Once upon a time, many years ago, God convened a council of the angels to discuss the Job situation, and a number of other items. Toward the end of the meeting, before he went on his mission to earth, Satan, always the joker, proposed the following: “Lord, what if you gave humanity the ability to create with a single musical instrument the sonic equivalent of a painter’s palette; they would have at their fingertips virtually illimitable colouristic possibilities, like one of those symphony orchestras you plan to have them invent, and then — and here’s the good part — and then hand this instrument over to the least imaginative of musicians?” After the laughter subsided the Lord thought for a minute, and then gave a wry smile: “Sure, why not?”
Sometimes I am absolutely convinced something not unlike that occurred ages ago. How else can one explain why a recital on such a glorious instrument invariably ends up being such a numbing evening or afternoon? So, what is it about organists that causes this extraordinary alienation from the public and the rest of the musical world?
Up to this point I’ve touched upon the issues of Lizzie Leftfoot the conscripted non-organist, the elitist condescension of Academia, and the desperation of organ builders to keep up with the latest fad; all of which should not be underestimated as to their profound influence on the organ’s failure to excite. Notwithstanding, it still all comes down to the organist. It is the organist who is the connecting link between the instrument — no matter what the design — and the listener. It is the organist who decides whether or not to follow fashion and allow himself to be, or not to be, swayed or coerced by the dictates of his peers, namely the AGO (American Guild of Organists), organ builders and philologists. In short, organists have no one to blame but themselves for their plight.
There are almost as many reasons as there are stop names as to why organists are such a peculiarly dull lot as concert musicians. I’ve already briefly discussed some; perhaps they’ll need further elucidation. Let’s start with my favourite work place: the church. Churches, in spite of their supposed message, can be pretty politically, socially and professionally stultifying, even hostile, environments. It doesn’t take very long for the young organist engaged in his first position, and getting caught up in the vortex of church politics, to become jaded. This broaches the issue as to what kind of person becomes an organist in the first place. To be a church organist you have to have a certain… er, uh… flexibility shall we say?… to be able to work with clergy and music committees, most of whom are at best philistines. Most church elders. and clergy in particular, prefer musicians to be complaisant. People, especially those who are independent thinkers—even worse, independent thinking musicians—are not appreciated in most parishes; and are, in fact often considered a threat. Therefore, largely since organists work in the church they are as a rule retiring personalities so as to be able to get along with the clergy and the lay leadership. Whether it’s because they work in the church or because they are already predisposed toward that personality is a matter for the psychologists to determine; but the modern church environment certainly enables self-effacement and the prosaic.
One of the peculiar side effects of the church environment, and another contributing factor to this phlegmatic approach to music making is that organists become a rather insular lot, even though they deal with people as choir directors. It’s a very different situation than dealing with the public as a concert performer. In the church the organist is dealing with a small (relative to the general public) group of people whom he or she sees at least once or twice every week. This group of people has bonded through the very powerful medium and common purpose of sacred music. It is the nature of this rapport which completely affects the whole dynamic of the relationship, often far beyond that of just a professional one; moreover, it has allowed the organist, in many ways, to become a bit too comfortable. The cocoon-like effect of the church environment with its daily, weekly, and seasonal routines, plus its almost familial milieu, has a way of sapping the individual creativity and imagination necessary for the serious musician. The end result is not only jejune, vapid and eminently predictable music making, but consequently a steady, usually unperceived, decline of standards. Technically the organist may be in tip-top shape, or at least no worse since graduation. Even so, the artistic challenges are rare. As we all know technical facility is no substitute for creativity; and although some of the bigger church music positions often demand of the of the organist a level of technical prowess other musicians couldn’t even dare to achieve (especially for the money), they in fact, rarely embrace an accompanying level of musical insight or imagination. As the quality of church music has declined, the church musician has had to adapt. When compared to the low grade pop music of praise bands and the sludge being spewed forth as propagated by the five Jesuit hacks via junk publishers such as Oregon Catholic Press, suddenly Nathalie Sleeth, John Rutter, and Hal Hopson sound like real composers. As Wyndham Lewis said:
“Name anything where taste is at stake — it will provide an example of the systematic forcing down of civilised standards.”
With music in the church having been so co-opted, is it any wonder that the musical standards of most organists are left wanting? And of those that do manage to develop certain a level of sophistication in their musical palette; they rarely know how to communicate it in a viable, interesting way. More on that later.
