Meet David von Behren, the New Artist at the Keyboards of Memorial Church

David von Behren is the latest addition to the acclaimed music department at the Memorial Church. Video and photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

If the two organs at the Memorial Church of Harvard University create the emotional cloth for the spiritual reflection of daily Morning Prayers and services on Sunday, the musician at the keyboards of those grand instruments is the weaver of that symbolic textile.

David von Behren, who received his masters’ degree from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and School of Music in the spring, is the latest addition to the acclaimed music department at the Memorial Church. As the Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster, the 25-year-old will not only assist in directing the Harvard University Choir but also perform much of the keyboard music in the church during services and concerts.

In an interview with the Communications Department of the Memorial Church, von Behren talked about his passion for the pipe organ and the larger mission of music in the church. The organist will showcase his musical skills during a lunch-time retical Oct. 2 in the sanctuary of Memorial Church. The event, from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., is free and open to the public 

Blackwell: In a time when the guitar, piano and conventional band and orchestral instruments gather the musical attention of most students, what caught your eye to the pipe organ?

von Behren: So I'm originally from the Midwest state of Nebraska and I got interested in the organ in a bit of a roundabout way. My mother is an organist and also my grandfather, on my dad's side, is also an organist.

For me the whole idea of singing in the choir, getting to be a part of a kid’s choir, and seeing the role that the organist played in such incredible music-making always left me intrigued, especially the aspect of using one's feet to play this incredible machine that leads us in praise and worship. So those things I think contributed to my interest in studying this amazing instrument, the pipe organ.

Blackwell: What was your academic path to the Memorial Church?

von Behren: I completed my undergraduate studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, Ohio, where I double-majored in organ performance and music theory. I studied organ with Todd Wilson. After that, I received my master's degree at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music and School of Music, studying organ with Martin Jean and organ improvisation with Jeffery Brillhart. I also earned a certificate in church music studies as well.

David von Behren

Blackwell: I understand that you are also a very well-traveled musician.

von Behren: I really enjoy having the opportunity to go play all kinds of different pipe organs here in the United States and also abroad. This summer, I did a short tour in the United Kingdom, playing recitals at Hexham Abbey, Hereford Cathedral, Swiss Church in London, and, most notably, Westminster Abbey.

Blackwell: What are you learning about the personalities of the two organs at Memorial Church?

von Behren: We have this beautiful CB Fisk Opus 139 organ in the back of the sanctuary and the Skinner Opus 793 organ in Appleton Chapel. They are so very different. The Skinner is a beautiful, buttery, and warm instrument. It is so perfect for choral accompanying and playing in this intimate setting. The Fisk is incredible, whether for early music or French repertoire or German and almost anything in between.

Blackwell: What role does music play in the mission of the Memorial Church?

von Behren: There is something that we have to offer in this space, as that famous quote goes, “where words leave off, music speaks.” And I think we have this incredible opportunity to minister, and to be that safe space for students, for the community, for faculty, and everybody in between. And so to get to be a small part of that, I can say I'm really nothing but excited and grateful to be a part of such an incredible institution and an incredible outreach that is so much bigger than myself.

David von Behren rehearses with members of the Choral Fellows

Blackwell: What are you looking forward to this academic year, your first at Memorial Church?

von Behren: I'm particularly looking forward to the opportunity to work closely with Ed Jones and Carson Cooman and their mentorship. I'm also very grateful to the incredibly welcoming staff here that makes everything run. I think one of the things that should come as no surprise is all of the people who do so much work behind the scenes to make what happens on a Morning Prayer weekday or a Sunday morning or a memorial service happen. And to get to see all of this at work is truly a blessing in itself.

And I'm excited to be a part of the choir. The choir, to me, is going to be one of the most exciting parts of my work at the church here. Getting to have that student interaction and getting to grow together as an ensemble is something that I think we will all appreciate as we learn and explore new repertoire together. No matter what, it will be an adventure going forward, and a great one at that.