THE ROGER WAGNER Chorale, Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were the major forces in US choral music when I was growing up in the 1950s. The good citizens of Fairmont, West Virginia, like many small towns across America, usually squeezed just about enough money out of their annual kitty to persuade one of these popular touring groups to make a detour. It was always a thrilling occasion. Once a year in the shabby high-school auditorium, world-class professionals somehow transformed the hall's reluctant molecules to sonic starbursts over the same stage where our weedy voices had been. My music teacher was always breathless when we flocked to see what she thought. In the afterglow of their visit, the chorus enrolment always swelled.
The Roger Wagner Chorale was founded in 1946 and, like Shaw's and Waring's groups, toured with a happy combination of serious music and popular arrangements of folk tunes and other genres.
Roger Wagner was born in Le Puy, France (south of Lyons), but moved to Dijon when his father was appointed organist at the cathedral. In 1921 his father decided to emigrate to the US and became organist at St Brendan's Church in Los Angeles. Roger Wagner was a boy soprano soloist in his father's choir and also began to study piano and organ. At the age of 12 he became organist and choirmaster at the Church of St Ambrose and shortly after began studies for the priesthood at a Santa Barbara seminary. His voice finally settled as baritone but his real talent lay in conducting and as an organist.
In 1932, when he was 18, he returned to France to study organ with Marcel Dupre, the famous organist who was once Widor's assistant, and who, a few years earlier, had caused a sensation by playing 10 recitals of Bach's complete organ works from memory. During that period he also did extensive study and research into early music in the Dijon/Lyons area. He began research on the music of the 16th-century Flemish composer Josquin Despres, for which he later received a Ph D from the University of Montreal. In 1934, while studying in France, he was drafted into the French army and served two years. During this time it became apparent that he was not only a gifted musician but also a fine athlete. He was chosen to compete for France in the Decathlon during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Wagner returned to Los Angeles in 1937, and became organist and choirmaster at St Joseph's Church. He studied philosophy at the University of Southern California, and in the 1940s studied conducting with Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, and orchestration with Lucien Caillet, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. During the Second World War he became a US citizen and in 1945 was appointed supervisor of youth choruses for the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Music. As the new supervisor, he began training a chorus of some of the best young voices in Los Angeles, which led directly to the founding of his chorale.
The Roger Wagner Chorale set new standards. It began to be much in demand, touring extensively in the US, Canada, Latin America, Japan, the Soviet Union and the Middle East, as well as giving frequent concerts in the Hollywood Bowl and backing tracks for Hollywood film-scores.
In 1965 Wagner founded another ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia, from which he retired in 1985 and became Conductor Laureate. He was Director of Choral Music at UCLA (from 1959), Conductor of the Choir at Radio France (1977-79), and earlier had been Head of the Choral Department at Marymount College, Los Angeles (1951-66).
He published numerous chorale arrangements and recorded over 60 LPs for Allegro, SPA, Lyrichord, Capitol, EMI and Decca, winning a Grammy Award for the LP Virtuoso. In 1966 he was made Knight Commander of St Gregory by Pope Paul VI.
The Los Angeles critic Don Ray once described Roger Wagner as 'an astounding combination of vitality, dedication, poetic and intellectual depth, and chutzpah'. He will be fondly remembered for the rich choral sound he achieved with his groups, their enviable precision and versatility, and his extraordinary musicianship.