By Elsie Walker
When Henry Repp of Netcong was five years old, he got the major role of Joseph in the Rockaway Presbyterian Church’s Christmas pageant. However, he soon found himself distracted.
“I was more interested in what the organist was doing than playing the part of Joseph,” he says. “Her name was Janet Fisher, and she was my first inspiration on playing the organ. I couldn’t really see the pedals from where I was. So the next week, I sat in the balcony so I could really see. When I got home that day, I used the radiator as my ‘pedal board’ to practice my pedal technique.”
What sparked that childhood interest would lead to a career which so far has spanned a remarkable 50 years. Earlier this month, Repp marked his 50th anniversary as a church organist at the First Methodist Church of Newton, where he is now director of music/organist.
Repp has played at a variety of venues. The most interesting of which might be the one where he got his start.
“He began his organ career in jail,” said Repp’s wife Barbara. “He played for Sunday Mass at the Morris County jail.”
In contrast, most of Repp’s other venues have been playing for churches and choral groups, many times taking on the role of choral director. First as an organist and then in his dual role, Repp has developed a loyal following which appreciates his talents.
“I have known Henry 30 plus years,” said Barbara Landini of Randolph. “Henry came to our congregation, First Memorial Presbyterian Church in Dover, as church organist. It was apparent from the beginning that Henry was truly gifted. I participated in several presentations when Henry was organist or organist/director. It has been pure pleasure to watch as Henry has expanded his talent to include choral works. The choral works performed at the Reformed Church in Peapack/Gladstone and now in Newton, have been extraordinary.”
Ted Anderson of Stockholm said that he’s performed with Repp more times than he can count and admires the way that Repp easily wears two hats. Anderson shared, “I retired from 35 years singing and recording with the Gregg Smith Singers in New York City in 2001,but wished to continue singing chorally. I first worked with Henry in one of his early Sussex County Oratorio concerts. Then sang in his church choir at Peakpack-Gladstone for 11 years. It is truly amazing anyone can play the organ so well while still conducting a choral group. That is no easy task! Even when he is frustrated and tries to correct errors in the choir, he always has a smile and a sense of humor about him. He also does a great variety of works which keeps me going.”
For some, staying in one career or even loving it for any length of time might be a challenge. However, it has never been like that for Repp.
“Once I began my organ career, I never had a desire to do anything else,” he said. “Playing the organ is my life. I enjoy playing solo organ as well as working with choirs and soloists.”
Repp began his organ studies with Alfred Mayer of Morristown and continued with Dorothe Lanning at First Memorial Presbyterian in Dover, where he was later organist for 13 years and began his many years of playing Messiah. Repp pursued advanced study with Robert MacDonald at the Riverside Church in New York City and the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
Repp was accompanist for the Sussex County Oratorio Society for 11 years and also played for the Livingston Festival Choir Concerts and the Livingston Broadway Show Tunes Revues. He has performed numerous organ concerts on a variety of organs including those at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan and the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. He was affiliated with the Pike County Choral Society for ten years.
In 1984, Repp accepted the position of organist/choir director at Peapack Reformed Church in Gladstone where he served for 29 years. He founded the Peapack Reformed Church Community Choir which presented a special musical program annually on Palm Sunday afternoon. In 2012, Repp became director of music and organist at First United Methodist Church in Newton.
When asked what is his favorite piece, he’ll tell you that he has too many to name; however, he does have a favorite composter.
“I have always admired Louis Vierne,” he says. “I not only love his music, but I admire his determination and what he had to go through to write the music down. He was blind, and it took a great deal of effort to get his compositions onto paper. It was not the age of technology. He died in 1937 when he was 60 plus years of age. He was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris and died on the organ bench during a concert,” said Repp.
One wonders if Repp might also admire Vierne because of his dedication, a quality Virne and Repp share. Those who have worked with Repp appreciate his dedication to music excellence and his giving spirit in working with singers.
Christina Buck of Dover, a soprano, commented, “Henry expects the very best from his performers and from himself. He works so hard to get the expression that he desires from his singers. Every muscle that he moves, while he accompanies us on the organ, is aimed at perfecting our sound.”
Another soprano, Cassandra Lambros, of Warren, echoes that sentiment. “Henry is one of the most incredible musicians I have ever met. He is exceedingly talented! He knows so much and imparts much knowledge to all of us. He helps us to become, through his directing, the best musicians we can be.”
Repp’s next concert, choir and organ, is in November. It is “Lord Nelson Mass” by Haydn on Sun., Nov. 13, at 4 p.m. at First United Methodist in Newton. A free will offering will be taken.