Timothy Albrecht: Play as if Your Faith Depended on It


Stacia Pelletier 98T 07G
June 8, 2022

When Candler faculty members recently raised a glass to toast Timothy Albrecht’s retirement, the guest of honor couldn’t attend. He was in Vienna, finishing his latest book, Exploring the Magic of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: Short Notes for Performers and Listeners, and preparing to lecture and perform at the Italian Bach Society Conference in Turin, Italy, in June.

Call it a fitting prelude to retirement. Albrecht’s prodigious creative output, which shows no sign of flagging, serves as a reminder of two qualities that have distinguished his years at Emory: energy and elegance, unfolding in equal measure. And behind those two traits is a name.

“Bach drove him,” says Don Saliers, William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Worship at Candler. “Bach still drives him.”

Timothy Albrecht with the Jaeckel organ in Emory's Schwartz Center

For more than four decades, Albrecht’s passion for the music and thought of Johann Sebastian Bach has defined his scholarly life and spurred his pursuit of artistic excellence. Ambidextrous and graced with perfect pitch, a young Albrecht first studied piano under Eastern European musician Eugenia Prekosh. He earned his undergraduate degree from Oberlin and his doctorate and performer’s certificate from the Eastman School of Music. In 1982, he joined Emory in a rare triple appointment, as assistant professor of music at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, assistant professor of church music at Candler School of Theology, and university organist.

Three roles in one would overwhelm most fledgling faculty members. Not Albrecht. He embraced the challenge, spending the next four decades enriching the Emory community while simultaneously carving out a formidable international reputation as an organist and composer/arranger. “He’s a superb organist,” says Saliers. “He ranks among the top in the country.”

Witness an Albrecht concert, and you won’t soon forget it. His performances have been praised as “electric” and described as possessing “Lisztian virtuosity” by New York’s American Organist. The Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik described his playing as “unforgettable, because inimitable.” Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu could not restrain himself when he once wrote to Albrecht about an upcoming performance: “I am so looking forward to that…knowing you will play as if your life depended on it!”

And play he has, at every available opportunity. Albrecht’s recitals have taken him from Alaska to the Andes, from Taiwan to Texas. He taught master classes for numerous chapters of the American Guild of Organists in multiple countries and at The Juilliard School. His playing has been featured many times on “Pipe Dreams,” a syndicated radio program that brought his singular style into the homes of classical music lovers around the country.

That singular style—energy and elegance in constant dialogue—has defined Albrecht’s entire body of work. He wrote twelve volumes of Grace Notes for Organ, produced nine solo compact discs, and led concerts and musical programs across Emory and well beyond. As university organist, he oversaw the permanent installation of three organs on campus—the Casavant organ in Glenn Memorial, the Taylor and Boody organ in the Little Chapel, and the Jaeckel organ in the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center. Albrecht managed these multi-year projects with careful attention to detail, assiduously working with the organ builders to achieve perfection. Step into any one of these spaces on the Emory campus today, and you’ll be witnessing—and hearing—Albrecht’s meticulous legacy.

He applied that same meticulous eye to advancing new programs. Over twenty-five years, Albrecht helped develop what came to be called Reformation Day at Emory, an annual scholarly and musical event drawing on the impressive holdings of the Kessler Reformation Collection at Candler’s Pitts Theology Library. Albrecht’s specific role entailed leading the Kessler Reformation concerts, gracefully weaving together Bach compositions, the theology of Martin Luther, and student choral engagement to widespread praise. M. Patrick Graham 83G, Pitts’ librarian emeritus, says that “Albrecht’s genius proved a perfect fit” for these concerts: Albrecht selected the hymns and relevant Bach compositions, managed the orchestral and choral components of the program, and lent his talents on organ. “I was always grateful for Timothy’s collaboration and held him in the highest regard,” says Graham. “His work was crucial.”

