We are very happy to welcome to his first Sunday services in Christ Church, Mr. E. Power Biggs, our new organist and choirmaster. He comes to us from Emmanuel Church, Newport, where he has had splendid success. . . .
Thus did the Christ Church bulletin for February 21, 1932 welcome Biggs to Cambridge. His new church, a staid wooden colonial period edifice, was located a few blocks from Harvard Square and just across Cambridge Common from Harvard Yard. Many members of the Harvard faculty and student body could be found in its pews on Sundays. Christ Church’s organ, an electrified two-manual Hook & Hastings buried in a chamber, was undistinguished and somewhat past its prime, but that did not discourage Biggs from immediately scheduling organ recitals. The Friday following his first service he prefaced the 5 P.M. Lenten service with works by Handel (the same concerto the Newporters had praised), Bach, Mozart, and Reubke, following it up with a full evening recital on March 3.
As at Emmanuel Church, Biggs took his duties seriously, and he soon set about upgrading the church’s musical equipment, which, judging from the following plea in the church bulletin for April 3, was rather badly in need of help:
We need a Victrola for the Parish House which can be used in training the Choir. Mr. Briggs [sic] would like to play records of some of the great choirs to our Choir. We also need a music stand, and we are still plaintively asking for a piano. In fact, if anyone has anything musical, except a saxophone, which is no longer needed by him, the Church would like to be allowed to consider receiving it as a gift.
Presumably Biggs got his Victrola and piano, and he wasted no time in getting his choristers into shape. By the fall of the same year the Christ Church choir presented a full performance of Handel’s Messiah.
In the spring of 1932 Biggs gave another Wanamaker recital in New York, as well as programs in Brooklyn and Princeton. He programed some new repertoire for the Wanamaker concert, including a Bach transcription, a Karg-Elert work, the Saint-Saëns Fantasie in E flat, and a Debussy transcription. An anonymous “admirer” in the audience sent Biggs the following pencilled note anent the Debussy, which must have amused him, for he pasted it into his scrapbook with his press notices: “My dear Mr. Biggs—I had formerly thought that the selection from the Petite Suite was a Ballet. I do not think that a Ballet, and particularly one by Debussy, should be played as a March by Sousa.”
Spring also marked the beginning of Biggs’s acquaintance with an attractive French pianist, Colette Lionne, an honor graduate of New England Conservatory and a former pupil of Harold Bauer. Suddenly tennis matches and boat races again began to appear in Biggs’s social calendar.
On August 31 Biggs played a recital at a joint convention of the National Association of Organists and the Canadian College of Organists in Rochester, New York. Actually it was only half a recital, shared with Ruth Spindler of Garnett, Kansas. But Biggs’s portion was well planned to show off what he could do: an arrangement from Bach’s Cantata 147 and W. T. Best’s transcription of the Air and Variations from Haydn’s Symphony in D Major, sandwiched between two tried-and-true showpieces, the Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm and the Finale from Vierne’s Symphony No. 6. A successful concert at a convention was certain to lead to further engagements, and one may be sure that Biggs was well aware of that. Reviewer Stewart Sabin of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle bestowed some rather faint praise on Miss Spindler, but showed no restraint in commending Biggs’s technique, musicianship, and handling of the instrument. In closing he stated that “Mr. Biggs gave one of the outstanding recitals, short as was his program, which this writer remembers in Rochester.”
Biggs’s out-of-town concerts were balanced by some nearer to home. The Boston/Cambridge area provided an ideal arena for his talents and a far wider audience than did Newport. But as in Newport, Biggs enjoyed playing concerts with other musicians and exploring a repertoire largely ignored by other organists. In June he gave an organ and cello program at Christ Church with Karl Zeise, and in the fall he was engaged by the Church of the Covenant in Boston’s Copley Square to do a series of five concerts. The last of these, given early in 1933, included Biggs’s first known performance (from manuscript) of Howard Hanson’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. In the spring Biggs, Colette Lionne, and Walter MacDonald collaborated in a program for organ, piano, and horn that was given at both Christ Church and the Church of the Covenant. By this time Biggs’s interest in the French pianist had progressed beyond the merely professional. In May he and Colette became engaged, and in June they were married.
Thanks to LaBerge, Biggs was now securing concert engagements in cities such as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, as well as at St. Thomas’s Church in New York (proving that he was still on good terms with Noble). In the fall of 1933 he also played to full houses at his former church in Newport and on the recently completed Aeolian-Skinner organ in Harvard’s Memorial Church.
