John Ferris


"I think that John was probably the greatest church musician of his generation... He transformed worship."


John Ferris


Organist & Choirmaster

at Harvard University

John Ferris served as organist and choirmaster at Harvard University for over three decades. He was also one of the first Boston-area musicians to focus intensely on early music. (Globe File/1972)

Globe Staff / August 10, 2008

John Ferris, the widely admired musician who served as organist and choirmaster at Harvard University for over three decades, died Aug. 1 in Great Barrington. The cause was complications from Parkinson's disease, according to Nancy Granert, the organist in residence at Harvard's Memorial Church. He was 82 years old.

At Harvard, where Mr. Ferris conducted the University Choir from 1958 to 1990 and taught hymnology in the Divinity School, his quiet charisma and his unyielding devotion to the music at hand inspired many students through the years. Under his direction, the group became known for its gleaming ensemble sound and its impeccable musicality - qualities that were consistently on display not only at special performances but also in the chorus's contributions to daily church services.

"I think that John was probably the greatest church musician of his generation," said the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who worked side by side with Mr. Ferris at Memorial Church for about two decades. "He transformed worship. The music was luminous, and no one before or since has been able to create quite the sound that he was able to get out of the voices that sang for him. People wanted to make music for John Ferris, and when they did, the effect in the church was quite extraordinary."

Mr. Ferris was one of the first Boston-area musicians to focus intensely on early music, and he was particularly acclaimed for his interpretations of Bach. After his performance of the "St. John Passion" in 1990, Globe music critic Richard Dyer wrote that "Boston boasts no finer musician, and none is more widely loved." He added that Mr. Ferris "belongs in the rare company of musicians who give you not just something to hear, to think about, to feel, but something to keep and to cherish, something to live by."

John Ferris was born in 1926 in East Lansing, Mich. He took piano lessons as a child as well as a few organ lessons, and heard the latter instrument played in local movie theaters. He was drafted at 18 and stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. As he described in an interview with the Globe, "It was a cavalry post and we were supposed to learn how to work with horses and mules for combat in Burma. To keep from going crazy, I started to take organ lessons again, and before long I had been invited to take over as post organist, and because at that age you don't realize what you don't know, I took on the choir as well."

After the war, he attended Michigan State University, where he focused on music, and later did graduate work at Union Theological Seminary's School of Sacred Music. He held a position for eight years as organist and choirmaster at a church in Red Bank, N.J., but by age 31, he was offered the same post at Harvard's Memorial Church. He said yes.

As soon as he arrived, Mr. Ferris made a major change to the core composition of the chorus. It had been an all-male group but he insisted on building a balanced four-part ensemble, with women singing alongside men. He also oversaw a new edition of the university's hymnbook, taking a historically minded approach that restored the original couplings of particular texts with their associated hymn melodies. The church's organ needed updating as well, and Mr. Ferris spearheaded the campaign to replace the old Aeolian-Skinner instrument with a large tracker organ built by Charles Fisk of Gloucester.

Over the years at Harvard, Mr. Ferris's interest in 17th-century music deepened and he became a devoted exponent of the music of Heinrich Schütz, paving the way for a citywide burst of interest in Schütz's music. He programmed Schütz's works during his five years as music director of Cantata Singers, and gave two noteworthy Schütz concerts with the Harvard University Choir in 1972. Those programs started the choir on its path toward reaching a broader audience far beyond the university, though various rules at Harvard prevented the group from performing often outside of Memorial Church.

Beyond Schütz and Bach, Mr. Ferris was also praised as an excellent interpreter of Handel. In 1987, he led the choir in a performance of the composer's oratorio "Saul," which Dyer praised in the Globe as "impeccably prepared, handsomely cast, conducted with style, insight, vigor, and emotion." In tribute to Mr. Ferris, WHRB will broadcast a recording of that performance today from 5 to 8 p.m. (on 95.3 FM or streamed online at

In working with students, Mr. Ferris was known for achieving results without bullying singers or grandstanding. "There was no ego - it was just about finding the essence of the music, and drawing it out of people," said Mary Beekman, the director of Musica Sacra, who was deeply influenced by her experience singing in the choir. "With John, it was almost by the sheer force of his caring about the music that you came to care about it too, and you just didn't want to let him down."

After retiring from his post in 1990, Mr. Ferris traveled widely as a guest lecturer. He also took over the directorship of the choir at the Congregational Church in Colebrook, Conn., close to his home in the Berkshires.

Over the years, he performed as a concert organist throughout the United States and made his European concert debut in 1978 at La Basilique du Sacré Cour" in Paris. Many heard in his organ playing the same kind of wise and insightful musicianship that distinguished his conducting.

"Every hymn I ever heard him play was absolutely at the right tempo," said Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities at Harvard and a longtime colleague. "It was an innate musicality that's very rare in many ways."

Mr. Ferris leaves his spouse and partner of 60 years, Herbert Burtis of Sandisfield, and four nieces. Plans for a memorial service will be announced.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

Gifts in John's memory should be directed to:

Ferris/Burtis Foundation ~ 271 Main Street, Great Barrington MA 01230



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