Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hauptwerk, Oberwerk, und Gesamtkunstwerk: The Organ and the Roman Rite

This article first appeared in Sacred Music Vol. 133, Nr. 3, Fall 2006. I made a few small changes here.

Throughout much of the history of Western music, the world's greatest organists have rendered praise to the Almighty with their fingertips and feet. In the Renaissance, Frescobaldi and Sweelinck ornamented the liturgy in florid cascades of exultation. In Baroque- and Classical-Era France, the likes of Couperin and Marchand danced the versets of the Mass and Divine Office. The Cavaille-Coll thundered through the nave at Sainte Clotilde in nineteenth century Paris with Cesar Franck at the console. Anton Bruckner offered his masterful improvisations ad majorem Dei gloriam high in the choir lofts of Linz and Vienna. In the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen pondered the mysteries of the faith beneath the pipes at la Trinite. These and many more have devoted a large part of their genius to the integral use of the organ in the Roman Rite.

Despite the existence of a number of master organists, too many Catholics today are familiar with the organ only as that innocuous background noise which accompanies a soloist crooning into a microphone, or even a silent presence in the back of the church in the face of an active grand piano in the front. In other parishes, the organ is used in somewhat better was, strongly leading congregational singing and providing preludes and postludes. Even in this case, however, the organ is not achieving its full potential as a liturgical instrument. In fact, depending on the hymns employed and the music used before and after Mass, the organ can seem to be more of an intrusion than an integral part of the ceremony.

How might we improve the current situation under the inspiration of the great organists of the past? In considering this question, both recent liturgical legislation, as well as principles of organic development, which the Second Vatican Council reinforced[1], will be considered. Many of the suggestions will also be keeping in mind the pride of place which is held in the liturgy by Gregorian chant.[2]

In churches which make use of the proper chants, the organ can be used to intone them, particularly when the processions are long enough to allow for this. Improvising in a fashion which makes use of the chant melody can introduce it not only to the choir but to the faithful as well, and all can be brought into a meditative posture.

Intonations can also be effective with motets, not least when they occur after another musical piece. The original organist can build a bridge between the two selections so that the transition is seamless. This technique also allows the organist to "set the tone" of the motet and to establish a solid tempo before the schola cantorum even begins to sing.

One option which seems to be relatively unknown today is the employment of the organ to accompany the various processions at Mass: introit, offertory, and communion.[3] Some liturgists object to this, particularly its use at the introit and communion, because it goes against the notion that congregational singing at these processions manifests and even fosters the unity of the people.[4] Music in Catholic Worship, a highly influential document of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, which is actually of little authority[5], contributes misinformation to this discussion with a list of points in the liturgy in which solo instrumental music can be used. Predictably, the introit is not mentioned, and a reference to using instrumental music at "portions of the communion rite" is difficult to interpret.[6] While this thesis of achieving unity through singing should not be entirely discounted, it is important to remember that we are all gathered around the same liturgical action in praise of the one Lord. This is the ultimate manifestation of unity; the congregation does not always need to sing in order to express it. Moreover, even solo organ music, not to mention the chants proper to the schola, has the power to unify the congregation.

This particular option is a marvellous opportunity for the organist to improvise on the proper chnats in those places where, for one reason or another, they cannot be sung. The offertory presents the possibility of playing one of the many compositions which have been written for that particular liturgical action. With the present widespread practice in which every word of the eucharistic prayer is recited aloud, an elevation is no longer possible in its proper place, but one could be used at the communion. Finally, one might make improvisatory use of the various antiphons and hymns of the day from the divine office at these times.

Tradition has also given us a wonderful technique which has regrettably fallen into disuse, that of using versets alternatim with the choir. This method had a large part in the Organ Mass repertoire from which we get most of the offertories and elevations mentioned above.[7] The propers of the liturgy which the organ played were usually improvised, while the ordinaries were more often written down. The organ usually played the odd numbered verses of the various parts of the liturgy. This even included the psalms, hymns, and canticles of the divine office.

Pope St. Pius X, in his 1903 Motu Proprio on sacred music, discouraged the use of versets while tolerating them[8], but the author is unaware of their ever having been banned outright. The use of versets in the Mass Ordinary, however, would hardly be tolerated in the vast majority of places today, yet there is very real potential for their employment. In places where the proper communion antiphon is chanted with the accompanying Psalm verses, the organ can alternate verses with the choir. This not only adds texture to the singing but also grants the choir a few breaks during what could be a long chant. The alternatim technique can also be used in the singing of the sequences at the Masses in which they occur. Both of these applications can be practical when the choir is musically capable but not so adept with Latin pronunciation. The use of versets cuts the workload in half; the choir can learn the remaining text at a later time and will be prevented from being frustrated with this important repertoire. Moreover, the congregation may follow the texts of the parts played by the organ in their missalettes.

If, as it was said before, many liturgists are opposed to the use of the organ in solo fashion at the processions, then the suggestion of versets will probably provoke serious objection, for it flies in the face of the present overuse of words in the liturgy. A few things, however, ought to be noted about words. The Word of God is Christ Himself, the Logos.[9] Logos means logic, an idea, a concept. This goes beyond mere words. Christ is the Logos because He is in the mind of God the Father. Everything was created through the Logos[10], and all of creation reveals the mind of God, just like a particular work of art offers clues about the one who fashioned it. Creation offers up a wordless praise[11] of the Logos which is difficult for words to equal. Recall, too, that St. Augustine speaks highly of the jubilus, that nearly textless chant which can be found in the Gregorian settings of the Alleluias.[12] In light of all this, is it not possible that the organist who prayerfully enters into the sacred mysteries could render his own wordless praise of the Logos? Moreover, the organ versets afford him an opportunity to interpret the text musically in ever new and changing ways, taking us to heights beyond it.

