After a jolly nice send off from Euston (thanks to the gang!) arrived at Liverpool in good time. Had tea in state in guard’s van—there was plenty of room there. No one spoke the whole way up, though I wanted some of the chocolate the person opposite had; & I’m sure she wanted my Punch (Vivian’s present). . . .
The “send off” from London’s Euston Station occurred on September 20. In addition to F. Vivian Dunn (now Sir Vivian Dunn, conductor of the Light Music Society) and others from Biggs’s R. A. M. “gang,” Alice Biggs was on hand to see her son off on his adventure. A little poem that she gave him—and that he kept among his personal papers to the end of his days—suggests that she realized that she probably would not be seeing much of her “darling boy” from this time onward.
For the only time in his life, possibly at the instigation of his mother, Biggs essayed to keep a diary. Consisting of loose-leaf pages in a small student’s notebook, it chronicles the first four months of his American tour, September through December 1929, and provides us with an opportunity to experience the world of a 23-year-old English organist, just graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, as he sets out—as the storybook tales always begin—to seek his fortune.
Biggs’s goal in Liverpool was the ocean liner Adriatic, which, to his impatient chagrin, was in no hurry to leave. “A policeman said it was too windy for the Adriatic to come out of dock yet—suppose it might blow the funnels off or ruffle the bosun’s hair.” Biggs had to spend the night at the North Western Hotel, and the “queer dreams” he reported having were probably due to his excitement. He met Rhys Davies the following morning, and they went to the Gladstone Dock, where the Adriatic—“not as big as I expected”—was berthed. On board, Biggs gloated over the fact that he had been given a bigger cabin than Davies, begged a deck chair, and had lunch “opposite a very interesting young girl who looks likely for future reference.” Discovering that the ship would not depart until evening, Davies sought to kill time by going to a football match, “but they take up the gangway at 3 o. c. & we are all prisoners.” Nothing daunted, the travelers explored the ship and took tea, and Biggs was “most delighted and pleased” to receive six cables from his London chums, including one from Owen Le P. Franklin, a fellow Cunningham student who had visited America himself a year or so earlier.
The Adriatic finally got under way around noon of the next day. It soon passed the Irish coast and sailed into the open sea, which was becoming rough. Biggs preferred deck games to the lounge, where “people sit around and look at each other and make each other feel sick,” but he retired early and woke the next morning feeling “rather queer” and not inclined to more than a “very microscopic lunch.” The following day it was Davies’s turn to get seasick, while Biggs was feeling fit enough to enjoy both the good food and the company of two young ladies from Philadelphia.
A few days later the ship reached the Gulf Stream (which “must surely be quite warm, & nice to jump into”) and Biggs “got licked” at shuffleboard. He spent the rest of the day writing letters as the weather turned foul, eventually working up to a howling gale. “There is a movie this evening & community singing afterwards. The movie is very feeble (they all are!) & the other falls flat. But the storm was the best (& quite sufficient) entertainment for the day!”
On the morning of Monday, September 30, the Adriatic passed the lightship, and a rum runner was observed. Despite poor visibility, Biggs was on deck as the ship sailed into New York Harbor:
As we get near the sky scrapers emerge out of the mist. It is a pity it is not a clear day, but the way the sky line looms through the mist is rather fine. . . .
We move more slowly now, & the sky scrapers come into view. It is really a magnificent sight! We pass the Statue of Liberty & gradually edge into dock. This N. Y. skyline is alone worth crossing the Atlantic to see!
On clearing customs Biggs and Davies went ashore, where they met Jeannette Christine and checked into the Manger Hotel. Afterward the three musicians took a stroll down Broadway:
The signs are wonderful—the trams are not! The shops vary very much—the roads are in a bad condition—I remember how I have read that it seems as if they are in the middle of rebuilding bits here and there & that they never finish anything for long. Well, it’s just like that.
[Broadway] is not very broad & doesn’t seem to have the dignity of say Regent Street, or Piccadilly. We went down to Times Square station & that looks as if it were built in a hurry & never properly finished. Not anywhere near say Bond St. or Piccadilly Circus.
