Historical Corner: OLP Alma Mater Composer Famous Organ Player

OLP Alma Mater Composer Famous Organ Player

By Dr. Melinda Blade, Director of Mission Integration and Historian

Last May, my article pertained to the author of the OLP Alma mater, Ada Nisbet, Class of 1924. Dr. Nisbet was an internationally recognized Dickens scholar and she was affiliated with UCLA.

Our alma mater also had an composer. Royal Albert Brown (1890-1954) was San Diego’s second civic organist (from 1932 until his death in 1954), and in that position, he played the Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park. The Spreckels Organ was named for its donors, John D. Spreckels and his brother, Adolph B. Spreckels, who each contributed half of the cost.

They donated the organ to “the people of San Diego and the people of the world” in anticipation of the 1915-1917 Panama-California Exposition that occurred in San Diego. The Spreckels brothers also donated the two-year salary of the well-known organist and composer, Dr. Humphrey John Stewart and the funding needed for an organ tuner. When John Spreckels died in 1926, the Pavilion was the location of his public memorial service.

In 1914, the organ cost $33,500 (approximately $830,354 today) and $66,500 for the pavilion (approximately $1,648,315 today). It was built by Austin Organs, Inc., of Hartford, Connecticut. The organ faces North so that the sun would not impact it. The organ debuted on New Year’s Eve, 1914 and Dr. Stewart played selections from his composition, Montezuma. At that time, Royal Brown heard the organ recital as performed by Dr. Stewart and decided that he, already a musician, would become an organist.

The organ itself was a wonder of its time. At its construction it had four manuals, a pedal keyboard, eighty-eight stops and fifty-two ranks. There were 5,017 pipes. The power of the organ could be heard up to a mile away without any amplification. Currently, the organ is considered to be the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.

Brown studied under two famed organists, Dr. Humphrey John Stewart, San Diego’s first civic organist (also a two time Mayor of Coronado), and in 1927, with Marcel Dupre of Paris. Brown was Dr. Stewart’s assistant from 1918 until 1932. He was the organist during the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, also held primarily in Balboa Park.

Brown was named the second organist of the city upon Dr. Stewart’s death in 1932. Brown continued the practice of free public recitals until the Navy took control of Balboa Park during World War II from 1942 until 1948, after the War had concluded. The Navy stopped the public concerts on July 2, 1942. In 1947, the free concerts resumed and Brown played each Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

One of Brown’s major arrangements (other than our alma mater) wasAngus Dei, which he arranged for the famed contralto and San Diegan, Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Brown arranged the piece in 1934 and Madame Schumann-Heink performed it on March 11 of that year. Brown’s arrangement is found in the Claremont Colleges’ Digital Library in its collection of Madame Schumann-Heink’s artifacts. A visual study of this arrangement indicates that the penmanship of Brown matches the penmanship found on OLP’s alma mater. In addition to his arrangements, Brown also was the composer of “Balboa Park Suite” and his composition was played on March 11, 1951.

Brown was known to have played the piano at the Hotel Del Coronado, and the organ in a downtown San Diego dining room, Rudder’s Grill. The Grill was a popular dining place during World War I and was located close to Balboa Park.

Royal Brown, born in El Paso in 1890, died on October 27, 1954 in his home at 3771 Pershing Drive, close to Balboa Park, location of the Spreckles Organ. His last organ concert in the Park was the preceding Sunday. Royal Brown is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. His epithet is fitting: “His music gave joy to many.”