1878 - 1957
Birt Summers, an organist, choir director, and composer, taught at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, for seventeen years and served for thirteen as "Dean of the Conservatory." He was a nationally known organist and pianist in the church and was featured in General Conference Sessions in 1922 and 1926.
Birt was born in Covington, Kentucky, on July 20, 1878, the older of two sons of George H. and Anna Maria (Jennie Kaye Summers. His father was an immigrant from England. After Birt's mother died when he was six, his father married Sarah Laird.
Birt married Fanchon Kyle, a pianist who had also been born and raised in Covington, in June 1904. They moved to Muncie, Indiana, where he served as organist and choir director at the First Presbyterian Church and director of the Muncie Academy of Music. In that role he directed the MAM chorus of 100 voices for an SDA evangelistic meeting in 1916, where he oversaw the music and conducted part of a cantata, The Judgement, which he had composed. He was hired by EMC in the fall of 1917 to lead its music program and conduct the orchestra and choir, while his wife would teach piano. In the spring of his first year he conducted a performance of The Judgement in its entirety.
Summers had studied organ, boy-choir training, and theory at the New England Conservatory in Boston before his marriage. He obtained a Bachelor of Music degree from the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago1 in 1920, after beginning employment at EMC, and was awarded a Doctor of Music by BCM in 1923 for his work as a composer.
A summary of his works, listed by the EMC Student Movement in March 1923, includes nineteen compositions and arrangements for piano and organ, most of it written in larger forms associated with those instruments and for orchestra and choir. One of his sonatas for violin, cello, and piano was performed at BCM when his "Doctror's" degree was awarded in February 1923.
He established a choral program at EMC and led choirs that included over one hundred singers. During the schools fiftieth anniversary in May 1924 he led a 125-member college choir and an orchestra in a presentation of the Messiah, a first at EMC, the concert was broadcast nationally on the school's radio station.
Summer's sense of humor surfaced during one of the inaugural recitals given at the time of the installation of a new Moeller organ at EMC in 1927, when he presented an original composition on the new instrument that "depicted an EMC picnic at Indian Lake, including the joyous 'hurrahs' of the crowd, the College Song, and the honking of a truck."2
While the display of whimsy on that occasion probably gained an enthusiastic reaction, there was no question about his dedication and that of his wife for providing the best possible musical experience for EMC students. His leadership of the department and his high standards were always described in the school's publications with respect and admiration. Students were in awe of his ability as an organist, composer, and arranger.
Given his earlier training and work as a church musician, Summer used the new organ to create a more dignified worship tradition, one that would be continued by Harold Hannum, his successor, and subsequent EMC and AU organists, including Verne Kelsey, Warren Becker, Linda Mack, Kenneth Logan, and others. His convictions about the power of music were reflected in a quotation with which he closed a talk given near the end of his time at EMC: "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."3
The Summerses resided near the school where he continued to give lesson part-time after retirement and in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where he also taught voice and piano, beginning in 1929. They eventually moved to Sacramento, California in the 1940s. His composition, Rustic Suite, was performed by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra three years before his death on September 8, 1957, at age 79. Fanchon died on March 29, 1960, at age 90.
1 BCMC was one of several music schools in Chicago at the time and although it claimed to be one of America's leading musical institutions, it was in the shadow of other more well-known schools such as the Chicago Academy of Music (later known as the Chicago Musical College, now part of Roosevelt University) and The Sherwood Music School.
2 Special centennial insert in the 1974 AU Cardinal.
3 EMC Student Movement, 21December 1933, 4.
Sources: 1900, 1910, 1930, and 1940 U.S. Census Records; Sue Butler start point, Family Tree, Ancestry.com; World War I Draft Registration Card; EMC school paper, Student Movement: April 1922, 9; March 1923, 20; 21 December 1933, 4; The Campus News, May 1924, 4; centennial insert in the 1974 AU yearbook, The Cardinal; Student Movement: 21 December 1933, 4; Birt Summers obituary, Sacramento Union, November 11, 1957, 3; Interview with C. Dwight Rhodes, 2007.
C. Dwight Rhodes
Mrs. Gladys Gilbert, one of my piano teachers while I was living in Holly, Michigan, studied with Birt Summers in 1920 or 1921, give or take a year on either side. She often mentioned him during my piano lessons with her.
When I transferred from Adelphian Academy to Emmanuel Missionary College Academy in 1941, Mrs. Gilbert urged me to visit him since he still lived in the college community. I asked Ray Smith, Jr., my buddy who had been born and raised in Holly and who was now my roommate in the dormitory, to go with me.
When I identified myself as a pupil of Mrs. Gilbert, Summers and his wife invited us to come in. I do not remember a single thing about our conversation, but do remember him playing the piano for us upon my request. I may have played something for them.
His wife shied away from playing because she had not practiced recently, she claimed. He played a solo titled Tremo[e]lo, as I remember, which was a speedy, rumbly, impressive thing. I knew Summers only as a pianist, from Mrs. Gilbert's account in my piano lessons, never having heard the word organist used in connection with his name.
When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, from 1972-75, Myrtle Coyle wanted to take piano lessons from me. During the time we worked together, she mentioned that she had a piano exercise book written by somebody with the name of Summers. I urged her to let me see it and she brought it to one of her lessons. There it was! Birt Summers had created/composed a 20- or 30- page book of finger exercises for pianists! I begged her to let me have it and she finally relented.
When I showed it to Paul Hamel, who knew the Summerses, in 1995, he suggested I donate it to the Andrews University Library Heritage Room. Although it tore my heart to do it, I donated it to the library in 2006 when I was at Andrews for my 50th class reunion. It was examined for authenticity and accepted.