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Organs and the Music Lover

Hector C. Parr



This essay asks why many music lovers do not like organ music, and what we can do about it.



Good serious music continues to flourish in Great Britain. The Classic FM radio station has a wide following, despite the awful advertisements which interrupt the music every few minutes. Music societies throughout the country continue to be well subscribed, and promote regular concerts of the very best music, played by fine performers. Throughout the Summer thousands of music lovers, many of them from the younger generation, flock to the Royal Albert Hall, and sit or stand in conditions which are far from ideal, to listen intently to a wide spectrum of music. And all this is in spite of the fact that the world's best performances of the whole repertoire can now be heard well reproduced in almost everyone's living room.

But organ music is different. Organ recitals often attract just a handful of listeners; and most of these will be themselves organists, or people with a special interest in the organ. Why is this? The audience at a piano recital does not consist entirely of pianists, or at an opera of operatic singers. And it is depressing to meet so many music lovers who admit that they do not enjoy organ music.

This essay attempts to find reasons for these sad facts, and asks whether there is anything we in the brotherhood can do to bring enlightenment to the wider world.


The organ is the most inflexible of all musical instruments. Just compare it with the most perfect, the human voice. A good singer has intimate control over every note, and when the requirements of musical expression so demand, can alter the pitch, intensity and timbre while a note is sounding. Further, the necessity to take breaths ensures that the music is divided into phrases to aid its comprehension, allowing each phrase to be shaped into a beautiful whole. Fine singers make use of all these capacities in every phrase they sing, and yet all of them are denied to the organist. The singer's voice is part of the body, and so enjoys the same delicacy of control that a craftsman has over his hands, or a gymnast has over her feet. String and woodwind players are removed only one stage from the sound-producing parts of their instruments, but the organist is seated at a complex machine with no soul, and must achieve whatever finesse he can by remote control. Is it not surprising that such a machine can ever produce music which inspires or uplifts?

And yet a good organist at a fine instrument can make beautiful music, music whose grandeur or delicacy, stateliness or brilliance, can indeed inspire and thrill. But it must all be done by sleight of hand; the organist has to deceive the listener into hearing shapely phrases and contrasted note intensities in ways comparable with those by which a magician conjures rabbits from a hat or playing cards from the air.

Several hundred thousand people go to church each Sunday and hear the organ played. One might imagine that this in itself would spark an interest in organs and their repertoire, but there are several reasons why this may not be the case. Indeed it may have the reverse effect...

To many members of the Great British Public the workings of an organ present even deeper mysteries than the nature of the Holy Trinity itself. And the average church-goer is totally perplexed by the craft of the organist. Most have never seen an organ console. They are astonished to learn that the organist actually plays notes with his feet, have no idea why he needs several keyboards, or what is the purpose of stops and pistons. As they sit in church they can see perhaps twenty organ pipes, and can scarcely believe it when told there are several thousand more inside the instrument. Now this should not in itself hinder the appreciation and enjoyment of good music played on such an instrument, but we are all suspicious of what we do not understand. Everyone understands the human voice, for we all have one. The violin is just a little more mysterious, and the principle on which it works is clear for all to see. Even the piano is only a little more difficult to comprehend, and most have seen inside one. But the organ ... !

Indeed we are often critical, or even fearful, of things we do not understand. Many more people are poisoned by the food they eat than by radioactivity, but it is much easier to understand how we are harmed by chemicals or bacteria than by the unseen rays which atomic nuclei emit as they disintegrate. So scientists and governments are compelled to devote too much of their resources to protecting us from the latter and not enough from the former. Likewise people are worried by thoughts of meteoric impact, or genetic modification, and they distrust computers, because these are all things they cannot understand. So we should not expect them to approach that big, noisy, expensive, temperamental mystery, the organ, with an open mind.

The mystique is further emphasised by the reluctance of churches to allow their organists to be seen. If there is any chance of a congregation catching a glimpse of the organist during a service, he is surrounded by thick red curtains. The worshippers are encouraged to believe that, not only is he or she doing something mysterious behind that curtain, but it is slightly indecent, and not fit to be exposed. Even in those few churches where the organist can be seen, congregations feel that they would rather not look, and that they should not show any interest in the weird ritual he performs. I remember deputising some years ago in a large parish church, where a detached console down in the nave controlled a large instrument on the distant screen. After the service I was trying to give my best performance of the first movement of Guilmant No. 5, when a woman approached tentatively and asked, "Will you play for the Women's Institute on October 21th", or something similar. Trying not to lose my place in the music I replied courteously, "Please wait until I finish playing", at which she continued, "We shall have a big congregation coming from ...". "You must wait until I finish" I said, more firmly. "Oh, I can't do that", she replied, "I have a bus to catch", and hurried out of the church. She clearly did not understand the degree of concentration required by an organist playing a complex work. I often wish I had stopped playing in mid phrase to show my displeasure, but I think I know what the lady would have said. "Oh! Why has the organ stopped playing?" would have been her response.

