“An American Original.” That’s the title of a 2015 book on Charles Ore, the master organist, composer, bird watcher and orchid grower.
It also best defines Charles Ore the man.
Anyone who has ever attended a worship service at Lincoln’s First-Plymouth Congregational or First Presbyterian churches, Omaha’s Pacific Hills or concert at Concordia University, Nebraska, has relished in the music virtuoso’s complicated and spiritually stirring compositions.
His is not necessarily a household name, but it is a name often recognized in music circles.
Ore will turn 80 on Dec. 18, and he has no plans to retire his fingers or his sharp mind. That said, he acknowledges the milestone of 80 is a “tripwire” for people -- another monumental step in the progression of those blessed with longevity and health.
“My father lived to age 94. His dad lived to the age of 89,” Ore says enjoying an afternoon treat of Häagen-Dazs vanilla bean ice cream topped with a splash of Grand Marnier and French-pressed coffee.
“I don’t feel my age," Ore said. "I know that I’m not 21. I know that I’m not 50. But 80? I don’t know what it is supposed to feel like …”
On a gray December day, he relaxes in his rural Seward home custom-designed by Nebraska architect Deon Bahr.
He sits in the great room of the three-story house that overlooks a vast wild wetland where brilliant splashes of red break up the dreariness as cardinals flit back and forth from barren tree to well-stocked thistle feeder. A telescope and two sets of binoculars sit ready to focus on the deer, fox and other wildlife that frequent the yard.
Much of Ore's story is rooted in a rich history of earlier generations, a history that inspires, fascinates and defines him.
In her book, “Charles W. Ore: An American Original,” editor Irene Beethe defined her former teacher’s compositions as “on the progressive edge of contemporary classical church music.”
Ore was born Dec. 18, 1936, on a farm 15 miles east of Winfield, Kansas.
His father, a Baptist, completed his education in eighth grade.
His mother, the daughter of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, was a college graduate, teacher and musician.
“Charles plays with a Lutheran brain and a Baptist heart,” the late Barrett Spach, former University of Nebraska organ department chair, once wrote.
Ore started playing piano before he was old enough to attend the Old Salem one-room school.
His grandfather wrote the letters of the musical notes in the hymnal, and then taped the corresponding letters to the piano keys.
“My mother knew that if I was going to be a successful student I would need to learn to read. I was just reading a different set of symbols,” Ore said.
He was between 5 and 6 years old when he began taking formal piano lessons with Blanche Brooks, who taught him to play and fostered a talent for improvisation -- a skill for which he is widely known and respected today.
At the end of every lesson, regardless of how late she was running, Brooks would tell Ore to play the “piece” of improvisation he had that day.
That would prove essential in his ability as a composer, although Ore will say the two skills are quite different.
Composing is more organized and deliberate, he said in the The Diapason magazine’s December issue.
“When you are improvising you can never be sure how things are going to turn out, you don’t necessarily finish every sentence, and you never go back to correct yourself,” he said. “When you improvise you never make a mistake: you may bleed internally, but it’s rarely fatal. A composition is much more like an essay, in that you have an opening paragraph, a body of material, and a conclusion or recap of what’s been going on. It’s a much more formal concept.”
And when the two come together, the result is extremely satisfying.
Today, Ore has more than 200 published compositions to his credit, and an untold number more than have never made it to paper or printer.
“Some creative people are totally absorbed in themselves and their work; and then there’s Charles Ore, who is creative beyond belief, yet magnanimous with encouragement for others and care and concern for all. That’s the Charles Ore I have experienced,” John Behnke wrote in the forward of Beethe’s book.
From piano to organ
Ore’s shift from piano to organ started when he was 17 and filled in for the church organist one Sunday at his grandfather’s Trinity Lutheran Church in Winfield.
The church's organist, Pauline Wente, guarded her position jealously, but had an opportunity to accompany her choir director husband on a weekend choir tour and asked Ore to fill in.
He hesitated because he had not played the organ publicly, but, he admits, he had watched Wente play over the years with fascination -- much like watching a parent drive a car.
Sensing Ore’s trepidation, Wente called him to her side and showed him how to pull the stops and play the bass with his feet.
“Then she asked if I had any questions,” Ore said. “I don’t remember having one. I didn’t know enough to even ask.”
Plus when you’re 17 you don’t ask questions -- because you know what all the answers are, Ore quipped.
His organ debut was a success, and after that Ore was included in the rotation for playing at worship.
He discovered early that basic hymn playing was essential to being a successful organist.
“Many members of the congregation aren’t always attuned to what you play as incidental music, but if you can’t play the hymns and liturgy, you may as well just fold up and go home,” Ore said in his interview with The Diapason.
The sentiment is echoed by Brian Pfoltner, music director at Lincoln’s First Presbyterian Church.
He and Ore met during their teaching days at Concordia, and later at First-Plymouth, where they were part of the music ministry. When Pfoltner moved to First Presbyterian, he invited Ore to join him.
“There is more to being a fine church musician than playing the standard liturgy very well," Pfoltner said. "You need to be able to lead the congregation in hymn singing. There are may great organists, but not many who are great at leading hymns and liturgy. That is one of the things Charles is very good at.
“He makes it fun to sing hymns -- very exciting and fun. It’s a gift for church musician."
His music is unconventional for traditional church fare -- often imbued with touches of jazz, ragtime and unanticipated improvisation.
His “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is well known and much loved. Pfoltner said it has a more ragtime feel.
“It is exciting, different from what people expect,” Pfoltner said. “It makes people smile.”
