Gilded Age Organ Riches from long A. G. O. and Last Week

God looks down on the Murray Harris organ in Memorial Church, Stanford University. Photo: David Yearsley.

From last Sunday evening through yesterday afternoon, some 2,000 organists have been shuttling around the San Francisco Bay Area for a program of lectures, workshops, and concerts. This installment of the bi-annual convention of the American Guild of Organists (A. G. O.) concluded with a Fourth of July solo recital by the American organist and scholar, Kimberly Marshall at Stanford University’s Memorial Church. This cavernous basilica was built in honor not of Jane Stanford’s doomed son, Leland Jr., for whom the university is named, but of her late husband, Leland Sr. The church’s neo-byzantine style is a fitting architectural representation of the Byzantine schemes that Stanford used to enrich himself before rebranding himself as a philanthropist.

Merchant to the Gold Rush—selling pickaxes was far more lucrative than using them—and railroad magnate, Stanford was an early Governor of California and a U.S. Senator, side hustles to the title that best defines him: Robber Baron. Through bribes, influence pedaling, kickbacks, duplicitous stock deals and monopolistic practices, Stanford built the fortune that would build Stanford University. His numerous dirty schemes are detailed in his incriminating correspondence: the complexities of these machinations and malfeasances were beyond Stanford’s mental grasp and he needed ample explanation and re-explanation.

Built on Gilded Age lucre, Memorial Church glows like the stuff of the Gold Rush, the structure’s richly mosaiced walls and niches glorious in the Californian light filtering through the stained-glass tributes to the Old Master paintings that the Stanfords had admired in Europe. Jesus, the Word-spreading Apostles, and the Old Testament prophets are all nearly as white as the sheets that conveniently cover up offending body parts. There were people of color living in what is now California when these saints were busy proselytizing and getting martyred, but these first inhabitants are nowhere pictured in the Stanford church. Just six days before a group of American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Spanish Franciscan priest Junipero Serra founded the mission in San Francisco.

In the hours before the A.G.O. convention officially kicked off, fugitive sonorities resisting these erasures were heard in the National Young Artist’s organ playing competition held at a church on the southeast edge of San Francisco with a view of the Pacific Ocean beyond avenues of modest bungalows. Each of the five contestants who made it through to the final round was required to play Navajo pianist/composer Connor Chee’s Hózhó. For many, bombast is the default setting of the organ, but Chee’s ruminative, sincere piece did not bow down to the King of Instruments, a symbol of conquest from sea to shining sea. Instead, Chee’s native melodies and calm, cyclical harmonies asked all to reflect on beauty and balance, rare commodities in the high-tech rat race run every day in this region and beyond its ever-expanding boundaries.

To many it might seem a daunting prospect to play for pews jam-packed with organists, among them the leaders in the profession. But Kimberly Marshall’s generosity to that profession is boundless. Over her impressive career, Marshall has guided scores of students, first as University Organist at Stanford the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and for some three decades as Professor of Organ at Arizona State. She plays widely varied programs on organs ancient and modern around the world; has served as a consultant on important construction projects; has commissioned and performed new works; been a forceful voice for women at an instrument dominated for centuries by men. A wide-ranging scholar, first of the medieval organ but stretching far beyond it, her most ambitious project has been an Organ Encyclopedia, a massive, decade-long undertaking that will launch online under her aegis.

Marshall’s organ concert was a kind of homecoming for her, since Stanford was where she launched her academic career in the 1980s. Her imaginatively conceived, intellectually convincing recitals are never academic.

The wealth accrued from Stanford’s nineteenth-century misdeeds has yielded no fewer than five organs in Memorial Church. Strolling around this sanctuary-cum-organ showroom one could draw the conclusion that big crimes make for good organs—or at least lots of them. There is a reconstruction of a Tudor organ that recalls the sound world from the time of Henry VIII, mass-murderer of wives. Next to to it a somewhat larger, more sumptuously decorated organ of the next century (the seventeenth), modeled on an instrument in the collection of the Dukes of Braunschweig. These princes and their armies accumulated a big body count on the battlefield and they had more than a little experience with revenge, murder and self-enrichment.