This attitude to organ playing is not new. The story is told of an important civic occasion at which the great nineteenth-century organist W. T. Best was to play. After the more important matters had been dealt with, the Mayor pompously announced, "The organ will now play". When WTB failed to move towards the console, the Mayor had to repeat, "I said, the organ will now play", at which WTB was heard to say, "Well, I'm not stopping it!"


Unlike the average music lover, most organists derive much pleasure and satisfaction from listening to a complex work such as Bach's "Wedge" Prelude and Fugue, when performed by a fine player on a large and suitable instrument. That magnificent part-writing, with each voice completely satisfying in itself, and yet contributing to a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts! Those great descending scales in the left hand which, if they did not repeatedly jump back as they approach the end of the keyboard, would span a full eight octaves! As Peter Hurford says, "It is as though Bach's vision is beyond his human resources". At the same time we can admire the skill of the player, the steadiness of the rhythm, the consistency of the articulation, and the sureness of control throughout this demanding work. Then again, we can admire the skill of the men who built that organ, the excitement of the diapason chorus, the clarity of the mixtures, the colour of the reeds. We can wonder whether Bach would have been more or less pleased with the resulting sounds if the last rebuild had been less drastic, if the mixtures had been left as they were and the reeds had not been given new shallots. And should all this not be sufficient to hold our attention, we can admire the craftsmanship and artistry of the organ casework, and consider its place in the overall architecture of the building.

But have you ever tried to imagine what such a performance must sound like to the average music lover who knows nothing of organ playing, nor counterpoint, nor organ building or architecture, but who just wants to enjoy beautiful sounds? Every organist has spent a substantial part of his life seated at a console, studying part writing, registration, articulation, organ design. He has spent hundreds of hours immersed in organ music, which he has viewed from every possible perpective, and which he has heard played on many different styles of organ. How can we now ask him to listen to such music with the ears of someone else, of someone who may be more accustomed to the sound of the piano or the symphony orchestra? And yet this is what we must do if we are ever to widen the appeal of the organ, if we are ever to attract bigger audiences to our organ recitals, if we are ever to reduce the number of music lovers who say they do not like the organ.

I recently heard a radio broadcast of this very work, the "Wedge", played by one of our finest players. At first I was greatly enjoying the performance, but then I stood back and tried to imagine what it would sound like to the average radio listener. The clarity of the part playing and the rhythmic control were admirable, but to one who could not pick out the separate strands, it was just a wall of sound, featureless, and played from beginning to end without change of registration, as is the custom today. The organ was a so-called neo-classical instrument, very high-pitched, and I gradually realised that it must have sounded to the non-specialist rather like a noisy machine in a factory. The unrelenting din continued for twenty minutes without any variation, apart from a five-second break between Prelude and Fugue. What a marvellous opportunity was being missed. This radio station has a wide following among unsophisticated music lovers, but it rarely broadcasts any organ music. With twenty minutes to spare it could have shown many who had no special interest in the organ how much they were missing, and probably made a few converts. But no-one would be won over by this performance, and some listeners might have decided they never wanted to hear another organ.


Now this is not an appeal for our organists and our broadcasters to play only cheap music with an instant popular appeal. We have in recent years seen numerous examples of organisations trying to court popularity by bringing the level of their offerings down below the level of their subscribers, with disastrous results. I am old enough to have witnessed almost the whole history of public broadcasting, and I can remember the days when the BBC considered one of its chief functions to be educative, and proudly believed it had a part to play in the maintenance of national levels of taste, decency and morality. Only the best music and plays were broadcast, speakers and actors were chosen because they could speak well, and nothing that might influence viewers or listeners adversely was permitted. How different it all is today. Many of today's programmes appeal to the listeners' and viewers' lowest instincts, and give them just what they ask for. Inevitably, the lower the offerings, the lower the demands, and we have seen a steady decay that now seems unstoppable.

If one may be permitted to say it, our churches appear to be making a similar mistake. In the days when churches were filled every Sunday, church-going was not easy. The pews were cold and the journey often arduous, the doctrine was difficult to understand and the language obscure, the music was demanding, and the standard of ethics expected in daily life was high. It was accepted that religion was mysterious, and not to be fully understood by the average worshipper. Today all these standards have been lowered, and so has church attendance.


