Michael Burkhardt: Featured Sacred Composer

image of Michael Burkhardt
Michael Burkhardt

This month we got to know composer Michael Burkhardt, who is particularly known for his skill as an organist, choral clinician, hymn festival leader, and for his creative work with children.

How did you first become involved with music?

I became first involved with music when my grandmother, a self-trained church organist, taught me to play a few songs on the piano. I then sang in the first-ever children’s choir at the church of my growing up, a country church of 100 or so people in an unincorporated village in Wisconsin, a church where everyone seemed to sing, whether they could match pitch or not—what a gift! I began studying clarinet in sixth grade in public school and applied everything I learned in my clarinet lessons and church children’s choir experience to playing the organ at the church. By eighth grade, I was one of the organists who played on a rotational basis for worship. Hearing a live performance of Paul Manz’s Partita on St. Anne during that period convinced me forever that I needed to be involved in performing and creating music.

Was there a critical moment when you became a composer, or was it gradual work and realization?

I believe there was a creativity seed planted inside me before I was born. I have always loved making and creating things, whether it was at the keyboard or in the kitchen or shop. I never planned on becoming a composer, it seems to have just happened. My first published compositions began as organ and choral improvisations for worship and concert that were later transcribed by myself and at times, by and with my students.

Where or when do you feel most inspired to compose?

I am inspired to compose when I feel compelled and convicted to create a piece for worship or concert that will inspire, engage, teach, and challenge the adults and children with whom I work. I am also inspired when a text, albeit old or new, makes it way in front of me, and keeps taunting me to create a musical setting of it. I am probably most inspired when, in worship or leading a hymn festival, the singing by the congregation and choirs, enlivened by the Spirit, energizes me to create on the spot, in the moment.

What is your favorite medium to write for?

Choral music and hymn-based organ music.

How much does a piece of yours change from its inception to its publication?
  • In relation to an organ piece, the published version is really a composite transcription of multiple improvisations on the same hymn tune. Hence, the organ piece for me is ever-changing, but for the performer it is what it is on the page.
  • Regarding choral editions, there is not much change.
  • Regarding choral settings of hymns, at times there is little or no change, and at other times I wonder how I could have imagined and thought that what I created would really work with singers or result in a musically satisfying offering. Thank goodness for grace and my own choirs who are willing to try out new works!
  • In relation to non-hymn based choral works, there is little or no change, but the compositional process takes much longer from inception to completion, resulting at times in several versions composed and discarded before the version that feels right emerges.
How do you spend your time when you’re not engaged in musical activities?

Traveling, hiking, and connecting with people, especially in coffee shops!

What’s your next project, musical or otherwise?

Working on organizing the materials, procedures, and processes of the Hearts, Hands and Voices Series for worship and fine arts children’s programs. The series represents a variety of different kinds of musical resources to provide children’s choir leaders with creative and educationally sound resources.


For a complete listing of Burkhardt’s works published by MorningStar, click here.

For another great story on Michael Burkhardt, check out EMU Today’s article from September 2017.

Internationally known for his innovative and inspiring hymn festivals and for his creative work with children, Michael Burkhardt is in frequent demand as a choral clinician, organ recitalist, and hymn festival leader.

Dr. Burkhardt is Artist-Professor of Organ at Eastern Michigan University, and for the past nine years has served hearts, hands and voices Worship and Fine Arts Program as Artistic Director and Holy Cross Lutheran Church as Cantor. From 2001-2007 he served on the faculty of Carthage College (ELCA) in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as Director of Choral Activities, College Organist, and Artist in Residence. Prior to his appointment at Carthage, he was a Faculty Associate in organ at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Burkhardt is a graduate of Carthage College, Kenosha, WI. He earned his M.M. degree from Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, and his D.M.A. degree from Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

He has performed and led seminars at both national and regional events for the American Guild of Organists, the Hymn Society, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, and the American Choral Directors Association, and since 2003 he has made seven performance-teaching tours to South Korea and Singapore. He will return to Singapore in November of 2018 to prepare and conduct children’s and adult festival choruses for and in an Advent-Christmas concert at the Esplanade, the country’s newest and foremost concert hall. In addition, he will present several organ recitals and workshops throughout the country.

Dr. Burkhardt is author of Part-Singing Global Style (a resource focusing on sequential part-singing techniques in treble arrangements of global pieces), Singing with Understanding (a curriculum utilizing the great hymns, folksongs and spirituals of the Church to share faith stories and to teach the elements of music and worship), Read ‘n Ring (a graded curriculum for teaching literacy to and exploring musicianship for handbell/handchime ringers), and Worship for the Young Child (a worship resource providing engaging, inclusive worship experiences for young children with teaching guides), and Creative Hymn Playing (a hymn-based improvisation method-resource for organists). He is composer of three settings of the Eucharistic liturgy, A New Song, Missa St. Andrew, and Missa Mixolydian as well as numerous organ improvisations, choral octavos and handbell compositions.

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