In March 1976, when Biggs turned 70, Daniel Pinkham and other friends arranged a private (but “full house”) concert in his honor at King’s Chapel in Boston, followed by a reception at King’s Chapel House on Beacon Street. Biggs was his usual genial self, but seemed more than a little touched by this surprise party. Some of the Columbia people came up from New York; others sent telegrams. “Wish we could be there to shake the hand that shook the establishment,” cabled John McClure. Andrew Kazdin wished him “the happiest of birthdays—with overlaps” (a reference to Biggs’s method of recording sectional takes to facilitate splicing). One, recalling the title of a recently recorded Joplin rag, read, “Congratulations and best wishes to our favorite ‘entertainer’ on your 70th birthday. Love from the Columbia crew.”
The Bicentennial album, Stars and Stripes Forever, was released early in June and generated enthusiastic reviews. Vernon Gotwals, writing in Music, called it “a whole packet of firecrackers, ranging from little snappers to noisy aerial bombs and breathtaking star-spangled rockets.” He praised the engineering and observed that Biggs played “superlatively well.” Biggs, who seems never to have lost his small boy’s enjoyment of a celebration, still had another Bicentennial-connected event ahead of him.
In 1950 a major American Guild of Organists convention had been held in Boston. It coincided with the bicentennial of J. S. Bach’s death, and an impressive program with a strong Bach emphasis had been put together by dint of considerable hard work on the part of Biggs, Peggy, and a few others. In 1976 Boston was again the site of a national convention. The Guild had grown in membership, the Boston chapter had become the largest in the country, and its 1976 convention, attended by a record 2,400 people, was an extravaganza with a distinctly American emphasis. Biggs was appointed honorary program chairman (the actual chairman being John Ferris of Harvard), and he attended many of the meetings and offered valuable suggestions. A feature of the 1950 convention had been an “A. G. O. Night at the Pops” in Symphony Hall, with Biggs as soloist with the famed Boston Pops Orchestra under the baton of Arthur Fiedler. The convention committee agreed quite early that it would be unthinkable not to feature the same team at the 1976 event.
Boston’s Symphony Hall seats over two thousand people, even with the informal table arrangements that replace the orchestra seats for the “Pops” season, and the conventiongoers filled nearly every seat on the night of June 25. The program featured Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto No. 2 and one of Mozart’s “Epistle” Sonatas, with Biggs as soloist, plus some purely orchestral numbers and the traditional “Pops extras.” One of these, which could never have been attempted with an ordinary audience, was the impromptu performance—necessarily from memory—of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah by the entire audience. But the Biggs-Fiedler team was clearly the major attraction, as much for the younger generation of organists, for whom these two senior musicians were already approaching legendary status, as for those old enough to remember nostalgically the 1950 concert.
There was, however, one little complication. Two days before the concert Biggs had broken his left elbow. His doctor wanted him in the hospital, but Biggs would not hear of it. Instead, he kept the injury a closely guarded secret and strode onto the stage of Symphony Hall on June 25 with the wounded limb inconspicuously strapped into a position that would allow him to play as scheduled. As Peggy later observed, “If the elbow was stiff, the fingers were not.” The console was placed squarely before the podium so that Biggs could see Fiedler, but the audience could not really see Biggs. Somehow he managed to give a polished performance of the two concerted works and even stay for the reception that followed, where Peggy and a few friends hovered around him to fend off any well-wishers who appeared bent on an overly physical greeting. The next morning Biggs went straight to the hospital. In a review of the program in the August issue of Music, Wilma Salisbury wrote, “The beloved artist played with distinction, showing a sure ear for balance in his choice of registration and a good instinct for audience appeal in his choice of repertoire. After the Rheinberger Concerto, the soloist was cheered by the crowd.” And those who knew about the elbow cheered the loudest.
