American Guild of Organists

The American Guild of Organists (AGO) is an association comprised of organists, choir directors, and other interested people in the United States and abroad whose purpose, according to its mission statement, ‘is to enrich lives through organ and choral music.’ The Guild was founded in 1896 and currently has approximately 19,000 members. Leadership is by volunteers at the national, regional, and local levels, with a small staff of full-time employees headquartered in New York City. There are various categories of membership, including voting and not-voting. A member usually belongs to one of the over 300 local chapters. Each chapter in turn belongs to one of nine regions. Volunteer leadership teams govern both chapters and regions. National conventions are held every even-numbered year, and regional conventions in the alternate years. Each local chapter regularly sponsors recitals, workshops, reading sessions, worship events, and social activities.

The stated purposes of the Guild include: to encourage excellence in the performance of organ and choral music; to inspire, educate, and offer certification for organists and choral conductors; to provide networking, fellowship, and mutual support; to nurture future generations of organists; to promote the organ in its historic and evolving roles; and to engage wider audiences with organ and choral music.

The AGO was formally organized on April 13, 1896, at Calvary Church in New York. The initiative came from Gerrit Smith (1859-1912), who had experienced the Royal College of Organists in England (established in 1864) and thought there should be a similar organization in the USA. According to its first constitution, the objects of the AGO included ‘elevating the status of church organists’, ‘raising the general efficiency of organists by a system of examinations and certificates’, and providing for socialization among organists. One of the main activities of the early years was holding public ‘model’ worship services.

Membership was small at first, consisting only of founders, honorary members, and those who had passed an examination. Most members resided in the New York City area. The first chapter outside New York was formed in 1902 (Pennsylvania) and membership was opened to those who had not passed examinations in 1906. The first national convention was held in 1914.

The AGO experienced rapid expansion following World War II. By 1946, the Guild’s 50th anniversary, there were chapters in every state and over 9,000 members. S. Lewis Elmer (1877-1967) was Warden and President of the AGO from 1943-1958 (the AGO’s highest office was called ‘Warden’ from 1896-1948 and ‘President’ thereafter). Elmer worked tirelessly to add local chapters throughout the country, which in large part fueled this expansion. Alec Wyton (1921-2007) was AGO President from 1964-69 and brought the Guild into the mainstream of American music. In 1967 the AGO established its own journal, MUSIC/The AGO Magazine.

A Young Organists Competition was inaugurated in 1950 and continues to be held yearly, although now under a different title. In 1975 the Guild and the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA) began a collaborative relationship whereby the AGO receives financial and programmatic support for publicizing APOBA activities. The full-time Executive Director position was created in 1980. Membership continued to grow, reaching over 20,000 by 1982.

Current AGO programs include a certification program which awards certificates to candidates who successfully demonstrate practical and theological skills at five levels: Service Playing (SPC), Colleague (CAGO), Choir Master (ChM), Associateship (AAGO), and Fellowship (FAGO); publishing books, recordings, and educational materials related to organs, organ playing, and choral conducting; and Pipe Organ Encounters, which are multiple day workshops designed to introduce beginning organ students to the organ and its literature, usually sponsored by individual chapters.

The Guild also sponsors competitions for organ playing and composition. The National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance and the National Competition in Organ Improvisation are held every two years in conjunction with the national conventions. The Regional Competitions for Young Organists are held in conjunction with the regional conventions, and award prizes in each region. The AGO/Marilyn Mason Award in Organ Composition and AGO/ECS Publishing Award in Choral Composition are awarded every two years in conjunction with the national conventions.

The American Organist (titled MUSIC/The AGO Magazine from its inception in 1967 until 1978) is the official monthly journal of the Guild, and is the most widely read journal devoted to organ and choral music in the world. It was the official journal of the Royal Canadian College of Organists (1968-2009). Prior to 1967, official journals of the AGO were The Pianist and Organist (1896-1899), Bulletin of the American Guild of Organists (1899-1901), Church Music Review (1901-1918), The American Organist (1918-1920), New Music Review (1920-1935), The Diapason (1935-1967), and The AGO Quarterly (1956-1967).

AGO is an active promoter of hymnody and congregational song. Its conventions and local programs included workshops related to congregational song (e.g. creative hymn playing, global music, new hymnals, etc.), model worship services, and hymn festivals. Practical and scholarly articles on hymns appear regularly in The American Organist. The Guild’s publications include DVDs and books on hymnody, hymn playing, and hymn-based improvisation, and the AGO Founders Hymnal (2009, ed. Rollin Smith), a collection of 83 hymns with tunes composed or arranged by 79 of the original founders of the AGO.

Brian Wentzel

Further Reading

  1. Website: <http://www.agohq.org>
  2. The American Organist, vols. 29 and 30 (1995, 1996). In each issue of volume 29 are reprinted documents from the AGO’s founding year, 1896. Each issue of volume 30 contains an historical essay on the history of the AGO.
  3. Samuel Atkinson Baldwin, The Story of the American Guild of Organists (New York: The HW Gray Co., Inc., 1946).
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