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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Virgil Fox in Recital

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A few weeks ago, we showcased some works performed by British born American-based organist E. Power Biggs. Among Biggs’ rivals was concert organist Virgil Fox, who was known for a more flamboyant "Heavy Organ" style of performance. Fox decried Biggs' insistence on historical accuracy, claiming that it was "relegating the organ to a museum piece".

According to the Virgil Fox Legacy website, Fox was born in Princeton, Illinois, on May 3, 1912. He was a child prodigy, playing the organ for church services at the age of ten, his first major organ recital in Cincinnati at 14, unanimous winner of the Biennial Contest of the National Federation of Music Clubs in Boston at 17 (the first organist ever chosen).

While still in High School, he studied privately for three years with Wilhelm Middelschulte, who was the resident organist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1931, he enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, graduating after just one year with the highest grades in his class, and becoming the first one-year student in the history of the Peabody to graduate with its highest honor—the Artist's Diploma.

In his long and brilliant career, Virgil Fox gave recitals on practically every important organ in the world, playing recitals at Westminster, Durham, and Lincoln Cathedrals; King's College, Cambridge; Nôtre Dame and Ste. Clotilde, Paris; and the Marienkirche, Lübeck. He was the first non-German artist to perform the works of J. S. Bach at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Among his most distinguished appointments, Fox served as organist at the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, from 1946 to 1965. Under his direction, the organ was expanded to become one of the largest in the world. His extemporaneous hymn accompaniments at Riverside's Sunday services and concert performances were widely acclaimed. In 1965, Fox resigned to devote himself to performing full-time - at least, that's the "official" line. Fox was also aptly known as "the Liberace iof the organ", not only for his flamboyance, but also for his openly gay lifestyle. His lover was the long-time Choir Director at the Chruch, and the combination of Fox's bigger-than-life persona and their breakup is really at the root of his departure.

Today’s PTB takes us back to a one-time Fox “Return to Riverside” concert May 6, 1979 (his final major solo appearance before his death in 1980). As Craig Whitney relates in his book, "All The Stops," Fox's departure in unfriemndly terms may explain why the Church's Recital Committee (in what may well have been a final retaliatory slap in Virgil's face) adamantly refused to allow a proper professional stereo recording crew and equipment to come in to record the concert.

Having to "make do" with the microphones and other sound equipment that the Church already had in place, this recording is in mono rather than stereo. It should also be pointed out that, according to Fox’s manager, on this occasion Virgil was playing with no less than 3 broken fingers, a broken wrist, and several broken ribs--all the result of the bone cancer that was almost literally eating its way through every bone in his body! For him to play anywhere near as well as he did in this performance is a testament to Virgil's supreme artistry and dedication!!

Virgil Fox's final performance took place on September 26, 1980, at the opening concert of the Dallas Symphony's season. His life, which ended on October 25, 1980, following a four-year fight with cancer, was one of courage, innovation, and dedication.

April 11, 2014, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "Verdi’s Requiem" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel .Read more April 11 on our blogs in English and in French.