Georgia / Atlanta Chapter History

One hundred years has long been considered a significant measure of age. The Georgia Chapter of the American Guild of Organist, organized on October 6, 1914, and chartered in 1955 as the Atlanta Chapter, reaches this prestigious distinction on October 6, 2014.

1910 Austin organ, Op. 262, in the Atlanta Auditorium Armory.

Atlanta Armory (Atlanta, Georgia) Events leading to the establishment of the AGO in Atlanta were set in motion early in the 20th century when a municipal auditorium housing a large pipe organ was conceived for the city. Stories of the auditorium organ and of municipal organ music in Atlanta revealed a colorful musical environment common to many ambitious turn-of-the-century cities. It was from this environment that Atlanta musicians decided to join together for mutual professional development.

Organization of the Georgia Chapter

Atlanta Conservatory of Music

Atlanta’s second city organist, Dr. Edwin Arthur Kraft (FAGO) founded the first AGO Chapter in the state. The organizational meeting of the Georgia Chapter was held at the Atlanta Conservatory of Music on October 6, 1914, with fourteen charter members. In its first year, the Chapter had a membership of 33. The annual dues were $3.00, and a church dinner was 50¢.

The Early Years

During the first and second years of the Georgia Chapter, programs were primarily recitals by Chapter members. The “serious music”of early recitals given by Chapter members consisted of organ works still in the standard repertory, works by living organists whose compositions are now obscure, and transcriptions of popular orchestral scores. The satisfying surprise in examining early programs is the substantial number of major organ works.

By 1917, musical activities competed for the involvement of Atlanta church musicians, and the Georgia Chapter found itself with declining support. In 1919, the Chapter even voted for a 25 cent fine for nonattendance—with little result. With only seven active members, there was talk of disbanding the Chapter in March 1921. On April 19, 1921, a renewal banquet was held at Second Baptist Church. Sub-Dean Walter Peck Stanley (AAGO) spoke on the objectives of the guild to the members and the nine guests. As a result, the nine guests joined the Chapter providing the critical mass needed for survival.

A Memorable Chapter Event

Charles A. Sheldon, AAGO,
at the Aeolian Organ

Perhaps, one of the most out-standing meetings in the history of the Georgia Chapter was held on December 13, 1932, at “Briarcliff,”the magnificent mansion of Asa G. Candler Jr. The opportunity of being guests of these splendid Atlantans brought a record attendance of Chapter members, their escorts, and some specially invited guests. After a short business meeting and Christmas dinner, the guests assembled in the music room for discussions about the four-manual, 86-rank Aeolian organ, followed by a recital given by several Chapter members. Mr. and Mrs. Candler entertained Virgil Fox after several of his Atlanta concerts in the 1930s and invited the entire Georgia Chapter to their magnificent mansion as guests.

The “Ladies of the Chapter”

Beginning the in late 1930s and continuing in to the late 1950s, the Georgia Chapter flourished under the leadership of several notable, and sometimes notorious, ladies of the Chapter. There was camaraderie among these ladies, who often met once a month for lunch to discuss Chapter activities and to plan unique and diverse programs. Their love and devotion to the Chapter, and among themselves, and to the betterment of music for Atlanta, has not been paralleled since.

Southeastern Regional Convention

In 1940, the Georgia Chapter hosted the first Southeastern Regional Convention to be held in Atlanta. Headquarters were at the Biltmore Hotel. Registration was $3.00, including luncheon and banquet! Participating chapters were Georgia, Macon, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana. The convention began with a reception at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Asa G. Candler Jr. (Aeolian Organ). Recitals were held at First Presbyterian Church, Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, and The Temple, with performers from within the region.

Hymn Festivals

The coming together in corporate singing of many churches was an important activity in the late 1930s and 1940s. The closing of the hard times from the recession and the beginning of the war in Europe brought congregations together in the spirit of thanksgiving and hope. In 1944, the Georgia Chapter planed a mammoth undertaking that involved thousands of Atlantans―a Harvest Hymn Festival, to give hope to war-weary spirits. The system of organization called for churches to be zoned. Congregations and choirs within each area joined together in the most centrally located church to sing hymns identically programmed for all of metropolitan Atlanta. As church chimes rang out the hour of eight o’clock, ten thousand citizens of Atlanta sang “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart” in one mighty voice. Congregations were assembled in twelve appointed host churches to sing the same hymns with sacred emotion. Vested choirs, men and women, aged and young, small boys and girls, and men and women of the United States Armed Forces sang lustily in fervent invocation for peace and thanksgiving.

A Season Subscription

Three notable exponents of organ music (Marcel Dupré, Claire Coci, and Virgil Fox) were presented during the 1948-49 program year on the four-manual, 40-rank Austin organ in Gaines Chapel on the Agnes Scott College campus. This was a new project for the Georgia Chapter in presenting more than one world-renowned organists on a season subscription basis. The season ticket price for all three performances was $3.60 (tax included!). According to financial records, profit from this subscription series enabled the Chapter to establish a sizeable performance fund for future programs and was the beginning of a sizeable savings account.

