Organist emeritus tours European cathedrals

After retiring as the university organist for Wayland Baptist University in 1994, Earl Miller might have understandably set aside the music for a bit of rest. Not so. In fact, Miller has taken advantage of retirement to visit a whole new world of musical venues.

Miller and his wife, Lucile, recently returned from the 22nd Annual Organ Study Tour of Europe, visiting churches and cathedrals in Northern France and Southern England.

Of the 30 participants in the two-week tour, which began June 25 in Paris and ended July 9, 20 were organists, including Miller. Besides getting to see firsthand some magnificent cathedrals in Europe, the trip had added perks for the musically minded.

"Every person got to play one song on the organ in many of the cathedrals," said Miller. "I had about 20 pieces memorized for the trip, but didn't play all of them."

Miller shared "The Star-Spangled Banner" with the tour group at St. Thomas Cathedral at Portsmouth, England on July 4. He also played the Wayland Alma Mater while in London.

Though the organs at many of the locations visited were impressive to Miller as a musician, he said most were about the same size as the pipe organ in Wayland's Harral Auditorium, where he played for so many years. Still, the tour holds allure for Miller.

"It's a change of pace and location," he said. "To get to play on these organs is an inspiration."

The Millers noted several differences between the European cathedrals and their organs and those in America. The majority of the organs are located in the balconies at the rear of those churches, which is not all too uncommon at some churches in America. St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Plainview, where Miller serves as choirmaster and organist, has much the same setup. But in Europe, the organist often occupies that lofty seat alone, without a choir or other parishioners, and Miller said there is little room for more than two persons in the loft.

The Millers also said much climbing is involved for organists in European churches, where spiral staircases carry the musicians to their places of service. The couple did say that the unique architecture in those churches - namely, the high ceilings - made the difference musically in the sound quality.

For Lucile Miller, the trip was fascinating from an architectural and historical standpoint. She enjoyed the various stained glass windows in the churches and the group's visit to the personal estate and gardens of Monet, the French impressionist. Both of the Millers enjoyed a visit to Normandy, Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, the site of the major invasion of World War II. That side trip included an American cemetery and a media presentation recounting the war.

Mrs. Miller noted a large tapestry in Bayeux, France was most impressive to her.

"It circled around the wall in this very large room, depicting the invasion of Williams the Conqueror in 1066," she said. "You walked around the room with headphones on that described the piece in your own language."

Another notable stop was at Ste. Mere Eglise, where a dummy attached to a parachute adorns the top of the steeple. According to the Millers, the tour guide explained that a parachutist had once landed on the church and his chute caught on the steeple, leaving him hanging. The church placed a dummy there to remind visitors of the story.

The group road a ferry from France across the English Channel and continued the tour in England. Stops there included an evensong at Winchester Cathedral, St. Thomas Cathedral, built to honor martyr Thomas a Becket; St. Martin-in-the-Field, the parish church of Buckingham Palace and the Admiralty; Westminster Cathedral; and St. Paul's Cathedral, where the group attended a church service.

Rena Bakhuyzen Holst (daughter of the tour's founder, the late Dirk Bakhuyzen) organizes the Organ Study Tours. This is the fifth tour for the Millers, having gone three times in the 1980s and then in 2000, visiting England and the Netherlands