Alas, there are places where none of the foregoing ideas can be implemented. But there are things that can be done even with the ubiquitous "four-hymn Mass."

Concerning the use of the organ with hymns[13], a festive intonation, composed or improvised, could be used, particularly on special feasts. Some organists complain that this is inimical to congregational singing, but if it is done skillfully, no problem should exist.

The organist can also make use of alternate harmonizations on the last verse of a hymn, perhaps even combined with a choral descant. The last verse could also be augmented with a modulation, with or without any other devices.

One important and often neglected idea is the occasional omission of the organ during a verse of hymnody. Care must be taken that the hymn in which this is done is of the proper texture. It may also be advisable to have a choir present when this device is employed. A beautiful effect is gained from this, and it often helps to develop the congregation's faith in its own singing ability.

Additionally, a word about the prelude and postlude seems opportune. Grand organ pieces are certainly acceptable, but it should always be kept in mind that prayer needs to be fostered at all times. Why not improvise a prelude on one of the propers of the Mass or divine office? The same could be done for the postlude, even something of a meditative character. In parishes in which conversation breaks out as soon as the closing hymn is over, perhaps a soft postlude would help to maintain an atmosphere of prayer. It is also possible to omit the final hymn, which is not part of the rite, and begin the postlude as the clergy leave the sanctuary.

Finally, a discussion about sacred silence is fitting. There are a number of role-players in the liturgy who have control over whether silence is observed, many of whom are seemingly addicted to the constant sound of talking. The organist can mitigte this situation by allowing intervals of quiet before or after the music. Not every awkward transition in the liturgy needs to be covered with music, as though the organist's job were to create ex tempore a kind of "incidental music" for the "set changes."

All of these ideas, of course, require a serious investment on the part of both the parish and the organist. Sadly, however, the splendid use of the organ is deterred in most parishes by a general mediocrity which is forced upon the musicians by the well-meaning but uninformed in the clergy and on liturgy committees. This is driving away the very ones who are capable of bringing the organ to its highes liturgical potential.

What should be done about these obstacles?

Wherever limitations of space are not a factor, parishes should invest in a pipe organ.[14] The sound of an electronic organ is inferior an vexing, and recent developments in digital technology are not much better. One stop might fool a good ear, but a handful of them is nearly as conspicuously electronic as the earlier imitation instruments. Moreover, electronic instruments do not support the singing acoustically as a pipe organ does.

Parishes also need to seek out the best musicians available and invest in a living wage for them.[15] These same musicians ought to be allowed and even encouraged to pursue the musical greatness which the proper worship of God demands. It will be impossible to retain musicians who are capable of the above suggestions while expecting them to play banal music on an inadequate instrument for a paltry sum.

Organists must obviously invest time and money into acquiring and developing the capabilities necessary for the above ideas. Improvisation skills in particular are required for a number of them. Thankfully, interest in this type of music-making seems to be on the rise. Those who have not yet ventured into this should not be afraid. Attend master classes when they're offered, and seek out skilled improvisers as teachers.

As the New Liturgical Movement continues to grow, it is crucial that the organ is shown to be an indispensable voice in that Gesamtkunstwerk[16] which is the sacred liturgy. In this process, the organist must enter ever more deeply into the sacred mysteries.[17] He must continually emulate those great men who were as well-known for their deep faith as for their musicianship. Then the king of instruments will ring out in its full splendor as it makes a sacrifice of jubilation.

Michael E. Lawrence is a musician based in Philadelphia, PA. hocket [at] gmail [dot] com


1. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium 23 [].
2. Sacrosanctum Concilium 116.
3. Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram 65 [].
4. General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] 47 and 86 are often mentioned in such an argument. Here some points from Dr. Kurt Poterack's lecture on 25 June 2005 at Colloquium XV of the CMAA ought to be remembered: (1) The GIRM, which does not make mention of the possibility of organ solos at the Introit or Communion, is not a compendium of liturgical instruction, and (2) Musicam Sacram, which does mention this possibility, is special legislation which must be specifically revoked in order to be invalid, and it never has been. GIRM 48 and 87 also treat the possibility of there being no singing at the Introit or Communion. All of this should give comfort to the legislatively conscientious viz. the use of organ solos at these places. Should not this confusion serve as a plea to return, after a decades-long hiatus, to the sacred tradition as the true standard for liturgical practice? For the GIRM, see
5. This is by virtue of the fact that it was never voted on by the full body of bishops.
6. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on the Liturgy, Music in Catholic Worship 37 [].
7. The term "Organ Mass" was also used in the 20th century simply to designate liturgical compositions for the instrument.
8. See St. Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini 8, contrasted with 16 and 17 [].
9. For further reading, see Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), esp. 153-54.
10. John 1:3.
11. Daniel 3:56-88.
12. See Robert A. Skeris, Divini Cultus Studium (Altoetting: Verlag Alfred Coppenrath, 1990), 72-82.
13. Hymns, save for the Gloria and the Sanctus, are not proper to the Mass of the Roman Rite, but their widespread use, usually to the unfortunate exclusion of the Proper chants, compels the author to address them, albeit with a profound sense of hesitation.
14. Sacrosanctum Concilium 120 says that "the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem." Parishes with limited financial resources may wish to consult, which sells used organs at reduced prices.
15. Pastors may find the American Guild of Organists to be of immense help in this.
16. Gesamtkunstwerk is German, literally meaning "total art work." This term was coined by Richard Wagner, who conceived of his operas not just in terms of music, but in terms of the whole--music, libretto, and even set design. He desired that these various art forms achieve a synthesis in his operas.
17. Musicam Sacram 67.

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