Warmth, Wit and Wisdom

The personal quality that friends recall first when asked about the late E. Power Biggs is his brilliant wit. Whether
By Judy Kogan

The personal quality that friends recall first when asked about the late E. Power Biggs is his brilliant wit. Whether situated in a stuffy recording studio, an elegant cocktail party, or addressing an audience of thousands before a recital, Biggs capitalized upon his vivid imagination to evoke warmth or provoke understanding of the point he had set out to make.

One close friend retells a story Biggs offered when he spoke before the Guild of Organists recently in New York City. There had been a major controversy over whether to install a real or "fake" (electric) organ in Carnegie Hall. Biggs had been a militant opponent of those who sought to "cheapen" the hall with the modern instrument. He told a tale to illustrate the points of his argument:

"There was this little village in Europe which annually celebrated a Strawberry Festival, at which all the townsfolk came to buy and taste the sliced, diced, tarted and pied fresh strawberries. Springtime arrived and the town was flooded and covered with posters announcing the traditional Strawberry Festival. But something was different about the posters one year: If you looked closely at the posters' fine print, you would read: 'Due to the shortage of strawberries, prunes will be substituted.'"

Biggs's eyes widened in mock astonishment at the end of the story. He paused, and then, in good-humored outrage, questioned the captive listeners in his rolled-R thick English accent: "What is this pr-r-r-r-rune doing in Carnegie Hall?"

Although Biggs never had a formal relationship with Harvard, the organist who was known for his Popeye tee shirt and remarkable ability to ever-so-gently deflate egos had a great deal of influence on music in the college community, as well as the rest of the organ world. Biggs developed an outstanding reputation as choirmaster and organist at Christ Church in Cambridge and Harvard Church in Brookline, second only to his reputation earned through first-rate recordings and broadcasts coast-to-coast and abroad. Biggs also commissioned new music, discovered old music, continually affirmed the importance of playing that old music on authentic instruments, and pioneered the use of the organ as an ensemble instrument.

A man of iron constitution and iron will, Biggs never gave way to the infirmities or arthritis that plagued him for the last 15 or 20 years. Some might have thought his unrelenting drive absurd. He himself had once said organists are considered to be on the "lunatic fringe of musicians, probably because they hang around churches all the time." But even with the good-humored lunacy and uncompromising attitudes toward performance that irritated the organists of the grandiloquent 19th century schools, Biggs serves as a model of a man--and a musician--whose dignity, humility, and integrity we can all admire.