Keeping the Story Alive Guest Artist Interview with Barbara Owen Organist, Historian, Lecturer, Church Musician Jeannine: Barbara, would you kindly introduce yourself to our readers. Ms. Owen: I’m a church musician with a Mus.B. in Organ from Westminster Choir College and a historian with a Mus.M. in Musicology from Boston University, where I leaned toward a specialty in American music. I’m also of Welsh extraction, and there’s nothing the Welsh like better than singing hymns – or in my case, playing the organ to lead congregational singing, and directing choirs. For me, the history of music, especially church music, is a never-ending source of interest and fascination. There’s always something new and intriguing to learn. J: My first connection to Barbara Owen was as editor of “A Century of American Organ Music 1776-1876.” These four volumes of music became the impetus and direction for the research I did for my dissertation on early American organists. Published to commemorate the US Bicentennial, the music in these three volumes gave organists a glimpse into the music of their heritage. I found them fascinating.What was your research method for “discovering” or bringing this unique American organ music to light for the 20th-century audience? Is there a “story” or two you could share with us about your research for these collections? Ms. Owen: I’m honored to know that these collections have been useful to you in your excellent work! My initial interest was in early American choral music, and musicology gave me the tools to start looking into keyboard music, and particularly organ music. This was long before the internet, of course, where I can now dig into archives and periodicals just sitting here at my desk. But the Boston Public Library has a treasury of 18th and 19th century music scores, as do other libraries and archives in Salem, Worcester, and elsewhere. Interesting things even turned up in second-hand book stores, so I was working up a little collection of older American organ music, a lot of it hand-copied or photostat – Xerox hadn’t been invented either. It was E. Power Biggs who encouraged me to make some of this music publishable, and who put me in touch with Don McAfee, who had published some of his things – and was savvy about the opportunity afforded by the 1976 Bicentennial. Two more volumes followed the first, and even a fourth a little later, that went a bit beyond 1876. A lot of other American collections have come along since, edited by others, especially music by the composers of the second half of the 19th century, most of whom played and composed for the organ. So now there is quite a nice pool of well-edited 19th century American organ music to dip into. J: You are also the author of, among four other major works, the definitive source, The Organ in New England. At an amazing 649 pages, this is the only comprehensive discussion of the artistic supremacy of organ builders in America’s golden age.Please describe the importance of your work for not only organists, but organ enthusiasts and music-lovers worldwide. Ms. Owen: The genesis of the book was my 1961 Master’s thesis, at a time when American topics were not very popular as material for academic papers. But even after that was finished I kept accumulating more material on the subject as several years passed. As the bicentennial approached, American topics became of more interest in the academic community. Eventually it was suggested that I work it into a book, and thanks to some supportive colleagues I applied for and got an NEH grant that allowed me to take a few months off from my day job and write, write, write – on a portable typewriter, with the floor littered with crumpled paper, and a bottle of white-out handy. The grant also made more research possible, so I was poring over old newspapers and music magazines in libraries, and digging into church archives. A small publisher with an interest in organs took on the task of publishing it, and it finally came out in 1979. I was glad that I focused solely on New England, though, as it allowed me to do it in depth, and for the first time to attempt a completer picture of the extraordinary achievements of the highly skilled artisans who founded an American organ-building industry that eventually rivaled that of England and the Continent. Around the same time Orpha Ochse tackled the entire country in an excellent but more general survey, and others started writing about organ building in New York and other regions, so by now one can have a quite long bookshelf of studies related to organs and their builders in America. J: The Organ Historical Society is unique in its mission as it “celebrates, preserves, and studies the pipe organ in America in all its historic styles, through research, education, advocacy, and music.” To reiterate, the focus is exclusively on American pipe organs.As Past-President of this organization, why do you think the work of The Organ Historical Society is of such importance? And urgency? Would you please give some examples of the work done by the Society? Ms. Owen: The O.H.S. had its origin in a meeting in a church choir room of several friends concerned about the state of historic American organs, during the 1956 AGO National Convention in New York. And yes, there was a distinct sense of urgency, as we had all been witnessing the rebuilding or outright destruction of historic American organs. Hence the name. I was elected first president. Similar organizations already existed in European countries, so there was precedent. Our first effort was a mimeographed newsletter, named The Tracker since at the time most of those older organs had mechanical action, and also because we were intent on tracking them down and studying them; it is now an important journal. Soon it included listings of threatened organs available for relocation, which eventually became the independent Organ Clearing House, by means of which many “orphan” instruments have since found new homes. As membership grew, annual conventions were held in various locations, and these too helped to raise consciousness about the worth of historic organs. In Europe, historic organs are often given special citations, and so a program was instituted to cite American organs of especial cultural significance. Membership growth spurred more projects, one of the most substantial being a library and archive devoted to another kind of preservation, containing books relating to the history and construction of organs, periodicals, and archival material, some from defunct U.S. organ building firms. Next came the OHS Press, which has since issued many books dealing with facets of the organ in America. Then a scholarship program called the Biggs Fellowship was established specifically to allow younger people to attend the yearly conferences and become members. Some have since distinguished themselves as performers, teachers, or members of the organbuilding trade. So in various ways the O.H.S. and its members continue to have an important impact on the organ culture of America.
