Biography of Robert Elmore

Robert Hall Elmore was born on January 2, 1913 in Ramaputnam, India, where his parents, Dr. Wilber Elmore and Maude Elmore, served as American Baptist missionaries. The family, including an older sister Rachel, returned to the United States in 1915. They settled in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1918, where young Bob Elmore began piano study at age 6 and organ study at age 9. He wrote his first composition “Ozma Waltz” at age eleven.

In 1925 the family moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania, as Dr. Wilber Elmore had accepted the invitation to teach church history and missions at the newly formed Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Young Bob Elmore studied organ, piano and music theory with the famed Pietro Yon, organist of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He commuted to twice weekly to New York from age 13 to 20, and studied with Yon again in his mid-twenties. He lived in the family home at 130 Walnut Avenue, Wayne until his death in 1985.

While in his teens, Robert Elmore was organist at Central Baptist Church, Wayne, PA (1925-1933) and also played for the Lincoln, Bryn Mawr Seville and Anthony Wayne theaters. Thus in his early years his musical persona was shaped by influences he exhibited throughout his life: church music, classical traditions, virtuoso organ playing, lighter popular music, and a dramatic theatricality. He was a great lover of opera, attending the performances of the Metropolitan Opera in Philadelphia. His favorite composers were Verdi, Puccini and Wagner, whose influence is clearly heard in his choral works. His first large organ recital was on August 17, 1929 in the Auditorium at Ocean Grove NJ. He was introduced by his teacher, Mr. Yon, who said: “I consider Bob Elmore the foremost American organist of the day.”

In the summer of 1933 Elmore earned three licentiates simultaneously from the Royal Academy of Music on London in organ, concert piano, and piano accompaniment, an unprecedented accomplishment, and became an Associate on the Royal College of Organists. From 1933-1937 he studied at the University of Pennsylvania, studying composition with Harl McDonald. During these years he also studied conducting with H. Alexander Matthews and was organist at Arch Street Methodist Church in Philadelphia (1933-1938). While a student at Penn, Elmore three times was awarded the Nitsche First Prize for contribution to musical life of the school, and also the Thornton Oakely medal for achievement in Creative Arts at the University.

Elmore played his New York debut recital in Carnegie Hall on December 1, 1936. While preparing for this recital he often passed the hotel ballroom where Benny Goodman played nightly, which impacted him deeply. On April 9, 1937 the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski gave the first major performance of an Elmore work, his tone poem “Valley Forge-1777.” Memories of the “King of Swing” came alive in several works composed in 1938: a cantata “The Prodigal Son,” subtitled “A Sermon in Swing,” “Swing Rhapsody for Two Pianos,” and ”Concerto in C Minor for Organ and Orchestra,” the last movement being in a jazz swing style. That same year his composition “Three Sonnets” won the Mendelssohn Club national competition, with Eugene Ormandy as one of the judges. Other orchestra works composed during this period were “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a four movement suite for orchestra (1940); and “Three Colors: Suite for String Orchestra,” (1941).

Elmore was on the music faculty of the University of Pennsylvania from 1937 to 1950 and became well known as conductor of University choral groups. He taught at Clarke Conservatory beginning in 1935, and for many years at what is now the Philadelphia University of the Arts. He was organist-choirmaster of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia (1938-1955) and was the official organist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. His one-act opera “It Began at Breakfast” was the first American opera to be televised (February 18, 1941). His sacred compositions during this period include “The Incarnate Word: A Pageant for Christmastide” (1943) and “The Cross” (1947). He was one of the prime artists of the famed Bernard R. La Berge Management (along with E. Power Biggs, Carl Weinrich, Arthur Poister, Claire Coci, and Joseph Bonnet), presenting organ recitals throughout the United States. Elmore continued his exploration of jazz elements in organ music. His works “Rhumba” and “Rhythmic Suite,” both published in 1954, were groundbreaking developments in the integration of jazz and classical organ music.

