07 May 2013

World Organ Day

Yesterday – Monday 6th May - was World Organ Day.

Should we have all gone down to Statue Square in Hong Kong and protested against the illegal harvesting of human organs in China?  Should we have chained ourselves to the railings outside the White House in protest against the carcinogenic chemicals being pumped into the air in Third World Countries by US multinationals?  Should we have toddled down to Trafalgar Square to form a silent protest urging passers-by to fill in their organ donor cards?  All these are causes for which I have a certain passion, but this was not a day to come out and make a public statement.  Were there mass circumcisions in West Africa, or did German sex workers take to the streets of Hamburg to celebrate their greatest assets?  Sadly, if this did happen, it had nothing to do with World Organ Day.
The organs being celebrated were of the musical variety.

So, did those pop stars famous for using pianos as props swap them for fake electronic organs for the day? (I use the word fake deliberately; CNN aired footage of a fan attacking Justin Bieber yesterday.  The flimsy Bieber fell against his grand piano and the thing collapsed like a pack of cards, proving it was a cardboard replica – and, as if to emphasise the point, the footage was cut on the eight million subsequent airings of it on CNN over the next half hour, showing that an eagle-eyed agent had realised the potential damage to his client and demanded the evidence be suppressed.)  Were there mass play-ins of Yamahas, Clavionas, Electones or Casios?  Did the Hammond Organ Appreciation Society bring out their organs for the day?  Again, if any of this did happen, it had no connection with World Organ Day.

For World Organ Day celebrated the Pipe Organ - the oldest manufactured musical instrument known to man, one of the few musical instruments mentioned by name in the Old Testament which is still in everyday use today, the instrument with the largest solo repertoire of any, which can play higher and lower than any other, and which can play softer and louder than any orchestra.  Yes, there is much to celebrate and I’m only sorry that World Organ Day passed me by.
Organists feel under siege and need a cause for celebration.  Not only do they suffer from so much confusion over the name of their instrument – if you say you play the violin, everybody respects you, but if you say you play the organ, people look at you askance – but their usual stamping ground, the church, has become a distinctly hostile environment.  On a daily basis we hear of decent pipe organs being ripped out of churches because nobody feels inclined to spend the money repairing them.  Organs are under threat, and organists even more so.  A good friend in south London has recently been told by his (female) vicar that his services are no longer “relevant”; her congregations want what she wants - sterile pop and bland, watered-down JesusRock.  The mighty pipes supporting a full congregation in a hymn or bursting forth with a soul-enriching concluding voluntary have been replaced by desultory guitar/drum/keyboard combos wired to portable speakers in the belief that their sub-standard, inartistic maunderings are more in tune with a 21st century Jesus.  Inspiration is out, inanity is in.  Music to praise God must not be elevated; it has to be a pale imitation of what you hear in discos, night clubs and, so I’m told, the dockside bars of Hamburg (where, once, the great Brahms held sway over the piano – can you imagine him as part of a happy clappy combo?).

At best, the church organist is now seen as a somewhat pathetic figure, a cross between an eccentric old codger and a harmless idiot, whose idiosyncrasies give rise to ridicule rather than affection.  Whenever the tag “church organist” gets used in the newspapers, you know something bad has happened.  “Church Organist accused of Molesting Boys”, has a better ring to it than “Clerk in the Council Office accused of Molesting Boys”, even if the latter is closer to the truth.  Over Christmas the pages of the British press were full of an horrific murder, the headlines screaming “Church Organist Killed on Christmas Eve”.  Devastatingly tragic as the story was, the sad fact is the murdered man was not a church organist.  He attended church and occasionally played the piano, but by describing him as a “church organist” the press were implying that he was a harmless, helpless old man with simple tastes.  Why would anyone want to murder him?
Organists, though, only have themselves to blame for their image problem.  As my old music master used to tell me when he wanted to rile me for my love of the organ; “Tell an organist Rubinstein is coming to play Rachmaninov 2 and they won’t know what you are on about.  Tell them that St Magnus-in-the-Mudd has a 32 foot Ophicleide and they will get in to a frenzy of ecstasy”.  He was closer to the truth than I liked to acknowledge, for organists are prone to become so wrapped up in the mechanics of their instrument that they forget the music.  So much organ music is utter crap, yet gets played over and over again merely because it exhibits special stops (look at the number of times the frankly silly Tuba Tune of Norman Coker gets an airing compared with something infinitely more musically credible but far less colourful, like a Hindemith Sonata), and when someone plays a loud French toccata you can almost hear the shivers of excitement from the assembled organists in the audience, while give them a deeply moving, introspective chorale prelude by Buxtehude and it is almost drowned out by a chorus of stifled yawns.

If World Organ Day needs a focus, I suggest it tries to put the music back into the organ.  Forget the mechanics, forget the wind pressures, forget the unequal historic temperament.  Forget the placing of the stop jambs, the authentic materials in the keys, the toes-only pedalling in Bach.  It’s all peripheral nonsense with no musical value at all.  Play the music and communicate it to the listeners; an instinctive thing for most instrumentalists but not, for some reasons, for most organists.  Having spent the last 20 years or so working exclusively in concert halls, I have come to realise that the organ is a credible musical instrument.  It’s now time for organists to realise that too.  

1 comment:

  1. As a former organist I only wish that I could say that a lot of this is untrue. But I can't. It's a wonderfully, wholly accurate analysis of where we are and where we've been. The suggestion that a lot of organ music is crap is, regrettably, 100% spot-on. It is, and Cocker's Tuba Tune is a fine example. I only wish that I'd done something worthwhile like learned to play the violin or the piano (properly). Thanks for a great post.