In its way the rediscovery, or reawareness, of these early American organs is every bit as exciting as similar enterprise in Europe. Many excellent organs were once built here, and heard by such notables as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. This seems to indicate that to build tracker organs again today is not to undermine the Constitution.
Biggs, for all his broad British accent, was fond of his adopted country and, by his own admission, something of an American history buff. His interest in American music extended forward to new compositions, but it also reached back to include the discovery, publication, and performance of older American works. An interest in Americana (plus a certain amount of admiration for the multifaceted Benjamin Franklin) was at least partially responsible for the abortive attempt to resurrect the glass armonica as a performance medium in 1956.
Having discovered the historic organs of Europe, Biggs began to wonder if there might also be historic organs of musical interest in the United States. From his own experience the only ones that came readily to mind were the rebuilt Boston Music Hall organ in Methuen, the late nineteenth-century organ Schlicker had rebuilt in the Old North Church of Boston, and the Brattle organ, a small and ancient English chamber organ that had long been unplayable, but whose pipes Biggs had once borrowed and played (from a voicing jack in the Aeolian-Skinner factory) for a broadcast in the 1940s.
The American Guild of Organists national convention in New York in June 1956, the occasion on which Dirk Flentrop was introduced to American organists, was almost certainly the first such event (but by no means the last) at which a modern tracker-action organ was played. During that eventful week an impromptu meeting was held in the choir room of St. Bartholomew’s Church by a group of convention-goers who had for several years been in correspondence with each other on the subject of old American organs. The consensus of this gathering was that a more organized attempt should be made to document such instruments, to save them from destruction or alteration, and to educate the public as to their worth. Thus was born the Organ Historical Society. From the handful at that meeting the membership continued to grow, and within a few years the group’s mimeographed newsletter had become a printed quarterly called The Tracker.
Through the accidental circumstance of sharing a table at the Friday night convention banquet with some of its organizers, Biggs became one of the first members to be recruited by the fledgling society. Somewhere between the main course and the side-splitting antics of Anna Russell that accompanied the dessert, Biggs broached a question that had apparently been on his mind for a while: Were there historic organs in America worthy of being recorded? The unanimous reply of the Organ Historical Society delegation was that there indeed were.
Although this information furnished Biggs with another useful recording idea, his time-consuming 1957 European tour and the arrival of the Flentrop organ in 1958 meant the deferment of any real action on it until late in that year. In the meantime, the growing Organ Historical Society grapevine was being tapped for suggestions of suitable organs, and in early 1959, while Biggs worked on another Museum recording, Peggy and the writer scoured libraries for early American music and began writing letters to owners of some of the organs under consideration.
A recording trip, much like the original European “field trip,” was scheduled for the spring. But because of various delays it was not until July 1959 that the tape recorders, microphones, cables, playback equipment, and other assorted paraphernalia were loaded into the Biggs Microbus, that battered veteran of two European jaunts and occasional encounters with Boston traffic. In the bus too went Biggs and Peggy, with Columbia engineer Buddy Graham and the writer following in the Graham sports car.
Like the first European tour, this trip was in good part an expedition into the unknown, filled with both discoveries and disappointments. An initial swing around New England and upstate New York found the Brattle Organ still unrestored and a potentially interesting three-manual Ferris instrument of the 1840s in too precarious a state to use. Other organs, while usable, were in acoustically poor churches or had noisy blowers. But a delightful 1827 George Hook chamber organ in Salem, Massachusetts; a George Jardine “finger and barrel” organ in Pierrepont Manor, New York; and a well-maintained Hutchings and Plaisted organ in Woodstock, Vermont, made up for the disappointments. Biggs’s stirring if slightly rattly rendition of the Ives Variations on “America” on the Woodstock organ is still the only recording of the work on a “period” instrument.
The recording party next headed for Pennsylvania, in hopes of finding a usable instrument by the late eighteenth-century Moravian builder David Tannenberg. While several of his instruments were known to exist, most of them turned out to be in no condition to be recorded. But fortune smiled in York, where Tannenberg’s last instrument, built in 1804, had only recently been moved to the reverberant auditorium of the local Historical Society and put in good playing condition. The recording conditions were excellent, and as a bonus the Society’s director, Frederick J. Stair, was able to provide some useful background material and graphics for the jacket notes.
