Friday, September 12, 2008

The organ and its spectacular history

The Spectator runs a wonderful piece about the rise and fall of the organ as a cultural icon in the United States. Some interesting tidbits:

  • ‘As in England, in America the organ is King,’ wrote the French organ-composer Louis Vierne in 1927, following a phenomenally successful three-month tour of America and Canada. His 50 recitals had drawn in around 70,000 obsessed fans, including some 6,000 at the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia alone, home to the world’s largest organ.

  • At the early World Fairs organs became the centrepiece exhibits. Their unveiling was always the cultural apex of the jamboree, akin to the start of the 100-metre race at an Olympics. And audiences thronged to hear these hulking, ever-expanding behemoths, often paying triple the entrance fee for the privilege.

  • It was no coincidence that Leon Czolgosz, a young Polish anarchist, chose to shoot President William McKinley dead with two rounds of his pistol at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, while McKinley was attending the opening organ recital. It was the biggest audience that Czolgosz would get.

  • Over 7,000 people turned up each day for the week-long sojourns by Camille Saints-Saens and Anton Bruckner at the Royal Albert Hall in 1871.

  • Some 10,000 turned up at the San Francisco municipal organ recital in 1917; 30,000 at the one at St Paul, Minnesota; and 20,000 at Cleveland, where the police ‘soon gave up in despair as an eager mob swept all before it’.

The article points out that the organ boom became a massive bust, as the massive instruments were left for dead. However: "Today, the concert hall organ is slowly creeping back. The 1980s and 1990s saw abandoned instruments brought back to life, and the tradition of transcribing was renewed."

The article doesn't address what happened to the organ at Mass. We all have our own private theories. Of course the liturgical shift of the 1960s and 1970s called for different instruments. Today the organ is mostly used in the worst way: rather than the solo instrument it should be, it is used as a "support" to congregational singing, which I personally seriously doubt it provides; quite the contrary, it can actually displace singing if played monotonously and ham-handedly. People do not actually learn to sing if the organ never goes away.

Michael Lawrence has often written that the future of the organ is indeed primarily as a solo instrument, and I agree.

But of course that requires competent players, not minimally trained pianists hacking around but rather real organists. There will certainly be some economic shifting around required before the Catholic Church begins to seriously pay organists they way they should. Once that happens, we will see more students entering the field.

In the end, it remains the most liturgical of all instruments. The associations with Church remain. It is the most voice-like. The repertoire is all there. Nothing compares to an organ well played at Mass. It has a future.

Benedict XVI said it best in 2006:

"The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation...and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God."

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: