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Max Burdorf Miller (GRS’55) served on the faculties of the College of Fine Arts and the School of Theology for 42 years, until his retirement in 1991. He was simultaneously University organist, director of music at Marsh Chapel, director of the Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program, conductor of the Seminary Singers, and a CFA School of Music professor emeritus of organ. He inspired many at Boston University, not only with joy and laughter, but also with musical artistry and erudition.
Miller died on January 5, 2013. He was 85.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Redlands and a PhD from Boston University.
He began his study of the organ in his native California. While studying Arnold Schoenberg’s difficult Variations on a Recitative, he was coached by the composer, and he published a reminiscence of this encounter. A copy is kept in the Arnold Schoenberg Archives in Vienna.
Miller and his wife, Betty, lived in Vienna for several years while he studied with the eminent Austrian virtuoso, teacher, and composer Anton Heiller.
He taught organ not only to those majoring in the instrument, but also to those studying in the MSM program. For Miller, every student was his student, whether they could play the most difficult of Reger’s Phantasien or more modest repertoire. He guided all of them to develop their musicality to the highest level possible.
Miller was also dedicated to his role as church musician. He rehearsed in the chapel choir weekly and conducted every Sunday service. The high quality of preparation and presentation, accompanied by Miller’s endearing personality, created a wonderful community. Those relationships are commemorated in his 1984 hymn tune, “Marsh Chapel,” which appears in hymnals in the United States and Canada. Over the years, his chapel assistants enjoyed a unique apprenticeship in how to run a choir rehearsal and in the fine art of service playing.
For decades Miller, a fellow of the American Guild of Organists, was in demand as a workshop presenter at organists’ conventions. And for many years he wrote the column “Ask Uncle Max” for the American Organist, the guild’s national publication. His columns were always the perfect blend of erudition and good musical sense. Overspecialization, however attractive it might be in today’s academe, did not appeal to Miller. His interests were wide, encompassing theology, literature, and much more.
But his knowledge of the organ repertoire was especially impressive. He was the guiding spirit in the founding of STH’s Organ Library, which has become one of the largest collections of organ music in the world and is accessible through a searchable database. The Organ Library awards the biennial Max B. Miller Prize to outstanding books devoted to organ literature and performance.
On the occasion of his 70th birthday, a group of his students presented Miller with an informal Festschrift as a testimony to their affection. The contributions ranged from the scholarly to the whimsical. One of his students created a “diploma” that concluded with the following ditty:
The organ’s firm foundation is not its reed or flutes;
It is our Max B. Miller, who makes the pipes all toot.
At Marsh he came to teach us. The ciphers did relax.
We wish you joy and laughter. Happy retirement, Max!