Music History

Organists Past and Present

History, as recorded in Marguerite Johnston’s A Happy Worldly Abode, is silent on the subject of who, “with well-attempered mind and hand,” played the melodeon in the first Christ Church building to stand at the intersection of Texas and Fannin. The first church musician to appear in the record is Keziah Payne, who, around 1858, was hired as organist by the fourth rector of Christ Church, the Rev. W. T. D. Dalzell, after he had raised money among the parishioners to replace the melodeon with an organ. Miss Payne, who late in life would found the DePelchin Faith Home, possibly made it into the annals because she was the first musician to get paid. She was hired “for such amounts as might be received at collections to be taken in church on the third Sunday evening of each month.” Needless to say, she had another job as well—teaching school.

H. E. Vaas, organist in the mid-1860s, fared somewhat better. He was paid $15 in gold each month.

In three periods of Christ Church’s history, the organist or choir director might be wearing a clerical collar. The first minister to double in brass, as it were, was the Rev. Julyan Clemens, a High Churchman from England who served as rector from 1874 to 1885. A talented musician, he saw to it that a new organ costing $2500 was installed in 1875, and he frequently played it and led hymns during services. Early on, he acquired a young Englishman as organist, James Bray, but was sorrowfully required to enter Mr. Bray’s name in the parish burial records on October 4, 1876. The cause of death, according to the rector’s notes, was “Congestion.” (A memorial tablet to Jamie Bray, which was brought over from the 1869 church in 1893, is mounted near the present organ console.) Easter the following year was a happier day: Mr. Clemens jubilantly wrote in his notebook that “for the 1st time in Texas the Easter music was rendered by a Male Choir!”

Another Englishman, Willie Brattan, came to be organist and choirmaster, and when he returned to England in 1883, George C. Collins served for a year.

The second clergyman to take a direct hand in the church’s music was The Rev. Charles M. Beckwith, rector from 1886 to 1892. He organized a men’s and boys’ choir, and by 1888 the church had a surpliced choir of approximately forty singers and instrumentalists. Mr. Beckwith taught the boys to play wind instruments or the violin—against the day when their voices changed—and on Sunday afternoons in Lent, waving his clarinet like a baton, he would teach the boys Easter carols.

Around the time the third church was built (1893), women were singing in the choir. Caroline Fraser, originally from Canada, trained the choir boys and filled the post of organist for thirteen years; her monthly salary was $62.50. During this period there were at least two choirmasters: Anton Diehl and Fred F. Dexter.

And beginning in 1906 or thereabouts, Horton Corbett served as organist and choir director under The Rev. Peter Gray Sears for twenty years. In 1920 the vestry allowed Mr. Corbett $1,800 a year for paid singers, and in 1921, in order to keep him from going to another church, they raised his salary to $1,620 a year. (It was evidently a period when churches in the city were jostling for the best musicians. In 1928 or so, the vestry raised the tenor’s salary $5 a month to counter an offer from Palmer Memorial.) A misunderstanding ended the good relationship between rector and organist, and in 1926 Mr. Corbett resigned.

George Crampton, a prominent voice teacher in the city, then served as choirmaster, and Lora Nelson was the organist. Miss Nelson was followed in the early thirties by Harry Girard.

When The Rev. James Pernette DeWolfe came to Christ Church as rector in 1934, he brought in as his assistant The Rev. George W. Barnes, an outstanding musician and trainer of boys’ voices. Mr. Barnes served as organist until 1937, when he accepted a call from St. Thomas Church in Denver. During his time in Houston, he led the formation of an Episcopal Choral Union in which all choirs in the county were invited to join.

After much research and letter writing, Dr. DeWolfe chose Edward B. Gammons, then organist and choirmaster of St. Stephen’s Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, to be the new organist. A graduate of Harvard with a degree in music and the fine arts, Ned Gammons was also highly knowledgeable on the subject of organ building—and Dr. DeWolfe was aware that Christ Church needed a new organ. Mr. Gammons got to put his knowledge to use—a fire destroyed the church’s sanctuary and old organ in 1938, and he designed the Edwin Robinson Spotts memorial pipe organ, the Aeolian-Skinner instrument presently in use. It was dedicated the following year during Christ Church’s centennial celebration. The anthem written by Everett Titcomb for the celebration service is dedicated to Edward Gammons.

