I had the pleasure of talking with James Busby on occasion of his retirement after nearly 30 years of service as Organist and Choirmaster of S. Stephen’s Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Providence, Rhode Island, which sits on the edge of ivy-league Brown University’s campus quadrangle. [Bostonians and organ aficionados may also want to read Busby’s recollections on the early Fisk organ he helped procure for Old West Church1]
The church held a special service and luncheon on May 22nd in honor of James, of whom The Rev’d Benjamin Straley, Rector of S. Stephen’s, remarked “everything that the Church does…flows out of our worship of the Living God — a God who comes to us in the Mass in the beauty of holiness. James has selflessly offered himself to this cause. The great drama of the Mass has been accompanied by his stirring improvisations and sensitive timing. The choir has been shaped in countless ways by his leadership, and he is a devoted and fierce advocate for our parish.”
The music for that day’s service consisted of Juan Gutièrrez Padilla (1590-1644) Missa Ego flos campi, Psalm 67 – Deus misereatur by Bertram Luard-Selby (1853-1918), and the anthem by John E. West (1863-1929) The woods and every sweet-smelling tree. Busby played “La Cour de Lys” from Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (Claude Debussy 1862-1918) and the Choral and Toccata Op. 104 (Joseph Jongen 1873-1953) as voluntaries .
SM: So, James, you are lauded not only for your beautiful music but also for who you are as a mentor and an inspiration for so many people.
JB: I love it; it’s all I know how to do, and I’m still learning how, that’s the sad part of deciding to do something else, because I’m not done with the job yet. Maybe that’s a good thing.
So, what’s the something else that you are envisioning?
Learning how to play the organ (?) [Laughter]. I think I might like a little more down time. My alarm goes off at 4:00 am on Sundays and I make the trek down from where I live in Boston. I have names for the potholes along the way. The commute doesn’t bother me; I am usually here by 7:00 and ready for people to start coming in. I love being on time, and to do what we do the singers have to be here on time, too, knowing their notes, and smiling.
Well, with Covid and the challenges it has brought, so many people in our profession are choosing to call it quits. Is this a good time to retire.
I am not so sure about that. I do plan on taking a little breather, but I will continue playing, but without the commute, and without all the details of administration. I have 18 paid singers, and now it is hard to fill those chairs. I have always given preference to Rhode Islanders, but they must read the notes and be up and at it by 8 o’clock. Maybe, now it is time for a fresh vision.
And I do so love the chant and compline, so I might do some of this with a group I had quit twice before to get back into that. I will be able to do polyphony and chant, which is a passion. The repertoire has some precious jewels that the church may want to take back again and again.
And you’ve been doing this for…
29 years. And where did it all go?
How did you manage during Covid?
We did Zoom but it was a bit clunky. The mystery is lost on Zoom. We started out with just a few singers. We were tested on our creativity to come up with new repertoire for smaller forces. That worked for about a month, then we gradually moved back to a larger group again.
Will you miss the historic and beautiful Austin organ here? [More on the organ can be found by sifting through the “The Fiske Years” and “Post-War Developments” in the Short History of S. Stephen’s Church]
Well, let’s say that I’ve made my peace with it. It fills the room and is larger than they really need, but I am grateful they maintain it, but in answer to your question, no, I can be just as happy playing on a tabletop. I am more interested in the message than the medium. I’ve loved this organ and found it a great tool, but I I’ll find another instrument to play on and be just as happy. I love practicing the piano.
Piano or organ?
Both. Of course, I don’t play piano for people, only for singers. I love the Schubert lieder.
In some ways, I could have done more if I lived here rather than Boston, but then, again, much of the draw was that I was from there rather than here, and that I could recruit from there as well as here.
One thing you brought to this institution is a stability it hadn’t had hitherto.
Hollis Grant, my well-respected predecessor [who founded St. Dunstan’s Academy – a summer learning program for organists which ran for many years here in Rhode Island, bringing in some of the best and brightest teachers and scholars of the liturgical art], he had quite a long tenure, 30 years or so. Then there was a period of constant change, among both clergy and musicians, so much so there might as well have been a turnstile by the organ console. Yet many of both were and are some of my best friends. I’ve kept up with at least two of my predecessors, and what we all have in common is a love of polyphony. I was at one point asked to do Arvo Pärt, the Berliner Mass, which we did, but polyphony was really our specialty, especially the music of Palestrina. The Berliner had a beastly difficult accompaniment but was very effective, with the tintinnabulum, and bell-like effect, and one of my beloved mentors (Edith Ho) said “you really like that?” and I said I rather did.
