15 February 2013

An Organist's Lot

Throughout 2012 I never so much as touched a pipe organ.  A year off seemed a good opportunity to re-assess an approach to the instrument which had become, after decades of use and abuse, not so much jaded as ambivalent.  As 2012 ground on and I found myself completely unaffected by my self-imposed organ exile, I began to suspect that my organless state would become permanent.  However, a happy hour sat listening to organ records with an old friend finally got the juices running again, and I decided to give it another try.  The first opportunity came, significantly, on 1st January 2013 when I played at a midday service at St Margaret’s Church in Aberdeen.  Not having so much as sat at a console since December 2011, I was not at all sure how it would work out, but with the high liturgical intensity of the Very  Revd. Dr. Fr. Nimmo and a congregation possibly subdued by the preceding night’s Hogmanay celebrations, I found that, unlike riding a bicycle, I did not so much as wobble, but was straight back into the stride of it all and, finishing with the deeply simple but brilliantly effective Postlude of William Mathias, even got a smattering of people who, over the post-service whiskies, genuinely seemed to have enjoyed it.

Next up was a wedding in a tiny chapel deep in the heart of rural Rutland.  I’d taken the opportunity to practice – after  all The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba does not play itself, even after a lifetime’s familiarity – but was startled when I first looked into the chapel to realise not only how tiny it was but how delicate (for want of a better word) the  organ was.   With a choir of 40 made up from various professional groups from Surrey, London, Rutland and Cambridge and an eminent choral conductor trying to keep them all in shape (not helped by the fact that the chapel was broader than it was long, which meant the choir had to stretch from side-to-side and effectively blocked out any view of anything from the weirdly-placed organ) it could have been a nerve-wracking experience.  As it was it was pure, unadulterated, fun despite my having to accompany some of the most dreary and boring hymns (sorry, songs) known to mankind as well as a dreadfully monotonous dirge arranged from the singing of Enya.  To me, it was just an absolute pleasure to be pulling out stops, pushing them in, waving the swell pedal about and running up and down the pedal-board.  I regret to say that, much to the horror of my musician friends, I find myself more than happy to be back on the organ stool and will be grabbing every opportunity to indulge myself with renewed passion.  Roll on the concerts in China and Hong Kong (April), Scotland (May) and Ireland (June).  Hopefully there will be more! 

But for all my joy I was strongly reminded while playing for the Rutland wedding of why playing the organ had caused me such unease in the past. 

Largely inured from the grotesqueries of playing in church by 30 years in Malaysia (no churches with serviceable organs to talk of) and by the Very Revd. Dr. Fr. Nimmo’s refusal to accept that music in a church service is anything other than a solemn means of paying homage to God through the highest level of artistic endeavour, I had quite forgotten that for most churches, music needs to be utterly mundane, an obstruction to sincere thought and an excuse to give respectability to the kind of drivelling nonsense that usually goes on behind heavily stained curtains in karaoke lounges.  I had a hint with the masses of photocopied sheets sent to me beforehand bearing the smudged imprint of “celebration songs” and with the unending stream of D major chord symbols above an unedifying melodic line which, if spiced up with electronic wizardry and recording technology, makes Enya sound rather special.  I know that for a lot of people, this is “easy listening” which, by its association with certain events in their life, takes on a symbolic significance way beyond its meagre artistic value, but I deeply resent that dismal and mundane has been allowed to displace distinguished and magnificent, and that the awesome has been replaced by the awful.  With such horrible stuff to play, is it any wonder that church organists are a dying breed and that pipe organs, designed and built for better things, are decaying in favour of the ubiquitous “keyboard” where, with the right banana on the right dial, even a chimpanzee should be able to produce a good sound?  There’s a wonderful hymn which lists the great gifts humanity presents to God as including “Craftsman’s art and music’s measure”; perhaps they now sing “Inexpensive plastic moulding and miniscule computer microchips” instead.

Church congregations have obviously become so well used to this rubbish being churned out for them that it has become not so much aural wallpaper as aural graffiti, a slight nuisance which is best covered up in polite society.  So it is that as soon as the organ starts they start talking loudly and animatedly, terrified lest a note escapes into the silence and comes to the notice of sensitive ears.  So, despite my carefully planned programme of Leighton, Handel, Mendelssohn, Mulet, Bach, Franck, C S Lang and Guilmant, all I heard was the frantic yakity-yak of church folk.  Whatever happened to quiet meditation or contemplative thought?  I tried all the organist’s tricks; repeated B flats (making them believe the bride had arrived 20 minutes early), subito pianissimos, molto crescendos and interrupted cadences, but all to no avail.  They only shut up when the organ stopped playing.  It was like another stop; instead of “Open Diapason 8 foot’” we had “Open Mouths 160 feet”.

I do not blame congregations for obliterating from their consciousness as much of the pseudo-musical drivel as they can, but it means that when musical substance is offered to them, they can never get the benefit.  Such is the organist’s lot and if nobody is going to appreciate me, then a year off has taught me how to appreciate myself.  (Plus, of course, there is always the vague off-chance that God himself might also be listening!)


  1. To paraphrase W S Gilbert: 'A Norganist's lot is not a happy one'. Those of us who have been involved in church music all our lives recognise the truth of your recent discoveries. I'm sure any church organist has a nigh limitless store of similar tales to yours; I know I have. When it comes to 'modern' hymns, my basic rule of thumb is 'if it's rubbish, play it as such and it'll invariably work. Try to make it musically respectable and you'll fail dismally'. As for appreciating your voluntaries, the louder you play, the greater will be the impact when you finish and the congregation, which has been busting its collective gut to continue its pre-service resumé of the previous night's 'Big Brother' episode, will burst into sporadic applause. They probably haven't heard a note you've played but in true Pavlonian manner, the ensuing silence will have triggered the inevitable response.

    Organ playing is in your blood, Marc. Don't fight it!! Welcome home!!

    Peter A

  2. Are you still in Singapore? My 9 year old boy (viola and trumpet player) has been interested in trying out organ after hearing the saint Saens concerto