Harvard Organist’s New Set of Keys in Washington, D.C.

Thomas Sheehan plays the harpsichord in rehearsal Spring ConcertThomas Sheehan, Associate University Organist and Choirmaster at the Memorial Church, plays a harpsichord during rehearsal for Handel's Judas Maccabaeus. Sheehan is leaving Harvard following the Spring Term to become the lead organist for the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photos and video by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Sunday services at the Memorial Church conclude with final prayers and the benediction, but as some congregants make their way toward the exits, many stay seated each week listening to Thomas Sheehan fill the sanctuary with eloquent music from the church’s pipe organ.

Fans of the acclaimed and versatile organist have just a few more opportunities to hear Sheehan perform in the sanctuary of Memorial Church. He is leaving the Church, and Harvard University, at the end of the Spring Term to become the lead organist at another historic church, the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

After five years of providing the musical accompaniment to the Harvard University Choir, and services in the Memorial Church, the move marks a significant opportunity in the young musician’s life, and an artistic change at the organ keyboards of Harvard’s iconic church.

“I feel it's been a golden period for music here the last five years,” said Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster in the Memorial Church. “There is just a lovely spirit in the music department, in the choir, and I think much of that has to do with Tom’s grace as a human.”

Sheehan’s final organ recital is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., May 21 in the church. His final Sunday at the keyboards will be May 26. And Sheehan said the upcoming performance and services give him the opportunity to honor the kind of support exhibited each Sunday when Memorial Church congregants remained in their seats enjoying his music following services.

“I’m just so grateful for the support of the Memorial Church community, because without them there is less reason to do what we do,” said Sheehan. “We are a church that has an audience in mind, a university community. And I’m so grateful they choose to consume the music we are creating.”

Organist Thomas Sheehan at the keyboard of the CB Fisk Opus 139 (2012): The Charles B. Fisk & Peter J. Gomes Memorial OrganOrganist Thomas Sheehan at the keyboard of the CB Fisk Opus 139 (2012): The Charles B. Fisk & Peter J. Gomes Memorial Organ in the sanctuary of the Memoial Church.

The standard for musical excellence at Memorial Church will continue, of course. In April, Jones announced the appointment of award-winning organist, David von Behren, as the new assistant organist and choirmaster. Von Behren earned his master of music degree at Yale University’s School of Music/Institute of Sacred Music. He is also a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree in organ performance and music theory.

Von Behren’s appointment is scheduled to begin in August, prior to the Fall Term.

“David is doing really well on the recital scene and also has a lot of experience as a church musician, which is terrific,” said Jones. “He’s a versatile musician and he's not only a really excellent organist and singer, but he's a violinist as well, of very high caliber.”

The end of the Spring Term will mark a coming sea change at the Memorial Church not only in the music department, but also in church leadership. Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church for the past 7 years, announced his departure this summer to assume the role of dean at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Harvard will begin a search for his replacement in the upcoming months.

Sheehan is also taking on a larger role in his next career step. The Washington National Cathedral is considered the “spiritual home” for the United States, and a venue for presidential prayer services traditionally held the day after inauguration, as well as state funerals and memorial services.

“It’s an exciting part of the job when all of the television cameras are there,” Sheehan said. “But it’s not why I became an organist in the first place. It’s the daily making of the music that really appeals to me. That is why I got into this in the first place.”

Sheehan joined the music department of the Memorial Church as associate organist and choirmaster in the fall of 2014. But his introduction to the opportunity at Harvard was a stroke of luck. When his partner, Ketti Jane Muschler, was accepted in the master’s program at Bard College’s Longy School of Music, Sheehan began an immediate search for work in the Boston area.

“I literally typed into Google ‘organist jobs in Boston’ and this is the first one that came up,” said Sheehan, who is finishing up his doctorate of musical arts at Boston University. “I wrote to Ed and said I was interested. The rest is history, but it was really funny to find it by accident, two days after it had been posted.”

Inexhaustible musical talent and knowledge are two of the most important qualities Sheehan brought to the job, Jones said. Sheehan is an accomplished musician on the organ, piano, and harpsichord, and excels in his work with the Harvard University Choir and Harvard Glee Club.

He's encyclopedic in his knowledge of music, but also other things as well,” said Jones. “He is remarkably intelligent and thinks about how music works within liturgy. Everything he does is musical in every different style, a terrific organist, a beautiful pianist. That is a rare gift.”

Thomas Sheehan, Associate University Organist and Choirmaster in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, talks about his introduction to music as a child and demonstrates the physical dexterity needed to play this classic church organ.

Theodora Mautz ’19 is a four-year member of the Harvard University Choir and its senior secretary. She said it was a common occurrence, while listening to Sheehan play during Sunday services or Morning Prayers, for choir members to share a glance of amazement at his improvisational skills.   

“The things he can do on the organ, even in a short time, are so fun, and sometimes weird and unexpected, but it all works,” she said. “Tom is not only the most talented person I’ve ever met, he is also the humblest person I’ve ever met. It’s genuine, almost like he is not aware of how spectacular he is.”

Sheehan is also leaving Harvard with a great appreciation for students in the choir, and his music department colleagues, Jones and Carson Cooman, Memorial Church’s resident composer. Working with Jones and Cooman expanded the breadth of his musical experience and prepared him to take on his new role at the National Cathedral, he said.

“It’s been really spectacular to be part of a team that gets stuff done really well, because everyone is so capable and talented.” Sheehan said. “And I’m really taking away an appreciation for how much music can help students and anyone when they are really being pulled in many different directions, and how much of a centering force it can be in their lives.”