Partner W. Richard Weagly, David Snyder
7009 Kenleigh Rd, Baltimore, MD 21212
The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Dr, New York, NY 10027
Pioneer Cemetery Dover, Bureau County, Illinois, USA
Virgil Keel Fox (May 3, 1912 in Princeton, Illinois – October 25, 1980 in Palm Beach, Florida) was an American organist, known especially for his years as organist at Riverside Church in New York City, from 1946 to 1965, and his flamboyant "Heavy Organ" concerts of the music of Bach in the 1970s, staged complete with light shows. His many recordings made on the RCA Victor and Capitol labels, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, have been remastered and re-released on compact disc in recent years. They continue to be widely available in mainstream music stores. Fox was an outrageous showman who alienated purists right and left – and he loved every minute of it. Virgil wore a red satin lined cape and a beret while performing, and he drove a pink Cadillac. The heels of his organ shoes were embellished with rhinestones. He insisted on being visible to his audiences (tough, if not impossible in most churches back in those days). He was also temperamental and demanding – organ tuners dreaded working for him.
Virgil Fox was born on May 3, 1912, in Princeton, Illinois, to Miles and Birdie Fox, a farming family. Showing musical talent at an early age, he began playing the organ for church services as a ten-year old as well as at a local movie theater owned by his father. Four years later, Fox made his concert debut before an audience of 2,500 at Withrow High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program included one of the mainstays of 19th-century organ music: Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 1 in F minor. From 1926 to 1930, he studied in Chicago under German-born organist-composer Wilhelm Middelschulte. His other principal teachers were Hugh Price, Louis Robert, and (once he had moved to France) Marcel Dupré. He was an alumnus of the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, where he became the first student to complete the course for the Artist's Diploma within a year, at age 18. He was also a student of Louis Vierne.
Virgil and Richard Weagly at The Riverside Church's new five manual Æolian-Skinner console for the Hook and Hastings organ. Photo taken from "The Church Monthly", a publication of The Riverside Church, Volume 23, November 1948.
Beginning in 1936, Fox was organist at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore while teaching at Peabody. During August and September, 1938, he played in Great Britain and Germany; Fox was the first non-German organist given permission to perform publicly in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig—a special occasion, since Bach served as cantor of the Thomaskirche until his death in 1750.
During World War II, Fox enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and took a leave of absence from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and the Peabody. He was promoted to staff sergeant and played various recitals and services at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt. He served on her Home Hospitality Committee and entertained returning troops who were in Walter Reed Hospital, by playing a piano he pushed around, and joining in with two others. They sang funny and rather raunchy songs to the bedridden. After having played more than 600 concerts while on duty, he was discharged from the Army Air Forces in 1946.
Fox then served as organist at the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, from 1946 to 1965. His lover, W. Richard Weagly, was the Choir Director, and the acrimonious end of their relationship was played out in front of everyone. Worship at Riverside Church was often merely an accessory to the star of the show, which was Virgil’s organ playing, especially his flamboyant hymn interpretations. His fans showed up in droves on Sunday mornings. In the mid 1960s, however, Fox was asked to resign from his job at Riverside, because he had gotten “too big” for the church. The church's original Hook and Hastings organ installed in 1930 was rebuilt at his insistence by famed organ builder G. Donald Harrison, Master Builder of the Mormon Tabernacle organ plus others. Under his direction, the Riverside organ was expanded to become one of the largest in North America. His extemporaneous hymn accompaniments at Riverside's Sunday services and concert performances were widely acclaimed, and fans would wait after church services for hours to meet him. Recordings made during this period brought his playing to larger audiences. In 1965, Fox left Riverside Church to devote himself to concertizing full-time.