Don’t we love our mentors, more than mere professors, who take the time to assess our whole persons and feed us what we most need?
Truly, truly, and Edith became an amazing colleague who helped me so much when I got this job.
[We discussed some of our beloved teachers and mentors, and how even though they are no longer with us how we remember them when we are at the organ.]
George Faxon was also someone who had a great influence here. I play some of his transcriptions as a way of remembering him. [That included the morning’s transcription of the Debussy, gifted by Faxon.] We are also going to do a hymn by Tom Neal, who was here a while ago.
Tell us about the musical vision you brought to S. Stephen’s.
It was simply to enhance the Mass as best as I could. I tried to select the very best from every period. So, for Carter Brown’s memorial service, I did the Stravinsky Mass. Carter Brown had changed the way we look at art, and I thought it fitting since Stravinsky changed the way we listen to music.
For the church to put their trust in what we do is a lovely thing, and very important, and I have no reason to think it won’t continue. We are in a good place, too, with Brown University. Our new rector F. Benjamin (Straley) is attracting attention, and he is also a musician, having been organist at the National Cathedral before becoming a priest.
That must be rewarding.
…or a bit daunting, but he has that ethos that will help as they search for a new candidate.
Will you give them any advice?
No, even though that might be difficult. They do have a search committee, who will make recommendations to the rector, but it will be his call. They are in a good place with that, as the committee members have experience as professional singers.
Well, whoever comes in will have big shoes to fill.
Actually, mine are about 8-½ – 9. [Laughter]
I think part of the reason for your success here is that you are more than a musician, you have a vision of ministry.
Well, we do try to get it right.
…and you have had good relations with the clergy here?
Extraordinary…or I wouldn’t have stayed.
You can speak their language and they can speak yours, and doesn’t that make such a difference?
Sure, but the whole of it started out just as a love relationship, I just loved the piano, so for a while I thought I would give up the organ and just be a vocal coach, but gradually came back to the organ, and to church, and consequently to S. Stephen’s.
Hopes and dreams for S. Stephen’s? Where would you like them to be in say 10 or 20 years from now?
As involved as they are now in the community, if not more so. Demographics are constantly shifting, but I would love to see greater involvement in the churches. That takes reaching out to people.
Highlights of your career?
I don’t know. The fact that I get up on Sunday morning.
You are too modest.
Well, I have had so much fun over the years. The highlights of my years were lessons with two piano teachers who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer — my studies with Julius Chaloff, and Kyriena Siloti who was my last teacher. She made it out of St. Petersburg in 1918 and believed she could do anything, and pretty much did.
Any musical accomplishments or specific pieces that have given you great joy?
I probably sound like a bore, but I truly love it all. There were a few ego trips early on, doing my first opera (La Bohème) at the Hatch Shell when I was young and cheeky. That was great fun, kid stuff. I just love playing.
People want to celebrate you and I thought of this interview as a sort of Fête-Schrift [my made-up word] to honor you.
Well, a quiet check at the end of the month is best, but this in its place is nice.
Thank you James, and in closing may I say, you have devotedly served here the music you so love, and that music is a blessing to us all.
Truly it is.
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.
1 FLE: When I first knew you, you were the celebrated organist at Old West Church, which then had an active congregation. How did they end up with a CB Fisk organ? Must have been quite a reach.
Yes, and it is a good story, worth recounting. It begins when the Asher Benjamin building from 1806 was restored, if you can call it that, or reorganized as a church, after being a branch of the Boston Public Library. The congregation signed with Casavant for an undistinguished electropneumatic organ of not great size, sort of like the one in Marsh Chapel at BU, but they ran out of money by the time they’d finished redoing the building. So they temporarily put a hold on that contract. In the meantime they reopened, and I became the organist through a series of coincidences, mostly my just walking in off the street to look at the inside of the building. The needed someone to play a service that very night.
