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James Morgan

Music Director

James Morgan, Music Director

Organ music. Its power uplifts the spirit on Sunday morning with its richly soaring melodies. It also, especially at this time of year, provides the fright on a Saturday night viewing of a scary movie.Who hasn't enjoyed the thrill of each provided by the power of organ music?

James Morgan, the newly appointed music director at First Congregational Church of Bristol, has a theory. The growth in size and power of the organ was used by the church to frighten the population into religious belief. What other instrument, after all, could fill the void of the vaulted cathedrals being imagined and then constructed and promote the feeling of an all-powerful presence.

The cathedral and the organ; one can imagine one inspiring the other.

"Of course (it's) very, very serious music – Bach and all of that, French composers. But I'm partly on your side about this, because when organs became larger — bigger, louder – especially cathedral organs — it was partly … to scare people into religion. That's one of my theories.

"For those people in the 18th century, 19th century they were very frightening sounds. … Most people didn't have an education, there was only music you made for yourself. If you weren't a prince and had your own court you didn't hear that kind of music. But you go to church and hear Bach played … it was a little overwhelming."

That power grabbed Morgan at an early age even from a modest organ and has never let go. His mother was a musician who was trained to teach but raised her family instead.

"…We always had a piano and (I) was really interested in it, then I heard the organ at my church and I thought, 'now that's really interesting.''' He was thinking then that "I can do that." (He'll repeat that thought later in the interview in a different context.)

Morgan first learned the flute in junior high. Then came the bassoon in high school which earned him a scholarship at the New England Conservatory. But he had been studying the organ throughout those early years as well. At NEC he was given the choice of bassoon for more money or the organ department with only the scholarship he already had. He easily chose the latter. "But I thought, since I wasn't paying for it myself, you know …"

"I studied with one of the most wonderful people in the world, Yuko Hayashi (an internationally renowned concert organist) …she inspired all her kids. …she introduced me to Japanese cooking."

A trip through his resume reveals, however, the way all those instruments and musical genres over the almost 50 years have shaped his career of searching for the next thing "I can do …". He says, "You can see my life has been a tapestry of fun and challenges and I wouldn't have changed a thing."

You can imagine, for example, his time in the Rhode Island Army National Guard, where one can see him armed with a flute more often than a rifle. Or teaching in Rhode Island public school music departments in Warwick, North Kingstown, Middletown, or in Moses Brown, Providence Country Day, and Hendricken (his alma mater) where he did concert and jazz bands; also either subbing or directing music programs at a list of churches here. You'll recognize Trinity in Newport, Grace Church in Providence and others.

"Then I decided I wanted to pursue Episcopal-Anglican church music in England."

So, he headed for the Royal School of Church Music in Croyden, for a year. Then several years teaching in two boys boarding schools. More studies in organ and bassoon in London and Paris before becoming homesick for Rhode Island and Warwick.

He has displayed his talents in recitals at home, in London and Amsterdam, in orchestras in Rhode Island, Maine and England, in major works at Grace Church and a list of musicals in schools.

As for the organ at First Congregational Church in Bristol, he recognized the maker's name, the Roche Organ Company of Taunton. "They are out of business now but they did fine work and this is a great organ. .. I used to work for the builders. This organ is an eclectic American … some German influences, some French influences."

It apparently came with the new church building in 1856 and was rebuilt in 1930.

"Much has changed in organs since 1930 (in sound tastes). I don't think there is anything left of the 1856 organ except the case (woodwork housing). Basically, we developed our own (American) style of organ building …it was a bright, aggressive sound that people don't hear anymore. In the 1930 rebuild the sound was totally the opposite."

There has been yet another rebuild since then.

Finally, in that resume was yet another "I think I can do that" entry. Morgan also has certificates as a flying instructor and an airline transport license with 3000 hours. But that's another story.

"That's a young man's game."

The organ, however, carries a certification that is marketable even at age 66.

First Congregational Church of Bristol, Rhode Island300 High Street  ♦  Bristol, RI 02809
(401) 253-7288   ♦

The First Congregational Church in Bristol
is proud to be an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

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