It’s May 17 and, other than a few papers and office supplies on his desk, George Ritchie’s office is completely empty. He and Quentin Faulkner are meeting in the office down in the basement of the Westbrook Music Building on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The two UNL organ professors will retire this summer after a combined 54 years of teaching.
But there’s more to these two men than college courses. They’re also two of the most respected figures in local music, as founders of the Lincoln Organ Showcase, and internationally accomplished performers and scholars in their own right.
They’re here in this empty basement office to discuss their work and accomplishments one last time, taking a break from wrapping up their final school business and preparing for summer.
Faulkner’s got a little more time — he says he won’t be vacating his office until July.
As for Ritchie, this is it.
“You won’t be able to reach me here anymore,” he says. “As soon as we’re done here, I’m closing the door for good.”
But first, they’ve got an entire career of stories, research, community work and performances to talk about.
Ritchie arrived in Lincoln in 1972.
A California native, he first taught organ at Duke University, where he was also chapel organist. Then he accepted the job at UNL.
Faulkner, from New Jersey, arrived two years later after serving as assistant organist of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. He was to be the successor to legendary music professor and internationally known church and concert organ music composer Myron Roberts.
There was no College of Fine and Performing Arts at the time — the School of Music was still under the auspices of Arts and Sciences. Nevertheless, organ instruction and research was thriving.
From Roberts, the two learned the tradition and workings behind the program, which had already garnered much attention thanks to Roberts’ work.
“Myron Roberts really put (the organ program) on the map, largely because of his composing,” Faulkner said. “So we inherited a heritage.”
Of course, each had his own research interests, but they soon discovered time for research and performance was limited.
Ritchie found himself teaching two courses, 10 organ students and practicing on his own three or four hours a day. That added up to almost 30 hours of student contact, not counting preparation for classes or grading papers. Other interests would have to wait.
“When I first came, the teaching loads here were crushing,” Faulkner said. “I was teaching two classes and 19 organ students. Now, this does not leave you a lot of time to do anything else.”
But in the late ’70s, the philosophy of the university shifted, Faulkner said, and suddenly there was demand on professors for publication and visibility. In order to make that happen, teaching loads had to be limited.
“It was only when that happened that either of us found the time to focus more on other things,” Faulkner said.
Well, wait, Ritchie says, wondering if those last few parts came across correctly.
He bounces a few ideas off Faulkner, which sets off a quick exchange of numbers and dates about teaching loads and performances.
While they try to figure out exactly how to phrase the ideas, each seems to know exactly where the other is trying to go with it.
It’s nothing new. The two have always worked well together, transcending ego in a field where competition is the name of the game.
“That’s very unique in the music world,” said Lincoln organ builder and longtime friend Gene Bedient. “It’s very common at prestigious conservatories for people to be very at odds and very competitive, but those two have always been very cooperative and generous.”
That cooperative spirit made Faulkner and Ritchie so successful in all of their endeavors, Bedient said, whether they’re instructing students, researching new techniques or putting together the next Organ Showcase performance.
“Plus,” Bedient adds, “I think it speaks very much to the very large and generous human beings they are.”
Bedient has known Ritchie and Faulkner since they came to Nebraska, when he was just a young, upstart organ maker.
“They’re two of my very best friends, so it’s been very sad to think about them retiring.”
But Bedient knows them well enough to understand they won’t be sitting still for long. He predicts they’ll keep active in some way or another.
Meanwhile, the two professors have come to a consensus and are ready to continue.
From the beginning, Ritchie and Faulkner have tried to make sure their students understand something about organ music — there’s an intellectual side and a performance side, and neither side works correctly without the other.
In 1977, the two professors formulated the perfect way to drive that point home — they would put together an annual organ conference.
At the time, there was nothing like it.
“The organ conferences were intentionally designed to destroy stereotypes,” Faulkner said. “Everybody knew pretty early on we were interested in early music and techniques, and we took pains to make sure the organ conferences were not strictly like that.”
Neither man could have predicted the conferences would be such a hit.
Hundreds of students and faculty from across the country came to Lincoln each year for the event, as did church and concert organists from across the region.
But it also began to attract some of the world’s top professionals, including German organ pioneer Harald Vogel and master organ builder Charles Fisk, who gave credit for the success of his Meyerson Concert Hall organ in Dallas to what he learned at the “Organ and the Conference Hall” conference in 1981.
The organ conference concept spread like wildfire, and soon other major universities were planning their own.