But it was a poor evening & it was raining; so I daresay it was not a good time to see the place. Probably tomorrow will alter my thoughts a lot!
The following morning, after breakfasting at the Automat, Biggs went to the Aeolian studio to arrange for practice time. He noted in passing that Fifth Avenue was “a bit better” than the previous night’s scenery. The Cambrians regrouped to take in a movie and have lunch, after which Biggs headed for the Wanamaker Store, which then had a large concert hall containing one of the city’s most notable organs. The store was closing as he arrived, but he left a note for Dr. Alexander Russell, the resident organist. He then telephoned T. Tertius Noble and also left a message for Lynnwood Farnam. Armed with a letter of introduction from Cunningham, Biggs had lost no time in contacting perhaps the three most influential organists in the city.
At day’s end Biggs was, understandably, “jolly tired” and still puzzled by the anachronisms of New York. He was appalled to learn that New York policemen had to buy their own uniforms, and he considered the subways poorly built.
But by gum! you realize London is not so bad after all! There’s a certain dignity and beauty about London which New York lacks entirely, & on the other hand, New York has pep, go, zip, or anything you like which is reflected in the buildings everywhere & which London hasn’t.
The following day, Biggs practiced at the Aeolian studio, arranged for piano practice at Steinway Hall, and proceeded to Grand Central Station (“Now! here is a station! A terrific hall of marble”). He took a train to Boston, apparently for the sole purpose of visiting the Christian Science Mother Church and meeting its organist, Mr. Adams, who did not particularly impress him. Possibly he was hoping to make a useful contact, but perhaps he was simply fulfilling a promise to his Christian Scientist mother.
On October 4 Biggs finally made contact with Farnam and had lunch with him (including corn on the cob, “priceless stuff”); later in the day he met Noble, who impressed him as “very nice.” The next day, after rehearsing with Jeannette Christine, he looked up Dr. Russell, who, as luck would have it, was hosting a party for the Parisian organist Marcel Dupré and his wife. Farnam was also present, and “Mrs. Russell was giving out cocktails (naughty woman!)”—for these were Prohibition days. After a “ripping dinner” the musicians in the party retired to the Church of the Holy Communion, where Farnam and Dupré played some of the latter’s latest compositions until the small hours. The occasion was a stroke of pure luck for young Biggs, and he was by no means unappreciative of it: “Now I had a ripping evening, killing, so to speak, several birds with one stone; & Dr. Russell seemed pleased, giving hopes of a Wanamaker show, & I think Farnam is a very nice & decent chap indeed.”
On October 6 the Cambrians journeyed to the First Presbyterian Church of nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, to give their first concert.
The organ is a three manual by Howard. The wind is awful & full organ is a hopeless mess. Has its good points however. Got some practice at last—thank goodness! Now this concert shows me that [Owen Le P.] Franklin was quite right! It is practically impossible to explain & still more impossible to write, in fact it is unbelieveable in many ways!
The next day’s concert in The Bronx was no less perplexing: “A funny concert. It was an appreciative crowd and yet a difficult one—I believe I did not play anything popular enough for them.”
Biggs played the following day on a Hope-Jones organ in “jolly bad condition” in Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn. (He was considerably more impressed with Pennsylvania Station: “It’s like a Cathedral! With a Ford transcontinental plane there.”)
On October 9 he cut some player rolls at the Aeolian studio, a new experience for him:
It is the same sensation as making a gramophone record, the same precipice walking sensation. The first record was not very satisfactory because the pedal was too heavy. The second was better but with some bad patches of wrong notes. However there it is for the present until next April. Perhaps they can graft different parts of the roll together.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Biggs’s only player rolls were ever issued.
On October 10 the group took to the road in earnest. Biggs made admiring note of the beauty of the New Jersey marshes at evening as they made their way to Burlington, to perform in a church where “the verger took great pains to show me the stop for the chimes!” Still enjoying the Indian summer, they proceeded to Frankford, Pennsylvania, to face an audience of “about 60 or 65 in a church holding 1,500” and which didn’t clap.