The night before the performance, Biggs had been made an honorary member of Boston’s venerable Handel and Haydn Society, then in its 162nd year of continuous existence. Before the ceremony, when asked by conductor Thomas Dunn what he would like said about him, Biggs replied, “Ah, just say that I play the organ.” Dunn, elaborating slightly, neatly summarized Biggs’s career:
E. Power Biggs plays the organ. Countless listeners having their first love affair with music, cherish that fact in their hearts. Few in the history of performance leave indelible marks on their art; of them, none rivals him in the affection and respect of layman and colleague alike. He is the rollicking forward scout of scholarship, and, while busy these fifty years restoring the noble classics of the instrument to health, with prodigal generosity he has cultivated a garden of musical flowers and brought several generations of budding composers to bloom.
Not even Biggs could have suspected that the Boston program would be his last public performance, for he had in fact already signed up for fall concerts in New York and Chicago. In September he made a nonperforming appearance before the Merrimack Valley chapter of the American Guild of Organists at Methuen Music Hall, giving a carefully prepared and well-received program of taped examples and spoken commentary on the subject of historic organs. Biggs probably planned to do more programs of this kind, for shortly afterward he agreed to present a similar one for the Harvard-Radcliffe Organ Society in the spring.
In October Biggs suffered a broken leg, and his fall concerts had to be cancelled. But the month was marked by the first American showing, on the TV program “Lamp unto My Feet,” of a documentary he had made the previous year for CBS. Part of it had been videotaped in Leipzig following the 1975 recording sessions, and the rest had been done in Cambridge. Earlier in his career Biggs had on more than one occasion tried to stir up interest in a motion picture on the life of Bach, and he had even roughed out a tentative script. Nothing ever came of it, but in this short television production Biggs had at last made good his objective of bringing Bach to the public in sight as well as in sound. The New York Times called it “a quiet, civilized half-hour, done with taste and dignity. An inspiring way to start a Sunday—or any day.”
In the fall of 1976 Biggs was interviewed by Bruce Morgan of Cambridge’s Real Paper, an “underground” journal gone more or less respectable. To Morgan Biggs restated his conviction that great organs precede great organ music and affirmed his stance “pro” tracker action and reverberant acoustics and “con” electronic imitations. He also related some of his experiences and observations regarding broadcasting and recording (“I consider that I’ve been awfully fortunate in that the right machines came along at the right time”) and cited his invitation to play at Bach’s church in Leipzig as the “most satisfying” experience of his long career.
In November the Bach Sinfonia recording was released, and Biggs gave away numerous copies as Christmas gifts. Friends and reviewers marveled at its freshness and vitality. Arthur Lawrence, in The Diapason, was of the opinion that the album represented some of Biggs’s finest playing—“The performances are all that one might hope for, and more”—and considered it one “to be treasured by any admirer of Bach or Biggs.”
Biggs continued to generate ideas for future recording projects. A list scrawled out longhand in April 1976 was headed “Ideas Ideas 1976-2076 (but leave 2076 for a while)” and included another quadraphonic spectacular at Freiburg, “Arch-Romantics” (Liszt, Franck, Rheinberger) at Methuen, Handel on the pedal harpsichord, more Bach in East Germany, and another Christmas disc. By fall he was seriously mapping out the Methuen album and thinking that he might like to do some Pachelbel as well. A fall “idea list” added an organ and violin album (something Biggs had not yet done); something English for organ, trumpets, and kettledrums (always a favorite Biggs combination); and, with orchestra, the Sowerby, Piston, and Porter concertos. Along with everything else, he kept a sharp eye on developments in the organ world, noting that the large new Flentrop organ at Duke University and the soon-to-be-restored dual organs in Mexico City Cathedral might have possibilities for future recordings. The Duke instrument, on which Biggs’s advice had been asked in the early stages, was dedicated in 1976; and the monumental Mexico City project, also being done by Flentrop, was to be completed by the fall of 1977. As usual, Biggs wanted to be the first to record them.
