So, What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part IV — Epilogue (for now)

So, as you can see, the organ has some serious image problems.  And, as something that has developed over an extended period of time, it will take some time to reverse this decline in esteem within the musical community.  Although every situation has its mitigating circumstances, for the most part organists and organ builders have been largely responsible for their plight through their self induced isolation and intransigence.  Now, it’s granted that in past the organ’s principal function has been liturgical; and it should continue to furnish this vital commission for the church in the future.  Nevertheless, as the world becomes more secular, and with the church relying more and more on pandering through lowest common denominator pop music in its desperate quest for increased numbers, the organ has become progressively marginalised. A definite imperative is required here in order to make the organ and organ music vital to the church again. Needless to say, that won’t happen if we continue to produce organists who are themselves marginalised by means of this continued refusal to apply an imaginative, extroverted approach to liturgical music.  Like it or not, people nowadays want to be entertained. With that in mind organists, if they are capable, have the opportunity to accomplish what no guitar player, drummer, electronic keyboardist, miked singer, any cheesy combination thereof, or even a classically trained pianist can do:  and that is, both viscerally excite (entertain) and legitimately move the spirit through the power, dynamic and colouristic versatility of the instrument at their disposal, even if it’s only a seven rank Estey.  But organists have to — they must — come out of that shell if the organ is to return to its rightful place as the primary non-vocal musical instrument of worship.

Notwithstanding, the organ world needs to come to terms with reality and look beyond the church.  For the larger classical music audience greater focus on the organ as a concert instrument needs to be done.  However, that can only be achieved with the kind of training that instils in the organist that  fearless passion and desire to communicate to an audience with which other secular concert musicians are imbued .  Nowadays modern technology has made the ability to focus on being primarily, even exclusively, a concert organist much more feasible.  A serious organist can now purchase a good two to three manual authentic sounding electronic organ for roughly the equivalent of a quality upright or baby grand piano.  Even the speakers are less problematic since technology has greatly reduced the size needed to effectively produce the low notes for the pedal.  More and more an aspiring concert organist will become less and less dependent upon the kindness of clergy and ignorant, petty church committees or administrators and territorial organists to be able to practise regularly.  As serious music in the church dies, the organ does not have to die with it.

As much fun as I’ve had chiding Academia, they really aren’t to blame — at least not fully.  Musicology, like any history based discipline, has profoundly influenced us, expanding our knowledge of the world from which we have evolved, and has given us considerable insight into how things were done in the past.  This knowledge however, is only useful if it is applied in a manner to which modern society can relate. The danger is when this historical knowledge changes from perspective to dogma.  In recent years musicologists have learned, in their hit-or-miss fashion, that a lot of the dogma to which they had subscribed wasn’t quite so black and white.  For example, string players have learned that vibrato was actually a part of 18th possibly 17th Century performance; maybe not as broadly or consistently used as the late 19th Century and later, but, there nonetheless. So, playing Bach and Co. with little extra colour does not have to be eschewed as had been thought.  Again historical insight makes for a good jumping off point; but alas, we live in the 21st, not the 18th Century.

The glory of it all is that the organ by the shear magnificence of its presence can’t help but impress.  Visually as compelling as the architectural wonders, both secular and sacred, in which the organ is often housed, tonally and sonically as great as or even greater than a symphony orchestra, it really should be a no brainer to make a performance of the music emanating from those pipes one of the most moving experiences in a person’s life. And occasionally that happens — just not enough.  The various attempts to attract new people, such as Pipe Organ Encounters simply attract kids who are already predisposed to the organ.  Events like Pedals, Pipes and Pizza may have had a certain novelty when initially conceived; but not unlike nuns with guitars singing “Folk Mass” they were never terribly successful largely because they always seemed a little insincere, and now just seem hokey and contrived.  Again, people (especially nowadays with our celebrity conscious society) want to be entertained. That in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  Most of us who were initially attracted to that which we love (a person, work of art, movie, piece of music, etc.) were almost always drawn in by something visceral about the source of that attraction.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual; but, again in our highly visually oriented society, it “can’t hoit” to appeal to the ear through the eye.  Virgil Fox understood, and his audiences (made up of mostly of non-organists, whether he was doing his “Heavy Organ” programme or a “straight” recital) obviously appreciated that fact; And that’s the point. As successful as Mr. Fox was one can only imagine how much more effective he might have been if the organ “establishment” had embraced his dynamism instead vilified it.  But, the organ world remains obdurate. Hence the case of Cameron Carpenter.  The acting and dressing like a rock musician and essentially biting the hand that has fed him with his berating the organ world, pipe organs and most organ music, smacks of more than a little disingenuousness; but, it makes for great press.  A little controversy goes a long way to keeping some one or some thing in the public’s consciousness; and for the organ, that can only help.  As his one time manager, the late Richard Torrence (who was Virgil Fox’s manager) reminded me once, Mr. Carpenter is the first organist since Fox died — that is, in 30 years! — to generate so much exictment about the organ in the concert hall.

Because, ultimately as I stated at the beginning of this series, it’s not the instrument that the problem — quite the contrary, in fact — as it is the performer.  If or when the organ world eventually crawls out from behind its  agoraphobic, self-effacing, virtually moribund state and recognises that there is bright shining dynamic concert world out there:  that their wondrous instrument in the hands of serious yet dynamic, extroverted personalities such as Fox was and currently Paul Jacobs, Isabelle Demers, Cameron Carpenter, and a handful of others can, shall, will reclaim its rightful place on the throne of the musical kingdom.


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