02 October 2018

Organ; A Church Instrument or a Musical Instrument?

We are approaching the time in musical history when the organ will have been associated with the Christian church for as long a period as it was not associated with the Christian church.  The fact that the organ, synonymous for so many people, with the church, not only was not designed as a church instrument but, more particularly, was effectively banned from churches for over 1000 years may come as a surprise.  Typical of this ignorance is the concert-goer who, at the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur (the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas) for the organ’s inaugural concert on 29th January 1999 with Simon Preston, asked; “Why do we have a church organ in our concert hall?”  The answer was that the organ is NOT a church instrument and that, if anything, the presence of an organ in a Malaysian concert hall was a symbolic returning home of an instrument whose natural habitat had been the Islamic world centuries before it found its way into the Christian church.  Moreover, at the time there were more fully-functioning pipe organs in concert halls in Malaysia than there were in the country’s churches.

DFP Angklung-inspired organ
Nevertheless, that deep-seated belief in the organ as an archetypically Christian instrument persists.  The woman who financed the KL organ did so because she loved the visual effects of organs in the great European cathedrals and felt that our new concert hall demanded some such similar visual device to arrest the eye.  At the design stage, Philipp Klais, whose company built the organ, was confronted with a dilemma stemming from this belief that the organ is a “Christian” instrument.  Voices objected to the facts that the pipes “pointed to Heaven”.  His solution came from the Angklung, hanging in one of the ante-rooms off the auditorium.  An Angklung consists of several bamboo rods on a frame – much as organ pipes of differing lengths sit side by side on a frame – and Klais saw that if he described his design as being inspired by the Angklung, people could hardly object.  He also added false tops to the pipes to avoid any suggestion that they pointed to heaven.

The first organ, ca 250BC
We know almost exactly when the organ was invented; in the year 250BC in Alexandria in Egypt.  We know exactly when the organ first appeared in the Christian world; in the year 757 when Constantinus, the Byzantine Emperor, presented one as a peace offering to the King of France. (“The Emperor Constantinus sent King Pippin many gifts, amongst them an organum; which reached him in the villa at Compiegne where he was holding a convocation with his people”.)  We know vaguely when the first organs started to appear in churches; around 900.  And we know even more vaguely, when the organ first started to become an accepted and common feature in Christian churches: in the early 1400s.  So for 1150 years, at least, the organ had nothing to do with the church, and for no more than 600 years it has been synonymous with music in church.

Early organ history is largely speculative, but it appears to have been invented and used as a machine to make noise, with no obvious musical connotations.  It roused the rabble at gladiatorial contests in the colosseums of ancient Rome, and it adorned the houses and palaces of wealthy Arab rulers and merchants in much the same way as a fleet of Mercedes or a portfolio of properties and football clubs in the UK does today.  When King Pippin got his organ, one suspects its value was more in its presence than its sound.  The idea of putting an organ in a church came centuries later.

At various times between the 8th and the 16th centuries, the church banned instrumental music, and it was not really until the founding of the Lutheran Church that the organ really established itself as the pre-eminent church instrument.  Its function in the Roman church had been essentially accompanimental, but with Luther’s belief in the value of corporate worship and active participation through the mass singing of chorales, the organ really came into its own.  So it’s no surprise that church organists look to the heady days of North German Lutheranism in the 17th and 18th centuries as a Golden Age; a time when the organ was, at long last, elevated to the position of Serious Musical Instrument and earning the closest attention from composers we today regard as “great”.

Congregational singing in a large space is best supported by an organ.  No other instrument or group of instruments is capable of both leading and supporting massed, untrained voices so effectively.  Just ask any choir-trainer whose choir has performed with a symphony orchestra, and they will tell you even the massed ranks of highly-skilled professional players cannot equal the sensitivity or directness of response of an organist.  And with its powerful bass resonance (physical presence rather than the wall of amplified sound created by electronic basses), strong central core and illuminating upper register, singers can both feel and hear the organ, even when they are themselves singing at full stretch.  Add to this the vast array of colours and timbres, the dynamic range and, of course, the all-enveloping pitch range, and you can see why the organ was so readily adopted as the instrument of choice for Lutheran congregational singing.  Placing the organ at the west end, so that it effectively spoke behind the congregation, pushing the sound forward through their ranks and urging them onwards through its uplifting sounds, also proved the ideal.  And since they were not going to interfere with the visual focus at the east end of the church, organ cases could become increasingly spectacular until you got to something like the stunning organ case at St Bavo, Haarlem, where the organ itself is such an object of visual beauty, that it is easy to forget that the church has a function beyond merely showcasing its organ.
St Bavo, Haarlem