From 1970 until 1978, Fox performed his famous "Heavy Organ" concerts in auditoriums, popular music concert halls, and other nontraditional organ music venues, touring around the United States with a rented electronic Rodgers Touring Organ. Later on he used his own instrument, a massive four-manual, custom-designed Allen Organ (1977–1980). The Heavy Organ concerts exclusively featured works of Johann Sebastian Bach accompanied by a large-scale light show, "Revelation Lights" by David Snyder, that was synchronized with the music, thereby bringing together aural and visual elements. The spectacle attracted enthusiastic audiences numbering in the thousands, but was not without its critics. William F. Buckley was reported by the New York Times as saying Fox, "must have figured that it was more important to fill the house with listeners who would hear Bach for the first time than worry about those who would resolve, like me, to have heard Fox for the last time". During this period, half of Fox's performances were "Heavy Organ" concerts accompanied by "Revelation Lights", with the virtuoso organist speaking informally to the audiences, and half were traditional classical music. In the latter category, a Fox recital at Lakeland University in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was typical: he played Julius Reubke's monumental Sonata on the 94th Psalm, Charles Ives' Variations on "America", the "Libera Me" movement from Fauré's Requiem, Bach's Adagio and Fugue in a minor, and Henri Mulet's Thou Art the Rock, among others. In a rave review, the Sheboygan Press critic was effusive in her praise, calling the recital "electrifying". She reported that the "packed house, cheering and clapping, insisted on three encores that gave the night its stunning climax". Time magazine reported that Fox earned between $6–8 thousand per performance (equivalent to $30–40 thousand in 2021, when adjusted for inflation). Fox was one of the rare organists to perform on nationally televised entertainment programs in the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Mike Douglas Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and CBS Camera Three, bringing organ masterworks to mass audiences as no other organist had done before. His last commercially released recording, though unauthorized, was made at his return (by popular demand) to Riverside Church in concert on May 6, 1979. In his 50th year of performing on the organ, Fox gave his final public performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on September 26, 1980, although he was racked with pain from metastasized prostate cancer that resulted in his death the following month.
Fox spent his last months at his estate in Palm Beach, FL, Casa Lagomar, where he died of prostate cancer in October, 1980. He was 68 years old. Virgil had performed in public just six weeks before his death, and the New York Times obituary estimated that he had performed before more than six million fans during his 50-year career.
Fox had surgery for prostate cancer in December 1975 and later underwent radiation treatments after it was found to have metastasized. He was greatly debilitated and in considerable pain from the disease when he gave his final performance on September 26, 1980, with the Dallas Symphony. Near collapse the morning after the concert, he was rushed back to Florida by private airplane from Texas to be hospitalized near his Palm Beach home, "Casa Lagomar", and the remainder of his planned concert tour was cancelled. Fox died on October 25, 1980, followed by a private funeral held at Casa Lagomar conducted by his longtime assistant and adopted son, David Snyder. A large-scale public funeral service was subsequently held at the Crystal Cathedral in California, where Fox lay in state. His remains were cremated and his ashes are interred at Pioneer Cemetery, Dover, Illinois, next to his grandparents. In a sign of continued recognition unusual for a performer (as distinct from a composer), Virgil Fox memorial recitals and concerts have been staged years after his death. In May 1990, for example, a Virgil Fox Memorial Concert was given at the Crystal Cathedral organ by Frederick Swann, who was his successor at Riverside Church. On what would have been Fox's 80th birthday, a special tribute in his memory was broadcast by KBYU-FM in Provo, Utah. Entitled Virgil Fox: American Virtuoso, the May 3, 1992, radio program, produced almost twelve years after his death, included an excerpt of Swann's Crystal Cathedral memorial of 1990 and highlighted a virtuoso performance of Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante by Fox in Tokyo, Japan, recorded fifteen years previously. Also that month, an "Organ Greats Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs" concert was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.. In 2012, the centennial year of his birth, a tribute to Fox was included in an organ concert held at a church in Vancouver, Canada. Many of his recordings have been re-mastered and are widely available on compact discs, as well as regularly heard on radio programs featuring organ music, such as Pipedreams and Sacred Classics. Biographies written about Fox after his death include the controversial Virgil Fox (The Dish): An Irreverent Biography of the Great American Organist (2001) by his former manager, Richard Torrence (2001), and Virgil Fox — His real life... with secrets you never knew (2020) by David Snyder. The Virgil Fox Society, formed to perpetuate his memory, established the Virgil Fox Scholarship under the auspices of the American Guild of Organists in 2002.
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