It did not take Biggs long to become involved in the musical life of Cambridge. In addition to his work at Christ Church, in the fall of 1932 he was engaged to teach music history and organ at the Longy School, a position he held for a number of years. Conscious of his lack of a university degree, he also enrolled as a special student at Harvard. It is said that it was G. Donald Harrison, the organ builder, who told Biggs that if he aspired to a college teaching position he would find an academic degree useful, but that if a concert career was his chief goal, he was wasting his time. The point was well taken. Biggs knew quite well what he wanted to do, and his student phase was very brief.
Those who knew Biggs only in later years regarded him chiefly as a performer, but in these young years he was very much a teacher as well, and he remained so until the pressure of recording and concert work eventually drove all other professional activities from his life. As with everything he essayed professionally, his teaching system was well thought out and planned in considerable detail. He gave equal attention to students of both lesser and greater gifts, but the latter received all the support and encouragement of which Biggs was capable. A letter in the Longy files, written in 1935, shows his interest in one such student, Wesley Day, who “has done so well that I think both he and his parents will be considering the possibilities of a career in music when he graduates from high school next summer.” Biggs had already aided young Day in getting a scholarship and in securing a paying position as a church organist, but he was now concerned about where this gifted student would find the money to finance his higher education.
Wesley Day did indeed continue his musical education, becoming in time a highly respected church musician in Philadelphia. In his early studies with Biggs at Longy, Day’s lessons always began with piano work—scales and repertoire—before going to the organ, where he was introduced to a wide range of Bach’s works as well as those of pre-Bach and Romantic masters. Biggs—like his own mentor, Cunningham—was clearly a teacher who encouraged independence in his pupils. Day recalls:
He seldom assigned fingerings but insisted I work them out according to good principles and be able to explain them satisfactorily. Similarly with registration; we discussed basic sounds and their characteristics, singly and in combination, but then I had to register for myself according to those outlines. He was quick to approve at any good ideas I had, and gentle in correcting my many blunders.
Day obviously made rapid progress, for in the final year of his study with Biggs he was assigned the entire Symphony No. 5 by Widor, a formidable task for a high school senior. Further, Day was not to bring the work to Biggs until he had completely learned it. Then he would have to defend his choices of tempo, registration, and interpretation, “but one reason he would not accept—that I did something because he did it that way!” This was creative and concerned pedagogy, and the student rose to the challenge: “He so encouraged me to find my own personality, scary tho’ it was at the time.” Biggs obviously worked his best students hard, but there was also a lighter side to the student-teacher relationship. Often after lessons, Biggs and this self-described “typical scrawny teenager” would, in Day’s words, “go across the street to a drugstore and have an ice cream soda, for which I was never allowed to pay!”
As the years went by, the pressure of Biggs’s growing concert and recording schedule made it necessary for him to restrict his teaching at Longy to a small group of advanced students, until in 1951 he had to give it up entirely. From that time on he held no permanent teaching position but often taught summer courses at such widely separated places as the Organ Institute in Methuen, Massachusetts, and Pomona College in California. A class outline from one of these summer sessions, dating from the 1960s, shows that he had not departed significantly from the procedures recalled by Day and other early students, or, for that matter, from the precepts laid down by G. D. Cunningham. Piano practice was still regarded as essential, including scales and arpeggios. So were good practice habits, consciousness of agogic accent, slow practice for accuracy (but fast practice for rhythm), breaking down long works into sections, and working on new pieces one line at a time for fingering and pedaling.
Perhaps Biggs did not teach long enough, or in a prestigious enough institution, to have left behind a galaxy of notable former students. But Wesley Day, among others, went on to make a mark on the musical world; and Mary Crowley, a scholarship student whom Biggs always regarded as one of his best, had a short but distinguished career as a recitalist. Others became good church organists and teachers; and two, David Gifford and Walter Hawkes, became organ builders. Many of Biggs’s former Longy students kept in touch with him after leaving the school, and during World War II Biggs regularly corresponded with those in the armed services. All seem to have held Biggs in affection as a teacher and friend who gave them a solid background in their craft and was ever willing to help in the furtherance of their careers.
Biggs’s professional activities were on the increase in the early 1930s, but he still found time to attend many recitals and concerts. One notable performance was given by the legendary Gunther Ramin of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, and Biggs had the opportunity of meeting him. But not all visiting artists were of Ramin’s stature. English organist Edward d’Evry, “sometime examiner” for the Royal College of Organists, played so badly that during the concert Biggs scribbled on his program, “How can he have the nerve to fail anyone?” As the performance wore on, he apologized to his companion (probably Colette), “I’m terribly sorry I dragged you to this! But we had better stick it out for sake of appearances.” All hope of escape having obviously fled, there was the final wry observation that “There will, of course, be ENCORES!”
