Friday, January 27, 2012

Gerre Hancock

The "Organ World" is saddened by the news of the death of Gerre Hancock who gave so much life and color to his work in church music.  I never studied with Gerre, and worked directly with him only slightly, but I felt privileged to know him and was flattered when he sent me messages about the column I write in The Diapason.  

His was among the first "big time" organ playing I heard.  My father, a retired Episcopal priest, grew up at Christ Church, Cincinnati, and was brought into the priesthood by Nelson Burroughs, then rector of Christ Church and later Bishop of Southern Ohio.  The celebration of the Boar's Head Festival was a strong tradition there, and dad's recordings of the Christ Church choir and organ led by Gerre Hancock roared through our house every year at Christmas.  I was twelve years old when I started to take organ lessons.  Gerre's improvised interludes between verses of the Boar's Head Carol amazed me, and I remember asking my organ teacher what that was all about.  The idea that someone would create music on the spot seemed like magic.  Now that I have decades of organ playing, studying, and listening behind me, I know I was right - it is magic.

I remember hearing Gerre's recital at Woolsey Hall in honor of Robert Baker.  Everyone was there, and Gerre improvised like a conjurer.  In the reception following I wanted to congratulate him, but he wanted to hear what I was up to.

A little quip I like to use to poke fun at musicians goes like this: "That's enough about me, let's talk about you.  What do you think of my dress?"  That was never Gerre.

With all his visibility, through decades of working with one of the finest church choirs in the world, admired universally by colleagues and congregants for his musicianship and improvisations, it was never about him.  He walked through life with such grace and generosity of spirit.  May we all learn from his example.