There is an old story at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church — probably true — that a former music director was more than a little reluctant to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. According to the story, the rector at the time had to practically beg him to play even such standards as “Happy Birthday.” Then, when he demanded music for communion, the director apparently gave the congregation a series of variations on “The Little Brown Jug.”
Michael Heintz was not like that. In his 36 years as organ player and choirmaster, he was eager to provide a soundtrack to the sacred moments of life. Now, after serving generations of congregates at St. Paul’s, Heintz is stepping down to enjoy the bucolic natural scenes along the Rappahannock River.
“You’ve let me participate in your baptisms, your confirmations, your weddings and your funerals,” Heintz said during his retirement party on Sunday. “There’s no greater gift than that.”
In 1970 — when Heintz came to St. Paul’s — the rector was Leon Laylor. The mayor of the city was Charles Beatley, and the hot topic of debate was whether or not the government should set a timeline for withdrawal from Vietnam. Over the years, Heintz’s hands have provided the constant refrain — playing its hymns and performing its ever-changing rhythms.
“We’ve been through al the folk stuff of the 60s and 70s, and we’ve had our share of assistant rectors that wanted to try various innovations such as Taize chants,” Heintz said. “But we survived.”
From his second-story perch overlooking the historic chapel, which dates back to 1817, Heintz has seen a seemingly endless parade of people passing in and out of the church. He’s shared their joy during celebrations and their grief in mourning. All the while, he’s been pulling out all the stops — literally — on the church’s pipe organ as he conducted the choir and monitored the pulpit from his rearview mirror.
A NATIVE OF Dayton, Ohio, Heintz started his career at the age of 13 playing the organ at the Forest Avenue Presbyterian Church in Dayton. An only child, Heintz says that his passion for music and his love for the church made his job seem more like a pastime.
“Someone once said to me, ‘It’s about time you stopped having fun and get to work,’” Heintz said. “That was probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received. This is such a great job that it’s not really work at all.”
He studied music at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, where he majored in piano with a minored in organ. He went on to receive a master’s degree in Sacred Music from Union Theological School in New York City. His first fulltime position as an organist and choirmaster was at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rocky Mount, N.C.
“After I was there a year, my home parish at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Dayton came after me to set up their first full time program,” Heintz said.
Heintz set up the program in Dayton, but a few years later he decided that he wanted to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area. So he wrote to his good friend Ted Gustin, who was the organist at Christ Church, and asked if he knew of any openings in the area. A few months later, Heintz was moving from one St. Paul to another.
IN HIS TIME at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Heintz has placed his distinctive stamp on the musical life of the congregation. He has served under four rectors, avoiding the kind of dramatic infighting that often afflicts church politics. Longtime parishioners say that Heintz has had a modernizing influence, changing the emphasis from Renaissance music to 20th-century selections. He created a children’s choir and a bell choir. He oversaw several renovations to the church organ. Ultimately, he pushed the church in a new direction.
“He and my mother were very good friends,” said Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), a longtime member of the church. “In those days, you didn’t have a choir at funerals. But when my mother died, he had a full musical performance.”
Even during his last Sunday on the job, Heintz was still picking and choosing the hymns — especially the final selection, “Now Thank We All Our God,” which he said he chose because of the appropriateness of its theme. For the postlude, he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in E Flat. When congregates gave him a standing ovation, he held up the sheet music in an attempt to deflect the praise toward Bach.
But no amount of deflection could detract from the composition that was performed in his honor. Played after the Old Testament reading, “Shine as a Light” is an antiphon and canticle that was written by David Brock.
“The composition was designed so that everybody at St. Paul could participate,” said Brock, who has known Heintz since 1970. “The title ‘Shine as a Light,’ is the mission of the church. So it was designed to be personally meaningful to the parish.”