Craig Phillips is the latest in a long line of composers who were also gifted organists: from Duruflé to Tournemire to Franck, through Mendelssohn to J. S. Bach and beyond. As an organist, Phillips possesses an impeccable pedigree, for he studied at the Eastman School of Music with the legendary pedagogue Russell Saunders. His subsequent career as an organist has more than fulfilled the bright promise of his student years.
Phillips is mostly self-taught as a composer, although his theoretical knowledge, acquired at Eastman and in studies as an undergraduate, is remarkable in its depth and detail. By going his own way, Phillips has eschewed the seductions of the musical fashions that have bedeviled composers over the last half-century. Unencumbered by academic prejudice, supported by an expert grasp of music theory, and enlivened by a natural and prodigious musicality, Phillips has quietly created a substantial oeuvre in a variety of genres, including music for chorus, orchestra, chamber music, vocal music and, of course, organ.
In the process of composing this body of work, Phillips has created an individual style of considerable flexibility. His music is unambiguously tonal, although passages of rapid modulation occasionally obscure the presence of a definite key. In this, Phillips’s music is reminiscent of the work of both Duruflé and Herbert Howells. Like these composers, Phillips uses a harmonic vocabulary consisting largely of enriched consonance. His use of dissonance is finely judged, for he resorts to dissonance only when such chords are needed to create a heightened—usually climactic—intensity.
Phillips’s harmonic idiom is often generated by the interplay of contrapuntal lines; unsurprisingly for an organist immersed in the music of J. S. Bach, Phillips is a naturally gifted contrapuntist. The polyphony of his music is suggestive of Fauré and Duruflé, in that the imitative lines are introduced with an unobtrusiveness that sometimes camouflages the composer’s expertise. Like these French masters, Phillips’s formal procedures are poised and clear—there is never a bar too many or too few. Finally, Phillips has a melodic gift that rides with memorable assurance upon a web spun of luscious harmony and lively counterpoint.
Many of Phillips’s choral compositions have resulted from commissions, and a number of these have been created especially for church and cathedral choirs. One of his grandest settings of a sacred text is the Benedictus Dominus Deus(1999), a setting of the Song of Zechariah. Beginning with a fanfare-like introduction, this work rises upon waves of emotion to an exultant climax at the words “God has raised up a mighty Savior.” By contrast, Phillips’s beguilingly wistful a cappella anthem Teach Me, My God and King (2001) takes as text a devotional poem by George Herbert; this lovely score is dedicated to Thomas Foster on the 25th year of his service as Director of Music at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Beverly Hills. Phillips’s gracious setting of Psalm 34 for two-part treble chorus and organ (1997) evinces the freshness of his melodic invention; this music sounds utterly spontaneous. A unifying melodic motive first stated by the organ unites the exquisite anthem entitled The House of Faith Has Many Rooms (1998), a setting of the heartfelt if unpretentious verse of Carl P. Daw, Jr.
Commissioned by Virginia L. Ambrosini and C. Richard Neu for the choir of All Saints’, the mystical anthem And I Saw the Holy City(2001) has as its text a compilation of verses drawn from Revelation (21:2, 23-24, 22:5). Beginning with an undulating figure in the organ, the music gathers power through a series of passages of increasing intensity until reaching an incandescent climax at the words “for the Lord will be their Light.” The conclusion of this work is hushed, expectant and deeply moving. Another work arising from Phillips’s fruitful creative association with All Saints’ is the touching setting of a prayer drawn from the Book of Common Prayer, Keep Watch, Dear Lord (2001). One of Phillips’s most powerful shorter choral works is Ride On in Majesty(2000), a setting of a poem by Henry Hart Milman inspired by events of Palm Sunday.
In addition to his work as a composer of religious music, Phillips has composed a substantial number of works for organ as well as several chamber music pieces scored for solo instruments with organ accompaniment. The Serenade for horn and organ (2001) demonstrates Phillips’s understanding of instrumental character, for he creates warm melodies that perfectly suit the horn’s noble timbre. The ingratiating Pastoralefor bassoon and organ(1999) has a gentle lilt that reflects one of the quieter facets of Phillips’s lapidary melodic style. The Fanfare for Organ (2000) is an excellent example of the extroverted, ceremonial aspect of Phillips’s idiom. Perhaps the most poignant of Phillips’s more introverted works is A Song Without Words for violoncello and organ (2002); written as an elegy for his brother, this music articulates what the poet William Wordsworth once termed “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
One of Phillips’s most expansive scores is his A Festival Song for soprano and baritone soli, chorus, and orchestra (1998). Using a redaction (prepared by Byron Adams) of Walt Whitman’s poem “Proud Music of the Storm” drawn from the American poet’s monumental collection Leaves of Grass, Phillips explores such timeless themes as the nature of dreams and mortality, the mystery of artistic creation, and the enduring influence of nature upon the poetic imagination. In the poem, Whitman’s protagonist wakes from deep sleep to a contemplation of the power of music: “O Music, I think ye tell this heart, that cannot tell itself, /This brooding heart, that cannot tell itself.” Phillips’s music then illustrates a kaleidoscopic series of Whitman’s images, all related to musical expression. The intertwined intensity of poetry and music culminates in an ecstatic hymn to the grandeur of the universe: “I hear music of all nations, bathing me in bliss, /The creation in waves of music laves me, /Copious as stars and glad as morning light come torrents of joy.”
- Byron Adams
Craig Phillips (b.1961) is a distinguished and popular American composer and organist. He holds the degrees of Doctor of Musical Arts, Master of Music, and the Performers Certificate from the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, where he studied with the great pedagogue Russell Saunders. His early studies were at the Blair School of Music in Nashville, and at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree.
In July 2002, Dr. Phillips was featured as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of his Concertino for organ and orchestraduring the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists in Philadelphia. He has also appeared as soloist with members of the Eastman Philharmonia, the Oklahoma Symphony, the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra, and Musica Angelica at the Corona del Mar Baroque Music Festival. Dr. Phillips has appeared as soloist at regional conventions of the AGO and at various venues across the United States. He has distinguished himself in a number of competitions, including first prize recipient in the 1994 Clarence Mader Competition for organ composition, and as finalist in the Mader National Organ-Playing Competition in 1991 and the Fort Wayne National Organ Playing Competition in 1986.
Dr. Phillips is increasingly in demand as a composer. He has been awarded commissions from such organizations as The American Guild of Organists (for the National Convention in Seattle, 2000, and for regional conventions in San Diego and Binghamton, 2001), The Association of Anglican Musicians, The Chamber Orchestra at St. Matthew’s (Pacific Palisades, CA), CoroAllegro of Wilmington, Delaware, the University of California at Riverside, the duo-organ team The Chenaults, Washington National Cathedral, and many other churches and cathedrals. His secular works include a Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra, Concerto for Bassoon and Strings, A Festival Song for chorus and orchestra, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra titled Songs of the Unknown Region, Suite for Organ, Brass Quintet and Percussion, two sonatas for organ, and a number of other chamber works. His works have received critical acclaim in journals such as Clavier, The American Organist, Cross Accent, and The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians,and have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s Pipedreams. He has received numerous ASCAP awards, andin 1993 he was the recipient of a Meet the Composer grant for a work premiered at the Ojai Festival. His organ and choral works are published by a number of firms.
Dr. Phillips presently serves as organist and music associate at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. He has accompanied the semi-professional choir of that church on several concert tours, and been featured with them on compact discs released by Gothic Records.