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I met Grigg Fountain in 1979, when he played my Carol Suite with flutist Darlene Drew in a spring worship service at Northwestern University’s Alice Millar Chapel. That day Grigg was an organist and I was a junior in college. Little did I know how important he and the Chapel would be to my growth as a composer and as a person.

interior of Millar Chapel with stained-glass windowI joined the Millar Chapel Choir the following fall. For an ex-trumpeter and would-be composer lost in liberal arts on a band-crazy campus, it was the home I’d been seeking. Three days a week, I was granted the chapel oratory—Grigg called it “The Prophet’s Chamber”—as a work-space. I was sent to Alan Stout for composition lessons. Then there was the 60-voice Chapel Choir, which Grigg, the conductor, had fashioned into a responsive instrument capable of tantalizing legato, dancing energy and explosive power.

I cherish memories of the amazing repertoire we traversed at the Chapel: Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, little-known in the States at that time; motets by Bach and Brahms; maybe not singing Schönberg’s Friede auf Erden, a piece I never quite warmed to, but certainly hearing Grigg play Bach’s “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue with joy and authority. Not least, I cherish the friendships that flourished over donuts at Sunday break (for it was there I learned the importance for a choir of cele-breaking).

two-shot of DET and Grigg FountainAnd I have a treasured recording of the two of us making music: Krebs’s “Wachet Auf,” in which I play the chorale over Grigg’s carbonated organ trio. (Listen on SoundCloud.) In the years after Millar, Grigg continued to inspire me. Psalm VIII, dedicated to him, won the AGO/ECS Publishing Award in Choral Composition in 1987, and Grigg and his wife Helen commissioned Early American Tunes for organ, which with Marilyn and James Biery‘s urging, was published by Augsburg Fortress in 2001.

Many teachers are characterized as fatherly. Grigg was grandfatherly, and kindly so. A South Carolinan by birth, he never lost his drawl, though his studies took him north to Yale and way-east to Frankfurt for study with the great, blind, German organist Helmut Walcha. I got to experience some of Grigg’s pedagogical tricks in a few lessons at the organ, including the notorious one of playing a hymn with a hymnal balanced on the head! And I thoroughly absorbed and imitated the choral conducting techniques Grigg had learned from his friend and colleague Robert Shaw.

Conrad Susa once said that he imagined movie stars in the roles he created in his operas. But who will play Grigg in the movie that should be made about him? None of the actors before us now could capture Grigg’s endearing, fussbudgety intelligence, so we must look back. Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) could do it. I think of Lionel Barrymore (not as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, but perhaps as Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can’t Take it With You). But perhaps only the great Charles Laughton—with his pathos, brilliance and virtuoso technique—would be equal to the task of embodying Grigg Fountain. That’s a film I would watch over and over again.

In 1981, after just two years at Millar Chapel, I moved on to pursue composition at Eastman School. In his inimitable way, Grigg asked me:

“Now, are you sure you don’t want to stay here and become a choral conductor?”

At the time, I was sure. But, Grigg would ask: am I sure? That would have been a different life. And a better one in at least one respect: I would have had more time with Grigg Fountain (1918 – 2016), a superb musician and merry man, who now lives in memory.

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