In January 1977 Biggs presented Columbia with still another unique idea for an album tentatively entitled “In Praise of Bach.” It was conceived as a cooperative effort between Columbia and Eterna that would dovetail chorale preludes played by Biggs in New York’s St. Thomas’s Church with chorales and cantata movements sung by the choir of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig—“the reverberation of 3,000 miles,” exclaimed Biggs, with characteristic enthusiasm. “In addition to Bach’s magnificent music, I think the Greetings from St. Thomas to St. Thomas will lend this record a unique distinction!” Columbia was sufficiently interested in the idea to initiate correspondence with Eterna about it.
Biggs concurred with Robert Schumann’s dictum that “we are never finished with Bach.” In his later years he returned with increasing frequency to the composer who occupied the uppermost place in his pantheon of musical saints, finding ever new inspiration for his own work in Bach’s timeless music. At the conclusion of his CBS Bach telecast, he affirmed the continuing relevance of the great composer: “The mind, the genius, the music, the discipline of Bach’s whole life stand as a challenge to us today.” Biggs shared the discipline and wholeheartedly accepted the challenge.
During January and February 1977, in addition to correspondence concerning recording plans, Biggs corrected proofs for an edition of Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto in F and a collection of short early American keyboard pieces, both to be issued by McAfee Music Corporation. Uwe Pape of Berlin, in the process of writing a book on the “organ reform” movement in America, asked Biggs for some recollections of the two Busch-Reisinger Museum organs, and Biggs cheerfully complied. He seemed more than willing to respond to requests of this nature. His own account of his recording career had appeared in The Tracker and the Schwann Catalog during 1976; and a request in 1975 from Jean Rizzo, who was doing research on Biggs’s teacher G. D. Cunningham, elicited a long letter which was virtually an article in itself and was in fact published as one in the March 1978 issue of Music. A similar request from a Colorado researcher early in 1977 for material pertaining to Biggs’s work with Koussevitzky resulted in some extensive notes that Biggs himself reworked into the last article he ever submitted to Music.
During the last fifteen years of Biggs’s life, his health gradually declined. Yet, as Peggy observed, “He found the whole idea of giving in to physical infirmity ridiculous. Of course one must go on. Every time a physician said ‘you ought not to,’ he replied ‘but I must.’ ” Biggs’s physical problems did nothing to dampen his sense of humor—he was always amused by the perplexed expressions of airline security guards when the pins in his knees set off the alarm in the detector gate.
Biggs had good reasons for not wanting his public to know the state of his health, and, since he was not the least interested in sympathy, even his friends had little inkling of it. Peggy, of course, was fully aware of his physical condition, and her account gives a clear picture of Biggs’s difficulties during the 1960s and 1970s, when some of his finest recordings were made:
In 1958 Biggs developed Rheumatoid Arthritis—a cruel disease for any musician, but particularly so for an organist. Only constant practice despite pain kept his hands and feet limber. He was most grateful to his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Theodore Potter—a “man of action” whose continued surveillance made the impossible possible—and the supportive roles of his physicians Carey Peters, Tillman McDaniel, Peter E. Barry, and Ahmed Mohuiddin. In later years surgery was scheduled after, between, and far enough away from, recording sessions. Once, when Dr. Potter showed X-rays of his hands, and pointed out the new joints that constant practice had worn in, Biggs quipped that that picture would make an interesting record sleeve cover. . . .
From the mid-1970s on Biggs suffered additional problems, and in the spring of 1977 emergency surgery became necessary. But his weakened constitution was unequal to the stress, and despite heroic efforts on the part of the operating team, death came on March 10, 1977. Biggs had been busy with his editing, writing, and planning right up to the time he left for the hospital a week earlier.
Biggs’s death sent shock waves of disbelief through the musical world. Like his friend Arthur Fiedler, who died two years later, he had (although he probably did not care for the idea) become an institution. His youthful affinity for lively, happy music and his continuing involvement in all aspects of his art kept his audiences from learning of his infirmities. The music on his two last recordings gives no hint that it is being played by a very sick man who—because he was above all a realist—probably knew he had little time left. He had been unobtrusively putting his affairs in order, while at the same time optimistically planning for the future on the very slim chance that things might improve.
