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Virgil Fox: Appreciation and anecdotes

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  • Virgil Fox: Appreciation and anecdotes

    Christmastime seems a perfectly fine time to get this going. Fox's Christmas Album was great, I'm sure, but then there were his Christmas-season live appearances. Didja know the one on Ed Sullivan was online?


    Somebody videotaped the broadcast and shared it in YT half a century later, God bless 'em. It's way too short and no-fidelity, but what memories, right? The serious intensity of his pre-hippie performances in traditional concert garb -- the excitement of the early touring organ era -- our hero and paterfamilias bringing the organ a higher profile than it had had in decades (he even became a crossword puzzle clue).

    Let's keep the stuff clean here please -- that shouldn't be too difficult. Here's a story alleged by my teacher/VF's pupil Bill Wrenn: VF happened to drive past a church where his lifelong rival E. Power Biggs was about to perform. He was aghast to see throngs of people around the main entrance, seemingly mobbing the place -- but he later found out the truth: there had been a fire false alarm, and they were going back in :->

    I've been reading Virgil Fox (the Dish): An Irreverent Biography of the Great American Organist by his longtime associates Ted Alan Worth and Richard Torrence, with contributions from numerous other musical greats.
    It's not a book you'd give your mother (even if she was something of a Fox fan, like mine), but what a book! Like taking a time machine back to that era and spending time with the greats. You'll love them for their gusto, artistry and loyalty as much as their honesty -- and Fox no less for the uncensored treatment they give him (understandably enough, as you'll find).

    Anecdotes! Recollections! Tributes! No matter how seemingly trivial! Let's have it all!

  • #2
    My teacher said he attended a service at Riverside Church while he was organist there. In contrast to secular performance, he was completely still and reserved.

    He also told me about Virgil coming to give an organ dedication performance - I forget the build of the organ but it was apparently not the best quality. A stop knob came off in his hand when he pulled it. He just tossed it over his shoulder dramatically and kept playing.
    Home Organ: VPO Home-Brewed from a former Klann pipe organ console


    • Victor Jules
      Victor Jules commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks for sharing that! Consoles with their many problems were always the bane of, IIRC, both Fox and Dupré. Fox always said that what he hoped to find when he got to heaven was a great organ with a console that worked all the time ;-)

      I glimpsed a page here about Claire Coci yanking stopknobs out during a performance. Supposedly this happened during a faculty recital at WCC -- she just tossed it and didn't skip a beat.

      Incredibly, astoundingly, both Fox and Dupré were born on May 3. Different centuries, of course -- but not by much.

  • #3
    Dr. Fox was indisputably one of the most influential American organists of the last century. I had the privilege of hearing him play at Riverside and Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall numerous times, as well as on tour with electronic Rodgers and light show. His flamboyance, ability to connect with the audience, his passion for music, and his remarkable talent all contribute to his legendary status.

    That said, I find the cultish devotion to his memory and the minute rehashing of gossip a bit tiresome these forty years after his death. Particularly nettlesome is the great delight that Fox cult members take in bashing E. Power Biggs. This penchant for ridicule cheapens the reputation of both men.

    There are today, as there were then, young organists of incredible talent, such as Cameron Carpenter, Isabelle Demers, and Nathan Laube. Perhaps it's time to turn our gaze away from the past toward the future.

    Allen 965
    Zuma Group Midi Keyboard Encoder
    Zuma Group DM Midi Stop Controller
    Hauptwerk 4.2


    • #4
      It's a tribute page. I'm surprised you don't like the idea, but I know he would.


      • #5
        Ah, the organ and music world is a strange one indeed. Sometimes the Bach and Baroque cults drive me nuts too. I hope to be judged as passionate about my tastes but not fanatical. During my college years the classical organ world did seem to be divided between Biggs and Fox. To avoid the conflict I took up the theater organ!

        Reading "The Dish" I was impressed with how often Fox would drive the local organ tuner/tech crazy, insisting that disconnected console controls be repaired, tremulants adjusted, etc. before he would play a program. As I have mentioned before, there is a long-winded diatribe from Cameron Carpenter on YT about having to play on instruments that have not been maintained properly. It only seems right that if you ask an artist to perform, you take the responsibility and steps to have the instrument ready and working.

        Having to play a program on an instrument that is not familiar to you with little prep time made available has to be the worst nightmare of concert organists. Seeing red dots on drawknobs or being given a list of what doesn't work would seem to be cause to cancel a performance but then again you would probably end up being labeled as a prima donna.

        P.S. That is one heckofa performance on the Sullivan show.
        Larry is my name; Allen is an organ brand. Allen RMWTHEA.3 with RMI Electra-Piano; Allen 423-C+Gyro; Britson Opus OEM38; Saville Series IV Opus 209; Steinway AR Duo-Art, Mills Violano Virtuoso with MIDI; Hammond 9812H with roll player; Gulbransen Rialto; Roland E-200; Mason&Hamlin AR Ampico piano, Allen ADC-5300-D with MIDI.