There were no programs, I played the Widor 5th—Moonlight—Le Cygne—Air & Gavotte—Vierne 1st. [The organ was an Estey,] two manuals and for its size an excellent affair [but] I wonder when (or—perhaps—if?!) I am going to have a decent big organ! One worthy of the Reubke and the [Dupré] G minor!
Biggs’s education with regard to small-town American audiences and organs was only beginning, for the nature of the Cambrian Concert Company’s booking system precluded the possibility of prestigious locations, good publicity, or large organs. Bookings were in fact made on a very hit-or-miss basis by Jones, who traveled a few days ahead of his troupe, drumming up business wherever he could (generally in small churches and high school auditoriums) and notifying the musicians by cable or letter of their forthcoming engagements.
Before leaving the Philadelphia area, however, Biggs made one more contact of possible future value. Dupré and other European notables had made debut recitals at the Philadelphia Wanamaker Store, which boasted an even larger organ than the New York store (“You can walk around inside the console just as you might walk about in an ordinary organ!”) Biggs met Mary Vogt, the incumbent organist, and George Till, the organ builder for whom the care of the mammoth instrument was a full-time job. He also just missed a sold-out performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music, much to his chagrin. (“My God! Am I going to hear no music but my own for 7 months!! I must get a radio or something. It’s awful!!”) Philadelphia seems to have pleased Biggs, though; he thought it might “make a very pleasant home.”
The next stop was Chester, Pennsylvania, where “the organ is a Moller & is marked ‘Op. 3409.’ A 2 decker and just about the three thousand four hundredth & ninth organ too many! But not bad as organs go—so far!” He fared little better at a Presbyterian church in Wilmington, Delaware, where “Owen Jones had written that there was a ‘good organ’; & by gum, it’s so dashed good it’s just about the limit. A wretched little two manual by Hook & Hastings (Op. o probably) . . . and the program has been made out including the E minor, Widor 6th, Vierne, Jarnefelt.” Despite all this, the concert went well and was well attended, an extra bonus being the meeting of a “charming Miss Mason” afterward.
The travelers continued southward, playing in Baltimore (“A very nice two manual Moller”) and in Washington, where the first three-manual organ of the trip turned out to be another elderly specimen in dubious condition. But Biggs managed to get in a bit of sightseeing in the capital with a shipboard acquaintance—unfortunately accompanied by her mother! From there the Cambrians made their way through Maryland and Virginia, where Biggs took note of historical sites and the difference between the sprawling southern towns and the “just-so” English villages with which he was familiar.
In Richmond, the group “provided an introductory half an hour before a service in the evening—not very interesting.” But the informality of Protestant services in the South, where people often applauded points in the sermon (“as if the ministers offered their goods in competition with the movies over the road”), struck Biggs as “curious” but “far more vital than the hushed voices and scrapings of the C[hurch] of E[ngland].”
Norfolk provided Biggs with a “fine 4 manual Hall,” but in Newport News he was “frightfully annoyed because the blanked pistons on the organ don’t work.” En route to Suffolk the musicians stopped to pick some cotton for a souvenir, to the amusement of the field hands; but when they arrived Biggs had to cope with an organ in which “some dashed notes on the pedals stick on.” In Washington, North Carolina, despite a build-up from Jones about the “important engagement & rare opportunity at the Women’s Club,” Biggs was faced with “a perfectly awful piano & a quite decent organ by Hall with the choir out of action & notes striking right & left!” Town and concert were rated “a flop,” and Jones’s judgment was seriously questioned.
Up to this point the three Cambrians had been giving a concert every night; Friday, October 25, was their “day of glorious freedom,” although they had to spend a good deal of it on a bus. Still, the weather remained fine, and Biggs was restored to an optimistic mood. Somewhere in North Carolina between Goldsboro and Raleigh, he was moved to poesy by the “coloring of the cotton fields & the constantly changing silhouette of trees”:
The golden sun swings down into the pines,
And the sky flames up.
The cotton fields are bathed in blue and purple.