Ore sees his music in the oral tradition of storytelling -- using notes instead of words.
“I play music across all the centuries,” Ore said. “Some pieces started for a particular era and others fall away. Why? You can't carry everything.”
For a teenage Ore, the organ opened doors and opportunities. Though he always knew he would go to college, he wavered between professions: music or medicine.
He was quite content being undecided and doing both, until his college adviser demanded he choose.
“I made the decision that I would rather visit my doctor than be my own physician, and that I could get well on music in my own way,” Ore said.
The choice between piano and organ was far easier. The organ offered more opportunities, he said.
“I imagined myself in a salaried position,” he said.
Piano was limited. He could play in clubs or try his hand at being a concert pianist.
The latter didn’t interest him, and the former -- well, he tried that for a bit, playing at a Lincoln nightclub for a time in the early 1950s.
It was a gig that furrowed many a Lutheran brow. Such behavior was unacceptable. He quit the nightclub gig.
This was not the first -- and far from the last -- time Ore would push the religious envelope.
Lutherans held themselves to a higher standard, he said. They didn’t drink, dance -- or play for dances.
He recalls a quote from a Jesuit priest: When you have urges and desires, God is speaking to you. That is the way in which he leads you to do what you are created to to do.
“I believe this is what God wanted me to do,” Ore said of playing the organ. “So I did it.”
A life of learning
In 1956, Ore enrolled at Concordia College-Seward (now Concordia University, Nebraska) and met the love of his life during a college music lesson.
He and Constance Schau were doing scales on two pianos.
“She said to me that it was a courtesy when one person faltered, the other would falter at the same time,” Ore said. “She said I was cruel, because if she faltered I kept going.”
He smiled at the memory.
“She was a great person,” he said. “Our lives really folded together very nicely.”
He recalls a time when they were courting and were caught holding hands as they walked down the street.
There was a strict code of social behavior at Concordia, and this was forbidden.
“The dean of women called Connie into the office, and told her in no uncertain terms that if she would allow me to hold her hand I would assume that we might get involved further,” Ore said.
It was all part of that German Lutheran mentality: “We do not do that. Others may do that.”
So did they stop holding hands?
“No, we just didn’t walk in the street anymore,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
They married in August 1960 and moved to Evanston, Illinois, where Ore pursued his master’s degree in organ. Pursuing a doctorate after that was a natural and expected progression, he said.
“Many changes were happening very rapidly for me,” Ore told The Diapason. “Just three years earlier I had graduated from Concordia-Nebraska where I had my own stein at the local pub called Heumann’s. Now I was living in Evanston, the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union where you could not buy liquor within the city limits, married to the woman with whom I could not hold hands in Seward, and playing at Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.”
While working on his doctorate, he was invited to teach organ at Concordia-River Forest. Ore was not interested. But no was not a word in the university president's vocabulary, even when Ore rattled off a list of desires that he figured would shoot him straight out of the running.
“That evening the phone rang," Ore said. "It was the president.”
He summarized all of Ore’s demands and said "It’s all in your contract. … I expect you here at 9 a.m. to sign it."
It was the classic too-good-to-refuse offer, and it was also a turning point.
“I was 24 years old,” he said.
He remembers walking into the teaching hall on the first day -- no older than most of his students. “I was so arrogant,” he said.
He taught at Northwestern for five years, leaving in 1966 to teach for Seward.
Half a century and 900 students later, Ore still keeps in touch with many of his former pupils who live all over the world and have pursued many musical professions.
Ore placed his pursuit of a doctoral degree on hold for 17 years, while he taught, composed, performed and started a family. He and his wife are parents to Heidi, Janna and John-Paul.
Then, in 1983, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s new doctoral of musical arts program, graduating in 1986 at age 50 the university's first Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ.
Music was central to the family's life.
While Charles Ore focused on the organ, his wife served 22 years as director of music and organist at St. John Lutheran Church in Seward. She also was a junior high music teacher at St. John Lutheran School.
They asked Lincoln architect Deon Bahr to design their rural Seward house with the goal of growing old in it. Equipped with an elevator, a first-floor greenhouse, a koi fish pool and wondrous giant windows, the home is a bit of paradise off the beaten path.
In January 2006, Connie Ore was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and leukemia. That same month she started a blog “My New Life.” While it touched on her four-year journey of failing health, its focus was on God’s grace and the power of hymns.
The Ores celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August 2010. A month later, Connie died.
“In the last year of our life (together), I said we had 50 wonderful years together," Ore said. "She said, 'Maybe it was 50 for you, but it was not 50 for me. It was more like 46 or 47 years.'
“There were some tough years -- and that is 100 percent of what marriage is.”
She centered him, he said.
“I would come home inflated about something I had done … and she was not negative -- but when she thought I needed it, she would stick a pin in my ego.”
As he closes in on 80, people tend to ask the same question: What do you think your legacy will be?
“I have no idea,” Ore said, but he hopes whatever influence he has had on the lives of his children, his grandchildren and hundreds of students will carry through to those of whom they influence.
He hopes his music -- at least some of it, will make it into collections defining the era.
But he has no preconceived notions or expectations.
“Art is very fickle,” Ore said. “Will it withstand the test of time? We don’t know. And that’s not why we do it. We do it because of a compulsion to make things more personal.”
He recites a Lutheran prayer:
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us ...”
“What’s my legacy going to be?" he asked. "I don’t know what the future holds in that area, and I don’t try to know. The important thing is to experience things -- like ice cream and Grand Marnier.”