McNeil Robinson 1943-2015

The American Guild of Organists is sad to announce the death of internationally renowned organist and composer McNeil Robinson on Saturday, May 9, 2015, in New York City, following a long illness. The Guild extends its deepest sympathies to his family and friends, especially his wife, Cristina Cassellato Robinson.

A public memorial service will be held on Tuesday, October 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Church of the Ascension
Fifth Avenue at Tenth Street
New York City, NY 10011

All are welcome.

McNeil Robinson, who chaired the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music for more than two decades, was a world renowned improvisateur who taught more winners in the AGO National Competition in Organ Improvisation than any other teacher. He was a commissioned composer for the AGO National Conventions in San Francisco (1984), Boston (1990), and New York City (1996).

Mr. Robinson served as organist of New York City’s most celebrated houses of worship for more than half a century. These included the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Church of the Holy Family (United Nations), Park Avenue Christian Church, Park Avenue Synagogue, and Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church.

Read the official obituary here: McNeil Robinson Obituary

McNeil Robinson New York Times Obituary


  1. Raymond Rickard says:

    I studied with McNeil for 6 years at MSM. I first became aware of him while studying, or rather listening to music in the library instead of studying, while at McGill University. There is a recording of him conducting a Charpentier Mass where he improvises in between the movements. Upon hearing the first three measures of his opening improv, I said to myself, “I will study with this man one day.” During my six years, I had my lesson from 4-5pm on Fridays and always walked him from Park Ave. Christian Church to the synagogue—the conversations we had were very special. As a teacher he gave me two specific gifts: the ability to HEAR differently, and the knowledge of how to practice efficiently, and dare I say, properly. But I must also say that almost everything I do, including typing at this computer is informed by what he taught me. He really left an impression on every part of my life.

    As has been said, he could be pretty nasty, but boy was it special to observe. He really saw his students as a whole person and he gave me many nuggets of life, which had nothing to do with music. When I first came to him, he sent me to the chemist to get a special concoction which did wonders for me. Because he saw me every week over the space of 6 years he saw me pass the golden age of 30…and one day on our walk to Park Ave. Synagogue he said to me, “Raymond, you’ve really calmed down.” I could only laugh.

    I am not sad for McNeil. He is in heaven doing just fine!

    • Thom Lewis says:

      Mr, Packard, I was looking through the obit’s of the AGO for a long ago friend and came across McNeil’s death. He was one of my great inspiration, if only in my dreams of becoming a real organist…I am self taught and I’m sure you know what that can mean. I both envy you and glad for you that McNeil was your teacher and friend. And it sounds like he cared about you and was interested in many areas of you life. I had a little taste of that in my teens with the only real teacher I ever had, Henry Whipple, High Point, NC. I was blessed to have him for just a couple years of piano and a year of organ. He was my friend as McNeil was yours.

      You spoke about some gems of wisdom he shared with you which made your life better; would you be so kind as to share a few of those with me. Also, I would be interested in the elixir he suggested. I have never been more than mediocre as an organist…I’m 70 now, retired Episcopal priest, maybe a gem of wisdom from McNeil, through you, might make we a tiny bit better as a person and organist (I still sub occasionally). I’ll understand if you had rather not…but I thought I’d ask.

      I am truly sorry for your loss of such a great friend.

      Sincerely, Thom Lewis

  2. what a joy it was to be a part of his music making
    and “creation” every Sunday at “Smokey” Mary’s.

  3. James remarks above come closest to really capturing Neil than anything else I’ve seen in print so far, including my remarks for the NYC AGO Newsletter archived on my wordpress site.

  4. Rev. Dr. Regina Christianson says:

    Many of us are from “that era”, when Neil was a young, bright, brash star in the crown of church organ world. Memories flood. All I can say is that wild and wonderful, he was deeply kind and compassionate, and a true artist, supporting other artists in their journeys. Through his improvisations, he transported me through death and into heaven, where the host of heaven danced and sang and held us secure in Glory. May the Holy Angles now embrace him, leading him to Eternal Joy in the Sacred Heart of his Creator.



