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Alumni & FriendsJames Edward Goettsche playing the organ. Does one ever get accostomed to playing for an audience of millions? 'It would be dangerous to get used to it,' says Vatican organist James Edward Goettsche. 'Nothing can ever be taken for granted and there is always the unforseen.' Photo courtesy J.E. Goettsche



Playing for the Pope
In 1961 James Edward Goettsche was still a music student at San Francisco State College, studying the organ under Professor Alexander Post and learning Italian in a course taught by Professor Alfred F. Alberico. Little did he know he'd one day become the official organist for the Vatican.

"As a child I read many books about Roman history. It was one of my fondest dreams to see Rome and especially the Basilica of St. Peter," he recalls. When Professor Alberico arranged for his student to interview with Fernando Germani, a famous virtuoso organist visiting from Rome, Goettsche got his wish -- and more.

Impressed with Goettsche's musical abilities, Germani invited him to complete his studies in Rome. "I could not believe it," Goettsche says. "All of sudden one of the world's greatest musicians was offering me all I had ever dreamed of."

After graduating from the Conservatory of Rome in 1968, Goettsche made a name for himself playing regular concerts on one of the largest organs in the city at the Basilica of Saint Frances of Rome.

In 1989, when the official organist of St. Peter's retired, Goettsche was appointed as his replacement through a private election. Today his colleagues at the Basilica refer to him as "Maestro Jimmy." "It's difficult to figure out how to pronounce my last name," Goettsche explains. (For the record, it's "Getchy.")

The self-taught musician first heard the organ in church as a child growing up in the Midwest. "The simple sound of a massive chord in the acoustics of a great cathedral resists all description," he says. "I would argue that the organ is in fact the voice of the greatest architectural constructions."

Without money for lessons and with only a toy organ at his grandmother's house, a young Goettsche began slipping into church at night "to see what I could figure out about the instrument which obsessed my fantasy."

He's been playing at St. Peter's for nearly 15 years, but providing the music for the funeral of Pope John II in April, he says, "was perhaps the greatest single honor bestowed upon me."

There is no practice time possible in St. Peter's, so all organ playing is done on the spot. Goettsche practices the postlude during the sermon on the mute keyboards.

And at the end of every mass, there's always one final task, Goettsche says: "A big sigh if everything worked out."

-- Adrianne Bee


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