Canadian-born Lynnwood Farnam (1885-1930), who joined the Curtis Institute of Music in 1927 to head the new organ department, was one of the most famous organists of his time, credited with bringing organ performances to a new level. He was also a meticulous collector, who kept numerous scrapbooks, diaries, and notebooks, documenting his life and career. They include specifications of organs that he encountered (and often inaugurated) in Canada, Europe, and the United States–a collection that he started as a teenager and kept up for most of his life. His pocket-sized notebooks and diaries include lists of the organ works he had memorized; birth dates and signatures of family, friends and fellow organists; planned Christmas presents; the odd laundry list; and dried four-leaf clovers.
Farnam’s papers reveal a man who was not only loved for his music, but also for his kind and unpretentious personality. When he died on November 23, 1930 at the age of 45, six weeks after being hospitalized and diagnosed with liver cancer, there was an outpouring of grief, with tributes appearing in professional journals as well as national newspapers. (View Farnam’s last organ recital program, October 12, 1930) . At Curtis, where he had inaugurated the organ less than two years before, the concert hall was kept dark at the day of the funeral. Only the stage lights were left on, casting a light on a vase of white lilies that Curtis founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok had put on the organ console. A posthumous portrait of Farnam, commissioned by the family, still adorns the entrance to the school’s concert hall. His ashes are kept in a memorial park in Glendale, California, close to where his family lived at the time.
Farnam’s library of books and scores was bequeathed to the school. When they turned out to include the manuscript of his only known composition, the toccata O Filii et Filiae, Mrs. Bok arranged for it to be published. Farnam’s personal papers and notebooks went to his sister Arline. These returned to Curtis more than 25 years later, along with a collection of memoirs and correspondence about Farnam. Catalogued as the John Greene Papers, they document attempts by Farnam’s family, students, and friends to have a biography written. In his dissertation “Lynnwood Farnam: American Classic Organist“ (Rice University, 2002) Marcus St. Julien describes the difficulties of finding a suitable biographer for the project, which in the first few years had the financial backing of Mrs. Bok. In 1931 the project was taken on by Helen Hewitt, who had been one of Farnam’s organ students at Curtis when he died. Sadly Hewitt, a future musicologist, never found the time, and after a few years Mrs. Bok’s secretary closed the file on the project.
It was John Gardner Greene (1904–69), the son of Farnam’s close friend Charlotte Nichols Greene and the wealthy textile magnate Edwin Farnham Greene, who became the designated biographer in 1942. A 1928 graduate of Brown University who went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, Greene gained the support of Farnam’s family, former students, and friends, including Ernest White (organist of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York), and Harvard scholar and organist Archibald Davison, who persuaded Helen Hewitt to pass on the materials she had collected to Greene. But their belief that Greene could do the job proved unfounded. After ten years of struggle he submitted an unfinished manuscript to publisher Alfred J. Knopf, who rejected it in 1952. Three years later, Greene published the first chapter about Farnam’s youth in The Diapason on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Farnam’s death (read the article in The Diapason, December 1955). In the following years Greene donated Farnam’s personal papers to the Curtis Institute of Music, along with the materials he had gathered. Correspondence in Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s files reveals he still hoped that a new biography could be written based on his research.
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A selection of photos and negatives in the collection (expand view to read the full captions).
John Greene’s papers have now been processed and catalogued for the first time. They include drafts, transcripts, letters, and memoirs —partly cut up and distributed over intended chapters, thus destroying the integrity of original source material— which he had clipped together with notes and scribbles. How the biography ended up in the hands of this man, while so many more competent people within the organ community considered the project, is the subject of an article in The American Organist (February, 2016).
Greene may have failed as a biographer, but the materials that he brought together are of great importance. Supplementing the personal papers that Farnam left behind, they contribute to a better understanding of this organ master’s teaching and influence, and testify to the fervent wish and persistent endeavor within the organ community to honor his memory and his legacy.
Biographical publications based on the Lynnwood Farnam papers:
- Greene, John Gardner, “From Canada Farm to School in London; Farnam’s Early Days.” The Diapason (Dec. 1955): 9, 24 (© Scranton Gillette Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission)
- Rizzo, Jeanne. “Lynnwood Farnam – Master Organist of the Century.” The Diapason (Dec. 1974; Jan. 1975).
- Conner, Jeanne Rizzo. “Lynnwood Farnam: A Centennial Remembrance.” The American Organist 19 (Nov. 1985): 56-72.
- St. Julien, Marcus. “Lynnwood Farnam: American Classic Organist” (unpublished PhD diss., Rice University, 2002).