A private burial service was conducted in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of many another notable from the greater Boston area, and on March 27, two days before Biggs would have turned 71, a memorial service was held in Harvard’s Memorial Church. It was planned by Peggy, with the willing assistance of many friends, and music occupied a prominent place. It began with a Biggs favorite, “My Spirit Be Joyful” from Bach’s Easter Cantata, and included Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”—the old broadcast sign-off music—and “Now Thank We All Our God,” plus Telemann’s Heroic Music. The players were all members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and included some of Biggs’s old collaborators: Alfred Zighera, Louis Speyer, and Roger Voisin. Daniel Pinkham directed, and Thomas Dunn was the accompanist. Two anthems were sung by John Ferris’s Harvard University Choir, fortified by a liberal infusion of “friends”; and readings were given by Edward O. Miller, Rector of St. George’s Church in New York; Peter Gomes of Memorial Church; and Biggs’s cousin Murray Biggs, director of the Shakespeare Ensemble of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Organ Society and young organ builders from Charles Fisk’s workshop were the ushers.
Memorial Church is a sizable building, and it was filled to capacity. The atmosphere was subdued, yet the occasion was more for remembering than for mourning. Edward Miller, taking his cue from the titles of the Telemann pieces, offered a prayer of thanksgiving for his friend’s life and work: “For his quiet devotion, his playfulness, gentleness, and unobtrusive generosity we give thanks. . . . With humor, with gaiety gladdened by goodness, he transmitted serenity to make our spirits rejoice.” Miller had known Biggs well enough to be aware of the odds Biggs had been fighting during his last few years: “We thank you for this example of a brave man of hope whose indomitable will refused to succumb to handicap, but remained always on the side of life, with vigor and charm.”
Letters of condolence poured in from all over the world. They came from friends, fans, students, and fellow musicians; from the Earl of Aylesford, the President of Harvard, and the United Parcel Service delivery man. Many mentioned the positive influence Biggs had had on the sender’s life or career, and others expressed gratitude for favors done many years earlier. Biggs’s colleagues at Columbia expressed their feelings in an advertisement in the New York Times:
E. Power Biggs became an artistic legend in his own lifetime. He was a man cherished for his great warmth and wit, his indefatigable spirit. He found a home not only in the small town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but also at the seat of any organ, and in the hearts of people everywhere.
We rejoice in the life of E. Power Biggs.
Almost immediately Andrew Kazdin began planning a commemorative release that would document Biggs’s entire career as a recording artist, from 1938 to 1976. Since Peggy was often the only one who could answer a question or find something among the hundreds of reels of tape in the house, she too became involved in this project and proved her own merit as a writer by contributing an article to the jacket booklet. In addition, she began the sad and monumental task of sorting out a lifetime accumulation of papers, programs, correspondence, and scores. “Time is very much out of joint for me,” she wrote Hellmuth Kolbe in midsummer. “Last March seems a hundred years away, yet our last trip to Leipzig is so near that I can put out my hand and touch it.”
The spring and fall of 1977 saw a nationwide proliferation of memorial concerts, many of which made a point of including music Biggs had edited or that was associated with his recordings. They ranged from a program given by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston’s Old West Church (where Biggs had made portions of his last recording) to the first of what would become a series of annual events organized by the San Francisco chapter of the American Guild of Organists. That concert, in which six organists and a chamber orchestra participated, was free, and its promoters hoped to attract an audience of two thousand. But Biggs had a lot of friends and admirers on the West Coast. “3,000 Jam Biggs Tribute,” ran the headline of a review in the Oakland Tribune for September 27:
People were standing on seats, sitting on kneelers, and very nearly kneeling atop standees. It was the largest Bay Area audience in over a decade for a classical pipe-organ concert, and it didn’t even need a light show for a drawing card.
