Michael Thomas Britt, a revered church musician and choir director who composed organ accompaniments to 1920s silent films, died of complications from acute respiratory distress syndrome Sept. 14 at Mercy Medical Center. The Bolton Hill resident was 61.
“Michael was a fantastic musician and what I’d call a musician’s musician,” said Tom Hall, former director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and WYPR “Midday” host. “He played beautifully and improvised gorgeously. ... He had ears in his fingers. He was a real artist.”
Mr. Britt was music director at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill and previously served at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Northeast Baltimore.
He was also the organist at Beth El Congregation.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Arbutus, he was the son of Martin Peter Britt Sr. and Kathleen Marguerite Weaver.
In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Britt recalled that as a child, he was late arriving at church one Sunday and had to sit in the organ balcony. He said he was “absolutely fascinated” by the choir and organ and soon asked to turn the hymnal pages for the church musician.
He was playing at a small Baptist church by the time he was 10.
He learned he was from a musically gifted family; his maternal grandmother, Marguerite Weaver, had played the organ for silent films at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Baltimore in the late 1920s.
Mr. Britt began his formal musical studies in piano at 12 at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in organ performance. He received the school’s Richard Ross and Richard Phelps awards.
“He was one of the great joys of my teaching years at Peabody,” said Dr. Paul Davis, a retired professor at the conservatory. “He was a treasure as a beloved friend and colleague. He was always upbeat, and he loved people. I think I never had a student who so greatly loved the organ and the music for it.”
Said John Holland, a friend and musical colleague: “He always had a radiant smile. He was so kind and compassionate, and everyone agreed he was a brilliant musician. Michael had a marvelous sense of humor, too.”
Mr. Britt went on to play at the Stone Chapel and Arbutus United Methodist and spent 26 years as director of music at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Northeast Baltimore. He was also a past music director at St. Margaret’s Church in Bel Air.
Mr. Britt said he also followed in his grandmother’s footsteps by writing musical scores to accompany silent movies, then playing them at showings throughout the country. He was theater organist and silent film accompanist at the Tivoli Theatre-Weinberg Center in Frederick and the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, among many other venues.
He often accompanied screenings of the silent versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Three Musketeers.”
At Baltimore’s Senator Theatre, he accompanied silent films for the National Film Registry, sponsored by the Library of Congress.
Mr. Britt gave a recital at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York earlier this year. In 2009, he played at Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
He was a co-dean of the Baltimore chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
“For all his accomplishments, Michael was a sincerely modest person,” said Ellen Adajian, a friend and fellow church musician. “He loved his work and his choir members as individual people. And in turn, his choir members knew he cared about them.
“As a musician, Michael did not swan around. He took his work very seriously, but he remained happy and outgoing. He was a very consistent person who was never stuck on himself.”
Friends recalled that Mr. Britt lived in Bolton Hill near his church and was often seen in the neighborhood with his much-beloved Irish setter, Beauregard.
In a 1993 Baltimore Sun article, Mr. Britt discussed his role during the winter holiday season: “By the time Advent and Christmas arrive, we’ve done most of the hard work. If you haven’t practiced enough, you just won’t be ready.”
Mr. Britt was named minister of music and organist at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in 2012. He once described getting the position as “my fantasy job.”
The Morning Sun
In a Brown Memorial publication, he said: “The choir, as well as the staff of this church, has become a family for me. ... I didn’t want church to be just something that I did inside the church on a Sunday morning. And I embrace it all. As gratifying as it has been to make beautiful music together, music has been secondary to relationships for me.”
His pastor, the Rev. Andrew Connors, said: “Michael always put others first. He was a person who said, ‘What can I do for you?’ He was incredibly ecumenical and was one of the kindest persons I’ve ever met. He was the sort who brought the doughnuts to the staff meetings.”
He led his chancel choir, along with singers from the Beth El Congregation, in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in 2019. One of Mr. Bernstein’s sons was in the audience.
Mr. Britt also directed a performance at Beth El Congregation of “Kristallnacht, 2019: A Legacy Lost,” on the 81st anniversary of the “night of the broken glass” when Nazi party members smashed the windows of Jewish merchants in Germany.
“Michael had remarkable musical flexibility and talent,” said Henry Lowe, former music director at the Church of the Redeemer. “No matter what he was asked to play, he did it cheerfully and willingly. He was equally gifted at classical or theater organ or spirituals or jazz.”
Survivors include his partner and spouse of 17 years, George K. Bareford, a Boys’ Latin School music teacher; a brother, Martin Peter Britt Jr. of Indiana; and an aunt, Mary Bistrick of Chestertown.
Memorial services are being planned at Brown Memorial and Shrine of the Little Flower churches. The dates are not set.