The distinguished organ builder G. Donald Harrison had this to say about Christ Church’s new organ in a letter to his friend William King Covell dated April 5, 1939:

Ned Gammons’ organ really turned out very well considering the awful acoustics of the church and the presence of a very heavy wood screen which imparted a kind of Harvard Chapel effect [i.e., the organ sounded good in the chancel but was difficult to hear from the nave]. Ned, however, has done a splendid job in obtaining a really fine chamber with adequate openings, and this saved the day. The most encouraging thing is the way the people of the South have reacted to the organ. Everybody is crazy about it, and people come from far and wide to hear it. After all, they have heard nothing down there but Pilchers and Wicks, and other instruments of similar type. (Charles Callahan, The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters , 179).

In 1940 Dr. DeWolfe went to New York to become the dean of St. John the Divine, and the next year the Rev. John E. Hines became rector; Mr. Gammons resigned to take a position at Groton School.

Arthur W. Howes was the next organist, serving until 1943. He would later become the organ professor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Before his successor, David Stanley Alkins, arrived from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Mrs. Albert P. Jones, a member of the congregation, played the organ, and Peter A. Leach served as choirmaster. David Alkins was the organist for the consecration of John Hines as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Texas on October 18, 1945.

The Rev. Hamilton H. Kellogg took over the pulpit of Christ Church and brought Arthur E. Hall from Connecticut to become the new organist. In 1949 Christ Church was consecrated as the cathedral church the diocese. Three years later, Dean Kellogg was elected bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Minnesota, and the Cathedral called the Rev. J. Milton Richardson from St. Luke’s Church, Atlanta, to be its second dean. Arthur Hall went to Rice University to form a music department, and in 1953 Jack Ossewaarde came from Calvary Church, New York, to be organist and choirmaster.

One of the Episcopal Church’s outstanding musicians—he had been one of twelve invited to Washington Cathedral to discuss the formation of a College of Church Musicians—Jack Ossewaarde quickly instituted an ambitious music program. He began a series of choral evensongs, there were performances of Bach cantatas and other major works of sacred music, and in 1956 he founded the Diocesan Choral Festival. Jack left in 1958 to accept the post of organist–choirmaster at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, and for his successor Dean Richardson chose William N. Barnard.

A native of North Carolina, Bill earned his bachelor and master of music degrees at the University of Michigan and had studied at the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary and also Anglican chant and plainsong at General Theological Seminary. For the ten years before coming to Houston, he was organist and choirmaster of Christ Church, Short Hills, New Jersey.

In Houston Bill continued the ambitious church music program begun by Jack. He strove to bring major works from the concert choral-orchestral literature to the public. During the years of 1966-82, he conducted fifteen Whitsuntide Concerts, performing concert masses and oratorios by such masters as Gounod, Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, and Kodaly with the Cathedral Choral Society and members of the Houston Symphony.

Mary Ellen Bond was the summer organist and choir director at the Cathedral for almost twenty years, until her death in 1970. She was also the accompanist in many of Bill’s special music programs during this period.

In 1978 Bill had the great good fortune to have Dr. Clyde Holloway join him on the Cathedral’s music staff. A member of the music faculties of both Rice University and Houston Baptist University, and known nationally through his recital tours, Clyde was far from being an “assistant” organist. The collaboration proved to be a productive one for both of them and the Cathedral.

Bill and the Cathedral choir produced a recording of favorite anthems in 1980. Entitled Lift Up Your Voice, the recording was made in the Cathedral nave, with Bill directing from the pulpit; Clyde was the organist.

In the spring of 1984 Bill developed neurological problems, and the diagnosis ultimately was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The initial progression of the disease was so rapid that he never resumed his duties as organist and choirmaster. Clyde assumed active direction of the music program.

On Sunday, October 21, 1984, Bishop Benitez presented to Bill a resolution honoring his twenty-six years of service to “this congregation and the congregations of the diocese” by naming him a lay canon of Christ Church Cathedral. He was the first lay canon in the history of the Cathedral and the Diocese of Texas.

On January 1 in the new year, Bill officially retired as choirmaster and organist, and Dean Pittman McGehee appointed Clyde Holloway, then professor of music and chairman of the keyboard department at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, to the position. On October 8 Canon William Barnard died at his home. At the memorial Eucharist two days later, it was standing room only, a testament to the high regard for Bill in the musical community as well as at the Cathedral. The William N. Barnard Memorial antiphonal organ, mounted at the rear of the nave over the entry from the bell porch, was dedicated in his honor on September 22, 1991.

