Lawrence Ritchey (1939-2006): Extraordinary Pedagogue and Leading Musical Figure in the Prairie Provinces

By Hall, Valerie | The American Organist, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Lawrence Ritchey (1939-2006): Extraordinary Pedagogue and Leading Musical Figure in the Prairie Provinces


Hall, Valerie, The American Organist


During the months approaching the July 2009 centennial celebration of the Royal Canadian College of Organists, several of the College's Past Presidents and current officers are writing articles that hold up a mirror to musical events in Canada over the past 100 years.

The late Lawrence Ritchey was a musician of remarkable abilities. Like Marcel Dupré, with whom he studied improvisation, his genius as an extemporizer amazed colleagues and audiences alike, and it is this skill for which he is probably best remembered. Sadly, few of his organ pupils studied improvisation systematically with Lawrence. Nevertheless, his gift for pedagogy was in many ways equal to his skill as a performer; thus his teaching constitutes his greatest legacy.

Born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, Lawrence was the third of five children. His three brothers would become ministers like their father, making Lawrence the maverick of the family. His musical talents manifested themselves early, and by the age of ten he was alternating with his father's preaching, playing hymn requests every Sunday on the first live-to-air radio station in the United States (KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa.). He made his formal debut at 13, performing the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg.1

Lawrence studied philosophy, mathematics, and Greek at Houghton and Haverford colleges, and organ with Arthur Poister at Syracuse University. He spent summers collecting folk music in the Appalachians or preaching and leading the music for Christian tent meetings, culminating in playing for a Billy Graham Crusade.2 Besides his growing love for the pipe organ, he also indulged a passion for jazz that would remain throughout his life.

Lawrence came to Canada in 1963, serving churches as organist and choirmaster in Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, and Regina before settling in Winnipeg in 1969 to accept a teaching position at the University of Manitoba. (A one-time candidate for the position of Dean of the Faculty, former RCCO President Alan Reesor recalled meeting Lawrence and hearing one of his incredible improvisations during his tour of the facility.) For the next 36 years, Lawrence taught music theory, organ, harpsichord, pedagogy, and jazz history. He served as university organist, University Senator, Senior Fellow in Music at St. John's College, and for 13 years as editorial chair of the international, interdisciplinary publication, Mosaic. A contributor to the scholarly British journal, Music and Letters, he also authored, along with colleague Charles Horton, a university theory text titled Harmony Through Melody (Scarecrow Press). As an organ consultant, he designed and redesigned several fine Canadian organs. He performed regularly as a recitalist and as an accompanist, including CBC Radio broadcasts and appearances with orchestra. He appeared with his wife, singer Candace Ritchey, in concerts of light music and American popular songs. He retired from the University of Manitoba in 2004 and was made an Honorary Fellow of St. John's College the same year.

Lawrence studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire and organ with Marcel Dupré for two years.3 As a composer, he accepted commissions and published numerous works, mostly choral. As a conductor, he led the University Chorus and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, in addition to his work at several Winnipeg churches. For many years, he and his wife taught a free Saturday Choir School for young children.

The breadth of his knowledge, his unwavering musical integrity, and his unsinkable wit and humor endeared Lawrence to hundreds of students, colleagues, and friends. His improvisatory skill, large repertoire, and artful registrations kept him in demand as a clinician. Lawrence lived a life devoted to creation and, ever the clergyman's son, dedicated all Soli Deo Gloria. A Fellowship in Music Theory has been established in his name at the University of Manitoba School of Music. …

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