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3 Questions: David Briggs on playing the organ in Kresge Auditorium

World-renowned organist restores an MIT tradition playing a free concert on one of the Institute's historic instruments.
David Briggs
David Briggs
Photo courtesy of David Briggs

Installed in 1955 by famed organ builder Walter Holtkamp, the organ in MIT's Kresge Auditorium regularly hosted internationally renowned organists throughout the 1960s. It has been nearly 40 years, however, since a world-class organist played a recital in Kresge — until now. International organist, composer and improviser David Briggs will play a free recital, open to all, on Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4 p.m. in Kresge. The program will include a grand improvisation titled “Kresge Reawakened,” a four-movement improvised symphony.

Q. MIT is not necessarily a sought-after place for organists to play, but the Institute does have two organs — one in Kresge Auditorium, the other in Kresge Chapel — built by the well-known Holtkamp Organ Company. Are you familiar with Holtkamp organs?

A. I’m delighted to be performing on the Holtkamp Organ here at MIT. In fact, I played my first-ever concert in the U.S. on a Holtkamp instrument. It was at the Church of the Covenant in Cleveland, Ohio, in February 1997. I remember five inches of lake-effect snow fell during the course of the concert, and I improvised on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Q. Why did you start playing the organ?

A. I’ve played the organ since I was six, although I didn’t have any lessons until the age of 12 — after I’d reached a fairly high level on the piano and my feet could properly reach the pedals. My grandfather was a well-known organist in Birmingham, England, and I used to sit on the bench with him. When I was nine, I became a chorister at St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, under Roy Massey. It was at that period that I really decided I wanted to be an organist. When I was 16, I studied in London with Richard Popplewell, at the Chapel Royal. Richard was a fabulous and very generous teacher as well as an extremely kind person. I lost my father when I was 16, and Richard in many ways took over. I owe him a huge amount.

Q. MIT is synonymous with science and engineering. How or why do you think organ music relates to science?

A. The organ is the largest and most complex of all musical instruments. Many large instruments have hundreds of thousands of moving parts and tens of thousands of pipes. Each mechanical part (be it wind reservoir, pallet magnet or wind stabilizer) has to work perfectly over a long period, and each pipe has to be voiced to blend to the rest. The finest organs are those that represent an ideal synthesis between artistic vision and technical prowess. In other words, the very best instruments are the result of many, many hours of skilled workmanship in terms of pipe voicing, sophistication of key action, stability of voicing, excellence of acoustic and so on. Then you have a true meeting of science and music. Playing on such a large variety of instruments is a very enriching experience — each time you have to ‘learn’ the instrument because organs are so different to each other.

Sponsored by Chaplain to the Institute Robert M. Randolph and the MIT Office of Religious Life, David Briggs’s concert is free and open to all. For more information, contact Leonardo Ciampa at or visit the Office of Religious Life website:

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