These fascinating organs remained silent on the Fourth. Marshall instead played the two biggest and therefore most expensive instruments in the spacious east end gallery. The church’s original organ from 1901 by the American builder Murray Harris survived, if with damage, the 1906 earthquake. It is divided on either side of the balcony and the central rose window. The massive Romanesque tower came down and blew out that window and the back wall but mostly missed the organ. Above and between these original stands of pipes is a separate baroque-style instrument from 1984, the last project of the pathbreaking American builder, Charles Fisk, who died the year before its completion. Along with its older neighbor of 1901, this organ survived the next great earthquake of 1989. It covers the rose window, probably to the disapproval of some of those Mosaic Saints now obscured in shadow rather than shining in the morning sun.

Marshall began on the early twentieth-century organ. It was a ninety-degree 4th of July but there were no Variations on America or kindred national anthems, though Marshall’s opener, Paraphrase on Handel’s “See the Conquering hero comes!” by the famed French organist Alexandre Guilmant, had the militaristic ring of Manifest Destiny. The Murray Harris is an instrument not as brilliant as its baroque counterpart higher in the gallery. Instead, it has a dark, complex power. Guilmant composed his Paraphrase on Handel’s famous theme within a few years of the completion of this first of Stanford’s organs, and it was uncannily thrilling, even unsettling, to hear these historical synchronicities ring out in the sweltering, golden church. Guilmant must have played the Paraphrase on one of his many concerts at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis. Thus, the Frenchman wrote himself into the enduring legacy of European conquest.

Thursday’s heat, increased by the thousands down in the church, rose mercilessly up to the organ loft, yet Marshall marched resolutely, rousingly through Guilmant’s impressive fugue on Handel’s swashbuckling theme. To Marshall’s right as she played from the Murray Harris console with her back to the audience below, rose God in mosaic form, his hand raised as if conducting the music and/or blessing the progress of his Christian people across the globe.

From the flash and clamor of victory, Marshall artfully and wisely turned to African-American composer William Grant Still’s Elegy with which she explored the organ’s muted orchestral colors. I tried to hear the prayerful repose as an Elegy for the kind of bombast just heard, that is, as an end to war. But everyone in that church knew that bombs were falling around the world.

A world premiere followed: Gather by Errollyn Wallen, commissioned for the convention. Marshall was an imaginative and sensitive guide through this sometimes fragmented survey of organ textures.

Marshall then climbed the stairs to the highest seat in the church, the bench at the baroque-style organ. From this lofty perch, she played a set of five more works ranging from the early sixteenth century to the early eighteenth. The Fisk organ’s individual stops are more distinct from one another and more penetrating than the more numerous registers available on the Murray Harris. Yet on the Fisk, a single flute stop reaches the most distant corner of the church and the listener’s imagination with undiminished expressivity and bloom. In the Guilmant, Marshall had demonstrated that the Murray Harris can deliver a compelling polyphonic oration, but the Fisk injects a clarity, texture and lift into the music, from Dieterich Buxtehude’s storm-tossed explorations of the Magnificat, through the early Modern Minimalist of an Anonymous English vamp “Uppon la mi re,” to the famed blind organist Arnolt Schlick’s sharply faceted, but sweet Maria zart. Nasal reed stops introduced a pompous, if pithy elaboration of a theme that would later be taken up by J. S. Bach in the epic Passacaglia in C minor with which Marshall concluded her concert.

In contrast to the cyclical bass pattern of pieces heard previously on the second of Marshall’s program, Bach begins his theme alone in the pedal, as if confronting the player and listener with the ineluctable fact of the bass line. Bach then develops this motive in the most diverse ways: kaleidoscopic figurations; textures shifting from thick to gossamer and manifold gradations between these extremes; migrations of the theme from the bass to other voices; contrapuntal dialogues between the parts; unexpected harmonic inflections.

With a bracing combination of finesse and flamboyance Marshall imparted the relentless narrative with momentum and coherence, even while she welcomed the gathering majesty, even menace, of the behemoth Passacaglia.

After nearly ten minutes of elaboration over the cycles of the bass line, Bach seems to be piloting the variations into port. But after what appears to be the final culminating cadence a demonic fugue breaks out. The bass line itself then bursts its shackles and revolts against the genre itself. With the fugue that follows without a break on the passacaglia, Bach explodes the tradition he had received. The outbreak of fugal insurrection is as frightening as it is exhilarating.

But with Bach demolition is often a primary mode of construction: the resulting edifice formed before our eyes from the falling boulders of the past is nothing short of miraculous. I was studying at Stanford with Professor Marshall during the 1989 earthquake that closed Memorial Church for five years, and I felt myself reflexively ducking for cover.

On this Fourth of July, the church’s foundation did not tremble, but there were sonic fireworks reflected in gold and light.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at