Virgil Keel Fox (May 3, 1912 in Princeton, Illinois – October 25, 1980 in Palm Beach, Florida) was an American organist, known especially for his flamboyant "Heavy Organ" concerts of the music of Bach. These events appealed to audiences in the 1970s who were more familiar with rock 'n' roll music and were staged complete with light shows. His many recordings made on the RCA Victor and Capitol labels, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, have been remastered and re-released on compact disc in recent years. They continue to be widely available in mainstream music stores.
Birth and studies
Virgil Fox was born in Princeton, Illinois to Miles and Birdie Fox, showing musical talent at an early age. He began playing the organ for church services at the age of ten, and four years later made his concert debut before an audience of 2500 at Withrow High School, Cincinnati. The program included one of the mainstays of 19th-century organ music: Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 1 in F minor.
From 1926 to 1930, he studied in Chicago under German-born organist-composer Wilhelm Middelschulte. His other principal teachers were Hugh Price, Louis Robert, and (once he had moved to France) Marcel Dupré. He was an alumnus of the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, where he became the first student to complete the course for the Artist's Diploma within a year. He was also a student of Louis Vierne.
Beginning in 1936, Fox was organist at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore while teaching at Peabody. During August and September, 1938, he played in Great Britain and Germany; Fox was the first non-German organist given permission to perform publicly in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig—a special occasion, since Bach served as cantor of the Thomaskirche until his death in 1750. Bach was reburied in that church in 1950.
During World War II, Fox enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and took a leave of absence from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and the Peabody. He was promoted to staff sergeant and played various recitals and services at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt. He served on her Home Hospitality Committee and entertained returning troops who were in Walter Reed Hospital, by playing a piano he pushed around, and joining in with two others. They sang funny and rather raunchy songs to the bedridden. After having played more than 600 concerts while on duty, plus his obligations to H.H.C, he was discharged from the Army Air Forces in 1946.
Fox then served as organist at the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, from 1946 to 1965. The organ was built for him by famed organ builder G. Donald Harrison, Master Builder of the Mormon Tabernacle organ plus others. Under his direction, the Riverside organ was expanded to become one of the largest in North America. His extemporaneous hymn accompaniments at Riverside's Sunday services and concert performances were widely acclaimed, and fans would wait after church services for hours to meet him. Recordings made during this period brought his playing to larger audiences. Among his recordings, some of which are now overlooked, the Transcriptions he improvised upon: Songs at Sunset, Vale of Dreams, Silhouettes. In 1965, Fox retired from the church to devote himself to performing full-time.
From 1971 until 1978, Fox performed his famous "Heavy Organ" concerts in auditoriums, popular music concert halls, and other nontraditional organ music venues, touring around the United States with a rented electronic Rodgers Touring Organ. Later on he used his own instrument, a massive four-manual, custom-designed Allen Organ (1977–1980). Heavy Organ was a concept devised and developed by Fox's long-time managers Richard Torrence and Marshall Yaeger, with Yaeger as the originator of the idea. The Heavy Organ concerts would exclusively feature works of Johann Sebastian Bach and would use a large-scale light show that would be precisely coordinated with the music, thereby bringing together aural and visual elements. Torrence and Yaeger, through their marketing savvy and release of best-selling recordings of live Heavy Organ performances, made Heavy Organ a household name in classical music. It also earned Fox well over a million dollars in performance fees.
Fox was one of the rare organists to perform on nationally televised entertainment programs in the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Mike Douglas Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and CBS Camera Three, bringing organ masterworks to mass audiences as no other organist had done before. His last commercially-released recording, though unauthorized, was made at his return (by popular demand) to Riverside Church in concert on May 6, 1979. Fox's 50th year of performing began when he appeared with the Dallas Symphony in September 1980, in what was to be his final public performance. Racked with pain from terminal prostate cancer, for which he had undergone unsuccessful treatment in 1976, Fox completed only one of the two concerts, returning to Florida to be hospitalized near home. On October 25, he died in Palm Beach, Florida and lay in state in Casa Lagomar, in which his funeral was conducted by his partner, David Snyder. A later funeral was held at Crystal Cathedral in California.
Always Fox stressed pushing the limits of the instruments available to him, rather than requiring that they, or his playing, be authentic to the era of the music. His style (particularly his taste for fast tempos, intricate registrations, and a willingness to indulge in sentimentality) was in contrast to that of his contemporaries, such as E. Power Biggs.
Fox was also famous for his musical memory, and could instantly recall over 250 concert works, playing at double speed or faster in rehearsals (which usually went late into the night). He played all concerts from memory and very rarely read from written scores even when playing alongside an orchestra.
Many organists, however, have strongly criticized Fox for his unconventional interpretations of classical organ music. On his album Heavy Organ: Bach Live at Winterland, Fox defended his approach to Bach and organ music in general, in the introduction to the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Virgil always spoke to his audiences about Bach's reason for his compositions being his belief in Jesus and everlasting life whenever he performed his music.
There is current in our land (and several European countries) at this moment a kind of nitpicking worship of historic impotence. They say that Bach must not be interpreted and that he must have no emotion, that his notes speak for themselves. You want to know what that is? Pure unadulterated rot! Bach has the red blood. He has the communion with the people. He has all of this amazing spirit. And imagine that you could put all the music on one side of the agenda with his great interpretation and great feeling and put the greatest man of all right up on top of a dusty shelf underneath some glass case in a museum and say that he must not be interpreted! They're full of you-know-what and they're so untalented that they have to hide behind this thing because they couldn't get in the house of music any other way!
Despite (or perhaps because of) his controversial approach to organ music, Virgil Fox attained a celebrity status not unlike that of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould.[neutrality is disputed] The New York Times said of him, 20 years after his death, "Fox could play the pipe organ like nobody's business, but that is not all that made him unforgettable to so many people across the country. He made classical organ music appeal even to audiences that normally wouldn't be expected to sit still for it."
In a sign of continued recognition unusual for a performer (as distinct from a composer), Virgil Fox memorial recitals and concerts continue to be staged, more than a quarter-century after his death.
Fox was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. He designed the 1964 Reuter Pipe Organ at Bucknell University and was awarded a Doctorate Degree. He was given Keys to the City in numerous acts of gratitude by Mayors of numerous cities.
Virgil Fox (The Dish): An Irreverent Biography of the Great American Organist by Marshall Yaeger and Richard Torrence (2001), a compendium of reminiscences by contemporaries of Virgil Fox, is expanded upon in an unpublished autobiography of organist Ted Alan Worth, one of Fox's proteges and closest friends. Fox is buried at the Pioneer Cemetery, Dover, Illinois, US.
- Torrence, Richard; Yaeger, Marshall (2001). Virgil Fox (the Dish). An Irreverent Biography of the Great American Organist (Special Edition: Book, CD, DVD ed.). New York: Circles International. ISBN 0971297002.
- "The Top 20 – The World's Largest Pipe Organs". Sacred Classics. Atlas Communications. 19 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- "The Virgil Fox touring organ". Allen Organ. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
- Rich, Alan (21 January 1974). "The Foot-in-Mouth Disease in Music". New York: 55. Retrieved 2012-06-28.
- Whitney, Craig R. (22 October 2000). "An Organ Legend in Vivid Memory". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-07.
- Kozinn, Allan (11 October 2005). "The Legacy of an Organist Who Pushed the Limits". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- "National Patrons & Patronesses". Delta Omicron. Archived from the original on 2012-03-05.
- Virgil Fox at Find a Grave
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