To whom it may concern.
This is to testify that I have known Mr. J. P. Biggs intimately for a good many years, and that I know him to be a man of excellent character in every way.
G. D. Cunningham.
One of Biggs’s first acts upon returning to London in June 1930 was to procure another letter of reference from his former teacher. Cunningham continued to be his supporter and friend but seems to have assumed that Biggs’s actual first name was Jimmy!
During July Biggs went to a Royal Academy of Music social and dance, visited friends, attended a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, and took a few final organ lessons. On August 21 he attended a “Prom” concert at Queen’s Hall with a dozen or so of his old classmates, who afterward inscribed his program with such sentiments as “Cheerio!” “Good Luck,” “Dash it!” and “O. K. by me!” Two days later Biggs again boarded a liner bound for New York, apparently with no firm prospect of a job—and at the height of the depression.
Of the ensuing month we know nothing. Without doubt Biggs was busy cultivating the contacts he had made the previous spring, and he later gave credit to T. Tertius Noble for suggesting that he apply for a church position that was open in Rhode Island. On September 27 he arrived in Newport; on October 19 he was hired as organist and choirmaster of Emmanuel Episcopal Church there; and four days later he gave a well-attended recital on the church’s Welte-Mignon organ. He needed little practice for this—the selections were all “war horses” from the previous year’s tour—and the press reported that “In every way the concert was delightful and was a happy introduction for this new organist, whose pedal technique is most remarkable, if not quite flawless.”
On October 29 Biggs took the Fall River Line steamer to New York. The following day he made arrangements for another Wanamaker Auditorium recital. He also paid visits to Ernest Mitchell, organist of Grace Church, and Bernard LaBerge, who was then the leading manager of concert organists in the United States. A church position was a reliable means of putting bread on an organist’s table, but from the start Biggs’s plans had a broader scope, and he lost no time in implementing them.
He by no means neglected his musical duties at Emmanuel Church, however. On November 1 his choir gave a “special musical service” consisting of choral works and solos by Bach, Schubert, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Rheinberger, and a month later it presented the first half of Handel’s Messiah. In January 1931 Biggs inaugurated a series of monthly sacred music concerts, and in March he performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion to a packed house, earning a favorable notice from the press:
Last evening’s presentation was a revelation to the huge congregation which completely filled the church.
Mr. E. Power Biggs, organist, gave a most creditable performance. His playing left no doubt of his ability in the command of the organ, and the other departments, of soloists, chorus, and instrumental direction.
Despite all this ambitious activity, Biggs found time to attend concerts in New York (including those of the New York Philharmonic and the American debut recital of the blind Parisian organ virtuoso André Marchai at Wanamaker’s) as well as in Boston. He was always genuinely interested in hearing the music made by his fellow musicians. Unlike many of his colleagues, he could often be found at organ recitals, and he thoroughly enjoyed orchestral and chamber music concerts as well.
While Biggs was not the first English organist to choose the United States as his home—Lemare and Noble immediately come to mind—the question might arise as to why he did so, and at so early a stage in his career. Although he remained an Englishman to the marrow of his bones in countless ways, his background differed from that of the average British organist. Most of them reached the organ bench via the time-honored Anglican choirboy route, but Biggs grew up in a family of nonconformist religious affiliation, attended a secular school, and did not even begin his organ studies until at an age when most of his contemporaries were already holding church positions. Because of this his outlook, doubtless reinforced and encouraged by Cunningham, differed considerably from that of the majority of his peers, who assumed without question that a career as an organist was a career within the church—with perhaps a little teaching and concertizing on the side. Some doubtless were temperamentally and intellectually suited for this life; others were not, but were trapped by their early conditioning into accepting its inevitability. Some, like Cunningham and Lemare, were fortunate enough to secure one of the relatively scarce municipal organists’ posts, or an equally rare full-time teaching position. But no organist, on either side of the Atlantic, made his or her living exclusively as a free-lance concert artist.
Historically, of course, the organ has always had its secular side. The great Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic organs of Europe, even when housed in churches and cathedrals, had a secular as well as a sacred function. Sweelinck entertained the burghers of Amsterdam with his variations on popular songs even though the organ of the Oude Kerk stood silent during the preaching services of the Calvinists on Sundays. Buxtehude, patronized by the wealthy merchants of Lübeck, staged concerts at St. Mary’s Church for the businessmen who thronged that port city, and DuMage, Dandrieu, and Balbastre entertained with their Noels the Parisians who thronged their churches in the hours before the Christmas messe de minuit.
