I love to tell the story

Classical revival splendor

Classical revival splendor

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The First Baptist Church of Omaha, Nebraska, perches at the top of a small hill at the corner of Harney and Park in a kind of neo-classical revival splendor. I don’t know enough about architecture to describe it adequately, so you will have to figure it out for yourself.

Perhaps the building’s most remarkable characteristic is survival.

Interstate 480 cuts a swath through downtown Omaha that’s a near miss for the building. Perhaps the route was carefully chosen to miss the church and other important buildings in the city. The church’s website says the church has been in its present location since 1904 when the current building was constructed.

The church’s organ is (my goodness! I hope it’s still there) a giant 4-keyboard Austin tubular-pneumatic beast with three divisions spread across the front of the church, and a solo division (complete with tuba mirabilis, as loud a reed stop as an organ ever ought to have).  I know the building was built in 1904 because between 1960 and 1963 I sat for countless hours staring at the nameplate on the organ console, “Austin Organs, opus __, 1904). I don’t remember the opus number, but I would guess it was at the time Austin’s crowning achievement. Its preservation should have been a concern of the Organ Historical Society.

During high school, nearly every day after school I took the twenty-minute walk from Central High School at 20th and Dodge up the hill to the church to practice the organ. Roger Wischmeier, organist of the church, was my teacher. My parents were members of the church, so the church allowed me to practice there.

When I was a senior in high school, I played my first real organ recital on the Austin. I remember a few details of the program.

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

The most important of those details is that I played the Bach “Gigue” Fugue in G major from memory. At the time I had a girlfriend (didn’t every gay boy in the world in 1963?). She had a man’s name, as did her older sister. Their father was a Bach aficionado, and he raved about my playing, which pleased me more even than my teacher’s praise. My playing of the Bach went on to bless (or curse) me. When I went to college, fully expecting to be an English major so I could write (what else?), I auditioned for the music faculty because I wanted to take organ lessons for fun. I played the fugue from memory, and Dr. Spelman offered me a scholarship as an organ major on the spot. What defense did I have against such recognition?

Back to my high school recital. I also played three chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, at that time and for many years thereafter the music director of the Billy Graham Crusade. His music was favored by my teacher, and he assigned me much of Hustad’s music to learn. Hustad, was a formidable musician and musicologist. For years after high school I dismissed him because of his connection with Billy Graham, but have come to my senses as an old man and understand not only his solid and inspired compositional ability but also his contribution to understanding the history of Evangelical music in the United States.

The three preludes I played on that program were on the tunes of the hymns “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

I am grateful that I still have the (bedraggled) book of preludes from which I learned those pieces—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance notes in them.

As organist in Lutheran churches, I discovered the usefulness of many of Hustad’s compositions. He seems to have had an affinity for Scandinavian Lutheran hymn tunes. The “national anthem” of Swedish-American Lutherans is “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Over the years I have used that Hustad prelude many times.

I’m now headed for Sweden (five days and counting). I will be playing several organs in Scandinavia. The choir I will accompany (Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas) will sing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and I will introduce it with the Hustad setting. Fifty years of my life will come full circle.

I will also play a setting of “I Love to tell the Story,” but one I have recently learned, by Emma Lou Diemer, Professor Emeritus of Composition at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I won’t try to wax eloquent about the importance both to my musical development and to my sanity of these hymn tunes and music I learned practicing at the First Baptist Church of Omaha. I will say only that in my (nearly life-long) confusion-bordering-on-apostasy about religious matters, this music is the constant, I could even say the anchor, of my life.

Donald Hustad’s “Children of the Heavenly Father” played on my small practice organ, recorded with a tiny digital camera.

3 Responses to I love to tell the story

  1. Ruth Goodwin says:

    Harold, how I miss your music. This was so comforting. Thank you for the opportunity to know you back when I was still searching for a better life. You gave me confidence and listened to me earnestly. Lots of love to you… WOB

  2. Ruth, knowing that you have continued to make a good life for yourself makes my life and career more meaningful than you can know. Lots of love to you, too,. Harold

  3. bobritzema says:

    Thanks for recording “Children of the Heavenly Father” and putting it on the website. It’s a beautiful hymn, and you play it very well.

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