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Virgil Fox Biography

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Virgil Keel Fox (May 3, 1912–October 25, 1980) was a renowned organist, known especially for his flamboyant "Heavy Organ" concerts of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for audiences more familiar with rock 'n' roll music, staged complete with light shows.

Fox was born in Princeton, Illinois to Miles and Birdie Fox, and it was soon clear that he was a prodigy. Fox began playing the organ for church services at the age of ten, and made a concert debut in 1926 before 2500 at Withrow High School, Cincinnati.

From 1926 to 1930 he studied in Chicago under the German organist-composer Wilhelm Middelschulte. Fox's other principal teachers were Hugh Price, Louis Robert, and Marcel Dupré. He was an alumnus of the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, where he became the first student to complete the course for the coveted Artist's Diploma within a year.

During August and September 1938 he played in Great Britain and Germany; Fox was the first non-German organist to perform publicly in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig — a special occasion, since J.S. Bach served as cantor of the Thomaskirche until his death, in 1750, and is buried within the church.

During the Second World War Fox enlisted in the Army Air Forces and took a leave of absence from Brown Memorial Church and the Peabody. He was promoted to staff sergeant, and played various recitals and services. After having played more than 600 concerts while on duty, he was discharged from the Army Air Force in 1946.

He also served as organist at the Riverside Church in New York City, and began to make recordings there and elsewhere.

From 1971 until 1975 he performed his famous "Heavy Organ" concerts, touring around the country with an electronic Rodgers Touring Organ, built by Rodgers Instruments that sounded credibly similar to a cathedral pipe organ.

He underwent prostate surgery in 1976. His last commercially released recording was made at a Riverside Church concert on May 6, 1979. Fox's 50th year of concertizing began when he appeared with the Dallas Symphony in September 1980, in what was to be his final public performance. One month later he died of cancer, in Palm Beach, Florida.

Fox stressed pushing the limits of the instruments available to him rather than requiring that they, or his playing, be authentic to the era of the music.

His style, particularly his taste for fast tempos and flashy registrations, is in counterpoint to that of many organists, notably E. Power Biggs, who took a more traditional approach to Bach and others. Fox maintained more than 250 concert works in memory, and could call them up, playing at double speed or faster in rehearsals, which went late into the night.

During the 1970s, Fox performed a huge series of traveling concerts, utilizing very large electronic classical organs, accompanied by a sizable light show. These shows were called "Heavy Organ/Revelation Lights", and were produced by David Snyder. The concerts were sellouts wherever they went, playing to crowds who enjoyed not only classical music but Fox's almost Liberace-like theatrical touch. As with any controversial artist, his style of playing sometimes worked for him, and sometimes worked against him. Certain recordings that he made of famous organ works are still definitive today as "the interpretation to beat"; others of his recordings are quickly forgettable in the bizzare approach he took to the work in question.

There was some jealousy expressed by organists and factions within the American Guild of Organists who claimed that Fox was bastardizing the music. But on the album "Heavy Organ", in the introduction to the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, Fox summed up his approach to Bach and to music in general:
 
 
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