        • #6
          Glad you liked it, AA! Growing up in VF's and EPB's heyday I was barely aware of any conflict or rivalry. They were two schools of thought, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac as it were, but both ultra-great artists (IMHO) totally dedicated to the Cause.

          Don't miss the other VF Youtubes, gang. My eyes were glued to the TV as he played that Camera Three show live in 1969. Look how different media were then -- the host simply reads his thoughtful script off pages he's holding. I like!



          • #7
            Virgil Fox's arrangement of "Adeste Fidelis" reminds me of Charles Ive's "Variations on America." Thanks for sharing,

            I also remember the disagreements that people used to have about Fox and Biggs. I think they were each trying to reach different audiences. I appreciate both.

            My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk


            • #8
              My pleasure. We have at least 3 arrangements of the carol by the Virge including one on the Hark the Herald Angels LP. Two aptly quote material from Dethier's Christmas: Organ Piece for an Opening. Carlo Curley used to perform that impressive composition whole. I've also been reading Carlo's book, which is IMHO an absolute must for any organ lover. Anybody seen it? Nabbed a nice fresh copy cheap via organlibrary.org.

              Once when VF was trying out a friend's newly installed organ he got it up to full roar and said above the din "I want MORE. Isn't there anything MORE?" To which the incumbent (possibly Ted Alan Worth) said "well, I could add the chimes" :->


              • #9
                So I recently saw there was a book written by David F Snyder: “Virgil Fox: His Real Life.” Does anyone know where I may purchase this book? It seems extremely difficult to locate.


                • Victor Jules
                  Victor Jules commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Holy jump up and siddown, THAT sounds rich. It will be his desperate attempt to pass VF off as straight in the wake of 'Virgil Fox (The Dish)' -- which I'm reading for the 3rd or 4th time and all but crying over -- our civilization has lost so much since he left us. The only mention I can find of Snyder's book is (as I write, at least) the last item here:


                  "The Virgil Fox with whom I worked was in private a modest, quiet and shy man" -- ROFL!!! Try contacting him thru Facebook and report back if you care to.

                  Another little Fox glimpse for the collection: when he dedicated the Fanwood NJ Rodgers over two nights (which he designed and I grew up playing) my boyhood piano teacher took him in. The first night he judged the hot water too cool so she turned it up.

                  The second night she came in the front door from somewhere and he called down from the upstairs bathtub -- "Margarette! The water is DIVINE!"

                  Not much of a story, but we in our little one-square-mile town all loved it. Pour on the bigger better memoirs please, folks!
                  Last edited by Victor Jules; 04-07-2020, 11:06 PM.

              • #10
                Also, I saw “Virgil Fox: The Innermost Secrets” methods book. Is this one available any where?


                • #11
                  Great fun! I wish I had some detailed stories to add. A fine organist with Arkansas roots, Edward Linzel, was a minor protege of VF back in the day. Ed has been gone for quite a few years now, but I can remember him speaking of his friendship with Virgil with a sparkle in his eyes. I recall some story he once told me about drag racing their cars on the streets of NYC late at night, but I sure don't remember enough to tell it.
                  *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!



                  • #12
                    Thank you, jbird -- have never heard that one. 'Every little bit helps'! Another one comes to mind: Virgil and some friends are driving somewhere with theater organ person Ron V. (who hilariously told this to me) at the wheel. They're taking an exit ramp when suddenly Virgil says he HAS to have some ice cream from a shop further up the highway.
                    "We can't just back down the exit!" says Ron, but Virge is insistent. "Not gonna do it" comes the reply. They go back and forth and finally VF persuades him. Ron starts backing down the slope just when a police car pulls up and demands to see his license etc.
                    VF of course simply takes over charge: "Good evening, young man -- what are you doing out at this ungodly hour?" Introduces himself -- concert organist Virgil Fox. Chats the cop up, offers him a free record, just charms and impresses him into letting them off -- as only VF could :-B

                    That's what I remember of it, anyhoo. I guess it's a rare exit that's not paired with an on-ramp, but I believe they do exist.


                    • Organist2020
                      Organist2020 commented
                      Editing a comment
                      I’m assuming the cop let him off?

                  • #13
                    You bet!

                    I shall now relate my entire introduction to the great one. Y'all do too please!