In January 1934 Biggs played three consecutive Wednesday evening recitals at the church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York, then a center of avant-garde organ playing under the aegis of Ernest White. A recital in February at Harvard’s Memorial Church included an unpublished chorale prelude on Tallis’s Canon by T. Tertius Noble, Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm, and Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 10. Biggs repeated the last two pieces in a program given in the same place in November—perhaps by request? In April he gave two concerts in Canada, one of them for a chapter of the Canadian College of Organists, and both earned good reviews. At this point in his life Biggs was still playing recitals from memory, and that may explain the frequent repetition of some of the larger and more-demanding works. In later years, while still conceding that memorization was good discipline and had “audience value,” he also observed that it “does seem to lead to restricted repertoire” and was “often a waste of time.” And time was always of great importance to Biggs.
In Biggs’s boy choir at Christ Church there was a lean, dark-haired and bespectacled little nine-year-old with a considerable fondness for music. His ambition, at that point in his life, was to become a jazz trumpeter. His mother had given him a diary for Christmas, and his entry for January 2, 1935 read: “I went to choir practice. Mr. Bigs wasn’t there.” The choirboy’s name was Charles Fisk; Biggs was to encounter him again, much later, and would play with delight and approval the organs built by his former young chorister.
The reason “Mr. Bigs” was not at choir practice on that wintry day was that he had just been fired. According to Biggs, the firing was “one of the best things that ever happened to me. Realized you can’t train choir, practice boys choir, etc. etc. & find enough time to develop as a player.” The loss of the church position did of course mean some loss of income, but he still had his students at the Longy School, and LaBerge had recently booked him on his first transcontinental tour of the United States to take place in January and February 1935. The long absence it necessitated may have been part of the church’s reason for dispensing with his services, but it may also have had something to do with Biggs’s refusal to comply with the rector’s request that he add the reading of the early service to his duties—with no additional wages.
The tour was truly transcontinental but a far cry from the Cambrian affair of five years previous. The concert locations were, for the most part, prestigious ones; remuneration and accommodations were suitable, and in most cases adequate practice time was provided between concerts. In addition, every concert was reviewed, and the reviews were without exception favorable. The first recital was in the First Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas, where critic Clyde Whitlock waxed enthusiastic over Biggs’s pedaling, phrasing, and musicianship, calling the program “a masterly performance which may go down among the concert traditions of the city.” In an interview in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Biggs defended the use of the organ as a concert instrument: “The organ contains a vast range of orchestral color; a vast literature for concert use. It is certainly good for something besides an accompaniment to hymns or the Wedding March from Lohengrin.”
Following a concert in San Antonio, Biggs headed for California. On February 3, he gave a program at the University of Redlands in the afternoon and another in the evening at the First Presbyterian Church of Pasadena. Of the latter, Roland Diggle, in a review for The Diapason, wrote, “Mr. Biggs played with sureness and understanding and his tempo control and phrasing were those of a master organist who had the certainty of his convictions.” On February 9 the Canadian College of Organists sponsored a recital at Centenary College in Hamilton, Ontario, where, according to the local newspaper, “the organ came into its own under the hands of Power Biggs.” Biggs’s next stop was the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal, and there he earned a review that indicated that he was getting a point across: “Mr. Biggs’s playing is scholarly and straightforward, eschewing all extraneous effects of decoration and color. He contents himself generally with exposing the simple beauty of the music.” Biggs underlined these words, something he did only rarely.
From this point onward hardly a year was to go by without at least one tour to distant points. Shortly after his return from Montreal, on February 26, 1935, Biggs gave a recital in Harvard’s Memorial Church. He performed, for the first time in its entirety, a work he was later to popularize—Leo Sowerby’s Symphony in G. He had played the “Fast and Sinister” movement in Montreal, but the reviewer there dismissed it as being “made up of uncomfortable discords and not much else.” The impression made by the complete Symphony on the perhaps more sophisticated Boston Evening Transcript reviewer was more favorable. He praised the work’s “melodic wealth,” “rhythmic vitality,” and “deftness of harmonic and contrapuntal technique” and was equally impressed by the performance:
The brusque rhythms, the smashing dissonances, the abrupt harmonic transitions of the symphony came with clear incision from Mr. Briggs [sic]. His own musical temper seems well matched to that of Sowerby’s Symphony. His trick of stressing brief phrases, his willingness to depict sharply differentiated moods with extremes of dynamics, his crowding of note on note, phrase on phrase, all brought into startlingly sharp relief Sowerby’s music.
