David Craighead, a legendary Eastman School of Music faculty organist who balanced an impressive career in teaching and performing, died Monday, March 26, in Rochester, N.Y. He was 88 years old.
Professor Craighead joined the Eastman faculty in 1955 and served as Professor of Organ and Chair of the Organ Division of the Keyboard Department until his retirement in 1992. Many of his students went on to hold positions in colleges and churches across the country. Professor Craighead was also organist of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester from 1955 to 2003. He was named Professor Emeritus at Eastman and Organist Emeritus at St. Paul’s when he stepped down.
A renowned recitalist, Professor Craighead performed throughout the United States and Europe. He played in seven national conventions of the American Guild of Organists as well as at International Congresses held in London, Philadelphia, and Cambridge, England. The Los Angeles Times called him “an artist with few peers and no technical Alps left to scale,” while The Christian Science Monitor described a performance as “so satisfying that it challenges one to spell out what characterizes the playing of an outstanding organist.” A New York Times critic wrote that Craighead “represents the American school of organists at its finest.”
Professor Craighead made several recordings, including one with his wife, Marian Reiff Craighead, to whom he was married for 47 years. Until her death in May 1996, they presented concerts for organ duet in numerous cities across the United States.
“David Craighead’s contribution to the music world is incalculable,” said David Higgs, Professor and Chair of Organ and Historical Keyboards. “He was a virtuoso performer, able to make the most difficult technical passages seem easy; he was a tireless champion of new music for our instrument, having played the first performances of many of the pieces that are now in our standard repertoire; and a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend to the legions of students he taught in his 37 years as professor of organ and chair of the organ department here. He was a gentle and kind man, and his legacy is to be found at every turn in the organ world.”
Professor Craighead received both teaching and performance honors. In 1974, the Eastman School of Music awarded him its first Eisenhart Award for Teaching Excellence. The New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists named him International Performer of the Year in 1983. He received Honorary Doctorates from Lebanon Valley College and Duquesne University, where he also served as Adjunct Professor of Organ. He also was awarded an honorary Fellowship in the Royal College of Organists, London, England.
In 2008, the new organ in Rochester’s Christ Church was inaugurated the Craighead-Saunders organ, named in honor Professor Craighead and Russell Saunders, who was Professor of Organ at Eastman from 1967 until 1992.
Tributes from former students
Professor Craighead’s students emphasized not only his extraordinary teaching and consummate performance skills, but also his collegiality.
Professor Craighead “was a great teacher, mentor and friend to all his students. He deeply cared about each one of us, got to know us, and throughout later years continued that same caring and interest in his students,” said Clair Rozier.
“Mr. Craighead completely changed my approach to playing the organ and listening to music,” she noted. Rozier is Director of Music and organist at St. David’s Episcopal Church near Philadelphia. “He had an acute ability to hear every detail of one’s playing, from the minutest irregularities in rhythm and touch to the bigger picture of staying relaxed approaching the keyboard.”
William K. Trafka, Director of Music and organist at St. Barthlomew’s Church in New York City, described Professor Craighead as “a supremely gifted teacher, brilliant musician and consummate organist. He taught a disciplined approach to organ playing which has remained with me throughout my career and which has influenced my music making in other disciplines, including conducting. He also taught me to be a gentleman, the art of which he was the supreme practitioner.”
Mark Laubach, organist and choirmaster at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., studied with Professor Craighead for only two years and said, “But those two years changed my life. He had a completely natural, innate pedagogical gift, as well as ears that didn’t miss a trick! His own technical virtuosity as a performer was so amazingly refined. He taught us how to be our own teachers, to listen to ourselves, to critique our own playing … and in time, the playing of our own students.”
One of his former students, Tandy Reussner, wrote a biography, David Craighead: Portrait of an American Organist, that was published in 2009 and included quotes, anecdotes, listings of his recitals from 1942 to 1998, his repertoire and discography, and photographs.
Born on Jan. 24, 1924, in Strasburg, Penn., Professor Craighead was the son of a Presbyterian minister and received his first music lessons from his mother, an organist. He was awarded his Bachelor of Music degree in 1946 from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he also was the organist of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. While still at Curtis, he was a touring recitalist and taught at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., during his senior year.
Professor Craighead was appointed organist at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, where he helped design the church’s organ and did bi-weekly organ recital broadcasts. He also taught in the music department of Occidental College from 1948 through 1955 before his appointment at the Eastman School of Music.
“Aside from all of the superlatives about David Craighead’s unparalleled stature as a performer and teacher, one of the things that will linger with me forever — and with many of his students and friends –was his great humanity, and his great humility,” said Peter DuBois, director of Eastman’s Sacred Music Program and host of With Heart and Voice, a nationally syndicated radio series of sacred music. “He really was a model for all of us in that regard, both in his professional life and his personal life. And it was one of his greatest gifts.”
Professor Craighead is survived by his children, James R. Craighead and Elizabeth C. Eagan; grandsons Christopher and Jeffrey Eagan; his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Marino; and three great-granddaughters.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 31, at 10 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 25 Westminster Rd. Donations can be made to the Fay Stinson Craighead Memorial Scholarship, Office of Gift and Donor Services, University of Rochester, P.O. Box 270032, Rochester, NY 14627.
The University of Rochester flag near Eastman Quadrangle on the River Campus will be lowered April 5 in Professor Craighead’s honor.
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