The red & yellow trees & shrubs
Take on the fiery rainbow of the sun,
And as the globe sinks down the sky
A pageant comes and passes.
Good weather stayed with the musicians as they continued southward, and Biggs even acquired a mild sunburn. In Raleigh he was taken aback when the newspaper asked them to write their own review: “If this is the accepted procedure over here, the notices won’t have much value.” A social evening following a good concert in Raleigh revived everyone’s spirits, and Biggs’s were bolstered even more on the following day after a concert at a women’s college in Greensboro: “There were a whole crowd of jolly girls round the organ seat (ahem!). And they seemed to like the organ & piano very much (also, ahem!). It was too bad that they had to be in bed by 10 o. c.”
On October 30 the papers were full of bad news from the New York Stock Exchange, but a young and idealistic Biggs took a dim view of the whole capitalist system: “What a silly system it is. One man ploughing a field is doing more than all these wretched people with their buying and selling of the so-called ‘right’ to take as fat a percentage as they can of other peoples work.” Throughout his whole life Biggs was a firm believer in working—usually very hard—for a living, but in later years he did temper his opinion of the stock market sufficiently to invest in it himself.
But whatever may have been happening on Wall Street on that October day, it was business as usual for the hard-working Cambrians, whose concert in High Point, North Carolina “went well.” Another good performance followed in Lexington, where the musicians were invited to take part in some enjoyable Hallowe’en festivities. Then they were off to Gaffney High School and “perhaps . . . the biggest flop we’ve had!” Although the weather suddenly turned rainy, the concerts improved, the one at Converse College being exceptionally good, and with an appreciative audience containing a “charming lot of girls.”
The tour was definitely having its ups and downs. After the good concert at Converse, Biggs was disappointed to learn that it had not been reviewed for the papers. His mood was not improved by having to play a full recital to a packed house the next day on an organ that was “the WORLDS WORST. Unless you hold down a note for 30 seconds it doesn’t speak at all!” The rain continued as the trio headed into Georgia, where they saw Stone Mountain and gave a good concert in an Athens church with a three-manual Austin organ, although “Miss C. was deplorable.” Biggs’s opinion of the Cambrian soprano was not too high at the outset, and it diminished as the tour wore on.
By November 12 the Cambrians were in Texas, and Biggs’s recollection of the individual concerts was beginning to blur. His comments on the route through Alabama had more to do with places than with concerts, and the apathy of the audiences puzzled him more and more. About the only real enthusiasm encountered was in the colleges.
Toward the end of November the Cambrians doubled back to Florida via “a lot of dud bus rides,” one of which stranded them in a place with the memorable name of Rising Fawn en route to Chattanooga. There they performed at the Baptist Church (“with one of these silly ‘windy’ organs”), and Biggs learned that this was “the place where [Edwin H.] Lemare has been City Organist until they kicked him out a week or two ago.” The popular Lemare had settled in the United States some time before and had held several municipal organists’ positions. Biggs probably would not have minded such a job himself, and it appears that he made some discreet inquiries about the newly vacant position.
Back in Athens, Georgia, Biggs enjoyed the luxury of a Steinway piano in his hotel room, and the Methodist Church proved to have a good organ. Cold weather had set in in earnest now, but the musicians received a warm welcome in Decatur, where, however, “Miss C. made a mess of a program.” Fair concerts to good houses were given in various Mississippi and Tennessee towns, and the month ended in Arkansas, where neither the towns nor the concerts were particularly memorable. In Little Rock Biggs whiled away his boredom talking to the soda fountain girl in the Hotel Marion.
As December opened, the Cambrians moved from Arkansas to Oklahoma—“interesting country to come through but not very musical.” In Tulsa, which “dispenses with traffic lights, & the autos look after themselves,” Biggs played a four-manual Aeolian organ, and in Sapulpa, “a curious Estey organ, 3 manual, with a sort of typewriter control; you touch a button and it lights up, & touch it again & the light goes out, very easy to handle.” Then on to Oklahoma City, where Jones made his appearance, apparently for the first time: “So this is Jones! Davies and I discuss him afterwards.”
