Organist Marvin Mills eagerly champions music by black composers. But in this era of multicultural awareness, the African-American performer from the District of Columbia does not use this specialty as a trendy calling card. His repertory encompasses both the traditional and the offbeat.
This spring, for example, he played the complete organ works of J. S. Bach--some 275 compositions--in a 14-week recital series at All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, where he is music director. At the Spreckels Organ Society’s summer festival tonight , he will play a transcription of Mussorgsky’s landmark “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
“These days, people frequently ask me to play music of black composers, which I am happy to do, but not because it’s the music of black composers,” Mills said. “Only because the music itself is good and happens to be written by black composers.”
A musician who chooses his words as carefully as Kathleen Battle ornaments a Mozart aria, Mills couched his strongly held opinions in calm, judiciously phrased sentences. In an interview over breakfast in the Gaslamp Quarter, he managed to be friendly and reserved at the same time, although his slightly mischievous smile proved his trademark.
He arrived in San Diego last week to spend a few days getting accustomed to San Diego’s unique outdoor Spreckels organ. Acknowledging that he had never played an outdoor pipe organ, Mills described the main challenge of playing outside:
“You have to approach coloring the music in a different way, because you’re not in an enclosed space where you can control the sound. So you have to overcompensate in terms of volume. Otherwise, it’s not that different, really.”
Mills admitted that, despite the high profile enjoyed by some mainstream black composers--Joplin, Still, Ellington--black composers for the organ are hardly household names. They tended to work in obscurity, and many of their compositions were never published.
“Thomas Kerr’s Arietta, which I’m playing on the Spreckels program, was published in the late 1950s and then went out of print,” Mills said. “I don’t know how much air time the music of any of these black composers got when it was written, because it was often written for a specific occasion. When I got to All Souls Church, I discovered a number of Kerr’s organ works in manuscript in the music library. Kerr was a Baltimore native who lived in Washington, and he often sent his compositions to area organists, hoping they might be played.”
In addition to Kerr, Mills listed Noel DaCosta, George William Walker and Florence Price as black composers who contributed to organ repertory.
“Price, who died in 1953, wrote orchestral music and was frequently performed in the 1930s, although she is now better known for her arrangements of spirituals and for her art songs,” Mills said.
Mills noted with satisfaction that, at last month’s national convention of the American Guild of Organists, an event that drew about 2,000 organists to Atlanta, compositions by black composers were featured in unprecedented abundance.
Before he discovered black organ composers, Mills’ first love was the music oS. Bach.
“In high school, I used to save my lunch money and go down to the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia and buy the Bach organ works a volume at a time,” he said. “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to play all of Bach’s organ works.”
He finally had his chance to play the entire Bach organ canon on 14 consecutive Saturday afternoons, March 21-June 20, at All Souls Church as a benefit for the church’s organ endowment fund. Although Mills is accustomed to playing as many as 50 concerts a year, he was unprepared for the rigors of the all-Bach series.
“I was looking to do something a little crazy, just off-the-wall enough to attract attention,” he said. “It turned out to be unlike anything else I’ve ever done. Even one program of Bach requires much concentration, and I was quite exhausted long before the 14-week series was over.”
In addition to raising about $10,000 for the organ fund, the Bach concerts attracted a new audience, including city-shy suburbanites, to the church, which is in Washington’s culturally diverse Adams-Morgan neighborhood. (According to Mills, it contains a large Hispanic and substantial black population, as well as European-Americans and first-generation Africans.) For some whites, attending the recitals brought sociological insight as well as musical satisfaction.
“A friend of mine recounted a post-concert incident she had read (about) in the Washington Post about a senator who had come to some of the Bach recitals,” Mills said. “On his way to his car after leaving the church, he became aware of four African-American young men walking in his direction.
“He became nervous and concerned when they approached him, only to ask him, ‘Did you enjoy the recital?’ And of course there was instantaneous relief on his part, but he immediately felt the shame for his initial reaction.”
Although Mills was not ready to prescribe music as a panacea for the chronic problem of racial tensions, he saw his Bach recitals as an opportunity to bring people together and change stereotypical perceptions about other races.
“It’s personal contact that dispels that ignorance and the fear.”