Swann Song : After 16 years with Crystal Cathedral, organist Frederick Swann will leave a weekly audience of 20 million for duties at a church in L.A. His farewell recital is Friday.


Crystal Cathedral organist Frederick Swann is the most famous organist in the world. No one else comes close. An estimated 20 million people--in 165 countries--see him every Sunday playing on Dr. Robert H. Schuller’s “Hour of Power” program.

But after 16 years in Garden Grove, Swann is leaving to become organist-in-residence at First Congregational Church in Los Angeles at the end of this month. He’ll give a farewell Friday. A public reception will take place Aug. 30 in the Crystal Cathedral’s Arboretum.

“I had not planned to leave the cathedral,” Swann said over a lunch recently at an Anaheim coffee shop. “When the organist at First Church retired, and they came and asked me, I first said, ‘Oh, no, I’m too old, and it’s too near retirement.’


“But the more we talked about it, the more it appealed to me--that at this point in my career I could go back to simply playing the organ, nothing else, for the last three years I intend to be active, as far as on a weekly basis. I am 67 years old, and I promised myself I’m going to retire in three years.”

Swann came to the Crystal Cathedral from the Riverside Church in New York City, where he played full-time for 25 years, after five years part-time.

In making the move to Garden Grove, he was “practically blackballed by the profession,” he said.

“They thought I had lost my mind because I had this beautiful gothic cathedral, with a magnificent organ and a professional choir and really a lot of recognition as a church that set the standards in music.”

“I knew they couldn’t be more different, of course, but it felt like the right thing to do,” he said. “Sometimes you can feel inside whether or not you should do something, and I definitely felt that I was led to do this. And I really have not regretted it.”

He also knew that he wouldn’t undergo a spiritual conversion.

“This church and its pastor and its theology are just as Christian as the one I had in New York,” Swann said. “There’s probably different emphasis here and there, but it wasn’t a case of changing religion.”

Swann was brought in on the recommendation of the great organist Virgil Fox, his predecessor at Riverside, who designed the Garden Grove instrument but died before it could be installed.

“Several people then got in on it, and like many things that a committee gets in on, you got a horse that resembled a camel,” Swann said. “So it really took 10 years to completely straighten the organ out and make it into the magnificent instrument that it is today.”

The instrument was named after Hazel Wright, who donated the money to buy and maintain it. It’s a hybrid of a 1962 Aeolian-Skinner instrument from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and the 1977 Ruffatti organ installed in the church’s previous sanctuary. Later additions increased the resources to a total of 302 stops, 293 ranks and more than 17,000 pipes.

“The [original] two had been installed in completely different acoustical surroundings, in rooms of different size,” Swann said. “They were built by different builders. So when you put the two together, in an entirely different acoustical environment, there were a lot of tonal things that needed to be done.


“We had two and three of some kinds of stops and none of others and that sort of thing. So there was a great deal of tonal work and mechanical work that had to be sorted out.”

Swann said the organ is “among the top five organs in the world in size, depending on who’s done what to their organ in any particular week,” Swann said. “But the organ in New York was very large too, and the one I’m going to in Los Angeles is even larger than this.”

Swann came to the organ indirectly. He began piano lessons when he was 6 from the organist in his father’s church in Winchester, Va. One day, he arrived early for a lesson to find his teacher practicing the organ.

“I came around the corner and saw this great big console and was so impressed with the machine itself and the sound that was coming out of it, I begged her to let me play it,” he said. “She bribed me: If I had a good piano lesson, she’d let me bang on the organ for a few minutes before I went home.

“By the time I was 8--my feet still wouldn’t quite reach the pedals--she started giving me lessons. A couple of years later she died, and they didn’t have an organist, and I became the church organist. At 10. And I’ve done it ever since. Every Sunday for 60 years without a break.”

At 15, he went to Northwestern University School of Music in Evanston, Ill., and did graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York. That school is across the street from Riverside Church, where Fox was organist.

“He had known of me through friends in Chicago and asked me to come be his assistant, which I did part-time. Then he decided to retire. After a couple of years in the Army, I became organist and eventually music director. I stayed there for nearly 30 years. Then Dr. Schuller came knocking on the door.”

Swann does not see his move from Garden Grove to Los Angeles as ending his career.

“A lot of people think I’m giving up, that I’m just going to play a few hymns on Sunday and that’s going to be it,” he said. “But actually I’m going to be very busy.

“I’ll be playing two noon-day recitals every Tuesday and Thursday, plus the Sunday services, plus school chapels. I’ll be taking part in the artists’ series there,” he said.

“I’ll be the organist for the [annual] Los Angeles Bach Festival, the oldest Bach festival on the West Coast, and I’m going to organize and administer at least one, if not two, conferences on the organ each year.”

He also has been appointed organist emeritus at the Crystal Cathedral. “I assume that once in a while I’ll be back for something. But there’s not going to be any official connection outside of the title.”

Swann says that the glass cathedral “has taken a very bum rap as far as the acoustics are concerned. Actually, the acoustics are ideal for a large pipe organ because it’s not a dead room.”

“Organ sound, especially, needs room to bloom in,” he said. “There’s an old saying--and it’s very true--that the acoustic of a room is the most important stop on the organ.”

For his final recital, Swann has picked works “designed to show off the colors of the organ.” That will include some Bach, some Franck, a piece by the American composer Robert Hebble, written to commemorate the organ’s installation, and other pieces.

“I’m going to play a transcription of the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings because the cathedral organ has more string stops than most of the organs in California put together.

“It would take several days to really show off everything on an organ that size,” he said. “But the aim of the program is not that this is the greatest organ music ever written or that Fred Swann is such a great organist. The idea is to show what a really fabulous instrument this organ has become.”

* Crystal Cathedral organist Frederick Swann will give his farewell recital Friday at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. $6-$8. (714) 544-5679.