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Joseph Payne, 70; hailed as 'musical missionary' for work on harpsichord, organ

JOSEPH PAYNE JOSEPH PAYNE
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 8, 2008

As he played an organ or harpsichord, Joseph Payne could sense a composer's presence in something as subtle as the path his own hands traveled.

In the mid-1980s, a Harvard professor announced the discovery of 33 previously unknown chorale-preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mr. Payne recorded them soon afterward.

"It was the way the music fit under his hands that made him agree with Christoph Wolff that indeed these were early Bach pieces," said Mr. Payne's wife, Phoebe.

Musing about the compositions years later, Mr. Payne said the composer had revealed himself in the finger patterns of the notes.

"Now groping, now experimenting, Bach seems well on his way to developing the distinctive physiognomy of his later keyboard style," he wrote in 1995.

Performer and recording artist, choirmaster and church organist, Mr. Payne ranged widely across Boston's music landscape for nearly four decades until a stroke a few years ago prevented him from playing to his exacting standards.

He had turned his creativity to other pursuits when he died of a heart attack Jan. 14 at his home in Mount Vernon, Maine, where he and his wife moved in late 2006. He was 70.

"Organist Joseph Payne has probably recorded more music than most people have heard," Michael Manning wrote in the Globe in March 1995. "He plays all over the world; . . . lectures; regularly appears on national radio; and rarely performs locally. So his appearance Sunday as organist for the Fourth Annual E. Power Biggs Memorial Bach Recital had something of the air of a cult event."

Mr. Payne wrote about the Bach works Wolff had authenticated in the program notes for that concert and performed some that evening. The Globe reported that "crowds were turned away."

Such a life might not have been envisioned in Mr. Payne's early years. His parents were missionaries, and he was born on the border of China and Mongolia. As World War II unfolded, the family was placed in a Japanese internment camp.

His family returned home to England, then to Switzerland, where his mother was from. In Swiss schools Mr. Payne's gifts for music and languages emerged. He became fluent in English, German, and French, and could acquit himself in Italian and Swiss German, as well.

While Mr. Payne was living with a family friend, Elizabeth Robert, an organ teacher recognized that his talents went beyond what local instruction could provide. His family moved to Connecticut, where his father was pastor of a church in Hartford. Mr. Payne studied there at Trinity College and graduated from Hartt College of Music, where he met Phoebe Joyce, a cellist.

"Initially, I heard him play," she said. "It was so extraordinary. As a musician you are awakened to hear someone like that play."

They married in 1966 and lived for many years in Cambridge, outside Harvard Square. Mr. Payne taught at Boston University, lectured, and began a recording career that would total nearly 100 albums, nearly all as a soloist.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to become organist at the Parish of All Saints, an Episcopal church in Ashmont, and to direct the boys' choir, a talented ensemble that performed in such venues as Symphony Hall and on WGBH's "Morning Pro Musica." He took the job, and the Paynes moved to Dorchester.

"We had to live here to make connections with people," Mr. Payne told the Globe in 1990. "When I find an extremely bright kid, who for one reason or another is not attaining what he should be, it concerns me. The only way one can effect change is on a one-to-one basis. Someone has to care. And you begin by just looking into their faces."

The Rev. F. Washington Jarvis, a priest associate at All Saints, said in an interview for the article: "He is really a musical missionary in Dorchester. He has brought marvelous opportunities to young people through the music at Ashmont. He is really a buried treasure in Dorchester."

The Paynes's large Victorian on Ocean Street, where they lived for 23 years, was also home to instruments including a large harpsichord, a couple of smaller ones, a clavichord, a piano, and a cello. Sometimes the couple's son, Christopher, would sit under the harpsichord and draw while his father practiced.

"I always remember the sound of the harpsichord in the afternoon and especially in the late evening," said his son, who is now a photographer in Brooklyn, N.Y. "He would wake up at midnight, when it's most quiet, and would often practice and record late at night. He would have his recording equipment up in his study, and we would wake up to find all these wires winding to the microphones downstairs."

After several years at All Saints Church, Mr. Payne left to concentrate on recording, becoming the first to record many neglected composers. Thousands of Internet links, some including samples of his playing, attest to how prolific he was in the studio.

When a stroke silenced Mr. Payne on the keyboard, he turned to photography, one of his other artistic loves. In Maine, even when his health prevented him from leaving his house, he would capture wildlife in their habitat.

"He was able to photograph a moose from the window," his wife said. "The moose was right outside our window, enjoying our apple tree."

The Paynes's life in Maine also provided a gentle coda to a marriage that had included many times apart while Mr. Payne performed and recorded abroad.

"We would sit in front of our wood stove and just have a wonderful time to reflect and appreciate each other," she said. "His very last morning was one of the most wonderful ones. To have a chance to tell each other that you love each other is really kind of rare."

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Payne leaves a brother, Eric of Fayette, Maine; and a sister, Margaret Jones of Fort Wayne, Ind.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Feb. 16 in Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church in Boston.

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