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Dudley Buck known for showy organ works

Dudley Buck’s career included a few years in Boston.Music Division, Library of Congress

After our press deadline, this recital was cancelled and replaced with a different program that does not include music by Dudley Buck.

On Wednesday, the Methuen Memorial Music Hall’s summer organ recital series continues with Canadian organist Suzanne Ozorak playing a program including Dudley Buck’s Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” (Op. 59). Buck was a quintessence of Gilded Age classical-music success; the New York Press, in 1908, called him “the leading living American composer.” The next year, Buck died — and was swiftly forgotten.

That precipitous posthumous fade belied a steady, industrious rise. Born in Hartford in 1839, Buck initially taught himself music with a book borrowed from one of his father’s clerks. The elder Buck, a successful mercantilist, discouraged his son’s musical ambitions, then munificently relented, funding a course of European training. Buck studied organ and composition in Germany, returning with a virtuoso technique (derived from a then-uncommon mastery of J. S. Bach’s organ works) and state-of-the-art harmonic expertise.

His first major appointment, in Chicago, ended, epochally, with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed Buck’s house and music library. Undeterred, Buck moved to Boston and immediate employment: organist at St. Paul’s on Tremont Street, faculty at the New England Conservatory. Buck became the Providence Philharmonic Society’s first conductor, the first head of Boston University’s organ department, and the Boston Music Hall’s official organist, performing three recitals a week. (Ozorak’s performance is a reunion of sorts: Methuen’s Great Organ is the same one originally installed in the Boston Music Hall.)


For all that, Buck’s Boston career was brief. In 1875, he relocated to New York, settling at the Church of the Holy Trinity (then at Madison Avenue and 42nd Street) for another two decades of respectable — and nationwide — musical eminence. An 1896 profile declared, “Mr. Buck has reared his own monument, and it is all around us.”


Buck’s specialty was stylistically up-to-date sacred choruses and secular cantatas expertly tailored to an ever-growing multitude of amateur choirs. His organ music was technically demanding, but spotlighted vernacular sources: along with “The Last Rose of Summer,” Buck wrote showpieces on other popular tunes, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” perhaps his most famous effort.

Nevertheless, Buck’s music came to sound too European to be American; the next generation (including Buck’s onetime student Charles Ives) more radically asserted musical nationality. Still, Buck was hardly dogmatic. In his inaugural Boston University lecture, having surveyed the organ’s varying national schools, Buck concluded that “the duty of the American organist of today is to be eclectic,” adding, “the effect of liberalism in this respect cannot but have a good effect upon the general culture.”

Suzanne Ozorak performs music of Guilmant, Rubenstein, Buck, Liszt, Bossi, Laurin, and Vierne on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, 192 Broadway, Methuen. Tickets: $12, children $5. 978-685-0693, www.mmmh.org .

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.