“After 15 years or so, there became more and more of them,” Faulkner said, “but we were still sort of the originators of that basic idea, at least in academia.”
There have been 24 conferences so far, and when the two professors retire, they said, it’s up to their successor, Syracuse organ professor Christopher Marks, to determine the future of the series.
At this point, Ritchie grabs a stack of brochures, one of the last remaining paper bundles on his desk.
The brochures are a virtual timeline of the conferences. Some look very classic and gothic, while others have a funky, new-wave feel, illustrating the wide variety of topics they’ve explored.
The organists go through the brochures, pointing out highlights from key years.
“The organ conferences, those were unique,” said UNL music history professor Pamela Starr. “It was lovely to think they were opening the door for people who were looking for different directions.”
Starting the conference was a challenge for the two professors, but Starr saw it as part of their proactive and altruistic nature.
“It was an act of love and commitment on their part,” she said. “It isn’t just that they made huge contributions in their area and that was it. They really took their roles as leaders of the faculty seriously. They just gave and gave and gave.”
Ritchie puts the brochures away for now. It’s time to talk about research.
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To put it simply, Faulkner’s and Ritchie’s research centers around the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Ritchie recently completed an 11-CD collection of Bach’s complete organ works. It’s being released on the classical music label Raven Recordings.
It’s the first collection to document the music performed with the same early techniques Bach used, which have long been forgotten by modern organists. Ritchie also co-authored a book on those techniques.
Meanwhile, Faulkner authored “J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Technique: A Historical Introduction,” a book which Ritchie called “the most important book yet about Bach’s playing technique.”
Between Ritchie's performance and recordings and Faulkner’s research and publications, the two changed the academic world’s understanding of Bach.
They became interested in Bach’s performance techniques after Vogel, the German organist, spoke at their 1978 organ conference.
“He was pioneering many of these (historical techniques), and we were the first to have him in this part of the country,” Ritchie said. “It inspired us to move ahead with our own work on these techniques.”
Faulkner dove into existing manuscripts and treatises, and Ritchie began relearning how to play the organ with Bach’s original techniques.
He perfected the style for10 years before recording on various organs across the country, but he was lucky enough to have a healthy rehearsal environment, thanks to Bedient, the local organ builder.
But some of the work was hindered by limited availability. At the time, nearly all of the organs Bach originally played were in East Germany — behind the curtain of Communist rule and, therefore, unreachable.
So when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was, according to Ritchie, “Christmas in July.”
“The fall of the wall made for enormous possibilities,” Faulkner said, “ and immediately there was an infusion of funds by the German government to restore instruments that were in disastrous condition.”
The new information broadened the two researchers’ work and inspired UNL’s first international organ conference, which took 115 people to Naumberg, Germany, in 2003.
Now, Faulkner and Ritchie realize what they’re talking about isn’t the most accessible of topics, and they’re taking great pains to make sure they’re understood correctly.
But they’re not elitist or condescending. In fact, they’re quite patient.
It’s their signature teaching style, said Sara Schott, a former student and co-chairwoman of the Lincoln Organ Showcase and director of music as Grace Lutheran Church.
“They’re incredible teachers, and students were gifted with their partnership,” she said.
Schott, a 1996 graduate, took organ instruction from Ritchie.
“He was the pickiest man alive, and I never made a mistake he didn’t make a comment on, but he was so nice about it that I always tried harder and harder to do my best,” she said.
She also took courses on church music from Faulkner and uses his teaching daily at Grace Lutheran.
But she’s also gotten to know the two as friends through work with the Organ Showcase.
“They both have a great sense of humor and they tell the most hilarious stories,” she said.
Once all the gritty details about recordings and transcriptions have been cleared up, the Showcase in the professors’ next topic.
“We were sitting in (an organ) concert in Cornerstone (a church on campus) on an icy December night,” Ritchie said, “and there were about 10 people there, and we got to thinking, ‘If there was a series where people had already bought their tickets, we wouldn’t have to worry about the weather.’”
That conversation in the late ’70s turned into the Lincoln Organ Showcase, a performance series which has brought over 85 nationally and internationally known organists to Lincoln for shows on more than 20 different organs.
Though neither has ever been head of the organization, Faulkner and Ritchie were founders of the Showcase and they’ve used their academic and performance connections to bring lauded organists to various churches and organizations across town.
“Essentially, the Showcase is an enabler,” Faulkner said. “It makes these (connections) happen.”
Bedient said Lincoln should be grateful for their work.