In the classroom, Albrecht’s enthusiasm for sacred music proved contagious. Candler student Mark Johnson 22T recalls Albrecht volunteering to play the organ for Episcopal student worship services before the pandemic started. He took Albrecht’s signature course, “Bach for Pastors: Preaching Bach’s Musical Theology,” and came away profoundly changed. “Dr. Albrecht led us on a journey beyond Bach’s musical genius into an exploration of his Christian devotion,” he says. “His insights and, more importantly, his passion, utterly transformed the way I view Bach’s work and the way it quite purposefully glorifies God.” Johnson describes Albrecht as a rare combination of extraordinary talent and unfailing kindness.

Candler alumna Karen Anderson 20T, currently based at Winship Cancer Center as an Emory Spiritual Health Winship Fellow, enrolled at Candler after a career as a classical pianist and quickly found her tribe with Albrecht. She says he believed in her and wanted to see her succeed in ministry. “To sit in that class and have it speak to my work as a minister and as a musician was amazing,” she says. “And he was so lovely and gentle with his students, and so encouraging. Students came away with a richer sense of who they could be.”

Alex Sherrill 20T, now an associate priest at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, was so inspired by Albrecht’s passion for his subject matter that he enrolled in a class about organ construction even though he had no musical inclinations himself. “His love of the instrument transferred to me and increased my desire to learn more about it,” Sherrill says. “I count myself lucky to have learned from and interacted with such a world-renowned artist.”

Saliers counts himself lucky, as well: he describes a friendship with Albrecht forged over forty years of music, theology, and laughter. He says one never forgot, when interacting with Albrecht, that one was speaking with—or listening to—a Lutheran.

“Even when offering his talents at Glenn Memorial—a Methodist congregation,” Saliers fondly recalls, “he performed like a Lutheran. He was doing improvisations of hymns from his own tradition, and sometimes the Glenn people didn’t quite know what to do with him!” He remembers joyful evenings spent with Albrecht and his late wife Tamara, the three friends playing the organ together, six hands on one instrument. Those nights remain among his favorite memories.

And even amidst significant loss, Saliers says, Albrecht never lost sight of why he was at Candler. Music is central to the life of faith, and Albrecht grasped that truth viscerally and instinctively. “He gave us a gift we didn’t fully recognize,” Saliers says. “He gave that to Candler consistently and persistently. He was a serious, faithful Christian musician.”

Dean Jan Love shares the same gratitude. “What an honor and privilege I’ve had in being the dean of a school where one of the world’s finest musicians has served for 40 years,” she says. “Timothy Albrecht’s talent, accomplishments, generosity, and profound faith commitment have been remarkable gifts to us all and a deep well of inspiration for me personally.”

Albrecht summed up his own professional journey in a recent statement: “The Candler School of Theology component of my tripartite Emory appointment was as Professor of Church Music,” he wrote from Vienna. “This has afforded me the joy to also teach courses reflecting my faith as an intentional Christian. Over four decades that waxed and waned with both successes and failures in professional and personal life, my ongoing credo was a Bible passage from Job that I had learned as a very young boy: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’ For all that has transpired during this Emory watch I am both grateful and thankful.”

Former student Johnson has already taken up the torch to carry on Albrecht’s legacy. He has taught a short version of the Bach class in his parish, and he intends to explore additional sacred music themes in the future. “He reignited in me a passion that I thought had gone dormant,” Johnson says. “Dr. Albrecht is talented, kind, and generous. But, above all, he effectively does that for which all educators should strive: he inspires.”

Indeed, to paraphrase Desmond Tutu, Albrecht has spent his career playing as if his faith depended on it. For forty years, he has shown the Candler community not only that sacred music animates and expresses the Christian faith, but also that this music is faith. It is consolation and hope, offered at home and abroad, in season and out of season, in moments of joy and periods of starkest grief. That is the real legacy Albrecht has left the Candler community—and that is what he will continue to offer through his ongoing creations after he bids farewell to Emory.

“He offered us that gift,” Saliers says, “for a magnificent period of our school’s history. It will be very difficult to find another like him.”