1878 - 1957
Birt Summers, an organist, choir director, and composer, and his wife, Fanchon, a pianist, taught at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, from 1918 to 1934. During those years he served as Dean of the Conservatory and taught voice, piano, and organ. His wife assisted in piano instruction.
Birt was born in Covington, Kentucky, the older of two sons of George H. and Anna Maria (Jennie) Kaye Summers, immigrants from England. His mother died when he was six and his father married Sarah Laird. They would have a son.
Birt married Fanchon Kyle, who had also been born and raised in Covington, in June 1904 and they moved to Muncie, Indiana, where he served as organist and choir director at the First Presbyterian Church for fifteen years. He would also serve as minister of music at the Central Presbyterian Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
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 compositions and arrangements of music 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 the BCM when his degree was awarded in February 1923.
He established the choral program at EMC and led choirs that included over one hundred singers. During the school’s fiftieth anniversary in May 1924 he led the 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 in Berrien Springs, Michigan, after leaving EMC and eventually moved to Sacramento, California. His composition, Rustic Suite, was performed by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra three years before his death, at age 79. His wife died three years later.
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; Obituary, 11 September 1957, Sacramento Union, 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.