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Updated 10:00 AM September 10, 2007




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Dancing feet: Organist treads upon milestone
with 60 years at University

This year Marilyn Mason, a teacher of generations of organ students, will mark 60 years on the faculty at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
(Photo courtesy School Of Music, Theatre & Dance)

Considered to be among the most important influences on the American organ scene in the second half of the 20th century, Mason has made a lasting impact as concert organist, teacher, lecturer and recording artist and through the nearly 75 organ works she has commissioned, usually at her own expense.

The daughter of a church organist mother and a banker father, Mason started playing the organ before her feet could reach the pedals. By the age of 11 she was filling in for her mother at church weddings. She's been at the organ ever since.

Mason arrived in Ann Arbor from Alva, Okla. in 1944 as a junior with two years of college from her native state. At U-M, she earned her bachelor's degree working with organist Palmer Christian, who had been on the faculty since 1924.

After earning a master's degree, Mason spent summers at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she earned her Doctor of Sacred Music. By 1947 she was a member of the faculty at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, in no time working her way through the ranks from instructor to professor and university organist, which she remains today.

She has studied with some of the most renowned musicians in the world. In the summer of 1949 Mason was in Los Angeles visiting her grandmother and working on Arnold Schoenberg's "Variations on a Recitative," a difficult piece and Schoenberg's only major work for organ. The composer most famous for his invention of the 12-tone scale, a compositional technique involving tone rows, found out about it and welcomed the young organ student for a private lesson.

That lesson turned into five. "She spent several weeks in intensive study of Schoenberg's 'Variations on a Recitative' under the composer's direction," the American Organist published about her some years later, "finding out what it was all about and, incidentally, teaching the composer a good deal about the organ and its registrational resources, of which he confessed to her he knew next to nothing." Her performance of this work was the first and only Schoenberg would hear.

Next it was off to Fontainebleau, France, just outside Paris, to study with the renowned French musician Nadia Boulanger, and with Maurice Duruflé, organist and composer, at his church St. Etienne-du-mont. Mason was the first American woman — second only after Boulanger — to play the organ at Westminster Abbey. She was the first woman organist to perform in Latin America and Egypt. She has played the Vatican in Rome.

But first and foremost, Mason is a teacher. Called "Madame" by generations of students, her name has become synonymous with the instrument to which she has dedicated her life.

Now also famous for her historic tours of Europe to see and hear the great organs, Mason took her first group of organ lovers in the 1970s. Just this summer, she led her 54th Historic Tour, visiting Germany and Denmark.

"For Dr. Mason," says former student Jeff Fowler, "life is something to be enjoyed and when you're around her you feel the same. Her approach to her students and to anyone she meets is always positive. She counts all those people and things she comes into contact with as gifts."

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