At the Console

Beginning the summer of 1942 and continuing for the next three years, The Atlanta Journal published in its Sunday edition a picture and sketch of one of Atlanta’s organists. In addition to the biographical data concerning each organist, there was an outline of the music program of the church served by the organist and information about the current and previous organ(s). These sketches served to emphasize importance of the music in the churches and the musicians who provided that music.

Georgia Chapter becomes Atlanta Chapter.

American Guild of Organists Atlanta Chapter Charter

Regional Convention

The Fox Theatre Organ Console

In 1957, the Atlanta Chapter hosted its first Regional Convention. Headquarters was at the Biltmore Hotel. A total of 169 registered for the convention from 11 states. At that time, the Southeastern Region was comprised of four states: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The first day provided a musical service at The Temple featuring Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service under the leadership of Emilie Spivey (AAGO), Temple organist, and the Choral Guild of Atlanta, Haskell Boyter, director. Three major artists were presented in recital: George Markey, Pierre Cochereau, and Virgil Fox. The convention brochure carried the following quote about a special evening event, “Rendezvous with a Lady”:

To top off the evening, we have an invitation from an aging Lady of Pleasure—the theatre organ. Her make-up may be a bit faded, and she has lost a strategic pin or two, but she is ready and willing and there is just no telling what she will do if properly persuaded. (Fox Theatre).

Chapter Newsletter

In September 1958, the Atlanta Chapter published its first official monthly newsletter, The Dulciana―a little Diapason. This name was aptly chosen as the Official Journal of the AGO, at that time, was called The Diapason. In the first issue, it was noted that the newsletter was “for the amusement, amazement, edification, and information of its members.”The Dulciana was not intended as a profound and august dispenser of musical information, but rather a means of keeping all Chapter members in touch, one with another. The name of the Chapter newsletter was changed in the late 1970’s to The Organizer.

50th Anniversary of the Atlanta Chapter

50th Anniversary Celebration

In 1964, the Atlanta Chapter celebrated its 50th anniversary. At that time, there were 192 active members. Is was fitting that the dean of the Chapter at that time was Adele P. Dieckmann (AAGO) daughter of the late C. W. Dieckmann (FAGO), three times dean of the Georgia/Atlanta Chapter, and one of the fine teachers who laid the foundation of music in Atlanta. A witty and informative talk “Where Do We Go from Here?”by the AGO National President Alec Wyton climaxed the celebration banquet telling of plans being made to extend and expand the work of the Guild and to bring the national organization into closer touch with the local chapters and their members. This was capped by Mr. Wyton’s announcement that the National Council had voted to accept the bid of the Atlanta Chapter for the 1966 National Convention.

Biennial National Convention of the AGO

The Diapason, in its August 1966 issue

The Atlanta Chapter hosted the first Biennial National Convention of the AGO to be held in the South in June 1966. The AGO magazine, The Diapason, in its August 1966 issue, dedicated considerable space to an in-depth review by Frank Cunkle, editor. In his summary, Mr Cunkle wrote:

The convention really put the Chapter on the map of Atlanta and of Georgia (just as it put it on the AGO national map) in a way that will be lasting and cumulative. The strengthening effect within the Chapter itself should be worth all the work, too. Nothing brings out hidden talents like discharging group responsi-bilities. A near-miracle of clever planning, firm organ-ization, and musical balance, combined with a char-acteristically southern feeling of relaxation and absence of the hectic, helped to create one of the most satisfactory and enjoyable national conventions in the history of the AGO.

That so many people braved their personal prejudices as to what summer is like in the South is a tribute to good promotion and intelligent planning. This was the first AGO convention for which busses (air-conditioned) were provided to shuttle conventioneers between venues, which eliminated the frantic passage between venues. Convention planners had projected an attendance of 1,000 and had budgeted for that many. As a result of the increased attendance (1,250), the profit from the convention was put into a fund for Atlanta Chapter scholarships and has been the basis for much of the Chapter’s activities even up until the present time. The Atlanta convention marked the last AGO National Convention for which artists played for expenses rather than their usual fees. This allowed for the registration fee for Atlanta Chapter members to be $25.00! With the “nest egg”from the convention, the Atlanta Chapter set up a scholarship fund, which up to the present time, has offered annual scholarships to aspiring organists who wish to continue their training.

Region IV Convention

The first convention of Region IV since the combining of the previous Southern and Southeastern Regions was held in Atlanta, June 16-19, 1975 and drew in excess of 300 delegates from the nine-state area and beyond. With much advance publicity, delegates arrived prepared for a treat, and none could have been disappointed with the packed schedule. An innovative concept introduced at this convention was that all meals, with the exception of the banquet, were provided at each location so that attendees did not have to search out eating establishments.

