By Damin Spritzer
One of the things that most fascinated me when I was an organ student at conservatory was my classes in organ literature. They introduced me to hundreds of composers whom I would otherwise likely have never had the opportunity to encounter in regular church or concert life. The number of musicians who have been inspired to write down their compositions and improvisations over the past centuries is astonishing when we stray off the beaten path.
In my organ literature teaching at UNT and OU, I feel it’s imperative that all my students be exposed to, and familiar with, the canon repertoire: those great musicians upon whose shoulders Western musicological history is built. They are vital to understanding the trajectory of music, culture, religion, and history. But I confess – I truly delight in my classes when I start sharing the music of the innumerable composers who surrounded these giants. The composers who worked with them, studied with them, served as scribe or amanuensis, confidante, student, colleague, correspondent, or inspiration, all have played a role in the trajectory of the development of organ music. The joy of the classroom when all lean in and say, “I’ve never heard this before!” is special, and my hope is that it will continually give rise to new scholarship and research. And I truly hope that my own story will be useful and encouraging.
It will come as no surprise that such an experience was transformative for my personal musical life as scholar and performer. After having spent some years on another composer only to learn that other excellent projects had already been undertaken and released, I felt a little bereft until I had the opportunity to spend some time with our beloved Michael Barone, whose repository of organ knowledge is exceeded by almost none! I told him of my dilemma and that I was seeking a new doctoral project, and without hesitation he said, “Becker!” I said, “Who?” But my exposure to the largely unknown music of René Louis Becker at that critical academic moment completely changed the trajectory of my studies. My fervent hope is to provide similar pivotal moments in the lives of those whose studies in organ coincide with my time as one of their professors.
I feel incredibly lucky – the Becker family, headed by Julius (Jay) Becker, was utterly kind and receptive, and it turned out that they had spent a number of years looking for someone to help bring his father’s music back into the public eye. As a student and scholar, it was a stunning surprise to discover box upon box of manuscripts in their basement home, waiting for opportunity.
I cannot help but include the fact that the road has been long, and occasionally, difficult. I imagine many of you will identify with this deeply. We know that scholarship is a labor of (hopefully) love and (sadly) funding. My trips to study the scores, interview Jay, and speak with the family were limited to what I could afford (once or twice annually). The scores ultimately contained as many questions as answers, and much primary source material may be lost to the ravages of time. My love for the music was unstinting, however. And I try to share that with my students in a way that is both realistic and encouraging.
That initial conversation with Michael has led to a doctoral dissertation, two worldpremier recordings in France on significant historic instruments with a third disc planned to be recorded in the states, a monograph-in-progress, lectures, and a series of critical editions of Becker’s music (both previously-published and in manuscript) with Volume I having been released in the summer of 2016 through Wayne Leupold. The next two volumes will be devoted toccatas both published and still in manuscript. And the preface contains information from my dissertation as well as an important section from Charles Echols on performance practice in that era.
Though I do feel astonishingly fortunate, this has been intense labor over the last decade. But I would not trade a single moment of it, and I hope that the music continues to be well-received because I believe that it has a very significant place in present times for study, liturgy, and the concert stage.