So if conversions can not be achieved by playing poor music, what are we to do? There are, I suggest, four directions in which we should strive to rehabilitate the organ as an object which is fit for exposure, decent as a topic of conversation, interesting as a study in its own right, and admired for the beauty of its music. Firstly let us pull down the curtains and show off unashamedly the features of this mysterious machine, and the skills of its players. Let us welcome members of our congregation at the end of a service into the sanctum of the organ loft. Let us encourage them, and particularly the younger ones, to sit at the instrument and try their hands and feet at the secret art. Perhaps in opening up our private world in this way we may also achieve another aim, and inspire some youngsters to take up the organ as a serious pursuit, and do something to alleviate in the next generation the desperate shortage of organists.

Secondly, let us constantly listen to the organ we play with the ears of the uninitiated. This is not the place to discuss the various styles of organ building and organ tone which are represented in our British churches today, although it must be said that the frequent changes of direction which the past century has witnessed are to be regretted. To some extent these have reflected changes of taste, the demand for massiveness and dignity by the Edwardians, the brilliance and clarity sought in the 1950's and 60's, the pursuit of historical purity of one sort or another in the 1970's and 80's. In every art tastes change from generation to generation. But there is one respect in which musical taste cannot change, for it depends upon the human ear and the sense of hearing. I refer to the range of frequencies which the ear accepts, to the balance between treble and bass which we find comfortable, and the "centre of gravity" of the tonal spectrum which our hearing finds natural. Most music lovers do find the sound of a symphony orchestra, when heard live in a concert hall with good acoustics, very satisfying, and it has changed little over the past hundred years. Organ builders and designers might have changed the tonal style of their instruments less over these years if they had kept the sound of the symphony orchestra as a standard of comparison. Most organs built early in the century had a tonal balance that was too sombre. Open Diapasons were often of large scale to remove from their tone any trace of "edge" or brightness, and upper work was of much reduced scale, flutes were more likely to be thick-toned Hohlflutes than perky Stopped Diapasons, and reed tone was often heavy and opaque. Small organs were particularly depressing; many had no mixture on the Great, some had no Fifteenth, and indeed there are many Great organs sporting a heavy 16' Bourdon with no upper work at all to balance it. It is difficult to make such instruments sound interesting, and many church-goers know of no other organ tone than the dull sounds they produce. Then in the "Neo-baroque" era we had the opposite fault; mixture work was often powerful and strident, reeds were harsh or even comical in their voicing, and many quite large instruments had only one 16' pedal stop. It may be thought that organists who play either of these extremes of instrument can do little about it, but there is much that can be done. If our Great chorus is too opaque we can omit the Open Diapason and build it up from the Flute. If our composition pedals bring out the Great 16' in almost every combination, we can get our tuner to change their settings. A Swell Super-Octave coupler is sometimes provided to lighten the gloom, and it may be necessary to use this amost continuously if the sound of the organ is to have any clarity or interest. If there is no sound bright enough to lead a congregation's hymn singing we can play the manual parts an octave higher. On the other hand, if we have a so-called Baroque instrument, with a wealth of mutations, and two mixtures for every 8' stop, then we must learn to use these sparingly; if our reeds are too strident we can use them only with as much 8' flue tone as we have available.

We must be particularly careful in our use of mutation stops. Organists quickly convince themselves that their Nazards and Tierces provide a wide range of solo voices for Chorale Preludes, but non-organists frequently find these effects unpleasant and puzzling. What the organist hears as a colourful and piquant melody line may sound to them like two or more instruments playing in different keys. We must listen carefully to make sure the mutation sounds are actually absorbed by the 8 foot tone which defines the pitch. If the only mutation we possess is a Great Twelfth, it is most unlikely that our Clarabella + Twelfth combination will be acceptable, and many twentieth-century Nazards also are voiced too prominently to be used this way. We will do better to choose a nicely voiced Oboe, Clarinet or Cornopean for the solo line.

We certainly ought to include in our repertoire some of the very best music we can play well, but if our choice makes considerable demands on the listeners it must be balanced with music having a more immediate appeal. The occasional Prelude and Fugue should certainly be offered, but can be offset with more easily enjoyed Chorale Preludes, played with imaginative registration. Some Rheinberger movements may appeal occasionally to our congregations, but we should more often treat them to Lemare, Hollins or Whitlock. And while the more extreme twentieth century music is not to be banned, it should be introduced very sparingly.