There is little question that the Tannenberg organ was Biggs’s favorite of all the organs encountered on the tour. In the September 1960 issue of The Diapason Biggs wrote, “By any standards, American or European, this must be rated a most distinguished instrument. Its tonal excellence is apparent the moment you hear it, and its playability the instant you set hands to the keyboard.” He went on to praise the instrument’s “wonderful blend of ensemble, marvelous flutes, the absolute ‘togetherness’ of the speech,” as well as the light key action and the “organ case that delights the eye and would be an ornament to any church. . . . Here, in short, is an organ built in America a century and a half ago that in its variety of musical possibilities, achieved through the simplest of means, carries a vital lesson and indeed poses a challenge for us today.”
Stair also told Biggs of a small organ in the Reading Historical Society, built by Tannenberg’s contemporary John Jacob Dieffenbach in the memorable year of 1776. In poor condition and rather desperately out of tune, it was nonetheless capable of a bravely wheezy rendition of William Billings’s hymn tune “Chester.”
From Pennsylvania the tour headed south. A church in Virginia with a promising Henry Erben organ had to be passed up because it lay in the flight path of an exceedingly busy airport, but another Erben organ of 1845 in the old Huguenot Church of Charleston, South Carolina, proved an appropriate vehicle for music by Charleston composer Benjamin Yarnold. In the mid-summer heat, with open windows the only air-conditioning, Biggs worked in his undershirt while Peggy prepared refreshing snacks to be eaten (and shared with the resident cats) in the palm-shaded churchyard during breaks.
Later, back in Boston, Biggs recorded music by William Selby at the Old North Church, more for the historical setting than for any historical significance of the organ.
The music on the recording was an interesting mixed bag. Biggs wanted to confine his repertory to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (the exception being the Ives work), but save for Selby’s few pieces, very little authentic American music from that period survives. Fortunately, there was quite a reservoir of secular keyboard music available, intended for any kind of domestic keyboard instrument—spinet, fortepiano, or chamber organ. The “perky freshness” of these little pieces appealed to Biggs, who decided that it was “perfectly legal, and rather good fun” to include them, along with his own organ arrangement of James Hewitt’s entertaining piano piece The Battle of Trenton. What to play on the Tannenberg organ that would have a suitable pedigree posed a bit of a problem, for the vast quantity of music that has come down to us from Tannenberg’s Moravian sect contains no keyboard works. It does contain many pieces for instrumental ensemble, however; and some music by Tannenberg’s contemporary David Moritz Michael, originally written for wind sextet, proved quite adaptable to transcription.
Biggs’s jacket notes were in the same vein as his article in The Diapason, and he did not hesitate to inject a strong note of advocacy for old American organs:
Churches which are fortunate enough to have an old organ, in whatever condition, should look seriously into the possibility of appraising and renovating the instrument, not only for history’s sake but because chances are that if it came from a reputable early builder its musical qualities, if conscientiously restored, would far surpass what is generally available today.
Such statements did much to advance the cause of the Organ Historical Society, which eventually made Biggs an honorary member. The many organs seen on the tour, whether recordable or not, impressed Biggs sufficiently to make him henceforth a staunch defender of old American organs and a strong supporter of the Organ Historical Society’s work. In the fall of 1959 he invited its members to the Busch-Reisinger Museum for a private demonstration of the Flentrop organ, and he later gave recitals at two of their national conventions without fee. Probably even its most diligent researchers will never really know how many fine old organs earned a reprieve from destruction because some music-loving church member chanced upon Biggs’s recording of early American organs.
Reviews of the recording varied with the viewpoint of the reviewer. David Hall, in Hi-Fi Stereo, categorized the program as “charming American oddities” but praised it nonetheless and liked the sound of the organs. “Biggs plays this mélange of Americana with genuine spirit—especially the more outlandish episodes of the America variations—and has been excellently recorded throughout.” The last comment is a testimonial to the perseverence of Buddy Graham under conditions that were often far from ideal. James Boeringer, in the A. G. O. Quarterly for October 1961, was somewhat less charmed by the music (“the instruments were of far greater significance than the music”) but praised Biggs for his “foray into a field virtually unexplored.” Fifteen years later, in recognition of the American bicentennial, Biggs made another foray into that field—one that made the “spirited” 1960 release appear staid and scholarly by comparison.
