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John T. Fesperman (Conductor, Organ)

Born: January 12, 1925 - Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Died: June 2, 2001 - Mitchellville, Maryland, USA

The American conductor and organist, John T. Fesperman, Jr., was raised in the town of Kannapolis. He had a lifelong interest in the organ and its history, repertoire, and performance conventions. He developed an early passion for the 17th- and 18th-century organs that informed his life's work. His early studies included work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which was interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy (1943-1946). He returned to Davidson College, where he earned a B.S. degree in 1948, followed by a B.Mus. degree at the Yale University School of Music in 1951 and studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum, also in 1951. Awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1955, he embarked on keyboard studies with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam, where he met and formed an enduring friendship with the celebrated Dutch organ-builder D. A. Flentrop. During this intense year of study in Holland he was able to play numerous restored 17th- and 18th-century organs as well as their modern counterparts, and to develop an active association with Flentrop's lively workshop.

John T. Fesperman began his teaching career at Alabama College in Montavallo. He then moved to Boston, where he taught organ at the New England Conservatory and became music director at historic Old North Church. The church became the focus of his Boston musical activities. He founded the Old North Singers, the resident church choir that presented numerous concerts, particularly at an ongoing series of Evensong services that he devised and directed. His friendship with Charles P. Fisher, president of Cambridge Records, led to recordings of vocal works by Gibbons, Monteverdi, and J.S. Bach, as well as the organ Masses of François Couperin. He developed close ties to numerous instrument makers in the Boston area, notably the harpsichord makers Frank Hubbard and William Dowd and the organbuilders C. B. Fisk and Fritz Noack. He became a notable advocate of their work and that of other builders who worked in "classic" traditions. During this time in Boston he published a very successful book, The Organ as Musical Medium, which established his reputation as a pragmatic organ scholar - one who would work unceasingly to influence the course of modern organbuilding.

In 1965 John T. Fesperman moved to Washington, D.C., to assume the position of concert director for the Division of Musical Instruments at the National Museum of History and Technology. He became the supervisor of the division, a closely knit staff whose work he supported with vigor. In addition to strengthening the performance programs, he helped launch the Friends of Music at the Smithsonian, a group that has funded concerts as well as instrument research, purchase, and conservation. Under his leadership the collections were further developed. With organ historian Barbara Owen, he organized "Unchanging Crafts of Organbuilding" for the 1978 Festival of American Folklife, an exhibition and activities that celebrated the craft of organ-builders. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his Smithsonian work was the the investigation of 18th-century organs in Mexico with Fisk, Flentrop, and Smithsonian conservator Scott Odell. As a result of the inquiry and publications of this group, a restoration plan was devised for numerous instruments, resulting in Flentrop's spectacular work with the main organ in the Cathedral of Mexico City. In the Washington area, he urged all whom he could influence to build classic instruments for their churches, including the collaboration of Fisk and Noack at Pohick Church, the Flentrop of St. Columbia's, and the A. David Moore organ at Grace Church, where he also served as organist-choirmaster.

After retiring from the Smithsonian in 1995, John T. Fesperman moved a short time later to Collington, a retirement community in Mitchellville, Maryland. At the time of his retirement, numerous publications of his work regarding organs and church music remained in print. He commenced one final project, totally consistent with his life's work. He commissioned organ-builder A. David Moore to make a small organ to be installed in the chapel at Collington. His last residence was Bowie, Maryland in Prince Georges County, Maryland.

Source: AMIS Website [from November 2001 issue of The American Organist (vol. 25, no. 11, pp. 78-79).];
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2005, September 2012)

John Fesperman: Short Biography | Recordings of Vocal Works

Links to other Sites

AMIS Newsletter: In Memoriam: John T. Fesperman, Jr.

Alumni Profile: John Fesperman '60 MM

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Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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