From the second half of the nineteenth century onward, great organs were built in concert halls, town halls, and educational institutions, and the line between the sacred and secular uses of the organ became more sharply defined. Recitals were still given in churches, but the church organist’s functions were more and more restricted to playing at services and training the choir. Organists employed by concert halls were expected to play not only the standard literature but also accompaniments, trivial pieces, and transcriptions of orchestral works. Between the demands of the church on one hand, and a seemingly debased public taste on the other, how was an organist to serve pure music?
This dichotomy appears to have troubled the mind of young Biggs as he pursued his seeming destiny as a church organist in the small New England city of Newport. Although he had come to America because he believed it offered wider opportunities for pursuing a concert career, he must at times have questioned the wisdom of his choice. Certainly the times were not propitious. The depression had caused a noticeable decline in patronage of the arts; the Carnegies, Duponts, and their ilk were now much less inclined to donate organs to concert halls and churches or to finance the concerts of those who played them. In 1920 Edwin H. Lemare had enjoyed an enviable standard of living as the highest paid organist in the world; by 1930 he was out of work and out of money, his savings having been wiped out when the stock market crashed. Only the organists of the large urban churches continued to live in any real comfort, and many of them had suffered salary reductions.
One such full-time church musician was T. Tertius Noble, formerly of York Minster in England. For some years he had been securely ensconced as organist and choirmaster of the prestigious St. Thomas’s Church in New York, where he presided over a large and active music program. Here was a man, the child of a musical family, who had spent his youth on the organ bench of Bath Abbey and had taken his first church position at the age of fourteen, a man who had come the traditional Anglican route. Although he was almost the same age as Lemare, he had comfortably weathered the economic upheaval that had destroyed the fortune and health of his contemporary and compatriot.
Noble contributed some recollections of his long career to the March 1931 issue of The Diapason; the article included a paragraph describing the circumstances surrounding the composition of his well-known seven unaccompanied anthems:
I well remember composing the first, “Souls of the Righteous.” After having played morning, afternoon and evening services on Sunday at [York Minster] I walked home with my wife, and after the evening meal sat in a comfortable chair with my feet on another. Thus I pondered the beautiful words, and very soon ideas poured forth on my manuscript paper. The anthem was written in less than half an hour. . . .
It appears that these words touched a very raw nerve in Biggs. Possibly with a letter to the editor in mind, or perhaps just to get something off his chest, he took pen in hand:
Did he really believe this—that the “souls of the righteous” are actually “in the hand of God” etc. If so, does he ever read anything of present day thought in investigation? And if he reads it can he disprove it? Certainly not! Then why does he choose to ignore it? Why! because that comfortable study in which he was sitting and that comfortable dinner just inside him are a direct result of his passive acceptance of whatever emanates from the pulpit; or is printed in the prayer book. He must swallow all this literally (though he certainly can’t swallow the bible literally—or he’d be a revolutionist!)
Is not the position of Dr. Noble typical of the whole of the organist’s profession? I suppose their vacant stares in the “Diapason” are no worse than the pudgy faces one sees in any professional journal. But is the organist allowed any intellectual life? Can he really believe in what he is doing? No! A few virile ministers in exceptionally lucky circumstances can modify and improve their circumstances, but an organist cannot do this!
What can an organist do except get a position in a church? Practically nothing. A mere handful find positions as city organists and as recital organists. Herein lies the great disability of the organ—it is a mere prostitute to the church—bought for so much to attract people to the orthodox teaching.
Will residence organs help? Will there be a number of organists who will become known as artists; and who will achieve the popularity in broad musical circles of a Paderewski? I doubt it. For one thing, a good piano anywhere will suffice for the rendering of the entire piano literature; but a residence organ, unless it is a very unusual one, will not be an adequate medium for 90% of the organ repertoire. “The Swan” by S[aint] S[aëns] would be the most popular piece; and Vierne’s Symphonies would be impracticable.
