Bruce R. Eicher, who was organist and director of music at Grace United Methodist Church for nearly six decades and was a faculty member at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory of Music, died of congestive heart failure June 22 at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. The Timonium resident was 90.
“I have known him on many levels,” said Michael Britt, an organist and music director at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. “As a teenager, I idolized him and his wife, Doris, in the field of church music. They were both tremendous church musicians. They were my role models and Bruce was later my teacher at Peabody, and I succeeded him as organist at Beth El, where he had brought me in as his assistant.”
Kitty Allen, his longtime aide-de-camp said: “Bruce was an interesting man who was curious about everything, and he made Grace Church the premier church for good music.
“He played at my wedding 60 years ago and I worked with him at Grace, sang in his choir for 37 years and later followed him to Peabody. I traveled with him to the West Coast and New York City and handled all of his publicity. He has been my best friend for 62 years.”
Bruce Radleigh Eicher, son of Wilbur Rich Eicher, a state trooper, and Beatrice Gorham Eicher, was born in Wayland, Iowa, and later moved with his family to Cedar Rapids.
Something of a child prodigy, Mr. Eicher assumed his first position as an assistant organist when he was 13. After high school, he began formal organ study at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where he studied with Eugene Devereaux for two years.
Armed with a full scholarship, in 1952 he then transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied under the world-renowned Dr. Alexander McCurdy Jr., who was head of the institute’s organ department from 1935 to 1972.
In the middle of his studies at Curtis, Mr. Eicher was drafted into the Army in 1954, and after completing his service, returned to Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1958 in music.
That autumn, he became organist and director of music at Grace United Methodist Church in Baltimore, where he expanded the music program to include choirs for adults, youth and children, and handbells. He also founded a Sunday afternoon concert series at the church that eventually included 15 annual French organ marathons.
“Bruce got national and international organists to play there and he invited other local church organists to come as well,” Ms. Allen said. “He’d get other choirs to join us for oratorios and requiems, and one soloist stayed 25 years to just work with Bruce.
“And he was also active starting an AIDS ministry at Grace.”
While he was a student at Curtis, Mr. Eicher met his future wife, the former Doris Hamel, also a student there, who was an organist. After the couple married and moved to Baltimore, she became the organist and director of music at Towson Presbyterian Church, a position she held for 40 years. The marriage eventually ended in divorce.
Mr. Eicher was also a frequent recitalist in the United States and Europe.
“In 1980, I was afforded the opportunity to play a concert at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the realization of a lifelong dream,” Mr. Eicher said in a biographical profile submitted by his family.
“The Romantic works were his love,” Mr. Britt said. “In church music, he was known for his hymn playing where he added his own harmonies, phrasing and key changes that made you want to sing. He got congregations engaged that way. He had that gift.”
In addition to his work at Grace, from which he retired in 2013, Mr. Eicher became principal organist at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, a position he held until retiring in 2019.
“I was experiencing some little handicap creeping into my playing, and I didn’t want that to happen. I think my body was talking to me. It was time,” Mr. Eicher explained in an interview at the time with JMORE: Baltimore Jewish Living.
When the reporter asked whether he felt uncomfortable being a Christian working in a synagogue, Mr. Eicher answered: “No, not at all. The people made me feel very welcome. They were always so accepting and warm. I think that Jewish people love to include gentiles in what they do. I’ve been invited to Passover meals and Yom Kippur break-fasts for many years. It’s wonderful.”
While Mr. Eicher was at Grace, he earned a master’s degree in 1973 in organ at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he began teaching music theory in 1969. He was also head of the institute’s Ear Training Department until retiring in 1997.
“He always respected the music and the people he played for. It was never about him,” Mr. Britt said. “He had extraordinary musicianship and was so sincere about what he did. Plus, he had a marvelous sense of humor.
“For a lot of us growing up in Baltimore and attending Peabody, he was a wonderful teacher because he was in the trenches. I never saw him upset, and I give him a lot of credit for that, he was just a great role model. All of us who knew him, felt that way.”
Mr. Eicher also had undertaken summer study with Juliette Nadia Boulanger, who had taught many of the prominent composers of the 20th century at Les Écoles Américains de Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau, France.
Mr. Eicher and his husband, Jorge Gaitan, a landscaper, had been friends for two decades and had a civil union for a decade, before marrying in 2013.
Mr. Eicher enjoyed traveling the world.
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“He loved learning languages about the places he was visiting and learned enough that it enhanced his trips,” Ms. Allen said.
He also enjoyed reading, nature, and cooking “old-fashioned comfort food,” said his daughter, Juliana Eicher “Julie” Cook of Mount Airy.
He also liked cooking, entertaining and going out for breakfast at Pappas Restaurant and the Ashland Cafe, both in Cockeysville, and dinner at Tio Pepe in downtown Baltimore, his daughter said.
“He loved getting in the car and going someplace where food was involved,” Ms. Allen, often a frequent companion on these across-the-state-line perambulations, said with a laugh. “People liked Bruce because he was so friendly.”
Mr. Britt said, “It was a true honor to have known him.”
Mr. Eicher was a member of Grace United Methodist Church at 5407 N. Charles St., where funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday.
In addition to his husband and daughter, Mr. Eicher is survived by his son, David Bruce Eicher of Prescott, Arizona; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, Stephen Mark Eicher, died in 1991.