And that became an audition, and I had a job. The organ then was a Cole residence organ from a house in Somerville that had first been moved to the chapel of Copley Methodist, which is where the Nike store is now on Newbury Street. Copley was one of the congregations that merged to form Old West, which re-opened as a church in 1964.
It wasn’t long before it became obvious that it needed a better instrument, even though the 12-stop Cole sounded great in the room. The senior minister, Wilbur C. Ziegler, had gotten to know the Minister of King’s Chapel, Joseph Barth, at Rotary Club of all places. Barth said, oh, Miss Peabody gave our organ in her father’s memory, maybe she’d be interested in your project. He arranged the meeting between the two of them and invited me along. She then came to see Old West to see if it was of interest to her. She liked the building a lot. The organ at King’s Chapel was a Fisk, which incorporated elements from the Skinner organ in her father’s house, and Dan Pinkham, Kings Chapel’s music director, became involved in this whole project.
So Amelia Peabody promised Old West a sum of money, perhaps 15,000 toward the purchase price to get the project off the ground. (I vaguely remember the organ costing about 45,000.) In those days West Church had an endowment that supplied the rest.
In addition to King’s Chapel she had given money for a Wicks organ at her summer parish the Unitarian Society in Dover. So she said, either Fisk or Wicks, and I decided, well, there isn’t much contest there. I had already decided before this that if they could get a Fisk, it would be the perfect match for the building.
Charlie’s first three proposals weren’t so good. He didn’t want to build an organ with a swell box. I thought this wasn’t realistic for a Methodist Church, and it looked pretty bare-bones. So I was able to up the number of stops a little bit — reeds in the Swell at 16’ and 8, and at 8’ and 4’ on the Great. I do take some credit for that.
Charlie would always accuse me of saying, oh what you want is an Aeolian Skinner with tracker action. What he didn’t know is that I didn’t care that much about tracker action at that point. But I did think the ethos of Charlie’s work was precisely what was required. I just think it’s important to remember that a lot of what works well at Old West is the pipework from the Cole, such as the 8ft reed in the Swell tuned down an octave for a half-length 16. The Great 16 foot open is a Haskell bass, which would have been made by Estey. And there’s the 19th-century Appleton case from Ipswich [expanded by adding a duplicate of the central tower].
So it was put together out of a lot of bits and pieces since Charlie Fisk didn’t have a pipe shop in those days. That happened when they moved to the Cape Ann Industrial Park. He was not above recycling other pipe work in that era. It was economical feasible. The Cole was nicely small scale; being a residence organ, it wasn’t a big old fat thing.
I could go on and perhaps umbrage could be courted by the part about bits and pieces of the construction of organ since the bulk of the pipework really was new. All the wood things were old, but not certain about how much metal stuff.
Miss P. incidentally liked the sound of the Cole and, saw nothing wrong it, so I played JSB Gigue Fugue for her and the pedal entrance would send the Great reservoir into spasms of vibrato which would have warmed the heart of Robert Hope-Jones. She deemed that organ worth replacing! Maybe that’s where CBF invented flexible wind!
The Old West Fisk has never really gone out of fashion or out of favor.
Isn’t that funny about something that’s good? Yeah, it’s an amazing instrument and for me it redefined my taste. I temporarily gave up playing Liszt’s Ad Nos when I got that instrument. And it didn’t teach me as much as it could have or as it would have now probably.
I’ve heard a fair amount contemporary music on it over the years. It’s articulate. And resonant at the same time.
Yes. Very clean. Wondrously melodic. It lacks a couple of things, like string stops and a Vox Humana, that keep it from being a success in certain types of music, such as Franck, although you hear people try.
We’re grateful for the volunteer Old West Organ Society since neither congregation nor New England Conservatory has been supporting it.
The best thing that happened to Old West was my leaving and Yuko Hayashi taking over. She was a wonderful shepherd of the instrument and got NEC to help with its upkeep at a time when the church was really low on funds.
I know you have spent a lot of time coaching and accompanying singers, sometimes memorably. The best advice you’ve ever given to singers is, “Think before you phonate.” Actually, that’s good advice for anyone.