Perhaps even more important in our crusade is the style of our playing. Almost all the music we hear today is played by professionals, but most church music is performed by amateurs. Now this is not to be regretted; our army of volunteers does a marvellous job, always willingly and sometimes courageously, when they realise that their skill is limited, but that no-one would take their place if they stood aside. It is inevitable that many organists whose life is filled in other spheres will have restricted opportunities for practice, and their technical proficiency will leave something to be desired. But sadly many clergy and some congregations fail to realise their good fortune in having such men and women serve them every week, and compare unfavourably the music they provide with the professional offerings they hear from recordings and radio, and decide that organ music is not for them.

Such part-time organists may have little time to improve their note-playing ability, or to tackle new music, but there often is something they can do to improve their style of playing, and to bring their performances a little nearer the professional standard with which they are unthinkingly compared. How many are satisfied with their own playing when all that can be claimed is that most of the notes are correct(and in the right order)? But compare this with the efforts of performers on other instruments. No singer ever sang a phrase with every note the same loudness, timbre and duration; no violinist can play a phrase without accenting notes played with the down bow, and no woodwind player can play for twenty seconds without taking a breath. Even the pianist cannot fail to make some notes more prominent than others, and quite naturally introduces some rubato into almost everything played. The fact that the organist has fewer degrees of freedom within which to turn the notes into real music makes it all the more imperative that he use to the full those that are available. And our strictures are not confined to the amateur. Until recently some of our best professionals played their Bach very accurately, very fast, and very mechanically. Fortunately during the last twenty years or so a more musical approach has again become fashionable, and today's best players bring their performances to life with a more flexible approach to rhythm and articulation. If you suspect that your playing is little more than a mechanical performance of the right notes at the right time, a good teacher could show you in a few lessons at least three ways in which you can produce the effect of an accent on the organ, how a passage of equal semiquavers can be turned into real music by introducing slight rhythmic inequalities, and how your phrases can be made to sing, each with its own beginning, climax and end. And if you can play a Bach fugue, the teacher will quickly show you how to draw attention to the fugal entries, and how to clarify the part-playing, so that your untutored audience will have a better chance of following the structure of the music. If you are sufficiently advanced for all this to look after itself, could it be that you err in another direction? Today's fashion is to play Bach from beginning to end without change of registration in pursuit of some historical authenticity. But authenticity does nothing to relieve the perplexity and boredom of the average listener at a performance which fails to reveal a well-defined organisation in a long movement. Add some colour to your Bach with a little judicious variety of registration.


So several groups of people and organisations have contributed to the unfortunate state of affairs which this paper describes, organists, organ builders and consultants, churches and broadcasters. If everyone involved can see the problem and bear it in mind, perhaps we can hope for a gradual improvement in the coming years, and an eventual lifting of the cloud of inscrutabilility that hangs over the organ and its music.

Organists, both amateur and professional, should examine their style of playing and their repertoire, and try to listen to the sound they make with the ears of those who sit in the pews, without the musical score in front of them, and without the expertise that would allow them to analyse the counterpoint, admire the skills of the composer and organist, or revel in the historical purity of the instrument or the performance.

Organ builders and those who determine the style of the organs which are built or rebuilt in our churches should bear in mind that during the course of its life an organ will be required to perform a wide spectrum of music. If it is designed to play music of one particular country and period exactly as it would have sounded in its own day, it will inevitably play most other music unconvincingly. But if it can play all schools adequately, albeit with something less than perfect authenticity, it is more likely to win over the hearts of those who hear it.

Churches must pull down the curtains and open up their organ lofts to anyone who is interested. And they should certainly make it easier for young people with an interest in the organ to use the church for their practice. I was recently approached by the parents of a capable young pianist who wanted organ lessons, to ask how they should proceed. I told them to get permission from the authorities at the church where they worshipped (whose denomination I shall not reveal) for her to practise at least twice a week on the church organ, and I was amazed at the response. The council had never before had to meet such a request, and after lengthy discussion which occupied several months they decided that, yes, she could use the organ, but only on condition that the organist of the church was present for the whole time she was there. That church has lost the services of a keen and capable musician, and one is tempted to view this as an example of natural justice.

And those who broadcast "music for the masses" should consider carefully what organ music they put on air, particularly if they set aside only a little time for this. The only way to ensure that their offerings are suitable is to consult a knowledgeable and broad-minded organist to advise on their programmes. The television broadcasts some years ago of Gillian Weir playing several large continental instruments generated wide interest, and did a great deal of good for the cause. The few other broadcasts we get, on radio or television, often do it much harm.

But let us hope that as we enter another century, the curtain will gradually be lifted, and the organ will join the family of instruments which people approach willingly and with an open mind. Let us hope that we can spread more widely the great enjoyment which organ music brings to those who approach it without prejudice.


(c) Hector C. Parr (2000)

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