The City’s Keyboard

It’s never been easy being the city of San Diego’s Civic Organist. There’s the technical challenge of playing one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Then there’s the matter of selecting the repertoire for the weekly concert programs, taking into account everything from the tastes of a diverse audience to weather conditions.

Below is a photo, courtesy of the digital archives of the San Diego City Clerk’s office, showing Royal A. Brown at the Spreckels keyboard in 1935.

Brown served as the civic organist from 1932 to 1954. He was an accomplished musician and also a composer in his own right. Among his compositions were a number of masses as well as a suite entitled “Balboa Park,” which he described to a San Diego Union reporter in 1942 as a portrayal of “things, scenes, events and impressions of beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego.”

His Balboa Park Suite and some other original compositions can be seen on programs in local newspapers for organ concerts at the pavilion during his tenure, interspersed with selections of other classical and popular works, from Mozart and Bach to Victor Herbert and Richard Rogers.

An extensive article San Diego Union article in June of 1942 talked about the challenges Brown faced.

Constance Herreshoff, the reporter regularly covering the music and theater scene for the Union at that time, wrote, “In the course of giving four weekly concerts on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 [the concert schedule at that time], Brown figures that he plays about 3,000 different pieces a year. Sometimes he changes a set program after sizing up his audience.”

“On cold foggy days….Brown finds that marches go well, and that Souza, especially, warms people up.”

By June of 1942, with San Diego mobilizing for the war effort, an increasing number of Brown’s audiences included servicemembers. He told the Union reporter that “sailors want majesty,” and Herreshoff noted that “if he sees more sailors than usual in the crowd, he pulls out lots of stops and plays important things with plenty of form and backbone.”

Brown noted that he got a lot of requests for Bach, but “he plays Bach on only 50 percent of his programs, out of deference for those who don’t like Bach.”

“You have to watch your bridges after playing Bach,” he told Herreshoff. “You can’t play Souza right after Bach.”

He also gave an insight into the relationship between the organist and the maintenance crew. While pointing out the need for a good mechanic “In case a key sticks or something goes wrong,” Brown added that sometimes he had to tell the repair crew to hold off.

“But when I play a piece called ‘March of the Magi Kings’ by Dubois,” Brown said, “I put up a notice for the mechanic saying, ‘Don’t Shut Off.” Brown explained that in that particular piece “a high note is held for a long time to represent a star, while the hands play about the Magi in the lower part of the organ. I stick in a peg to hold the high note down. The mechanics worry when they hear this high note and will start in ‘killing’ the cipher’ if I don’t flag them.”

Royal Brown was at the keyboard until October of 1954. He passed away unexpectedly of a heart ailment at his home just three days after playing his regular concert date. His musical heritage lives on in the work of his successors both at and behind the keyboard.

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