John Ferris served as organist and choirmaster at Harvard
University for over three decades. He was also one of the first
Boston-area musicians to focus intensely on early music. (Globe
Globe Staff / August 10, 2008
John Ferris, the widely admired musician who served as organist
and choirmaster at Harvard University for over three decades, died
Aug. 1 in Great Barrington. The cause was complications from
Parkinson's disease, according to Nancy Granert, the organist in
residence at Harvard's Memorial Church. He was 82 years old.
At Harvard, where Mr. Ferris conducted the University Choir from
1958 to 1990 and taught hymnology in the Divinity School, his
quiet charisma and his unyielding devotion to the music at hand
inspired many students through the years. Under his direction, the
group became known for its gleaming ensemble sound and its
impeccable musicality - qualities that were consistently on
display not only at special performances but also in the chorus's
contributions to daily church services.
"I think that John was probably the greatest church musician of
his generation," said the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who worked side by
side with Mr. Ferris at Memorial Church for about two decades. "He
transformed worship. The music was luminous, and no one before or
since has been able to create quite the sound that he was able to
get out of the voices that sang for him. People wanted to make
music for John Ferris, and when they did, the effect in the church
was quite extraordinary."
Mr. Ferris was one of the first Boston-area musicians to focus
intensely on early music, and he was particularly acclaimed for
his interpretations of Bach. After his performance of the "St.
John Passion" in 1990, Globe music critic Richard Dyer wrote that
"Boston boasts no finer musician, and none is more widely loved."
He added that Mr. Ferris "belongs in the rare company of musicians
who give you not just something to hear, to think about, to feel,
but something to keep and to cherish, something to live by."
John Ferris was born in 1926 in East Lansing, Mich. He took piano
lessons as a child as well as a few organ lessons, and heard the
latter instrument played in local movie theaters. He was drafted
at 18 and stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. As he described in an
interview with the Globe, "It was a cavalry post and we were
supposed to learn how to work with horses and mules for combat in
Burma. To keep from going crazy, I started to take organ lessons
again, and before long I had been invited to take over as post
organist, and because at that age you don't realize what you don't
know, I took on the choir as well."
After the war, he attended Michigan State University, where he
focused on music, and later did graduate work at Union Theological
Seminary's School of Sacred Music. He held a position for eight
years as organist and choirmaster at a church in Red Bank, N.J.,
but by age 31, he was offered the same post at Harvard's Memorial
Church. He said yes.
As soon as he arrived, Mr. Ferris made a major change to the core
composition of the chorus. It had been an all-male group but he
insisted on building a balanced four-part ensemble, with women
singing alongside men. He also oversaw a new edition of the
university's hymnbook, taking a historically minded approach that
restored the original couplings of particular texts with their
associated hymn melodies. The church's organ needed updating as
well, and Mr. Ferris spearheaded the campaign to replace the old
Aeolian-Skinner instrument with a large tracker organ built by
Charles Fisk of Gloucester.
Over the years at Harvard, Mr. Ferris's interest in 17th-century
music deepened and he became a devoted exponent of the music of
Heinrich Schütz, paving the way for a citywide burst of interest
in Schütz's music. He programmed Schütz's works during his five
years as music director of Cantata Singers, and gave two
noteworthy Schütz concerts with the Harvard University Choir in
1972. Those programs started the choir on its path toward reaching
a broader audience far beyond the university, though various rules
at Harvard prevented the group from performing often outside of
Beyond Schütz and Bach, Mr. Ferris was also praised as an
excellent interpreter of Handel. In 1987, he led the choir in a
performance of the composer's oratorio "Saul," which Dyer praised
in the Globe as "impeccably prepared, handsomely cast, conducted
with style, insight, vigor, and emotion." In tribute to Mr.
Ferris, WHRB will broadcast a recording of that performance today
from 5 to 8 p.m. (on 95.3 FM or streamed online at
In working with students, Mr. Ferris was known for achieving
results without bullying singers or grandstanding. "There was no
ego - it was just about finding the essence of the music, and
drawing it out of people," said Mary Beekman, the director of
Musica Sacra, who was deeply influenced by her experience singing
in the choir. "With John, it was almost by the sheer force of his
caring about the music that you came to care about it too, and you
just didn't want to let him down."
After retiring from his post in 1990, Mr. Ferris traveled widely
as a guest lecturer. He also took over the directorship of the
choir at the Congregational Church in Colebrook, Conn., close to
his home in the Berkshires.
Over the years, he performed as a concert organist throughout the
United States and made his European concert debut in 1978 at La
Basilique du Sacré Cour" in Paris. Many heard in his organ playing
the same kind of wise and insightful musicianship that
distinguished his conducting.
"Every hymn I ever heard him play was absolutely at the right
tempo," said Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities at
Harvard and a longtime colleague. "It was an innate musicality
that's very rare in many ways."
Mr. Ferris leaves his spouse and partner of 60 years, Herbert
Burtis of Sandisfield, and four nieces. Plans for a memorial
service will be announced.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at
Gifts in John's memory should be directed to:
Ferris/Burtis Foundation ~ 271 Main Street, Great Barrington MA