But, what about the great church musicians of the past such as Bach, Franck, Messiaen, Bruckner, et al? Didn’t they spent most of their lives in the church and yet manage to be “creative?” First off, the four composers I mentioned are the only major composers who were also known primarily as organists. Fauré, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and a handful of others were known, and spent most of their creative lives, as musicians outside the church, even though they were fine organists in their own right. For all of the famed religiosity of Franck, Bruckner and Messiaen, it is mainly through the venues of the concert stage that these composers have found their greatest and most recognised musical expression; notwithstanding Franck and Messiaen’s substantial contributions to organ repertoire, their reputations rest primarily in their non-organ music. Moreover, Bruckner’s contribution to the organ repertoire is negligible, he preferring to improvise (for which he had become famous throughout Europe, rivalling Franck) rather than compose for the organ.
I don’t think it’s merely coincidence that along with the decline of the Church’s influence, starting with the late 18th Century, the creative, innovative musician who had been the backbone of Western music had now become just another cog on one of the many gears that kept the machinery of church mediocrity grinding away. Up until that time the organist had been considered the most brilliant of musical minds. To have been an organist from the 12th Century through most of the 18th was to have been the best and the brightest and the most innovative of musicians, the church fathers’ usual resistance notwithstanding. However, during the 19th Century it was the concert organist who was the star, not the church organist. Never mind that they were frequently one and the same; it was the secular incarnation in the likes of Edwin H. Lemare, Lynwood Farnam, Louis Vierne, and Enrico Bossi to whom people would flock to see and hear play the King of Instruments. These were organists who electrified audiences; who dazzled them with their pedal technique and their ability to master all of its unwieldy mechanics and make the contraption sing. During this this time, culminating in the early 20th Century with the addition of the theatre organ, an organist could make a substantial living playing the organ outside the church.
Then we enter the ecclesiastically shallow and artistically muddy waters of the late 20th Century; and… well, you know the rest. Starting with “Folk Mass” in the early 60’s with the nuns and their guitars (Catholic portatives) and the church’s gross misreading of Vatican II and the ignoring of GIRM 2000, what had been a gradual decline in the influence of church music became a precipitous fall (along with an associated decline in liturgy), ultimately dragging down the Protestants with them. This decline has brought with it in recent years a steady increase in the marginalisation of the organ and its players. It is a bitter irony of the current state of things, that when a church has become financially wealthy through its pop culture approach to worship, and can therefore afford to, it will spend, huge sums to buy a large pipe organ for its sanctuary, only to have it sit, rarely to be heard. But hey, it sure is mighty impressive to walk into one of these big modern buildings and see this glorious array of largely silent organ pipes. What better way (besides the Cross) to tell a potential congregant that this a real church? It is with the exception of a small number of high profile churches who have managed to fend off (for the most part) the ravages of pop culture, that there is only the remotest indication of the possibility of hearing an exciting organist at the console.
Then there’s the effect of the organist being out of sight. This phenomenon has two deleterious effects. First, the organist feels he can get away with things in recital that most other performers can’t, such as not memorising the programme. Since the audience can’t see, the organist figures he can have sheet must all over the music stand and can get away with virtually sightreading a recital. Being hidden away either in the corner of the chancel or in the gallery choir loft in back of the nave can give the organist a false sense of security. Second, not being fully visible to the audience the organist avoids or doesn’t experience the sense of urgency or immediacy that other performers undergo. This situation is unique to organists and is something of which they may not be fully aware. This “hidden organist” syndrome as part of the overall inhibiting church environment contributes substantially to the lacklustre nature of most organ recitals. It’s a dilemma that organists more than other performers have with which to come to terms. Since most organs are in churches most recitals are in churches. And for many people there still is, always will be, this repressive air that “you’re in church” so behave yourself. The strange dichotomy is that in many churches today, as part of the new, more “hip” church, congregations are being asked to behave more like and audience; and are actually being encouraged to applaud the slightest thing. In the end, the organist being trained primarily as a church musician and spending most of his professional life musically dealing with all of the stifling effects of the church usually ends up ill-suited for the extroverted behaviour of a secular concert performer; and therefore, should generally avoid playing recitals if he doesn’t want to cause further alienation from the instrument by the general public.
Unless, of course, he or she is serious about being a concert performer then the training focus needs to be adjusted. That’s next.