Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Tyranny of the Organ

Richard R. Terry's book, Catholic Church Music, is providing a needed distraction this week, as I house sit for some friends and take care of a few dogs while I re-aclimate myself to a metropolitan area that is not nearly as fascinating as Chicago's. Between kanine interventions, I have been reading this book, which sizzles with a zeal no doubt fueled by Pope Pius X's motu proprio on sacred music.

I have to confess mixed feelings about this book. I tend to look with suspicion on assertions that lump Mozart and Carolo Rossini together a bit too quickly, and in general this volume is painfully old-fashioned. Nevertheless, Terry makes some useful observations, one of which is on the tyranny of the organ:

"Lastly, our performances are often marred by what I may term the tyranny of the organ, although this defect is by no means peculiar to Catholic churches. The tendency nowadays is towards larger and larger instruments, with a corresponding abundance of 'fancy' stops. With the increase of mechanical appliances, the number of 'orchestral imitations' and cheap effects to be obtained by purely mechanical means increases too. This is a fatal temptation, especially to inexpert amateurs, and under its demoralising influence our English organists are losing more and more that breadth of style and artistic self-restraint which formerly characterised them. This demoralisation extends to the singers, too, since a blatant accompaniment is bound to make a choir shriek, if it is to be heard at all, and in the process, such a thing as pure vocal tone is impossible. Even if beauty of tone is aimed at, it is effectually drowned by the tyrant organ. The function of the organ is to accompany the choir, not to lead it; to embellish the singing, not to smother it. In too many cases singers come to regard the organ as their prop and support, and even as their leader. This state of things implies an obtrusive organist or an incompetent choirmaster, and the remedy in either case is obvious."

I should hasten to add that I wouldn't necessarily give this statement my complete and unqualified support. It should be noted, too, that Terry, who was choirmaster at Westminster Cathedral, is speaking here of the accompaniment of choirs and not the playing of congregational singing, which is an entirely different--if equally controversial--animal. All the same, these words doubtless will ring true for many, and they deserve our due consideration.

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