In November, Dr. Roy Guenther of Vienna will retire from the posts of organist and choirmaster at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Arlington after 50 years there.
The Sun Gazette recently caught up with Guenther, getting his thoughts on the past, the present – and the future.
Think back to the late 1960s. What was it that attracted you to the position at Resurrection Lutheran, and what do you think has led to your being part of it for a half-century?
In 1968, I moved to Washington to join the U.S. Marine Band. The year before, I had entered an organ-composition contest run by the then-organist at Resurrection Lutheran. I didn’t win, but the organist remembered my name when she later saw that I had moved to D.C. and joined the local chapter of the organists’ Guild. She called me to sub for her in January 1969 for three months, then she decided to give up the job, and the pastor asked me to take over, which I did in September 1969.
So much for the details. Why did I accept? 1) It was a Lutheran church, my own denomination, and I was already familiar with the worship style, hymns, liturgy, etc. 2) They had a brand new pipe organ. 3) I had enjoyed working with the choir during my subbing months. 4) It was clear that worship music of quality was important to the pastors and the congregation.
My original estimation of the “fit” for me turned out not only to be correct, but each aspect has continued to evolve and has grown in importance for me. The position has brought me personal, professional and musical satisfaction throughout my tenure.
According to your biography, you were first a church organist at age 12. What attracted you to the organ (and music in general), and has the love of it remained constant, or ebbed and flowed?
Music in general began with piano lessons at age 6, then trombone at age 11. My parents weren’t musicians, but they loved music, particularly sacred classical music. With my dad being a pastor, there were always organs around.
I was attracted to the variety of sounds, the range of dynamics – it was, and is, like having a whole orchestra under your direct control!
That fascination and love for the instrument and its music has never waned. Marrying a fabulous organist didn’t hurt, either! In fact, some of my fondest memories are the concerts for trombone and organ that my wife, Eileen, and I played in the U.S. and abroad in the ’80s and ’90s.
You were a trombonist for four years in the U.S. Marine Band. How did that impact your subsequent work in music?
Playing in the U.S. Marine Band was an honor, both because of the high level of musicianship of the players and because of its varied roles in ceremonial support of the president.
The playing demands helped me grow musically as a trombonist, and they prepared me for what became a quite successful freelance career after I separated. For many years, I played in various chamber groups, as well as at the Kennedy Center and, occasionally, with the National Symphony Orchestra. On top of that and my organ work, I found great satisfaction as a faculty member and later an administrator at George Washington University.
While these various activities did not actually formally integrate or influence each other, they all were indeed important to my feeling of being a well-rounded musician.
What role do you think music has to play in a church service? How can it bind the congregation together?
Now here’s a broad topic! There is nothing more human than our reaction to music – our own or that produced by others. Whether it’s toe-tapping, singing or playing an instrument, music is a natural expression of the human spirit; it always has been.
Likewise with religion: the Old Testament is replete with references to music of all kinds. The psalms, after all, were (and still are) sung.
In formalized religions of more modern times, music continues to be prominent in most religious faiths. Whether it is chanting by priests, anthems by choirs, music from the organ, or hymns from the entire congregation, music is at the core of worship. In particular, it is an activity in which all attendees can participate, thus lending to a strengthening of community and an expression of common bonds of faith.
The challenge for church musicians is two-fold: To integrate the music thematically with the central message of each service (as found in the scripture readings, sermon, etc.), and to clarify the role of music as an act of worship, both on the part of the musicians and on the part of the congregation as a whole.
Worship music is worship, not performance; those presenting the music are worshipers, not performers. Both of these challenges require constant attention and willingness to educate on the part of the congregation’s musical and pastoral leadership.
When music is successful in its support of and integration with worship, the spirit of the people worshiping and their feeling of being in God’s presence are immeasurably enhanced.
You were the child of a Lutheran pastor. Was there ever the desire to join the ministry yourself?
My parents never suggested the ministry to me, as best I recall, nor do I remember ever feeling moved to consider that as a career choice.
For a while, I was considering being a parochial-school teacher, with church music as an additional responsibility, but the further I went with trombone, the more that began to control my choices, including attending a large university (the University of Kansas), where I found another interest in the scholarly study of music.
That interest eventually became the real driver of my career, although not to the exclusion of either trombone or church music, obviously.
What are your plans as you depart the post at Resurrection Lutheran?
I retired from GWU in 2013, I’m retiring from Resurrection in November, and my wife is retiring from Wesley Seminary next January. For the first time in virtually our entire lives, we’ll be in almost total control of our calendars! That’s going to allow for more travel, one of our real loves, and I’ll find more time for reading, cooking and composing.
We’re not moving from the area, but we do have a lifetime of accumulation that needs our attention, so these retirements will allow more time for that.
I will miss the constant involvement with the people I’ve worked with at Resurrection and the musical activity that has meant so much to me. But at some point, one simply feels that it is time for a change. Having been in one position for 50 most enjoyable years, now seems the right time for me.