Clyde Holloway, Bill’s successor, had come to Houston in 1977 from Indiana University, where he had been professor of music for twelve years, to join the faculty of Houston Baptist University as professor of music and artist in residence, and as artist teacher of organ at Rice University. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, he subsequently was granted a Fulbright scholarship for studies with Gustav Leonhardt in the Netherlands. In 1974 he received the doctor of sacred music degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York. The subject of his dissertation was the organ works of Olivier Messiaen, and they form a notable part of his repertoire. While a doctoral candidate, Clyde studied organ with Robert Baker and was the full-time assistant organist under Jack Ossewaarde at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Among the honors he won as a student was the National Playing Competition of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) in 1964.

Bruce Power joined the Cathedral’s music staff as assistant organist on March 3, 1985, after accompanying the 1984 Diocesan Choral Festival and the Christmas Eve service that year. A graduate of Centenary College of Louisiana, he earned his master of music degree at the Shepherd School of Rice University. His organ teachers have included James Herrin, William Teague, and Ronald Dean of Shreveport and Clyde Holloway. He has been a regional finalist in the American Guild of Organists competition and a national finalist in the Music Teachers National Association competition.

Ably supported by Bruce, and assisted by Micki Simms (1985-1990), Clyde continued Bill’s notable music program until June of 1993, when he decided to retire, saying he was ready to have only one full-time job, that of professor of organ at Rice. Before his departure, Bishop Benitez named him an honorary lay canon and organist-choirmaster emeritus of the Cathedral. Bruce took his leave of the Cathedral two months later.

On August of 1993, Dean Walter Taylor called Robert Simpson to be Clyde’s successor as organist-choirmaster. Bob had held that position first at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Orlando, Florida, and then at St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. Following graduation with honors from Brown University and the School of Sacred Music, Union Theological Seminary, he studied with Michael Schneider, Hugo Ruf, and Peter Neumann at the Cologne Conservatory of Music. He has held teaching posts as adjunct professor of organ at Georgia State University and senior teaching fellow in choral music at the University of Texas, Austin, and is now an adjunct lecturer in church music at the Shepherd School, Rice University. His choirs have sung in Europe and Mexico, and performed at national and regional conventions of the American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, and the American Guild of Organists. He is founder and music director of the Houston Chamber Choir.

At the Cathedral, Bob instituted a tradition of solemn evensongs sung at notable points in the church year and the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols, started the Parish Choir in 1997 to sing at the nine o’clock service on Sundays, and helped form two children’s choirs, the St. Francis Choir and the Cathedral Choristers.

He has led the Cathedral Choir on four European tours: the first to Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague in 1997; the second to England in 2000, when the choir sang at Ely and Wells Cathedrals and Sherburne Abbey, among other churches; the third in 2003, again to England, when the choir was in residence for a week at Norwich Cathedral, singing evensongs daily, and in addition sang two evensongs at Westminster Abbey; and the most recent one, in 2006, also to England, when the choir sang evensongs at Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey. Following the first trip to England, the Cathedral’s music department issued a CD of music recorded live on the tour; it was entitled Amid These Ancient Stones. The choir has also released a Christmas CD. The Cathedral Choir has also sung at the National Cathedral in Washington and at conventions of the American Choral Directors Association.

Randy Elkins served as assistant organist at the Cathedral from 1993 to 1995. Bob had taught him as a high school student in Atlanta; Randy later attended Indiana University, studying with Marilyn Keiser. He was followed in 1995 by Gary Smith, assistant dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University; Gary had studied organ performance with Clyde Holloway at Indiana University. After five years of service, Gary, who had served as an organist for churches since the age of twelve, decided to “retire his organ shoes,” but has remained active in the music program as a bass in the Cathedral Choir. At that point, in 1999, Bruce Power returned to the Cathedral to reassume the position of assistant organist; in 2001 this gifted and highly regarded musician was appointed associate organist-choirmaster. Most recently, Bruce has been accompanist for Houston Grand Opera’s Opera to Go, and Houston Chamber Choir.

In short, the music of the Cathedral continues to be played and directed by “well-attempered” minds and hands that make “the mortal clay to glow and separate spirits understand.” It’s a grand tradition.

— Mary Gilbert Sieber