J: For many years you served as the Music Director at The First Religious Society in Newburyport, MA. Founded in 1635, this church, steeped in tradition, goes back to the earliest days of the American colonies.How was your work at this church influenced by American history? How did you and the staff strive to keep those American traditions alive? Ms. Owen: Actually, it was the First Church of Newbury that was founded in 1635; what became the First in Newburyport was originally the Third Church, founded 1725, when it was still a part of Newbury. There was a singing-school in the early days, and in 1794 it acquired the second organ in the area (the Episcopalians had the first), one of the earliest to be installed in a Puritan church (later to become Unitarian). It was moved to the present building in 1801, and replaced by a larger one in 1834, built locally by Joseph Alley, and since rebuilt. There are recorded instances of civic ceremonies (such as Washington’s birthday, and a memorial service for Lincoln) being held there, along with occasional concerts, throughout the 19th century. A choir or a quartet provided Sunday music, and in 1925 an annual musical candlelight Christmas service was begun. I became Music Director in 1963 and began building up the choir and eventually transforming the annual Christmas service into a well-attended community event with an augmented choir. My early interest in American choral music soon surfaced, adding to an eclectic choir library music by Billings and his contemporaries, folk hymns, Shaker hymns, and spirituals, and music by contemporary Americans. I eventually published a collection of Christmas music, the Candlelight Carol Book, about half of its contents being from American sources. Some special occasions called for American music, such as a service honoring Thomas W. Higginson, a 19th century pastor who was an Abolitionist and who led a Black squadron in the Civil War. He had recorded words of some of the spirituals they sang, and a little research revealed some of the tunes, which I arranged for the choir for that occasion. Although now retired since 2002, I am still a church member and a supporter of what continues to be an excellent music program, presently with three choirs and a concert series. J: I know you are involved in a variety of other projects. Would you please describe some of those? Ms. Owen: With regard to my publications, I wandered away from Americana for a time, as travels opened up new vistas in England and the Continent, resulting in books on Baroque organ registration and Brahms’s organ works, although monographs on music in King’s Chapel, Boston, and Trinity Church in New Haven appeared too. My latest book, on the “Great Organ” of Boston Music Hall (now in Methuen Music Hall) brought me back to an intriguing chapter of the American scene. Other organ music collections included some from England and Italy, but also an edition of Dudley Buck’s chorale preludes. Aside from my life-long career as a church musician, I recently worked for several years as a part-time music librarian, and some years ago was employed at the Fisk organ company, which provided me with a “post-graduate” course in how organs are designed and built. For several years now I have acted as a consultant to a number of churches and educational institutions with regard to both new organs and the restoration or rebuilding of older ones. And although now retired from a “regular” church position, I still occasionally substitute for other organists – something many other retirees enjoy doing. I continue to write, mostly articles, although I’m considering dipping a bit deeper into the 19th century Boston scene with something about its notable organist-composers of the “gilded age.” Back home to Americana.