A Tribute to M. Searle Wright

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M. Searle Wright, FAGO, FTCL, FRCCO

1918 - 2004

[IMAGE]


M. Searle Wright was born April 4, 1918, in Susquehanna, PA. His grandfather, from whom he takes his first name, was the honorable Myran B. Wright, the representative from Susquehanna County and the 15th district of Pennsylvania in the U.S. Congress until his death in 1894. Searle's boyhood and schooling were in Binghamton, NY. He showed musical promise at an early age when he improvised some tunes for a Sunday school program. One year later, at age four, he began to study piano. He said, modestly, "I never did too much with it, I couldn't even play a hymn from a book until I was seventeen, I always played everything by ear."

Several years after the Capitol Theater installation, Ed Link received a call from the manager. Ed was asked to come and tune some of the pipes since the manager had scheduled a talented young boy to play a program of popular music at all performances the following week. When Ed arrived at the theater, he was introduced to twelve-year old Searle Wright who had never touched an organ until three months before their meeting and then had spent only a few hours a week at the console. He played entirely by ear with such sensitivity that Ed was immediately interested and willingly explained some of the intracacies and potential of the organ. Searle looks back at that meeting as the beginning of his life's work.

At first a self-taught organist, he played a great deal of popular music and theater organ, doing radio and theater work between the ages of twelve and eighteen. During his high school days in Binghamton, he performed two radio shows a week, and a show during which the audience would phone in requests for a popular tune. He played them all from memory. On weekends he played the organ at the Capitol Theater.

His formal organ study began at age twelve in Buffalo, NY, with Mr. William Gomph. Searle was Mr. Gomph's assistant at the First Presbyterian Church in Binghamton from 1933 to 1936. His next position was assistant to Hugh Ross at the Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale, NY. Following that he held positions as Organist-Choirmaster of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Eastchester, NY, and the Church of the Ressurection in Richmond Hill, Long Island. His first Manhattan Church position was at the Chapel of the Incarnation from 1944-1952. During that same period he was the conductor of the Binghamton Choral Society, traveling to Binghamton on the train for rehearsals every Monday. He then served as Director of Chapel Music at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, from 1952-1971.

He began teaching organ, theory, compostion and later improvisation at Union Theological Seminary's School of Sacred Music in 1947. In 1971 he assumed the posts of Organist-Choirmaster of Christ Church, Cathedral, Cincinatti and Adjunct Professor of Music at the College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. Returning to his native Binghamton in 1977, he became first Link Professor of Music at Harpur College (now Binghamton University.) He held the position until 1984. He was, for the twenty years prior to his passing, the Minister of Music at the First Congregational Church in Binghamton.

At the recommendation of his first teacher, Searle traveled to New York City in 1937 to begin six years of organ and theory study with T. Tertius Noble. He also studied with Joseph Bonnet in 1936 and again in 1937 when Mr. Bonnet was in New York City. Searle's academic training was at Columbia University where he studied composition for four years with Otto Luening. He was awarded a four-year scholarship to study improvisation with Fredrick Schlieder at Union Theological Seminary. His choral and conducting training was with Paul Henry Lang and Erich Hertzman in addition to advanced composition training with Norman Lockwood, all at Columbia University.

Searle was an active and influential member of the American Guild of Organists. He received his Associateship Certificate in 1939 and his Fellowship Certificate in 1941. He held most of the national offices in the Guild, serving as National President from 1969 to 1971.

In 1954, Searle played the first recital by an American born organist in Westminster Abbey, London. In 1957 he served as National Chair of the American Wing of the International Congress of Organists in London. For that work as well as his prestigious accomplishments in the field of church music, he was awarded the Fellowship Certificate from Trinity College of London, honoris causa. In 1979 he was awarded an honorary Fellowship in the Royal Canadian College of Organists, the first to be awarded to an American outside of the Dominion. In 1952 he organized the young organists' competition which the AGO sponsors each biennium at its National Convention. He reprented the Guild at the Third Conference of UNESCO. In collaboration with Dr. Robert Baker and Charlotte Garden, he helped design the large organ that was originally placed in Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. That organ has now become the cornerstone of the famous instrument housed in the "Crystal Cathedral" in California.

In 1960, Searle was given an award for "service to the Community" by the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce. Since he was in New York City at that time he made his acceptance speech by telephone. Searle's name has deservedly been placed on a "star" on the Binghamton "Walk of Stars."

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