Philip Betts has been manning the organ in churches across Delmarva most of his adult life. As the organist of People's Church of Dover, he also organizes the annual Lenten Organ Concert Series, which he finishes off with a performance Thursday afternoon.
People’s Church of Dover organist Philip Betts has a fan club. Following a performance by fellow organist Jonathan Emmons, concert goers beelined for Betts, who made time for everyone before making his way up to the front of the church and the organ he’s so comfortable behind. Betts organizes the church’s annual Lenten organ concert series, and will play the final concert on Maundy Thursday, a right he reserves as the series organizer.
Q When did you start playing, and when did you come to Dover?
A I started playing about three months before I had my first job. I started piano in 1954 because the church needed an organist, and said they would pay for the lessons if I would be their organist. So after three months of lessons I was thrown in the pit, quite literally.
I had my first church when I was 16. I was a choirmaster and choir organizer at St. John’s Methodist Church in Fruitland, Md. At that time I was the youngest organist on the Eastern Shore. So I’ve been pretty much at it since them. I turned 72 on Saturday, so it’s been 50-some years.
I graduated from high school and spent some time at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, then moved back home and stayed there until I moved to Dover in 1969. I moved to Dover without a job, I did not know anyone, and I found a place to live and took a summer course at Wesley College and got a job at JC Penney doing office and clerical work. Subsequently, about three years after that, I became organist and choir director at Wesley United Methodist and was there for I don’t know how many years. Then I was at the Presbyterian Church of Dover on State and Reed for about 10 years. Then about a month after I left there, I was hired by People’s Church, and this is my 15th year.
Q You’ve been around at local churches for so many years that you must be recognized a lot when you’re out about town.
A When you sit in the pit of a church organ, you don’t see the congregation. But there’s only one you, and they know who you are.
Q Tell me a little about the annual Lenten organ concert series.
A This is the eighth year. When the pastor first came here, Pastor [Daniel] Griggs, he made an announcement about doing special music for some occasions, and he thought a Lenten series was a good idea, so that’s where they started. First we started with vocal soloists, and then they started inviting local organists to play and stayed with that.
We do it for the seven Thursdays during Lent, ending with Maundy Thursday.
Q How is attendance?
A They’ve been running slightly under 35, and that’s not bad considering it’s the middle of the week in the middle of the day. We’re happy to have that many people, we’re happy with what we get, because we consider it a service to people who might feel the need to have a time in each week during Lent to have a pause to sit and contemplate about what Lent is all about.
Q What and when will you be playing?
A April 1 — All Fools, that’s me. I tend to save the Maundy Thursday for me. It’s very important to me, so I’m a little selfish, and I always save that one for me.
I’ll be playing two preludes by Hubert Parry, and one of my own compositions.
They’re very solemn, and quiet and contemplative. They’re thought provoking, and tell you to think about what the day is about.
Q I understand the composition of your own that you’ll be performing has been very well received.
A I’ll be doing it at my service, and two other churches are performing it at Maundy services. This is a relatively old one, written in 2000. I write sporadically. I don’t do it all the time, and usually I do it for Lent or a communion service.
Q What is it about Lent and Maundy that you feel so strongly about?
A The time surrounding Lent, the events are all so fraught with awful things, and it just becomes worse when you move into Good Friday. And you think of the sacrifice that is being given for all of us, and you’re just overwhelmed by it.
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