So while it was not originally a Christian instrument, we can thank the Christian church for transforming this noise-producing novelty machine into something capable of making music, and for developing and extending its scope and range to the point where, today, it overwhelms any other musical instrument in its range of pitches, timbres and dynamics.  There is no doubt that the visual aspect of the organ remains, for most people, its most important facet, and it is a sad fact that, even amongst the musical community, many do not see the organ as a musical instrument.  Nobody seems surprised or even perturbed that in Asia’s premiere musical conservatory there is neither an organ (other than a tiny thing designed purely to fulfil a continuo function) nor any training for budding organists; they are not regarded as musicians on the same level as, say, violinists, singers, conductors or (for some reason), players of the electone.  Many subscribe to the notion that the organ is something you have in church which has no connection with mainstream musical life.

The root causes of this refusal to acknowledge the organ’s musical legitimacy can be put, I’m sorry to say, at the feet of organists themselves.  Few players of the instrument ever seem to take that extra step from producing noise to transforming that noise into music, and many seem to regard the mechanical complexities of the instrument itself and the technical minutiae of the music they play on it as the be-all and end-all of organ playing.  Because the organ is a machine in a way no other musical instrument is, to get it to create music, the player has to make a conscious effort to achieve musicality.  While other instruments may have an inbuilt musicality about them, governed by the length of the bow, the fragility of wind supply or the immediate decay of a note, the organ has no such natural musical instincts, and the organist has to think each and every aspect of their performance out in detail in order to produce something musical.  This seems a step too far for most organists today.

Instead they become obsessed with the instrument.  It was a standing joke in my youth that organists would flock to St Magnus-in-the-Mud as it had a 32 foot Ophecleide, and issues of tuning temperament, wind pressures, keyboard action and materials used in manufacture are discussed interminably whenever two organists are gathered together.  The instrument’s enormous repertory is rarely discussed, with the result that organists seem fixated on Bach (usually the Trio Sonatas, which are regarded more as technical than musical challenges) with only very few venturing beyond into the realms of Buxtehude, Franck, Widor and Vierne.  Composers of monumental insignificance outside the organ world (think Flor Peeters, Marcel Dupré, Sigfrid Karg-Elert and Josef Rheinberger) are elevated as demi-gods by virtue of writing music which suits particular stops on particular organs.

Too many organists are also quite happy to relegate the playing of their instrument to a kind of group activity, passing responsibility of some aspects to others in performance.  The sight of an organist playing the notes while a team of acolytes stands in attendance pulling out and pushing in stops and pressing any of the myriad buttons to be found above and below the key and pedal boards, is common.  Surely, it is a vital part of the organist’s skill to control the totality of the instrument – including the manipulation of those parts which directly affect timbre and colour?  Yet few organists see any issue with this.  If I query it, I am told, “I can’t manage this piece on this organ single-handed” (in which case, choose music which you can manage on it single-handed) or, even worse, “Bach did it”.  (Yes.  Bach also fought with his choir in the streets, and was imprisoned for offences against his employer; I’m not sure that Bach was a man whose every action deserves emulation.)  If organists do not think musically, how can we expect the world to take us seriously?

However, for the vast majority of organists, the organ is not a musical instrument but an integral part of their lives as church musicians.  Big cathedrals and major churches aside, the overwhelming majority of churches with an organ use it almost exclusively for supporting congregational singing, and not only are opportunities for playing musical works of musical worth extremely limited, but since nobody actually expects you to do so, critical faculties amongst listeners are suspended.  You can play a dazzling Langetuit Toccata brilliantly or a dreary Reger Monologue badly, and you will know that someone from the congregation will come up and tell you it was “nice”. In church, it seems, it is more about doing something than doing something to the best of one’s ability, and that attitude has led to an environment in which the organ is becoming superfluous to requirements and irrelevant.  In many parts of the world (south East Asia amongst them) the organ as a church instrument is now virtually extinct.

