The pipe organ, the unimpeachable king of instruments, is at once a revered and reviled instrument. It is seen by some as an essential instrument of congregational worship, and by others as nothing more as a machine for producing a “grand noise.” The pipe organ’s origin is almost entirely ecclesial. It evolved out a combination of the devotional, the aesthetic, and the pragmatic. The use of the pipe organ in the [Roman Catholic] liturgy can be traced back to fourteenth century Europe in a liturgical practice called alternatim, by which parts of the mass were alternatively sung, or the melody was played on the organ. The organist would play the melody in one hand, and elaborate on the melody with the other hand. The purpose was to all for the community to worship without the fatigue of reciting all the liturgical texts, but also in keeping with the Gothic style of elaborate architecture and vesture, the organ also offered its voice. The organ was and continues to be an instrument that is uniquely capable of filling and sustaining sound in a large architectural space. Particularly in the age of large worship spaces, the organ was the only instrument that was capable of producing enough sound to fill a space of that size. The organ has no immediate decay. When a pitch or note sounds, it continues to sound until the key is released, unlike the piano which has an immediate decay.
During and after the Reformation, there were different schools of thought regarding the organ. The Lutherans gravitated toward maintaining the use of the organ as an important instrument of the assembly’s song, while some of the Reformed churches such as the Puritans and Calvinists moved away from the use of musical instruments in worship all together.
So where does the king of instruments stand? Is it a dying art, or still the king of instruments or somewhere in between? Perhaps, rather than a dying art, the organ is simply becoming part of the bigger, colorful mosaic of worship, rather than the authoritative instrument de rigueur. There is no reason why the pipe organ cannot co-exist with other instruments or styles of music. Today, the church is blessed with a rich diversity of music from different nations and cultures and styles. The sharing of culture is indicative of the diversity and uniqueness of each person who walks through the doors of the church. This could mean singing a Gambian folk song, followed by a traditional hymn, followed by a spiritual, all in the same service. The priority, above all, should be fostering full and active participation in worship, and cultivating communal song.
It has been said that there is a decline in those who play organ. Perhaps it can be said, rather, that there is not a shortage of organists, but a shortage of full-time, well-paying church positions. In attempts to keep budgets in the black, some music budgets are cut and positions reduced. In reality, the organist may be one of the most, or the most highly skilled person on staff. Organists, like any other person, need just compensation- a living wage, and benefits.
For churches who are blessed to have a pipe organs, these instruments that are works of art in themselves and important features in the architecture- they should be maintained and played, rather than abandoned. These instruments should be integrated into the “grand mosaic” of communal worship, and not be reduced to “grand noise”, or worse, silence.
Nick Dragone, Guest Organist