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A Look at the Philadelphia Chapter's First 100 Years

Compiled by
David L. Furniss

One hundred years has long been considered a significant measure of age, and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Guild of Organists has finally reached this prestigious distinction! While the AGO itself celebrated one hundred years of existence in 1996, the Philadelphia Chapter is now enjoying the honor of being the first AGO chapter to celebrate a centennial. You who are attending this National Convention of the American Guild of Organists are a part of our celebration, and we welcome you to Philadelphia for our birthday party!
Tuesday, June 10, 1902, is the date on which a Charter (then called a Certificate) was granted to a group of dedicated and prominent organists to form the Pennsylvania Chapter. The groundwork for this action was laid as early as May 4, 1896, at the first regular meeting of the AGO's New York Council, when a resolution was presented by Sumner Salter:
"Resolved: That, in the opinion of the council, members of the Guild residing in or near Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago may be authorized to form branches for the furtherance of the interests of the Guild in those localities, to be known as the Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago sections."

And so, from the very start of the Guild in New York, there was a keen interest in the Guild being a national organization. Evidently there was even a Committee on Outside Chapters pursuing the prospects, as there is a record of one of their reports, dated June 4, 1901:
"It is the opinion of the committee that chapters should be established not later than November 1, 1901. They should be organized by founders or holders of certificates. They should be established at present examination centers or in all large cities of the United States, no nearer than 100 miles to each other. Their purpose should be the same as that of the present Guild and they should, if possible, have classes where candidates could be instructed in and prepared for the examinations."

Among the cities targeted to form an AGO chapter, Philadelphia was the first to have the required number of members in order to do so. A number of prominent Philadelphia organists were among the original founders of the Guild in 1896, and with an already existing American Organ Players' Club in the city, there was a substantial nucleus of organists interested in forming a chapter. The June 10, 1902, meeting of these Philadelphia organists with New York Council representatives Warden Woodman and John Hyatt Brewer resulted in the creation of the Pennsylvania Chapter. A six-member Advisory Board was elected. The board members were "prominent laymen who had already done distinguished service in regard to the musical portion of church work." In addition, there was a five-member Executive Committee, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and a Chaplain. The first Dean was the Rev. Julius G. Bierck, who served in that capacity for ten years, and who is credited with the early growth and prosperity of the chapter. It was his proposal, "offering real practical suggestions," that won the approval of the New York Council to proceed with the forming of the Pennsylvania Chapter. Among the activities that attracted membership at that time were annual services featuring the combined choirs of some of the chapter members.

The Pennsylvania Chapter's second Dean, George Alexander A. West, FRCO, and FAGO, who served from 1912 to 1921, had the following to say about the early years of the chapter's existence:
"...The Pennsylvania Chapter has always had an unusually large proportion of academic members, fellows, and associates, and has consequently recognized the importance of the comprehensive tests set forth in the examinations.
The influence of the Guild in Pennsylvania can hardly be overestimated. While growth in membership has been gradual, it has been healthy and has attracted the very best of the profession to its ranks. The Pennsylvania Chapter can always be relied upon for the fullest support in all things leading to betterment of organists, standards of church music, and general conditions of the profession."

Since the early years of the founding of this chapter, its mission and high standards have continued. Highlights of the chapter's history throughout the twentieth century show that it has played an important role for organists locally and nationally. Philadelphia hosted National Conventions in 1930, 1939, and 1964. The 1964 Convention was considered to be by far the most successful to date and served as a standard for future conventions. Philadelphia also hosted the International Congress of Organists in 1977, the Region III AGO Convention in 1989, and a Pipe Organ Encounter in 1995.

The spirit and enthusiasm of the Pennsylvania Chapter carried through the change of its name in 1960. A policy suggested by AGO National Headquarters indicated a need for chapters to be identified by "local" names rather than "state" names - undoubtedly a sign of the Guild's growth throughout the country. On May 16, 1960, the chapter adopted its new name, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Our chapter's most recent history includes significant awareness and planning for the one hundredth anniversary. Two major events have become the focus of our celebration: the National Convention and the commission of a new major work for organ and brass. As early as the November 1996 meeting of the Chapter's Executive Committee, Dean Clair Rozier proposed that we investigate hosting a National Convention, perhaps in 2002 in celebration of our centennial. From that meeting grew all of the groundwork for the event we are enjoying this week. At the September 1999 meeting of the Executive Committee, Dean David Furniss proposed that we celebrate our hundredth anniversary by commissioning a new piece of music. The eventual result was Ceremonies by Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon.

As we embark on our second century, we joyfully reflect on the many pieces that make up the history of the Philadelphia Chapter. Because of the dedication of so many individuals in the past one hundred years, we enjoy a healthy and fulfilling fellowship of organists today. We look to the future with great hope for our profession and with enthusiasm for that which brings us together in the American Guild of Organists!
Sources for this article include A Short History of the Philadelphia Chapter compiled by Ethel Reed, AAGO, ChM published in the June 1962 issue of the Crescendo, the Philadelphia Chapter's newsletter; and The Story of the American Guild of Organists by Samuel A. Baldwin, 1946.