Ron Wyatt has been the organist and director of music at Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston since 1975, and he owes it all to his teachers in Paris.
Those teachers were renowned concert organists Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Michael Schneider and Marie-Claire Alaine.
After earning a master’s degree at Trinity University in San Antonio, Wyatt was accepted for study in the studios of these acclaimed organists for a year. The study was intense and he played on some of the great organs of Europe.
Paris is a long way from where Wyatt started out as a young talent from Placedo, Texas, a Victoria County town of 600 people.
Two of his piano teachers were trained in their native Europe, which prepared Wyatt to study the organ. In some ways, he got the best of all worlds by studying with Alaine, the most recorded organist in the world, who specialized in early French music; Schneider who specialized in early and late romantic German music; and Duruflé, about whom The New York Times said was a “technically formidable organist ... generally considered the last great exponent of the French Romantic school of organ playing, which valued elegant grandeur, textural clarity and rhythmic freedom.”
Wyatt’s story is impressive in and of itself. But, add to it the magnificent Austin organ, Trinity’s gothic architecture, and the priceless collection of 19th and 20th century stained-glass windows, and you have a package that very few church organists can match. After all these years, Wyatt doesn’t take it for granted, he said.
Sourcing a church pipe organ is a complicated project with overlapping technical considerations, cost constraints and conflicting agendas. Trinity was fortunate to have the right person at the right time to oversee the process. That man was Bill Cherry, a prominent member of the parish, who suggested the new organ be an appropriate instrument to fit the room. The previous organ had failed mechanically and it lacked the depth needed to do a first-class job.
With input from Wyatt, an insightful decision was made to hire an outside consultant. They chose Robert Baker, a professor of organ at Yale University as well as a famous concert organist. The fundraising campaign got a major donation from the Mary Moody Northen Endowment, among many others.
In 1984, Austin Organs of Hartford, Conn., won the bid to custom design, build and install Trinity’s new organ. Founded in 1893, Austin Organs is one of the nation’s oldest organ builders.
The Trinity Church organ is an Opus 2701, which means it’s the 2,701th organ built by the company. The Trinity job was completed in 1989.
Laymen may not understand the nuances of music, but they know what they like, and they like this 69-rank Austin organ, Wyatt said. It complements the choir’s style and the room’s acoustics, which continue to be fine-tuned. For example, carpets were not replaced after Hurricane Ike to allow sound to better carry throughout the room. What’s good for the music is also good for the sermons.
Today, an Austin pipe organ of this magnitude would cost about $1.1 million. It has 4,086 pipes, ranging in size from 1 inch to 18 feet. It has three manuals, which also are called keyboards, 32 pedals and 79 stops. Unlike a piano, a pipe organ moves air to generate sound.
More interesting is watching Wyatt play the organ. Imagine both hands bouncing around on three keyboards, and both of his size 7½ feet, in his custom organ shoes, tap dancing all over the 32-foot pedals. All of this action occurs as he reads three rows of sheet music.
Wyatt suggests that a good piano player can become “comfortable” with the pipe organ after about three years of practice. He does not see himself as a particularly smart man or as a gifted musician. But others might disagree.