Biggs remained on the American continent during 1959 and 1960. He managed to reach just about every part of the United States, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest; and in November 1959 he gave a series of four recitals, each attended by four to eight thousand people, on the new five-manual Tamburini organ in the Auditorio Nacional of Mexico City. According to the Mexico City News, he played “works heard hitherto only in leading European and United States music centers.” The music performed may have been new to Mexican ears, but in actuality the program consisted largely of old Biggs favorites by Campra, Clarke, Bach, Balbastre, Widor, Dupré, and others. Some of these selections, plus the Mexican national anthem, were recorded by the Mexican arm of Columbia records for south-of-the-border distribution. A reviewer in a Mexican hi-fi magazine praised the stereophonic effects of the resulting disc and Biggs’s handling of the monster Italian instrument, with which Biggs was not particularly impressed. It was on all counts a successful trip and generated promises of future engagements.
Hardly a year went by in which Biggs did not participate in some way in one of the biennial regional or national conventions of the American Guild of Organists. In 1959 he was a featured recitalist at a regional convention in Indianapolis, and in 1960 he performed some of the “American oddities” at a national convention in Detroit. The next national convention was held in Atlanta, where Biggs played a new Flentrop organ. At a regional convention hosted by his own Boston chapter in 1961, he gave a lecture on historic European and American organs, illustrated with tape recordings, and Peggy served on the hospitality committee.
Peggy was an accomplished hostess, but her abilities far exceeded this easy role. While she accompanied and assisted Biggs on most of his recording tours, she usually stayed home to “mind the store” when he was on concert tours—managing business affairs; handling correspondence, phone calls, and visitors; and maintaining a lively correspondence with the peripatetic Biggs in which business, neighborhood news, comments on the recitals, “in” jokes, cartoons, and love notes were freely mingled. Biggs had long since parted company with professional managers, and much of the business end of things, from arranging recitals to sending out promotional material, was handled solely by Peggy until the 1960s, when Johanna Giwosky, one of Biggs’s students, stepped in to help with the mounting volume of work.
Biggs continued to write persuasive and influential articles, not only for the trade journals but for such publications as the prestigious hardcover magazine Horizon, which featured a lavishly illustrated Biggs article in March 1960. The years 1960 and 1961 were filled with the inevitable coast-to-coast recital engagements, as well as recording sessions at the Museum, for, as Biggs wrote to Flentrop, “the real influence of the organ is through records.” After some earnest attempts to get foundation funding for a National Public Radio series, Biggs decided that broadcasting was a lost cause. His recording activity was increasing in the early 1960s, and in addition to some of the previously mentioned releases, he also recorded the three Hindemith organ sonatas and an album of Baroque music entitled Heroic Music for Organ, Brass and Percussion on the Flentrop organ.
Biggs, who did not want to become pigeonholed as a “one-school” player, recognized that he would sometimes require a large middle-of-the-road modern American organ for Romantic music. In 1961 he made a recording of favorites by Franck, Widor, Alain, Dupré, and Gigout on the large new Möller organ in St. George’s Church in New York. It was the first of several occasions when Biggs would record on this organ, for the situation at St. George’s had much to commend it. The church was easily accessible for the engineers from Columbia’s New York headquarters, it had excellent acoustics, and the organ’s rather spread-out arrangement made it ideal for emphasizing stereophonic and, later, quadraphonic effects.
A review of the French Romantic issue in the American Record Guide for August 1962 indicates how effectively Biggs exploited this property:
The Scherzo of Gigout is a self-contained stereo showcase in miniature. Such a batting about! . . . This instrument, with the majority of its pipes exposed, envelops you in a triangular whirl of sound. Here, as perhaps nowhere else, the church acts as the sounding board of a vast organ chamber.
Although the reviewer mildly deplored the fact that Biggs did not use the swellshades and found so many virtuosic showpieces on one disc almost too-rich a diet, he regarded the album as a “truly glamorous” production. Certainly it proved to Biggs’s public that he was not neglecting the Romantic repertoire in his enthusiasm for early music or curiosities, nor had he lost his ability for artistically handling a type of organ that was still far more likely to be encountered on the concert circuit than either old American or modern Dutch instruments with tracker action.