Vital Organist

In 11 years, Morgan hits all the right notes

Performing the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach is no small task, but for University organist Robert Huw Morgan, it’s all Bach, all the time.

“It’s the beginning and end of all music,” Morgan explained. Beginning this past summer, Morgan undertook the daunting musical feat and plans to finish the complete works of Bach in 14 concerts at Memorial Church by the end of this school year.

Morgan took over the position of University organist in 1999 and began his career playing the organ at services in MemChu. By his second year, he became a lecturer at the Stanford School of Music, and today he’s also the conductor of both the Stanford University Singers and the Memorial Church Choir.

University organist Robert Morgan hopes to finish the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach by the end of the year. (ANNE PIPATHSOUK/The Stanford Daily)

Although his musical experiences began with violin lessons at age nine, Morgan said that it was “love at first sight” the first time he heard an organ live. He began playing the organ regularly as a teenager, and it was in high school that he realized it was something he could happily spend his life doing.

“I momentarily entertained thoughts of reading for a law degree,” Morgan admitted, though this pragmatic career path was shortly quelled by his passion for music.

After studying music at Cambridge University in the late 80s, Morgan spent five years as a schoolteacher in Wales and England and toured as part of a violin-piano duet. He would later return to school in 1999 to earn two Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in organ performance and orchestral conducting from the University of Washington.

It was at Washington where Morgan moved more deeply into the world of choral and opera conducting. Sounding both pained and nostalgic at the memory, Morgan recounted the feeling of simultaneously conducting dozens of musicians and distracted on-stage performers.

“Conducting opera is a challenge,” he said. “But it’s so rewarding.”

This year’s Bach concert series is a celebration of Morgan’s 10th year at Stanford as well as the 25th anniversary of MemChu’s Fisk-Nanney organ, a Baroque-style instrument of 73 ranks and 4,422 pipes.

“You’ve really got to tame the Fisk and show it who’s boss,” Morgan said. “But it’s such a spectacular instrument. It’s the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever played.”

Morgan is an experienced performer of complete organ works—he has also played the complete works of Dieterich Buxtehude, Nicolas de Grigny and Francois Couperin, though he admits that none of these matched the caliber of Bach’s pieces.

As Morgan is quick to tell anyone, Bach’s music is one of the great loves of his life.

“Bach’s music is so perfect. It’s so… you know?” he said.

The greatest challenge for Morgan so far has been following through with the immense commitment. Although he had already spent many years playing several of Bach’s larger pieces, including two of six “fiercely difficult” sonatas, Morgan spent last summer forcing himself to learn the other four.

Morgan also dedicated three weeks to another essential component of the concert series: organizing the program.

“You want the programming to be user-friendly for the audience,” he explained. “You can’t sit down and play nothing but preludes and fugues—so what you do is mix and match.”

According to Alejandra Martinez ’10, a music major in her third year with the University Singers, Morgan is an excellent concert programmer with a knack for bringing down the house with the last piece.

“He does a really great job of revealing aspects of Bach to everyone who goes to one of his concerts,” she said.

About 400 audience members attend each organ performance, with many repeat listeners from across the Bay Area.

Caroline Chen ’12, a writer for The Daily and member of the Stanford University Singers who takes weekly organ lessons from Morgan, encouraged students to attend the remaining Bach concerts.

“He’s a born teacher,” said Chen, who feels that she’s learned a great deal in her past two years working with Morgan. “He’s studied so much and clearly knows his stuff, but at the same time I don’t feel overwhelmed as a student.”

This sentiment was echoed among Morgan’s other students as well. University Singers manager Heidi Farrell ’10 said that despite Morgan’s world acclaim as an organist and historical musicologist, the organist is far from aloof. She called him “extremely reachable” and a man with “zero ego.”

Morgan feels the same about his students.

“It’s a fabulous privilege for me to deal with such talented students,” Morgan said. “God, I get paid for this.”

About Elizabeth Rosen