BY TYLER YOUNG
Chris Anderson ’88 took piano lessons as a child, but he was always fascinated by the scale and intricacies of the pipe organ.
“I was interested in the organ as a mechanical phenomenon,” he said. “My father was a mechanic. There is a degree of mystery to the organ. People don’t really know how it works, and it’s not particularly obvious by just looking at it. I was interested in how complicated it was, and that led to my playing. I started taking organ lessons when I was a sophomore in high school, and I played in church.”
Anderson is now associate professor of sacred music at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he has taught since 2006. He teaches pipe organ, an instrument that has been prominent in church history for centuries.
The pipe organ is an extremely complex instrument that passes air through holes drilled in the bottom of sometimes hundreds of pipes that open up when the corresponding keys and pedals are pushed. The pipes can be several feet tall for low pitches or only a few inches tall for high pitches. For a long time, the organ was the only instrument used in many churches, and much of the sacred music in history has been composed for it.
Anderson was an organ performance major and German minor at Transylvania. He spent a lot of time in Haggin Auditorium at the pipe organ that sits above and to the left of the stage on a shelf coming out from the auditorium wall. It was manufactured by Casavant Frères, a company based in Quebec that is known for its excellent organs.
“At Transylvania there was only the one on campus, and I would go in early in the morning, often before breakfast, and practice for a couple of hours,” Anderson said. “It was so quiet and dark, and it was a very nice place to play. It’s very dramatic up there, the way it’s laid out.”
He took lessons from Loren Tice, a longtime Transylvania instructor and accompanist. It was with Tice that he developed much of the scholarly interest in the pipe organ and its significance to music history.
“He was fabulous, very exciting,” Anderson said. “He was convinced of the organ’s worth and the value of organ study. He was the ideal teacher to encourage me to continue my studies.”
After graduating from Transylvania, Anderson went to SMU to earn a master of music in organ performance and a master of sacred music (organist/choirmaster), then to the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, Germany. There he studied German music and culture, a passion that began at Transylvania and has carried over into his academic career.
“Rick Weber (Transylvania German professor) was the most fantastic teacher I’ve ever had,” Anderson said. “He was precise, humorous, engaged—he got me so excited about German study and German culture. Now I study German history, and not a day goes by where I don’t read or speak German. I’ve published in German. It has massive consequences for my work today, and I never would have had that without Transylvania.”
After returning to the United States and earning a Ph.D. in performance practices from Duke University, Anderson taught at the University of North Dakota for seven years before heading back to Dallas to teach at SMU.
At any given time, there are approximately 15 students enrolled in the organ program, so he gets the chance to work closely with them, similar to the way he got one-on-one teaching at Transylvania.
“I love getting to work closely with students, people really engaged in what they want to do, and building on what they already have,” he said. “We have some sharply engaged grad students, and I learn from them, and our exchanges are extremely valuable. You’re constantly getting new ideas, and that’s fantastic. It’s very challenging and allows me to pursue research. I’m active as a writer and researcher.”
Anderson’s research focuses on the history of organ music, particularly its role in western culture from late Romanticism to early Modernism—approximately 1880-1920. He’s written and edited books on the subject, including Max Reger and Karl Straube: Perspectives on an Organ Performing Tradition, which won the prestigious Max Miller Book Award in 2006, given by The Organ Library of the American Guild of Organists. It was notable for being the first extensive English-language survey of the Romantic organist.
The organ is an often misunderstood instrument that is gradually being phased out in many churches around the country as they move away from traditional services that have included the instrument. Very little church music is still being composed for the organ, and its popularity has been fading for years.
“The American church of 1950 used organs either exclusively or mostly exclusively, along with pianos, based on what part of the country you were in,” Anderson said. “In 2012, the organ is regarded as one of many different kinds of soundscapes. Many organists today feel threatened and pushed out the door, but they must remember that the organ does not have to work by itself. It can work with a piano or any number of instruments. It’s so versatile, so much more so than even many organists realize, and that’s very unfortunate. That’s not the way to look at it at all, and that’s not what we teach our students.”
Anderson asserts that it’s still a relevant instrument worthy of extensive study and research.
“The organ is very relevant to the church, and in a time when people have so much to do,” he said. “We have so many distractions with technology, social media—it becomes harder and harder to concentrate on an instrument, not to mention one which is so complex and requires intense concentration and hard work, that in themselves are values.
“It’s absolutely relevant and always has been. It has a long tradition for having such a large number of sounds and an extensive palate of colors. No singular instrument can make as many sounds. We must be able to approach the organ in new and imaginative ways. That’s what’s needed in church today.”
Much of that type of new thinking and perseverance was taught to Anderson at Transylvania, where he learned how studying the liberal arts alongside music performance could be an important asset as he continued his career.
“Our program is essentially interdisciplinary,” he said. “I deal with historians, I deal with musicians, I deal with theologians, I deal with a variety of languages from German and French to Latin and Aramaic.”
History, music, German, and the liberal arts have all come together for Anderson. He said he has a deeper understanding of what he learned at Transylvania now that he can look back and reflect.
“There are things I draw on all the time, like my western civilization courses. What made that civilization move? What were the major and minor turning points?” he said. “I never imagined that would be the case. I didn’t understand what a bachelor’s degree was. I thought it meant that you took a bunch of courses, some of which didn’t concern you whatsoever, and you have a well-rounded education and life.
“The reality is that kind of education doesn’t give you great depth, but it gives you a great broad overview of lots of disciplines and ideas that are all actually connected. Reality is not divided into academic departments. Reality was never a student in college.”