Virgil Fox, organist – Saint or Sinner?


I knew the name Virgil Fox, as one half of the dynamic duo who – with English émigré E. Power Biggs – had established the organ as a concert instrument in the US, rather than simply being the box of tricks which accompanied hymns in church. But until now, I had never heard him play.

It was, then, with great curiosity and a more or less ‘innocent ear’ that I listened to an all-Bach LP that I’d bought recently in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK). There was a picture of an elaborate and highly gilded organ case on the record sleeve, so, although no organ was specified, I was hoping for the best.

The first thing that struck me about his playing was the extent of the rubato. Apart from all the pushing and pulling, Fox’s interpretation consisted largely of ultra-romantic, highly skilful and ever-changing registration. I had no sense that I was listening to an historically informed performance, and certainly it was not played on an old organ, as there was much judicious use of what sounded like, several swell pedals. And, apart from the trills marked in the scores, there was no added ornamentation or ‘filling in’ as, say, Ton Koopman would do.

And this use of the swell pedal was not just limited to the large Preludes and Fugues on this disc, but also applied to the slow movement of a Trio Sonata! Running through a veritable kaleidoscope of tonal possibilities (as if Mr Heinz wanted to show off all his 57 flavours in just one sitting), Fox swelled up and down, drawing us in to an mysterious inner world of colour and harmonies, which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a piece by César Franck or Tournemire.

All the notes were still there, and (unlike Eric Morecambe’s famous TV rendition of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with André Previn) they were in the right order, but the overall effect was something quite new to me. Odd.

It was all strangely engaging and made excellent background music for doing the dishes! But then, I had to go back and listen again and really take in what he was doing – which was with consummate skill and a 100% certified copper-bottomed technique. It was exciting playing, but not without the odd slip (no doubt to confirm that these pieces weren’t being played, at high speed, by a machine)!

I had no idea, however, the extent to which he had been a superstar, and toured with a four or five manual electronic organ to packed sports stadiums all across the US. He even had a sophisticated light-show, which involved a ton and a half of equipment. We are talking pre-1980, remember.

I didn’t know, either, that he was a student of Marcel Dupré, or that he was a friend of French composer Maurice Duruflé, so he certainly knew how to play that repertoire. And, as if to confirm that: one of his great successes both then in concerts and now, in terms of current ‘views’, is a glittering piece by the Belgian organist, Joseph Jongen.

There’s a comprehensive wiki and a book and several articles, so Fox is far from being forgotten.

There are also plenty of videos online, showing him being interviewed and in exuberant full flight, particularly in Bach’s ‘Gigue’ fugue, which he always finishes off with a music-hall-esque ‘dum-doo-doo dum-dum… do-dum’.

As a comparison, here’s E. Power Biggs playing the same piece, in a not dissimilar way, on the famous 1958 Flentrop ‘tracker’ organ at Harvard, but without either dancing or clapping.

Although Fox decried all purists as ‘creeps’, he was a very effective one-of-a-kind musical zealot and a worthy early music pioneer who, particularly through his famous ‘Heavy Organ’ all-Bach stadium concerts, brought baroque music to a very large and, one suspects, mostly stoned young audience.

See this article about Fox and Power Biggs, which recognizes the very different means that they both used to create new audiences for the organ.

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