Biggs deserved every bit of the adulation. . . .
And Biggs would have approved—not of the adulation, which seemed to have less effect on him than on many other musicians—but of the fact that three thousand people had come to listen to fine organ music. In this regard it was indeed a high tribute to Biggs’s life work.
Obituaries reached the wire services and appeared throughout the country—routine coverage, perhaps, for conductors, prima donnas, and rock stars, but somewhat rare in the case of organists. Tributes abounded. The New York Times devoted a feature article to Biggs’s life; and an article in the Boston Globe by Daniel Pinkham praised Biggs’s championship of new music and recalled that whenever Pinkham had substituted for him on a radio broadcast, Biggs had encouraged him to perform his own compositions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra devoted a section of one of its program booklets to its “old and cherished friend”; and critic Michael Steinberg, in the Newsletter of the Handel and Haydn Society, declared his indebtedness to Biggs for having introduced him to many musical works for the first time. “We do and shall miss him painfully, this friend, companion, champion.”
The Harvard Crimson printed a snapshot of an exuberant Biggs in a Popeye tee-shirt and celebrated his “Warmth, wit, and wisdom.” Richard Buell wrote an insightful appreciation in The Phoenix, giving Biggs credit for launching into currency “many of the historically accurate notions about organ playing that we now take for granted.” Buell seemed somewhat awestruck by the scope of Biggs’s recorded oeuvre, which ranged from “impressive, continent Bach” to “some rather silly Scott Joplin. . . . His was so energetic, useful and imaginative a life that our sorrow at his passing has surprisingly little disappointment in it.”
The musical community was acutely aware that it had sustained a serious loss. Virtually every professional journal, down to the humblest Guild chapter newsletter, paid tribute in its own way. The Organ Historical Society’s quarterly, The Tracker, catalogued Biggs’s many contributions to the Society’s cause (including free recitals and his continuing to pay dues even after having been elected an honorary member) and urged members to donate copies of Biggs’s records to their local libraries as a memorial. The two “trade” journals, The Diapason and Music (soon to be renamed The American Organist), each devoted special issues to Biggs and his work. Charles Henderson, editor of the latter, expressed the feeling of many of his colleagues when he wrote, “The organ world has lost one of its strongest men.” Even the American Theatre Organ Society gave Biggs an extensive writeup, in which it was noted that he had once been instrumental in obtaining a recording contract for a gifted young theatre organist.
In a way, Biggs created his own memorial in the records he made, the music he edited, the students he helped, and the untold number of organs his influence helped to save or to bring into being; not the least of these is the instrument still heard regularly in the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge. He would probably be pleased with some of the memorials created in his name. Throughout the country churches, colleges, and American Guild of Organists chapters have established annual memorial concerts. Scores and recordings have been given to libraries to help further Biggs’s educational work. A fund established by the Organ Historical Society assists younger members to attend the Society’s conventions. And at Boston University a room bearing Biggs’s name houses an organ research library founded by the Boston chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Its holdings include all Biggs’s scores, books, recordings, and papers.
Early in 1979 Andrew Kazdin’s painstakingly researched memorial album was finally released, to laudatory reviews. The four discs present excerpts from nearly forty years of Biggs recordings, from the Technichord and Victor 78s through the long years of Biggs’s association with Columbia, plus some pedal harpsichord recordings of Handel works discovered in Columbia’s “ice box.” The well-illustrated booklet accompanying the album contains a delightful account of Biggs’s early years by Peggy, an overview of his recording career by Kazdin, and a discography that underscores the impressive scope of Biggs’s recording achievements.
In March 1979, The Diapason published some recollections of Biggs by Larry Palmer, who, like many other musicians of his generation, benefited from Biggs’s supportiveness. His closing words undoubtedly echoed the feelings of a large portion of his readers: “Thanks, EPB, for all you did for the organ, for the harpsichord, for music in this country. We miss you.”