Only one man in our lifetime ever created mass audiences for pipe organ music, and he was gay.
Virgil Fox did miraculous things, controversial but fabulous things with the pipe organ and with his life. He was a virtuoso, a genius, and as queer as a three-legged goose.
Pipe organs are the most complex musical instruments so far ever invented. They were perfected in the 18th century in Germany and then in France. Johann Sebastian Bach was the undisputed master, the greatest composer for the pipe organ who ever lived; and the music world is divided between those who think Virgil Fox was the greatest performer of Bach’s work and those think Fox was the most egregious desecrator of Bach’s masterpieces.
First some facts.
Virgil Fox was born in 1912 in Illinois, not far from where I was born. He was a church organist when he was ten, and played his first solo concert to an audience of 2500 at the age of 14. He began to record for RCA and Columbia in the 1930s, and after serving in the Army Air Force in World War II he was hired as organist at Riverside Church in New York City in 1946 where his lover and partner was choir director. Fox developed the Riverside Church pipe organ into one of the largest instruments in the world. In the 1950s people lined up two hours early to be assured a place to sit inside the church for services and concerts. Fox’s improvisations on hymns were phenomenal. His recordings of organ music made both him and Riverside Church world famous. But the music so overwhelmed other aspects of the church services that he was asked to resign in 1965. His very public conflict with the choir director and their break-up may or may not have had anything to do with his leaving the church for a concert career. All of this was when being out, gay and a church musician were supposed to be incompatible. As a concert performer Fox played to large audiences. His flamboyant style, his glittering shoes and colorful jackets, and his embellishments of classical works of music earned him critical scorn and large audiences. He was routinely compared to Liberace, with whom he was a good friend. At the time, Fox, Liberace and Leonard Bernstein were the best known gay musicians in the world … before Elton John and Prince. But like his gay successors Fox played for younger audiences and brought classical music to them in a time it was thought to be impossible. He toured the USA from coast to coast with a massive Rodgers electronic organ he called “Black Beauty”. Some of his concerts featured light shows and smoke – when all the color of Woodstock music was provided by shirts and skin, a decade or more before rock concerts dared such extravagance as Fox’s concerts. His success enabled him to buy a 26 room mansion into which he moved with a new young lover, further scandalizing conservators of social values, as patrons of classical music tend to think of themselves. Fox continued his concert career and his celebrity status even after contracting pancreatic cancer. He died in 1980 and is buried in Illinois, not far from where I was born.
Before reading further, I suggest you watch this YouTube clip of Fox at his controversial best “dancing” and encouraging his audience to dance to Bach’s “Gigue Fugue”. The picture quality is not good, but you can see how Fox thought relating to his audience was more important than the music itself. That was outrageous to many, but there was far worse, and it had nothing to do with his personal life, his lifestyle or his gender orientation. The fact that it did not, indeed, is remarkable. If you enjoyed the dance, click here to listen to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major. All his critics admired his ability to instantly play more than 250 pieces of music from memory.
The unprecedented offense that Fox committed was to depart from the norm with the music. For a century the musical world had been trained to respect the importance of maintaining the authenticity of the music. Great effort was made to recreate the sound of Baroque music, like Bach’s, as closely as possible to the way the original audiences had heard it. Fox broke all the rules. He rehearsed his concerts at double speed, and played pieces faster than any other organist dared, or was able. Critics sniped that Fox also was unable to play as fast as he did. “His left hand lacked accuracy” critics thought. “He’s showing off at the expense of the music.” There was an obvious element of showmanship in Fox’s playing, both in church and out. Performers were expected to wear black ties and tails. When Fox did, the lapels were velvet and he came with a cape lined in scarlet. For the most part he preferred psychedelic colors and collars and cuffs of lace, which “distracted from the music”. Classical music concerts are traditionally solemn affairs where the audience is to be extremely quiet and even applause is scripted. Listeners are to appreciate the music and how well it is performed as opposed to how fabulous the performer is. In order to reach his young audiences Fox did not apologize for classical music or pander to them, but he played for them. Never did he popularize for the sake of being popular himself. But he adapted and contextualized. He was hopelessly sentimental when he played romantic pieces by Mendelssohn or the French composers of the 19th century. A Bach organist is not supposed to do that. And most of all a performer is not supposed to tell audiences what they are to like about a piece of music, which Fox loved to do. “Listen to how I spell out B A C H with my feet,” he’d instruct them, drawing attention to the rhinestones wrapped around the heels on his slippers. Critics hated that.
The name Virgil Fox has not survived in popular culture into the 21st century. He died 35 years ago this coming October 25. But his concerts and albums have been digitally re-mastered and are still selling well. He is the only performer (as opposed to composer) whose works are still often featured in concerts in his memory. No person coming into prominence as an organist fails to kneel to the legacy of Virgil Fox.
What’s more he is a gay hero, a model for being out and honest, and a model for taking ones talent and going as far as possible with it.
There’s no reason I chose to write about Virgil Fox right now except that a new organist has appeared on Facebook several times recently. Cameron Carpenter ("Neo Organ Boy") reminds me of Virgil Fox in terms of talent, eccentricity and self-assuredness, and he is on Wikipedia’s listing of “Bi-sexual people A-F” a few names below Caligula, so he’s one of us. That’s why. I encourage you to watch this 6-minute video about the sensation that Carpenter has generated from his genius maneuvering of the pipe organ.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.