In his review of the convention in Music, the AGO-RCCO magazine, Ralph D. Erickson (AAGO), two-term dean of the Nashville, Tennessee Chapter wrote the following:

One could only be extremely grateful to the convention committee for arranging meals throughout the convention in churches where sessions took place. Nor could one fail to appreciate the efficient bus service, the choice of accommodations . . . the Atlanta Chapter has given us a very high standard in conventions to strive for in years to come.

Biennial National Convention of the AGO

AGO 1992 Logo

In 1992, at the second Biennial National Convention of the AGO to be held in Atlanta, the 1800-plus registrants were to reap rich rewards. The Atlanta Chapter had assembled an impressive array of public concerts, encompassing organ recitals, choral programs, and world premieres of works by more than 15 composers. The Steering Committee adopted diverse and intriguing themes in the program planning: Hispanic activities in honor of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’voyage to America, African-American composers and performers in recognition of Atlanta’s importance in the Civil Rights Movement, female composers and performers, choral music and organ with instruments, performance practices, and emerging artists—a continuation of the successful effort of the 1966 AGO National Convention in Atlanta. The New Music Committee worked diligently to coordinate a total of eleven commissions for the convention, including: choral, organ solo, organ duet, processional hymn, and a special commission for theatre organ.

Haig Mardirosian provided the following conclusion in his review of the convention in The American Organist, August 1992.

No institutional agenda, no matter how broad-minded, can hope to satisfy every constituency, but one came away from Atlanta at week’s end with a potent perception that important objectives had been met . . . This National Convention, like the debonair, hospitable city which hosted it, was an authentic expression of the mosaic of people, traditions, notions, and inclinations of the times. That in itself makes reason for exhilaration and confidence.

Pipe Organ Encounters

The Atlanta Chapter co-sponsored its first Pipe Organ Encounter in 1995 at Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia, with 23 young persons, ages 31 to 20. In 2000, the POE was held at Emory University, with 11 students. In 2004, the POE returned to Agnes Scott College, with 34 students. Organ Day, Opus I and Opus II, held in 1993 and 1994, provided middle and high school students with hands-on experience through video tape presentations, playing a prepared piece, and tours of several organ chambers at various Atlanta churches.

Special Chapter Programs

Special programs presented by the Atlanta Chapter have included: Organ Students Mini-Convention in 1973, Celebration of the tri-centennial of J. S. Bach in 1985, AGO Centennial Celebration in 1996, A New Millennium: Pipes Spectacular in 2000, and Organ Spectacular!―The World’s Largest Organ Recital in 2008.

The Taylor Organ Competition

In 2006, the Atlanta Chapter received a generous bequest from the estate of Elizabeth Abbott Taylor, a long-time member of the Atlanta Chapter. She specified in her will that her bequest be used to benefit talented young musicians. The Executive Board of the Atlanta Chapter appointed a committee to determine the best use of the bequest. This committee recommended that a national organ competition be established, the first competition to be held in April, 2012, with subsequent competitions to be held every three years.

Southeastern Region Convention of the AGO

During four sun-filled days in June 2007, 240 registrants from the Southeastern Region and beyond were treated to world-class organists performing on world-class instruments, with an assortment of sermons, psalms, hymns, anthems, and spiritual songs in honor of creation and in praise and thanksgiving for the gift of music. Unlike sermons, AGO conventions do not require scriptural texts. However, if the Region IV convention held in Atlanta in 2007 needed one, Jesus’familiar words “Behold, I make all things new”would have worked very well. The motto of the convention was New South! New Organs! New Music! This convention, 15 years after an AGO National Convention held in what many consider to the capital city of the Deep South, highlighted excellent music-making and new organs―only one instrument intact from 1992, the others substantially rebuilt, revoiced, and enlarged. Prosperous and sophisticated Atlanta is an anthology of late 20th-, early 21st-century organbuilding. Conventioneers heard two sorts of organs, and numerous debates were overheard about the merits of each. There were five world premieres at the convention, all of which have been published.

―excerpts from a review by Dr. Douglas Murray, Professor of English, Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee, and a member of the Nashville AGO Chapter.

Looking Forward

As the Atlanta Chapter embarks on its second century, Chapter members can proudly reflect on the many pieces that make up the history of the Georgia/Atlanta Chapter. Because of the dedication of so many individuals in the past one hundred years, the Chapter enjoys a healthy and fulfilling fellowship of organists and musicians of all genres today. As members of the Atlanta Chapter, we look to the future with great hope for our profession and with enthusiasm for that which brings us together in the American Guild of Organists!

Dan Pruitt, Chapter Historian
Co-chair Centennial Committee
Dean 1978–80