Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments
February 9, 2010
Despite all the fine installations about which we read and despite the great interpreters of the organ literature now performing, here in the backwaters, especially of evangelical Protestanism, use of the organ and pleasure in its performance is at a low ebb. What can we do, lacking stars like Virgil Fox to make the organ exciting to the uninitiated? My children, graduates of Manhattan School of Music and Ithaca College SOM tell me that few of their peers majored in organ. The situation is paradoxically the antithesis of that In Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree," where an instrumental"choir" is removed from a rural English church because having an organ is the modern(c.1850)way to accompany worship singing.
What does ‘exciting’ mean? For some, hearing any sort of an organ (small, electronic, reed) might have kindled an interest. For others, the chance hearing of something on the radio (or, these days, online, or youtube). Others were inspired by the work of their local church organist (who, likely, is no ‘Virgil Fox’, but somehow kindles a spark of curiosity.
The unfortunate trend of evangelical churches to turn their back on the organ is a challenge. After all, the organ is a ‘tool’, and in the hands of an imaginative player, should be able to be applied to many styles of music (who not have the organ play along with the ‘religious rock band’...back in the 1970’s, Procol Harum had a hit piece that included organ. Organ can accompany jazz singers with ease. It’s not the instrument, but people’s attitudes towards it.
And, though the organ had been associated with ‘church’ for centuries, it was invented before Christianity, has a remarkable tradition outside the church, and can be enjoyed so easily by anyone these days just poking around on the internet.
Yes, Virgil Fox was exciting, but people were excited by the pipe organ before Virgil Fox, and may became interested in it because of the very different but equally exciting (in its way) of Biggs, Walcha, Dupre, Cochereau, etc. Cameron Carpenter is undeniably exciting...and his youTube videos (accessible anywhere at any time) showcase a performing talent that is without compare. Who wouldn’t get revved up by what he can do?
Classical music overall is having a hard time of it, without question. Radio stations are dropping classical music from their schedules, performing arts groups are always in need of more audience. But beauty (in whatever form) is still beautiful. People who know about the beauty of the pipe organ should spend a little energy showing their unknowing friends (taking them to organ recitals, pointing out the PIPEDREAMS website), rather than worry about the state of things. If you are excited by the pipe organ, share that excitement, give it legs.
Then challenge is for organists (and there is an amazing crop of really good ones out there) is to present themselves in public forums (outside the church?) with engaging and satisfying programming, so that people will want to hear them again (and search out their CDs, their downloads, their youTube files).
Thoughtful, imaginative people (perhaps they are in a minority these days...given the general state of our country, one begins to think so) will be open to adventure in all things, and the pipe organ can be the leader of a truly great adventure...in sound, in architecture, in mechanical ingenuity, in history.
Tell the story. Share the energy!