A giant among organists, whose mastery of improvisation made him widely considered to be the finest organ improviser in the country, has passed away. Gerre Hancock, professor of organ and sacred music at UT's Butler School of Music, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Saturday, Jan. 21. He was 77. Hancock returned to his alma mater in 2004 after more than 30 distinguished years in the field of church music, during which he served as the organist and choirmaster for the Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; performed across the U.S. and in Europe, Japan, and South Africa; penned more than a dozen works for organ, more than two dozen for choir, and the popular textbook Improvising: How To Master the Art; taught at the Juilliard School, the Eastman School of Music, and Yale University; and earned more honors than there are stops on an organ, including the Cross of St. Augustine, an award given for notable contributions to the Anglican church by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He'd come a long way from Lubbock and his Southern Baptist roots. You don't grow up in West Texas without a keen appreciation for wind, which may have been what drew Hancock to the organ when he first encountered one on a trip to Dallas at age 10. "It was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard," he told a reporter for The New York Times in 1995. "I couldn't believe the sound of wind-blown pipes. I heard the organ and that settled that." Eight years later, he was in Austin studying under E. William Doty, the legendary founding dean of the College of Fine Arts and an organist of some renown. Then he leaped from Texas to Paris for a year of study with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Langlais. Then, after a stint in the Army (which involved lugging a field organ around Korea), Hancock headed to New York for graduate school.
It was in the School of Sacred Music at the Union Theological Seminary that he met his wife, Judith. Their marriage of 50 years was sealed by a love of not only each other but also the organ. During Gerre Hancock's 33-year tenure at Saint Thomas, Judith served 27 years as associate organist. She developed a strong national reputation in her own right as an interpreter of Romantic music for the organ, but the couple enjoyed playing recitals together, and when they made the move to UT, they jointly developed a sacred music program for the music school. Not surprisingly, the living room of their Central Austin condo boasts an organ with some 2,500 pipes.
At the end of The New York Times' feature, when asked about the difference between sacred and popular music, Hancock replied: "It's all sacred as far as I'm concerned. Some works better in nightclubs than in churches, but anything beautiful is sacred." A fitting epitaph, and by that measure, he gave the world a vast treasure of sacred music.
Hancock is survived by his wife, Judith, and their daughters, Deborah and Lisa. A memorial mass will be celebrated at his former church, Saint Thomas, on Saturday, Feb. 4, and his ashes will be interred beneath the floor of the chancel where the choir directors stand to lead the choir. For more information, visit www.music.utexas.edu.