Magazine article The American Organist


Magazine article The American Organist


Article excerpt

ON NOVEMBER23, 1930, Canadian-born organist Lynnwood Farnam died in a hospital in New York City at age 45, six weeks after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. The Lynnwood Farnam Papers at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he taught during the last two years of his life, document the life and legacy of one of the most famous organists of his time. The collection includes reminiscences and correspondence that were gathered in the decades after the death of a man who was loved not only for his music, but also for his gentle, unassuming personality. These papers, which have recently been organized and cataloged, tell a sad story: how attempts to write Farnam's biography ultimately failed.


Farnam was a meticulous collector, whose scrapbooks, notebooks, and diaries allow us to follow his life and career in detail. He grew up on a farm in Dunham, Quebec, where he had piano lessons at the Dunham Ladies' College by special arrangement. In 1900, at age 15, he won a scholarship to study piano at the Royal College of Music in London, where he was allowed to switch to the organ after his first year. It was in London that he started to record the stoplists of all the organs that he encountered during his travels, ultimately filling ten volumes (with index) throughout his career. In 1904, the 19-year-old Farnam returned to Canada and took up the first of his three positions as a church organist in Montreal. His collection of programs and clippings, which he glued in overlapping layers into scrapbooks (now yellowed and very fragile) demonstrate how he built his reputation as a performer during his Montreal years.

In 1913, Farnam was appointed organist at Emmanuel Church in Boston, where he supervised the building of a 140-stop Casavant organ-at the time, the third-largest organ in North America (his diaries include detailed notes). In 1919, he moved to New York City, becoming organist of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (1919-20) and the Church of the Holy Communion (1920-30). When, in 1927, he was appointed to the faculty of the recently founded Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he was at the peak of his career. His recitals at the Church of the Holy Communion had already become legendary, and his performances of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1928-29 drew crowds. By the time of his death in 1930, Farnam had played about 900 recitals around the world. He was universally mourned, with obituaries appearing in professional journals as well as national newspapers.


It is impossible to go through Farnam's papers without developing affection for the man behind them. He never married, but kept up a lively correspondence with his parents and particularly his sister, Arline, to whom he was very close. The collection includes a small photo album he assembled for his aunt, depicting the family's life on the farm, with "Lynn" playing the piano and milking a cow. His diaries and notebooks include birthdays and signatures of friends and fellow organists, lists of Christmas presents, the odd laundry list, and dried four-leaf clovers. Although he brought his camera everywhere, his papers include hardly any photographs, because he gave them all away. The only ones that he kept were snapshots of organs; most were taken in Canada during his youth.

When Farnam died, his library of books and scores was bequeathed to the Curtis Institute of Music. The library included the original manuscript of his only composition, the toccata O Filii et Filiae-the publication of which was arranged by Curtis's founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Farnam's notebooks, diaries, and scrapbooks went to his sister Arline, who lived with her husband and children in California. Even as they packed up Farnam's belongings after the funeral, his family realized the value of the col- lection for a biography. "I feel I am merely a sort of trustee for his many priceless treasures, as he is a character who belongs to the world," Arline wrote her cousin Henry Curtis, the first person the family asked to take on the project. …

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