  5. I can say with all certainty that after my husband, Carl Crosier, McNeil Robinson was the second most influential person on my life and my playing. I met him for the first time in 1975 when he came to Hawaii to play the inaugural concerts on the Rudolf von Beckerath organ at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, and I attended all three of his concerts there. I was fortunate enough to spend about 20 hours in lessons with him at that time — my Bach playing on a tracker organ, phrasing and articulation, was shaped by him and I in turn have taught it to countless number of students. Two years after he played the inaugural concerts, he came back to Hawaii to play an all-Bach concert at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, and an all-Franck concert at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The next weekend he stayed to play our wedding, and I will never forget the recessional he improvised on “Hyfrydol.”

    Throughout the years, our meetings with Neil were few and far between, but each time, he greeted us like old friends. After we had not corresponded in years, we had a chance encounter with Neil on the streets of New York ( — and he obviously remembered us.

    Dear, dear Neil, the world will miss you.

  6. Herbert Bradensten says:

    Rest in peace, old friend. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.

    • Jennifer Shepherd says:

      McNeil Robinson was one of the last of the New York giants. I came to
      New York in 1978 as a voice major at the Mannes College. Yet, being
      a church musician all of my I was greatly influenced by the likes of
      McNeil Robinson, John Cartwright, Vernon DeTar and William Whitehead.
      They all made it look so easy. I returned to my first love the, King of
      Instruments 30 years ago – and though I am self taught I have all the
      wonderful sounds of these great Masters in my ears from whom I
      draw on week in and week out. Thank you McNeil Robinson for the
      deliciously rich history you have left us. God is smiling both with and
      upon you.

  7. Thomas G. Kuhn says:

    Just a comment regarding Mcneil Robinson. I cherish in my memory the first concert I heard Mcneil play at St. Marks’ Episcopal church Palo Alto, CA. The organist of the church Joe Hansen, had invited all the organ cognoscenti in the Bay area, and he urged me to attend. The first piece on the program was Bach’s Trio Sonata in C, which was wonderfully played. The program included some Franck and then proceeded to the extremely challenging Salve Regina by Menari replete with 32nd note runs in the pedals. He was now handed an envelope which contained two three measure themes and a tone row by Shoenberg. The concert had already lasted more than an hour, and here he was improvising a 45 minute organ symphony. His improvisation was in the manner of Dupre. About halfway through one could feel the visceral excitement building as he launched into the the schoenberg theme, then towards the end he combined all three themes. The sense of the audience was that we were sitting in the presence of genius. At the end, the ovation was immediate loud long and heartfelt. I know that he will be deeply missed by all with whom he was connected. Thomas G. Kuhn

  8. Aaron Comins says:

    I am absolutely heartbroken. I will treasure the things that he taught me and have them for the rest of my life and also remember the all of his support and encouragement. I was very lucky and fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with and be associated with him.

  9. McNeil Robinson will be remembered for his larger than life personality, his broad sense of humor, and his flair for the dramatic. Highly opinionated often to the delight of his devoted students, his speech was colorful and sometimes caustic. Neil smoked like a chimney and could both charm people or offend them with equal ease. He greatly enjoyed holding court and could do so in the back of a recital hall or in the front of a restaurant. He had a very generous spirit and supported the art of improvisation by underwriting the first place prize of the AGO’s National Competition in Organ Improvisation for many years. In addition to being a masterful musician, skilled improvisateur, teacher, and composer, he was a man who lived his life with gusto and didn’t suffer fools or incompetence lightly. Invariably there were some people who preferred to steer clear of him, but there were always countless others who were drawn inexorably into his circle. Although he was physically slight in stature, there was a grandiosity about his approach to the world. He said and did outrageous things and got away with them because of his charismatic personality and the twinkle in his blue eyes.

  10. Ann Labounsky says:

    We will surely miss him. His devotion to improvisation and support of the NCOI was substantial.

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