“There are lots of people who really do enjoy organ and organ music, and there’s not many communities around the country that have something like this,” he said.
The Showcase is meant to be an education tool, both for students and the general public.
“It’s a way to enhance the visibility of the instrument and give churches a chance to showcase the instruments they have,” Ritchie said.
Throughout the program’s 25 year history, it’s been incredibly successful in that respect, Bedient said.
“It’s definitely built an audience (for organ music),” he said.
Sitting in Ritchie’s office, the two pause a moment to decide what else they want to say about their community involvement.
Faulkner’s always had a major interest in church music, and he and his wife, Mary Murrell, were parish musicians at Lincoln’s Cathedral of the Risen Christ from 1974 to 1990. For the past six years, he has directed the choir at St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church.
“I’ve been a member of the choir for five or six years, largely because of the Faulkners being there,” music history professor Starr said. “I know many a person has been brought closer to religion and spirituality with involvement in their choir. They have meant everything to the music program there at St. Mark’s.”
Schott said she thinks she know why the organists keep giving back to the community despite their research, performance schedules and teaching duties.
“I think they realize what they’re doing in the universe is all for naught if out in the community there’s no one listening,” she said. “If it just becomes this academic thing, then part of it dies.”
Despite their forthcoming departures from the university, neither man is very interested in retirement.
Faulkner is heading to Germany for a year to teach historical organ practice courses and discuss with students their country’s historic instruments.
“For me, it’s the height of nerve to have an American come in and teach them about their own instrument,” Faulkner said.
He’s staying near Bach’s hometown, and he’ll be checking out the various organs in the area while doing his own research.
“Forty-five years of communist rule have left major scars, so there’s a lot of good work to be done over there.”
When that year is up, Faulkner doesn’t know just yet where he’ll be. He and Mary Murrell might not return to Lincoln.
“We’ve been active in church music and I’m sure we’ll continue that wherever we show up,” he said. “But we’re trying desperately now to sell our house, store our furniture, get all my materials together for teaching and clear out my office, so there’s not time to think any further ahead than June. If I can get through the year, that’ll be fine.”
Meanwhile, Ritchie plans on catching up on “about 10 lifetimes” of interests, including books, film, hiking and traveling. He’ll be studying the various sciences, but he also plans on finishing his readings of Shakespeare — with the occasional science-fiction novel thrown in.
Both said they also want to ensure a smooth transition for Christopher Marks. At the same time, they know it’s time to move on.
“When Myron Roberts retired, it was very helpful for us that he remained ready to give us any advice we sought or information we needed, but he otherwise stayed out of the picture. We want to do the same for Christopher Marks.”
That’s part of the job, they both agreed, and they hope it’s one thing those around them will remember.
“We are only links in a centuries-long chain of people trying to keep a tradition going,” Ritchie said. “We’re here for a relatively short time here in the big picture, so we try to take what we’ve learned and pass it on from one generation to the next.”
Meanwhile, the general consensus of those around these two organists is that they’ll be sorely missed.
“We’re optimistic about the future, but I don’t know that you’ll ever find a faculty with two first-rate organists,” Starr said. “We’ll never really see their likes again.”
Schott, student and friend, agreed.
“If you had a question about anything, you could call them,” she said. “I’ll miss them being a phone call away.”
There’s plenty more to talk about, but eventually the two professors decide they’re content with what’s been said.
They add they’re grateful to the university for its support, and they hope their students will remain involved with performance, the Showcase and the American Guild of Organists just like they have, but other than those few notes, everything’s been touched upon.
After all, the conversation’s gone long enough, and it’s time to close that office door.
Reach Joel Gehringer at 473-7254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hometown: near Los Angeles
Title: Marguerite Scribante Professor of Music and chairman of the organ program, University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music; started at UNL in 1972
Education: Bachelor of psychology and master of music, University of Redlands; Doctor of music, University of Indiana
Personal: Married to Joy Ritchie
Accomplishments: “J.S. Bach: Organ Works,” 11-disc CD set; “Organ Technique: Modern and Early,” Lincoln Organ Showcase founder
Hometown: Ridgewood, N.J.
Title: Larson Professor of Organ and Music Theory/History at UNL; started at UNL in 1974
Education: Bachelor of music, Westminster Choir College; Master of music and theology, Southern Methodist University; Doctor of Sacred Music, Union Theological Seminary
Personal: Married to Mary Murrell Faulkner
Accomplishments: “J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Technique: A Historical Introduction,” Lincoln Organ Showcase founder, St. Mark’s on the Campus choir director