The Apostle of Organ Music

Last week, I wrote about the introduction of organs into Greek churches in America, but I didn’t really know why they were introduced. Thanks to David Mastroberte, we now have a plausible explanation: someone specifically set out to popularize organ music.

That man was George Anastassiou. Courtesy of Mr. Mastroberte, here are Anastasiou’s own words, from a Greek hymnal called Αρμονικη Λειτουργικη Υμνωδια (published 1944, reprinted 1960):

I am convinced that I first introduced the organ in our Churches in America with the musical cooperation of ever-memorable artist and musical [sic] Spyridon Saphrides upon my arrival in America and my appointment as precentor-choir leader of the Greek Church of St. Sophia in Washington at the time of the progress and reformatory presidency of Mr. T. H. Theotokatos, lawyer and at that time teacher of this community in the year 1921. Later I introduced it also in New York and in other places by special musical-historic lectures, descriptions in our Greek press, and by special teaching in the choirs of our communities, which I formed, and lately in the beloved Greek city of Florida, Tarpon Springs, where there is played today, in that very beautiful cathedral church of America (as it is called today by all the Greeks and Americans by reason of the Pan-American celebration of Theophany services every year) an organ of great value electrically, microphonically, megaphonically, and with chimes, on the great singing tower, the bell tower of about 100 feet in height of this Greek Church of St. Nicholas in Florida, called the Greek singing Tower of America.

And thus, and in time, the organ of Greek invention became the valuable leader and coadjutor of our choirs and in America for the elevation of the Divine Worship and for our reunion through our choirs (which, I am convinced, I first introduced in America), with the ancient Greek Byzantine greatness of our church.

This makes sense. Anastassiou mentions the musician Spyridon Safridis, who, according to Nicholas Prevas, was hired to be the first musical director of Annunciation Church in Baltimore and introduced “European music” into that church.

The Anastassiou story suggests that parishes weren’t necessarily trying to just Americanize by adding an organ — they were also trying to be more “Byzantine,” at least according to Anastassiou’s interpretation of history. David Mastroberte writes, “In earlier paragraphs, Anastassiou claims that the organ was invented by Greeks at Alexandria, was used in the ‘Hebrew church’ and was even employed by such great saints as Athanasius and Basil the Great. He also mentions its use in the narthex of Hagia Sophia, and its subsequent introduction into the West via Byzantium.”

I’d love to learn more about Anastassiou, Safridis, and their efforts to spread organ music in Greek churches. All this was taking place during the 1920s — the era of the Royalist / Venizelist and Old / New Calendarist schisms among Greek Americans. If I may hazard a guess, I’d say that the Venizelists were more inclined to adopt the organ, and the Royalists were more likely to resist it. But I don’t know for sure. It would also be interesting to know whether there was any connection between Anastasiou’s efforts in 1920s America and Abp Athenagoras’ introduction of organ music on Corfu at the same time — that is, did Anastassiou inspire Athenagoras in Corfu, or were the two unconnected until Athenagoras came to America?

Many, many thanks to Mr. Mastroberte for providing this information.