In this episode of our Famous Organists series, Viscount Organs will dive into the tenaciously productive life of the American pipe organist, Virgil Fox
An Early Commitment To Music
Born in Princeton, Illinois on May 3, 1912, Virgil Fox was destined for greatness. Even in his early childhood, Fox was recognized as a virtuoso. Early on, he was taking music lessons, and by the age of ten, he was already playing the organ for a local church!
Four years later, Fox performed in his first solo recital for the pipe organ. Unlike most fourteen year olds, Fox’s debut recital was in front of an audience 2,500 people strong. At the event, he played Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor, a staple of pipe organ music from the 19th century.
A few years later when Virgil Fox was 17, he won Boston’s Biennial Contest of the National Federation of Music Clubs, being unanimously chosen by the judges. What’s more, Fox was the first organist to ever win the honor!
During these years, Fox was going to a normal high school, however he was able to study under Wilhelm Middleschulte, the (as it’s currently known) Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s organist.
An Established Organist
Upon graduation from high school in 1931, Fox entered the Peabody Conservatory on full scholarship. By this time, Fox was already performing recitals off-book (from memory), and he had achieved the highest grades in his class in 18 different examinations.
His performance at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore earned him the honor of being the first ever one-year graduate who had obtained an Artist’s Diploma, the pinnacle of achievement at the institution. He did this in 1932.
After a brief respite from the city of Baltimore, Fox returned in 1936, assuming two positions of importance as an organist. Firstly, he returned to Peabody Conservatory, however, this time he was a professor rather than a student. Additionally, he became the titulaire for Boston’s Brown Memorial Church.
Fox was also an organist of many firsts. In 1936, Virgil Fox became the first organist to ever be paid for an organ performance on the Kilgen Organ at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Furthermore, in 1938, Fox became the first American to perform J.S. Bach’s organ works in Leipzig at the famous Thomaskirche church. Prior to his performance, no non-German organist had ever played this famous organ.
He held these positions until the breakout of World War II, at which point he enlisted in the Army Air Force. During his time with the Air Force, he accomplished something truly remarkable. Between 1942 and 1945, Fox performed well over 600 recitals, all in an effort to raise money for the armed forces.
In 1946, Fox was discharged from his military service and was able to once again devote his professional life to the organ. Adding yet another remarkable feat to his resume, Fox performed a series of three sold out concerts at the Library of Congress, and over the course of these concerts, he performed an astounding 44 organ pieces off-book.
In the same year, Fox assumed two additional positions in the organ world. Firstly, he became a member of the American Guild of Organists, an organization dedicated to creating, building, and supporting the vibrant community of American organists. Secondly, he assumed the post of organist at the notorious Riverside Church in New York City, a post he held until 1965. He’s credited as being the influence that make the expansion of the Riverside Church’s amazing pipe organ possible.
By the time he had finished the organ’s expansion, it had become one of the largest pipe organs in all of North America! Another fun fact is that his organ playing was so revered that people would wait to meet him for hours on end after he’d finish playing in a service.
In 1962, Fox participated in the Lincoln Center’s inaugural concert of their Aeolian Skinner organ in New York City. A year later in 1963, Fox returned to the Aeolian Skinner organ to play the first solo concert ever done on the instrument, as well as to record the first audio recording of the Lincoln Center’s organ.
Continuing with this trend, in 1974, Fox played yet another concert inaugurating an the Rodgers Carnegie Hall organ, the only difference being that this time, he had helped in the designing of this particular organ.
A Hardcore Organist
One of his most notable achievements was his ‘Heavy Organ’ tour that took place during the 70’s. The whole idea of this pipe organ tour was that Fox performed works by J.S. Bach that were accompanied by a robust light show.
The ‘Heavy Organ’ shows took place around the world, and although they were criticized by fellow organists, they were of great importance. This is because during the time, rock music was incredibly popular, and the organ was being used to produce it from time to time.
This approach to organ music and performance allowed a whole demographic of people who weren’t necessarily acquainted with classical pipe organ music to be introduced to it. It made it possible to approach classical compositions in a different light, while simultaneously educating a new audience. He performed these ‘Heavy Organ’ shows for nine years, the last one taking place in 1979.
In 1977, Fox was able to celebrate an incredible, influential half-century of organ performance. For the celebration, he had two notable concerts, one where he performed The Bach Gamut at the Kennedy Center to a sold out audience, and the other in Tokyo, where he performed the Joseph Jongen Symphonie Concertante.
Unfortunately, Fox passed away from cancer on October 25, 1980 after a strenuous four year struggle with the disease. Amazingly, his last performance took place a month before his passing on September 26, 1980. Although he left the world too soon, he left behind an undeniable legacy of musical prowess and a commitment to organ music and the culture as a whole.
At Viscount Organs, we’re amazed daily by the feats accomplished by these incredible organists from history. In fact, we’re so impressed that we’ve taken it upon ourselves to attempt to continue their legacies and advance the world of organ music as a whole by creating the best organs being manufactured today. Interested in trying out one of our amazing organs for yourself? Give us a call today to learn more about what we do and what we offer!