While Biggs seems not to have minded at all his dismissal from Christ Church, his absence from Sunday-morning commitments proved only temporary. In May 1935 he became organist and choir director of the Harvard Congregational Church of Brookline (now Brookline United Parish). This church differed from the two he had previously been associated with in that it was not Episcopalian. As part of a “non-conformist” denomination, its services and theology were perhaps more palatable to Biggs than those of the Anglican tradition, which he never seemed to have cared for. In addition, his duties there were lighter, consisting of one Sunday service and the rehearsal of an adult choir, plus weddings, funerals, and whatever concerts he wished to prepare. A further attraction was unquestionably the church’s 1932 Aeolian-Skinner organ, a sizable four-manual instrument showing the influences of both Ernest Skinner and G. Donald Harrison, which admirably met Biggs’s needs for a suitable practice, teaching, and recital instrument. Presumably the church also had a more lenient attitude toward the occasional protracted absences that his concert commitments entailed (and for which Biggs always provided a well-qualified substitute).
The fall of 1935 found Biggs on another brief tour of Canada, playing in Toronto, Guelph, Kingston, and Ottawa, again with excellent reviews. The Guelph Daily Mercury for November 26 gave his concert a full banner headline, praised the brilliance of Biggs’s execution, and stated that “Seldom does one hear a program containing so many big works and rare indeed is the man who can carry us through them without a dull moment. But such is he—this young man Mr. Biggs.” In January 1936 Biggs concertized in Washington, D.C.; in February he was off to the West Coast again, for a somewhat more extended tour, which included Claremont, Stockton, and Redlands colleges; Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and several churches in Oregon—all again to favorable notices. On his return he gave a recital in his new church in Brookline under the auspices of the Massachusetts (now Boston) chapter of the American Guild of Organists; and in April, sponsored by the local Bach-Brahms Society, Biggs gave his first recital in Methuen, Massachusetts, on an organ with which he was subsequently to have a long association, as teacher, performer, and recording artist.
In 1863 a large organ was imported for the old Music Hall in Boston from the German firm of E. F. Walcker & Cie.; its walnut casework, made in New York, was a triumph of Victorian extravagance. To make way for an enlarged symphony orchestra, the “Great Organ” was removed to storage in 1883. It remained there until 1897, when it was purchased by Edward F. Searles of Methuen, a wealthy widower with artistic and musical interests who was heir (via his late wife) to the Mark Hopkins railroad fortune. Searles owned, among other extensive properties, his own organ factory, where he proceeded to have the “Great Organ” reconditioned and rebuilt. Because no public place in Methuen was large enough to house the organ, Searles hired the noted architect Henry Vaughan to design a classically oriented brick auditorium next to the organ factory, and there, in 1909, the “Great Organ” was installed. For a while hall and organ were used for both public and private concerts, but after Searles’s death in 1920 the place became a deteriorating white elephant in the hands of his heirs. In 1931 the organ builder Ernest M. Skinner, soon to separate from the Aeolian-Skinner Company in Boston, purchased the property, largely to have use of the organ factory. But the hall and the organ were to some extent resuscitated as well and made available to local musical interests.
In 1936 Biggs became one of the first organists to give a concert in the reopened hall, and included on his program was the premiere of a set of variations by Skinner’s longtime friend Wheeler Beckett. That summer Biggs, recognizing the unique possibilities of the situation, organized a study course during July in which he gave classes, private lessons, and recitals, with Skinner giving lectures on the design and construction of the organ.
Biggs played recitals weekly during July, performing a wide range of literature from Bach and Handel to Dupré, Elgar, Karg-Elert, and Vierne. Also included was a work by his old acquaintance Lynnwood Farnam, who had died suddenly in the fall of 1930. Biggs saw to it that the organ and the summer school received proper publicity. He was doubtless responsible for a feature article in the Christian Science Monitor for July 15, complete with pictures of both the organ and Biggs. At the end of the summer, Biggs gave two more recitals; reviews in the Lawrence Daily Eagle hailed Biggs as “A player of wide talents, both in musical taste and technical finish.”
In the fall Biggs gave concerts on the large City Hall organ in Portland, Maine, and at All Saints’ Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. In an interview in the Worcester Daily Telegram for November 12, Biggs expressed his usual optimism for the future of the organ. It was not, he emphasized, “on the way out,” and he predicted “a bright future for the organ. The competition of electrical-instruments . . . has had its effect in bringing out new interests, new tonal colors in the modern organ.” In a lighter vein, he allowed that he did not even object to a little jazz on the organ (“very jolly”), but it ought not be overdone: “too much jazz on the organ is pathetic.”
Events were indeed pointing to a brighter future for the organ in America. In Cleveland, the builder Walter Holtkamp and the organist Melville Smith were experimenting with the revival of certain time-honored tonal and visual aspects of the organ. In the summer of 1936, even as Biggs was participating in the renaissance of the “Great Organ” in Methuen, G. Donald Harrison, technical director of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, was touring the historic organ lofts of Europe with Carl Weinrich, a young organ teacher from Westminster Choir College. In less than a year’s time Biggs himself would assume a key role with regard to these forward-looking developments in the American organ world.