the big chords (G minor) with an extreme violence (timpani dry and firm)—the final Allegro should be very rhythmic (very fast) and sprightly, in contrast to the serene and poetic conclusion—but why do I tell you all this—I am sure that it will be marvelous. [Translation by Eileen Hunt.]
In his 1945 Church Music Review article, Biggs had made a point of noting that the new concerted works were in the mainstream of a distinguished musical tradition that encompassed Handel’s organ concertos, Mozart’s “Epistle” Sonatas, and the Romantic concertos of Rheinberger:
These compositions represent an enrichment and rejuvenation of the repertory that may have far-reaching effects. Composer and public are experiencing a renaissance of interest in the organ. Instead of being an instrument removed—the Pope in isolation—the organ may be once again restored as a medium of expression for all creative spirits and a joy to all people as it once was in the days of Bach and Handel.
Sowerby remained one of Biggs’s favorite writers, but other contemporary composers whose works Biggs played in broadcasts and concerts in this period included Richard Purvis, Parks Grant, Ronald Arnatt, H. Leroy Baumgartner, Myron Roberts, Aaron Copland, Philip James, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Everett Titcomb, Searle Wright, Herbert Fromm, Gershon Ephron, Normand Lockwood, and Paul Hindemith. Some of them were fellow organists, but among the others were established composers who had written little for organ until encouraged to do so by Biggs.
Biggs did not wait for the composers to come to him. More often he went to them with requests for new works, and just as often they delivered. Sometimes it was necessary for Biggs to come to the aid of a composer struggling with the peculiarities of an unfamiliar instrument, as when he suggested registrations for Copland’s Preamble. Occasionally a well-meaning composer unfamiliar with the organ idiom would unintentionally throw Biggs a curve, as Castelnuovo-Tedesco did in 1953, when he wrote an overly pianistic fugue that was nearly impossible to perform on the organ. Writing to the composer, Biggs tactfully opened with, “I wonder if I dare venture a few comments on the OPUS! The suggestions are the result of some hard practicing, in an effort to prepare the Toccata for broadcast next fall, and for the next season’s programs.” He then plunged into the heart of the problem:
The Toccata itself is fine, and the Aria also. But the problem in the Fugue is to make it sound well on the organ. Two aspects make this rather hard—the very frequent crossing of parts, and the very high writing at times. It sounds very well on the piano, and theoretically it ought to go well on the organ. But actually it’s very hard to find registrations on two manuals that balance, and it’s particularly difficult to make the upper register of the organ sound well if played at all forte.
I wonder if you have any ideas and suggestions? I’ve been experimenting in putting certain passages down an octave, but I don’t believe any one section will do the trick. Is it possible do you think to bring the Fugue writing generally more to the middle of the keyboard, and to make it playable on one manual? I know this is a tall order, and that players are supposed to perform music just as composers write it,—yet it would be almost impossible to take the piece on tour in this form, and I do hope you have the magic wand handy.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco took the criticisms graciously. Part of the trouble, it turned out, lay in the fact that the composer had based his fugue on Biggs’s name! While he did not think it possible to make it all playable on one manual, he nonetheless made a number of revisions, and Biggs did perform the work.
Composers respected Biggs’s opinions and often solicited his advice. When Normand Lockwood invited suggestions on improving the balance in a work for organ and brass, performed in 1952, Biggs offered the following insights:
I think your comments on the way the work sounded result from the characteristics of organ tone. Actually an organ doesn’t really create a lot of sound, and is easily covered by other instruments. This is just as true with much larger instruments than the Germanic Museum instrument. Antiphonal contrast of the instrumental ensemble and organ is always effective, in the Handelian manner, but as soon as the brasses all combine with the organ they tend to drown it out, except for full organ percussive-like chords.
I’ve noticed this to be true in other works where one, two or three contrapuntal lines on the organ tend not to hold their own against the orchestral fabric. On the piano they would sound through impact.
In this case, however, Biggs advised against making any changes in the score. Since it was the nature of the instruments involved that produced the imbalance that was bothering Lockwood, Biggs felt the work would still be effective left as it was.
An impressive array of new compositions were first heard on Biggs’s weekly radio programs from 1942 to 1958. New works also found frequent place in his touring programs, and from time to time he performed large concerted works with symphony orchestras, but it was the radio programs that provided the major showcase for the shorter works. The composers, especially the less known and the younger ones, responded with genuine gratitude to this exposure of their music—and occasionally with amusement, as when Castelnuovo-Tedesco was surprised to hear a little scrap of a composition he had written for a Christmas card used as a fanfare to open Biggs’s program one Sunday morning.
When the radio programs ended, so too did Biggs’s need for a more extensive repertoire. His efforts went increasingly into recitals, where a limited number of pieces would suffice for a lengthy tour, and recordings, where old music was simply more salable than new. Several modern favorites, including Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor, Copland’s Organ Symphony, Piston’s Prelude and Allegro, Barber’s Toccata Festiva and Sowerby’s Organ Symphony in G major, were in fact recorded by Biggs at various times, and there is every indication that he would have liked to expand the list. But while his interest in new music was undiminished and he never turned down the opportunity to premiere large new compositions, the series of recordings on historic instruments that Biggs commenced in the 1950s led to a recording and performing repertoire that consisted largely of earlier music. There is little question, however, that the increased output of solo and concerted organ music by American composers during the 1940s and 1950s was in no small measure due to Biggs’s encouragement and to his willingness to program new works.