In 1931 Noble was 64 years old and a veteran of 50 years on the organ bench, some of which were, by his own admission, “not altogether easy.” But he obviously loved his work and probably did believe what he heard from the pulpit and read in his prayer book. His long years of service to church music had earned him his comfortable fireside. Biggs, on the eve of his 25th birthday, writing in his spartan quarters at 21 Bull Street in Newport, stewed in a confusing cauldron of youthful idealism, artistic frustration, driving ambition, and half-formed plans for his future. The generation gap between these two musicians was too great to be easily bridged. Having vented his feelings on paper, Biggs seems not to have submitted the result for publication, perhaps out of recognition of his own debt to the kindhearted Noble, or because he realized that no real good could come of having it appear in print. Very possibly he felt better for having written it, though—and he saved the manuscript.
Then too, he may have reconsidered after reading further in Noble’s article, where the venerable organist of St. Thomas’s Church bursts out somewhat unexpectedly with:
Oh, ye organists who play services daily in the cathedrals and churches of England and elsewhere, get away from the smell of the organ loft! Write other music than hymns and spiritual songs; even write jazz, play jazz, write comic songs. It all helps to broaden one’s view of life. There are too many strait-laced organ grinders today.
Now there was a sentiment with which Biggs could readily identify.
During the summer of 1931 Biggs taught the organ courses at St. Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music, a privately endowed summer school in Providence. He also entered a sand tennis tournament at Newport Beach and was rather soundly beaten by one Jerry Mahoney, who, according to the local sports reporter, used his “Vines-like service and slashing attack” to quell “the trans-Atlantic invader in straight sets.”
Toward the end of the summer Biggs gave two concerts with other instrumentalists in Newport and in nearby Middletown. All indications are that the soloists—Edward Murphy, horn, and Karl Zeise, cello—were summer visitors whom Biggs had recruited. Zeise, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra who later joined the Boston Symphony, was to appear with Biggs on several subsequent occasions.
By the fall of 1931 Biggs had adopted a system of scheduling all his choir rehearsals, lessons, and other church-related activities toward the end of the week, leaving the early part free for concert-going, practicing, and trips to New York, where, among other things, he continued negotiations with manager Bernard LaBerge. Concerts continued to be programed at Emmanuel Church, and Biggs enjoyed an active social life. He was popular with his choir singers, who had established a custom of scrambled-egg parties following rehearsals in which even Biggs, never renowned for culinary expertise, took his turn with the skillet. To his bass soloist, a house painter with the improbable name of Daniel Boone, he confided his continuing frustration with trying to combine a concert career with that of a small-town church organist.
That Biggs aspired strongly to the concert field there was no doubt whatever. He spent most of his free time working diligently toward this end—gathering names for his mailing list, printing publicity flyers and press releases, saving reviews in a scrapbook. Even while attending concerts by other musicians, the improvement of his own programs was on his mind. During a recital given at Boston’s Trinity Church in January 1931, he sketched out some thoughts on recital planning on the back of the program:
1. Short but interesting classic
2. Big Bach work
3. Big work (say Liszt—Reubke)
4. Scherzo piece (Haydn)
5. Tuneful melody
6. Another interesting big work
7. Scherzo (Bee’s wedding)
8. Big work (1st Vierne Finale)
Biggs was now under LaBerge’s management and was regularly obtaining recital engagements, including the promise of another important New York concert. Newport, for all its congeniality and obvious appreciation of Biggs’s work, was simply not the best base of operations for a concert artist. Although Biggs had been pursuing possible job openings in New York, it was in the Boston area that the first promising opening occurred.
Early in 1932 Biggs accepted the position of organist and choirmaster at Christ Church in Cambridge. He played his last service in Newport in early February, but that was preceded by two or three “farewell” recitals and a “special service.” Although the newspaper reviewer found some fault with Biggs’s pedaling in his first Newport recital, it was reported of the postlude to the “Special Service” (Handel’s Concerto No. 2) that “the pedaling, the crisp, almost jolly phrasing, made the organists who remained to hear it happy.” Emmanuel Church was loath to give up its energetic young organist, and the Parish Leaflet published a warm testimonial to Biggs’s work during his relatively short tenure:
It has been difficult for those who have had the privilege of enjoying, week after week, the excellent work of Mr. Biggs, to face the fact that he is leaving us on February 15. . . . We shall miss him greatly, and he may always be sure of a warm welcome from his Newport friends. He has worked hard and conscientiously and leaves us with two well built-up organizations, in the church choir and the church school choir, as well as with the memory of those recitals and special services through which he brought inspiration and joy to many grateful listeners.