Jones accompanied the group to Norman, where they played at a college with “an excellent piano & a good 3 manual Hillgreen Lane organ. The show went well (to a smallish but nice crowd) & impressed Jones no end! He’s quite a decent chap, but plainly incompetent!” Halfway through the tour was probably not the best time to make this discovery, and the next night’s concert in Oklahoma City could hardly have improved Biggs’s morale either: “A rotten show to a flop of an audience, just like a crowd of sheep to play to. Jones sings a solo, & Miss C. makes a mess of Hear Ye, Israel. Wretched organ.”
On December 16 Jones saw his troupe off on the bus for the long ride to Dallas, where, despite cold and snow, they gave a “jolly good concert . . . to a rather small audience.” The next concert was called off because of bad weather, and the days preceding Christmas found them at a church in Fort Worth where they did not feel particularly wanted. The weather improved on Christmas Day, but the Cambrians’ concert left something to be desired, and after Christmas their spirits must have hit an all-time low. The 26th found Jeannette Christine in bad financial straits, trying to scare up more concert dates, and on the 29th Biggs wrote in exasperation, “Miss C. is in a real tight corner now, and so are we, damn it! This blanked thing must stop!”
As the year ended, so did the diary. Biggs had a free day on Sunday, December 29, in which he went to the movies, did some letter writing, and organized his belongings. The following day he played a “piano only” concert to a good audience in Vernon, and on the last day of the year the trio left Texas for Frederick, Oklahoma, where they gave “a fair show to a fair crowd who gave about a nickel apiece!”
Really sorry to leave Texas, I wish I had “done” it as intended; for it has a nice atmosphere & individuality. Had a letter from Jones today, with suggestions of being a bit “mutual” about the losses. Miss C. tries to evade us when we cross-examine her a bit over supper. We went to the movies & saw the “Aviator”—a 11:30 show & came out in 1930! Well! Well!
The year 1929 had come to an end, but the Cambrian Concert Company’s tour ground on, and Biggs continued to make occasional notes in his new 1930 date book. By mid-January the Cambrians were in Kansas, and February was spent largely in Illinois, where Biggs found little to comment on beyond a “pretty little organ” in Lawrenceville. March saw the Company’s progress through Ohio; by April they were back in Pennsylvania and then worked their way through central New York. Biggs’s occasional notations concerning large, new, or simply “good” organs were not just idle scribblings. Next to the most promising ones he marked a large X, presumably for reference when planning future tours.
At last, on May 2, Biggs arrived back in New York City. The Cambrian Concert Company, having given 190 concerts in 24 states for whatever “take” they could get, was disbanded, but Biggs had business of his own to attend to before returning to England. On May 3 Biggs and Davies, perhaps in the hope of extracting some wages from him, spent the afternoon looking for the elusive Jones, but presumably did not find him. Biggs, having been promised a concert by Alexander Russell, spent most of the ensuing week practicing at the Wanamaker’s and at Farnam’s church. He visited T. Tertius Noble again, and made the acquaintance of George Kemmer of St. Bartholomew’s Church.
On Wednesday, May 14, Biggs played what was billed as his “New York debut” at the Wanamaker Auditorium. His ambitious program included Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm, some short Bach transcriptions, Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” a Haydn transcription, Samuel Wesley’s Air and Gavotte, the Allegro Vivace from Widor’s Symphony No. 5, Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, and the Finale from Vierne’s Symphony No. 1.
Biggs spent the remainder of the month renewing contacts, job hunting (apparently with little success), attending concerts, and “sorting ends” before his return to England. On May 22 he went again to Boston and thence to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where on May 25 he played a recital in the North Church. On May 30 he made a final round of his new friends in New York—Kemmer, Noble, and Farnam—and by early June he was back in London. The Cambrian tour had been a near disaster financially, but Biggs had made some important contacts and had seen a rather large chunk of the United States. Despite the somewhat checkered nature of his experiences, there is little doubt that he had liked much of what he had seen.