Published: April 25, 2018 By

Elizabeth Farr

Director of Historical Performance Studies and Professor of Organ and Harpsichord Elizabeth Farr retires in May after 26 years at the College of Music.

She’s performed on European instruments nearly half a millennium old. She played the organ at a huge memorial service in her hometown of Miami to honor Winston Churchill when he passed away. Now, after a career spanning decades and stretching across the globe, Elizabeth Farr will retire from teaching.

Farr has been the College of Music’s stalwart champion for foundational music since 1992 when she came to Boulder. Now, as director of historical performance studies and professor of organ and harpsichord, she’s seen the role of early music—and its popularity—evolve.

“There’s a lot to enjoy and learn about baroque music,” Farr says. “It’s a hot topic now, even more so than when I was coming up.”

Since childhood, Farr says her teachers have played a key role in shaping her life as a musician. She started on piano, then in her early teenage years began to play the organ.

“My dad wanted me to study organ. I was tall enough at 13, so I could reach the pedals,” Farr remembers, “I loved everything about it—the repertoire, the registrations, and I also had a wonderful teacher.”

She continued baroque organ studies in college at Stetson University near Orlando, working with Paul Jenkins the university’s beautiful Rudolf von Beckerath tracker-action organ. It was with Jenkins and the organ studio that she took her first trip to Europe. “So right away, in my undergraduate years, I was exposed to antique organs in Germany. It was a great education.”

During graduate studies on scholarship at The Juilliard School, Farr’s focus shifted to include more 19th- and 20th-century organ music as another formative teacher, Vernon De Tar, entered her life. After receiving a Master’s of Music in Organ Performance, Farr spent several years doing what she loves most: performing recitals.

“Not everyone went on directly to doctoral studies in those days. I just wanted to play recitals, and that’s what I did. I built up quite a good-sized notebook of performances.”

Having been employed as a church organist, Farr still had a desire to teach at the university level, and she knew that she would need to earn a doctorate to do so. She turned her sights on another member of the keyboard family.

“I had been studying harpsichord with Edward Parmentier from the University of Michigan privately for several years, so I enrolled there to continue working with him, becoming his first doctoral student” she says.

The additional focus on harpsichord changed Farr’s playing forever.

“For a while, my organ and harpsichord playing sounded the same. But with time I was able to compartmentalize what’s different about them,” she explains. “The touch is similar, a light touch, but the pluck of the harpsichord behaves differently than pipes sounded by an air supply on an organ.

“That made me a somewhat unique teacher for the organ, and I often find myself at odds with the more traditional way of playing. The tone produced on the organ doesn’t have any decay, but my style introduces more small silences punctuating the notes and chords, hopefully producing a rhythmic hierarchy that would otherwise be difficult to perceive.”

Farr’s time in Ann Arbor also opened up more doors for performance abroad. She was invited to play organs and harpsichords in Germany, in ancient churches and sprawling palaces on beautiful instruments—some of which had lived through hundreds of years of church services, royal concerts and wars.

“My favorite organ is in Norden, practically right on the North Sea, in Ludgeri church. There had been a smaller organ there when it was a Catholic church, which was incorporated into a larger organ by Arp Schnitger when it became a Protestant church in the 17th century.”

All those experiences followed Farr to her current position at the College of Music and continue to inform her playing and teaching today. As director of the Early Music Ensemble, she coaches students through the style in tandem with the technical instruction of their studio professors.

“The students love working with me because they’re experiencing something that’s new to most of them. A benefactor, the third or fourth year I was here, purchased nine baroque bows for the Early Music Ensemble. That changed our playing.

“Even though students are using modern instruments, they’re getting the feel of what it was like to play hundreds of years ago.”

In the 26 years she’s been in Boulder, Farr has helped early music go from a somewhat marginalized discipline to something of a basso continuo to the melody of the college. Her harpsichord recordings on the Naxos label, some prize winners, have taken place during these years.

“I have friends all over this building, working with students in a variety of musical disciplines. My current colleagues consider me to be an important part of the keyboard area, as the person who offers instruction on two baroque instruments. It’s been a good job for me.”

As Farr looks back on her career and forward to what’s next, she says music will remain at the core of who she is.

“I live and breathe music, without it I wouldn’t be alive. Music is my voice. I’ve known this since childhood.”

In the fall, Robert Hill, who has been teaching since the 1990s at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany, will join the College of Music faculty as professor of harpsichord, director of the Early Music Ensemble and the first Eugene D. Eaton, Jr. Chair in Baroque Music Performance.