In 1955 Elmore was invited to become the organist-choir master of Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA (1955-1968). The impact of the great Moravian music tradition on Elmore’s creative work was immense. The community was founded in 1742 by settlers from central Europe, who brought with them their musical heritage. The first pipe organ in Bethlehem was installed in 1746, a small orchestra was founded in 1748, and in 1754, a complete choir of trombones (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) was sent to the new colony, and the Moravian Trombone Choir was created. Many of the early American Moravian clergy were also composers, and created many favorite Moravian hymns and anthems that are still sung today. Haydn’s “The Creation” was performed for the first time in the United States in the sanctuary of Central Moravian Church in 1811, and the first complete performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor was presented at Central in 1900. Elmore was both inspired by and built upon this strong heritage.

One of the attractions of the Central Moravian position was the installation of a new Möller pipe organ designed by Ernest White. Even the burden of a 120 mile round trip twice a week was outweighed by the advantage of a new instrument after seventeen years on an undependable instrument at Holy Trinity. Many of Robert Elmore’s large-scale choral works, such as Psalm of Redemption, Three Psalms, Reconciliation, Doxology, and Psalm of Thanksgiving were composed for Central Moravian’s annual Estelle Borhek Johnson Memorial Music Festival and incorporated Moravian hymns. It was also for these festivals that he composed the “Concerto for Organ, Brass and Percussion” in 1964. For outstanding contributions to church music, two honorary degrees were bestowed on Elmore in 1958: an L.H.D. from Moravian College in Bethlehem, and an LL.D. fro Alderson-Broaddus College in Phillipi, West Virginia.

Ten years of ill health had forced Elmore to curtail his travel and concertizing. He also turned down appointments to prestigious positions, most notable at West Point Chapel and at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., preferring to teach, perform and compose in the Philadelphia area. He was also music director for the radio program, “The Bible Study Hour.” The 1956 Mercury recordings “Bach on the Biggest´ and “Boardwalk Pipes” were made on the organs in the Atlantic City (NJ) Convention Hall and Ballroom. (These recordings have been reissued by The Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society, Inc. to benefit the restoration of the organs in boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ.

The physical strain of travel to Bethlehem caused Elmore to resign his church position there in 1968. While between jobs he composed another Christmas cantata “Wondrous Child Divine,” a work more accessible to church choirs. Within a year he was invited to become organist and choir director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (1969-1985). Part of the negotiations involved the stipulation of a new organ, to which the church agreed. Due to limitations of space (the church could accommodate pipes for only a small two-manual organ) and budget, it was decided to purchase an electronic organ. In September 1970 Elmore dedicated “the world’s largest electronic organ” built by the Allen Organ Company to his design. That began a concert series at the church, at first monthly, but later reduced to four a year, for which many notable works were composed. Elmore continued teaching privately, giving organ recitals, and fulfilling numerous commissions for compositions. His most significant organ works of this period are “Sonata for Organ” (1975) and “Concertino for Trumpet and Organ” (1976). He died suddenly on September 22, 1985.

Upon his death, the contents of his home and studio passed into the ownership of his sister, Rachel Elmore. In 1991 her beneficiary, the National Christian Conference Center, and Elmore's personal secretary, Thomas E. Halpin, arranged for his papers to be transferred to the Archives at the University of Pennsylvania. The Conference made a formal gift of the Collection in 1993. The Robert Elmore Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center contains music and memorabilia preserved by the Elmore family over a span of nearly eighty years. It contains approximately 230 Elmore compositions, over half of which were published. It is our intent on this website to post listings of his compositions by categories, including his many anthems and popular chorale preludes for organ.

Written by Robert Plimpton, November, 2009, based on material prepared by Pauline Fox who catalogued the Robert Elmore Collection, November, 1993; biographical material in the dissertation “A Conductor’s Analysis of the Choral Works of Robert Elmore” by Albert E. Lunde, July 1982; and the website of Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, PA.

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