                    Starting in fourth grade my first organ (and second piano) teacher was William S. Wrenn, then a graduate fresh from WCC. Fanwood Presby had an ordinary 2m Baldwin at the time. Bill was friend and pupil of VF and steeped me in the culture of real, vividly enjoyable, red-blooded music -- organ and otherwise. He and wife Mary had an apartment in the second floor of an big old house I had always worshiped before all this got rolling.
                    In their den was a Fisher stereo ensconced in bookshelves made of boards and cinder blocks, college dorm-style, and a ton of great records -- lots of them VF's. On the wall were framed photos of VF, Cochereau et al signed with warm wishes on the keyboards. A pair of headphones made it the perfect waiting room for us his piano students.
                    Presently news came forth that we were getting a great new organ -- an electronic by Rodgers. As noted elsewhere here, it had a large number of tone generators. Then the great Virgil Fox, who recorded two of my favorite LPs, was coming to dedicate it! Honestly I was terrified of him -- he had been built up so high, but always benignly.
                    Soon everybody in the town and the one that wrapped around it (Scotch Plains) knew of the great event. On the night of, they let us at first into the vestibule only -- the great man was practicing quietly up front. Extra anticipation!
                    The performance was simply enthralling, of course. I had no idea such an experience could exist on this earth. His speeches were stirring, funny, and always apt. You just had to love him!
                    First up was the Wedge. I didn't catch the fact that it was two pieces in one, and by the end of the Prelude I was ready to jump and applaud wildly. But then it continued and got even better -- and better -- and I was simply in some other world by the Fugue's mighty conclusion.
                    By some miracle the VF LP cut I loved the most was on the program -- his 'Londonderry Air', arranged by J. Stuart Archer. (Possibly because I begged Bill to ask him to play it? I'll never know.) Does anybody recall him ever playing it live elsewhere?
                    All I remember of the rest of the program was the Vierne Symphony #2. VF's buildup of the Scherzo was ultimate -- I thought I heard him say it was considered the greatest piece ever written for the organ, which then influenced my 13-year-old ears to think it WAS. It's still an all-time favorite I love performing.
                    The recital was two hours with intermission, the longest I'd ever experienced. But the time simply flew by, and afterward I managed to stammer to him something of my admiration. "Thank you!" he said, the very epitome of kindness and humility. "You're an organist?"

                    A year later he would come and perform again over two nights, introducing us to Pierné's wonderful Three Pieces among other things. (For half of the 1980s I played its beautiful Cantilène at about 50 weddings per year.) Having designed the Fanwood organ he would eventually record an album of Bach on it. This was done with zero fanfare. In high school, no longer an organ student, I learned of it through a fellow former Wrenn pupil -- Bill Gardner, who attended the masterclasses in Englewood. He, I and other friends would hear VF at many locations through the next few years.

                    In college I studied with Claire Coci, and would cross the street VF lived on in Englewood driving to her academy in Tenafly. Am still kicking myself for not trying a knock on the door of that mansion :-B
                    Last edited by Victor Jules; 04-17-2020, 09:43 AM.


                    • jbird604
                      jbird604 commented
                      Editing a comment
                      What amazing memories! You were surely fortunate to have so many connections with him.

                  • #14
                    Thanks for your comment! Another little nothingness comes to mind. Smart little me wrote down the 'Londonderry Air' arrangement from the record. Bill took it to show VF and reported the master was impressed :cool: Here are a few opinionated lines from the correspondence section of my 'Repertoire engineering' email zine #23 -- my stuff's in purple, others' in blue:

                    To: T, G, C, M et al
                    Morning, droogs! Eureka -- the arrangement of
                    Londonderry Air our beloved VFox recorded on his
                    Silhouettes LP is available:
                    Londonderry Air is usable in church if you can coordinate with one of the hymns set to it--
                    People are going to town with the Archer version in Youtube -- everything from Wanamaker's to Wersi! I used to throw it in anywhere, always to good (if surprised) response -- some nuns were delighted with it as funeral prelude in N Plfd.
                    Most treatments of the
                    Air I've ever heard show little understanding of its greatness. Honestly I could live without the 'Danny Boy' lyrics that have hijacked it for the past century. How'd it happen??
                    Am not very happy about the politics of the 'Londonderry' part either. Considering the chronology, surely Grainger's title
                    Irish Tune from County Derry is authentic. Grainger's setting must have taken a cue from JSA's, or vice versa
                    'Old Irish Air', non-dairy http://petruccilibrary.ca/files/imglnks/caimg/0/01/IMSLP389429-PMLP630138-Clokey_An_Old_Irish_Air.pdf

                    From: GWM
                    J.S. Archer was E.P. Biggs' teacher.
                    Marilyn Brennan sent me a photocopy of VF's own score of the 'Air', difficult to read as it was. I eventually found my own original copy in the choir loft of a local RC church, along with Preston Ware Orem's setting of
                    Songs My Mother Taught Me
                    by Dvorak, which was also on Silhouettes.

                    Sounds like a fellow fan preceded you!


                    • #15
                      In celebration of VF's and Dupré's shared birthday....


                      Sure, it's not the most precise performance or the highest fidelity, but it's VIRGIL AT RIVERSIDE..... I don't suppose anybody ever heard him mention the shared DOB? Did either titan even know of it? :-B