Here, the fault lies with those who hold responsibility for what goes on in church; the clergy and the various voluntary committees who, by virtue of their willingness to give up their time, take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of what is acceptable and what is not.  Driven by a laudable but misguided belief in involving everybody regardless of ability, and in shaking off the shackles of history (it surprises me that those who peddle a faith based on events which happened over 2000 years ago, fight shy of maintaining practices which go back barely 200), music in church is no longer an elevated and specialist art, but a communal activity encompassing anyone with even the most desultory ability to play a musical instrument.  Miserable, uninspired twangings from guitars, half-hearted thumps from drums and aimless dribblings from keyboard players, all well-meaning and all utterly without musical talent, are accepted because they show “inclusivity” (getting everyone involved) and “relevance” (bringing music into the soft-core pop world of the 1960s rather than rejoicing in the hard-core magnificence of the 1700s).  These people’s complete absence of musical integrity means that the great chorales and hymns of the past, written to inspire and encourage massed participation, have been abandoned in favour of bland, mawkish lyrics sung to wholly unimaginative monochrome melodies.  With church music relegated to the position of simplistic background noise, how can the organist hope to gain any measure of musical credibility?

Over the weekend I visited Penang where, in St George’s Anglican Church, in an astonishing reversal of current trends, a brand new two manual pipe organ by Manders of London had been installed.  A visionary clergyman had encouraged four young people to learn to play the organ and had arranged for them to have a dedicated and committed organist as their mentor.  I had the enormous privilege of hearing each of these young musicians play, and was greatly inspired by not only the quality of their playing but also by their instinctive musicality.  But two things disturbed me during my talks with them after they had played to me.

Firstly, as soon as news of the new organ had reached down to Singapore, the Singapore Organ cadre (a close-knit body which seems hell-bent on preserving the remoteness and inaccessibility of the organ to non-organists) journeyed up to Penang to offer their advice and guidance.  Students remembered instruction concerning technique, registration and pedalling exercises; none of them remembered any advice about music-making or exploring repertory.

Secondly, since the organ was effectively an off-the-peg, free-standing instrument, a considerable amount of flexibility had been open to those who decided where it should be placed in the church.  So it was rather disappointing that it had been placed in about the worst situation possible for supporting congregational singing.  While the ideal places would have involved some structural alterations (out of the question for both financial and aesthetic reasons) it struck me that there was one place it would have been far better placed.  When I asked why this had not been chosen, I was told that to have placed it  there would have blocked the door to a cupboard where the guitars and drums were kept, and the church wanted to have easy access to these,

Notwithstanding the fact that guitars and drums are portable in a way that a pipe organ is not, basic common sense should tell you that, with an organ, all other instruments are superfluous (I attend a church where a very fine organ is regularly polluted by amplified noises from an assembled band of rag-tag instruments brought in to give the music street-cred; and I can tell you the combination of pipe organ and amplified guitars, keyboard and drums, is stomach-churning in its awfulness).  Why on earth would a church which has just spent a vast sum on a new and fine pipe organ be concerned about easy access to guitars and drums?  

I worry that this encouraging trend to bring the organ back to the church will be compromised by the determination of organists to remain on the periphery of musicality, and by the political fence-sitting of church authorities who feel that inclusivity and “trendiness” outweigh the lessons and examples of 600 years of history.




  1. I found this really interesting and informative. Thank you for posting.
    One thing puzzled me: you say that pipe organs have been synonymous with church music for no more than 600 years, and no so for 1150 years before that. So why the opening sentence ?

  2. For clearness, I am characterizing an instrument as any gadget that has an immediate relationship between's a kid's activity and pitch. For instance, hitting a drum, culling a string, striking a key, or blowing air through everything bring about a tone or pitch being delivered. link