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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Who made them King?”

December 1, 2009


Dear Michael,

I'm curious to know what it is about organists that makes them think they have the right to consider their instrument better than others? With the possible exception of Cameron Carpenter's playing, I would rather listen to any other keyboard-style instrument than have to listen to the organ. It's hardly deserving of such a title. The organ has got to be the least commercially successful instrument. It's played in church by people who make very little for doing so. The human voice is the king of instruments, by the dollar's measure, not to mention many others.

Loretta

 

Loretta,

I'm not certain how best to respond, as you imply a 'superior attitude'
amongst organists which you then challenge with your own general antipathy towards the organ (except when played by Cameron Carpenter).
Is any instrument really 'better' than any other? Doesn't it depend on who is playing it, and who is listening?
However, the pipe organ has been, through history, acknowledged for its special attributes. The complexity of its mechanism, the variety of its tone colors and dynamic power, and the breadth of musical expression capable of being manipulated by a single player set the organ apart from other instruments. It is overwhelming, in its way. And because of its sheer size, some might imagine it 'better'.
But also remember that it was Mozart (among others) who referred to the pipe organ as the "King of Instruments", and who are we to challenge his assessment? In the hands of a superb musician it can transcend its inherent machinery and be a very compelling and expressive medium for musical energy (which need not always be loud and fast to justify consideration), and what an organ/organist can do really is incomparable (but so is the sound of a violin in an artist's hands, or a flute....).
Cameron Carpenter is, without question, a remarkable artist, but he is not unique in his ability to give to the pipe organ vitality and soul.
And whether one is paid huge sums or very little to play upon the organ has no direct relation to the quality of the instrument (or the performer).
Yes, the human voice is its own special case, but I believe that, for the sake of this discussion, the term 'instrument' is being used to describe a constructed device.
You seem to be very organ-negative, and I wonder why.

 

jmb

 

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