The poet of the piano: At 74, Don Wyrtzen still making Christian music

Don Wyrtzen’s love affair with music started when he was a boy growing up in the New York city area in the 1940s.

 

Wyrtzen, now 74, was born in Brooklyn but grew up in New Jersey. His family’s move across the Hudson River was facilitated by a wealthy man who’d been given a gospel tract by Wyrtzen’s father, a famous evangelist who pre-dated Billy Graham and preached in New York’s Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

Wyrtzen’s father had led the man to Christ, and that man later gave the evangelist a house in New Jersey.

It was in New Jersey that Don Wyrtzen took piano lessons when he was a small child. Ironically, he said in a recent interview, his first teacher was born and raised in Topeka, the first of many encounters Wyrtzen would have with people from the capital city of Kansas.

The piano teacher was a devoted Christian and her faith made an impression on the young Wyrtzen, who would go on to make music his career and devote his talents to God.

Now living in the Fort Worth, Texas, area, Wyrtzen has long been considered one of the top composers, arrangers and pianists in Christian music.

He was in the capital city earlier this month for a concert at Topeka Bible Church. His wife, the former Karen Parr, is a Topeka native and a 1960 graduate of Topeka High School.

Several relatives still live in Topeka, including his wife’s cousin, David Hedstrom, who attends Topeka Bible Church and was instrumental in bringing Wyrtzen to town for his recent concert.

In the 1960s, Wyrtzen attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he said the first girl he saw walking down La Salle Avenue was Parr. The young woman caught his eye, and she would later become his wife.

From Chicago, Wyrtzen went to Dallas Theological Seminary, where he bridged the study of the Bible with music.

Looking back, he said he may have played a role in bridging the gap between theology and the arts.

“Most theologians don’t know a lot about music,” Wyrtzen said. “And most musicians don’t know much about theology and doctrine.”

His background, in which the two areas of study came together, helped him formulate songs that were not only musically solid, but biblically sound, as well.

After seminary, Wyrtzen focused his talents on Christian music. He made his living for about 35 years in Nashville, where he was a highly respected and well-known pianist, songwriter and composer.

Among Wyrtzen’s best-known songs are “Finally Home,” a song about heaven that he said has gone “all over the world.” Other well-known songs include “Worthy is the Lamb,” “Unbounded Grace” and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Though his music has taken him to some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, Wyrtzen said he and his wife have always found time to come to Topeka, usually making it back a couple of times a year to visit family members.

He recalled coming to Topeka several years ago, when “we got 22 church choirs together and performed with the Topeka Symphony.”

Wyrtzen took a break from performing concerts for 11 years while he was a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Now retired from that position, Wyrtzen is making plans to perform concerts on a more frequent basis.

He said he is writing new songs “all the time” and is in the process of launching Don Wyrtzen Music, publishing his songs both for guitar and piano accompaniment.

Wyrtzen’s two new recording projects, released in the past six months, are “Poet of the Piano,” which has 14 of his songs, and “Hymns That Live Forever,” which he said includes “some of the greatest hymns ever written.”

As one might imagine, Wyrtzen can speak from a wealth of experiences during his concerts, sharing the stories behind the songs he has written, and speaking about those with whom he has rubbed shoulders.

He said he considers himself something of an “evangelical Leonard Bernstein,” noting he plays songs from a variety of styles. The goal is to connect with the audience through his music, delivering the message of the gospel in the process, he said.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s the Holy Spirit who connects me with them.”

Much of Wyrtzen’s work in Nashville entailed “sweetening,” or providing orchestra arrangements for contemporary Christian songs, most of which were guitar-driven but needing a string background.

One of the most well-known tunes for which he did the orchestra arrangement was Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here,” which Wyrtzen described as “a wedding song about faithfulness in marriage.”

“It was him on guitar and then I put a big string section on it,” Wyrtzen said. “That was a lot of fun, because I got to work with a lot of the best musicians in the country.”

Because of his background growing up in the environs of New York City, Wyrtzen said he became immersed in various styles of music that later would come to be known as “The Great American Songbook.”

And though he grew up singing and playing hymns in church settings, Wyrtzen said he has no qualms about contemporary church music heading decidedly in the direction of praise-and-worship songs.

”What I would say is the Lord uses all different forms of music to reach different people,” he said. “It’s the Gospel and the content of Scripture that sanctifies the form of music.

“I would fight for the right of young people to do their own music. Today, in most cases, I’m happy to say, most of the songs are very biblical and in many cases are Scripture set to music.”

Wyrtzen said he is excited to be putting renewed energy back into his music and is looking forward to several projects that are in the works,

“I’m feeling very young inside,” he said. “The Lord’s been very good to us.”

Contact reporter Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or @Philreports on Twitter.

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