The Liturgical Organist

The craft of the church organist is an old one. I first accompanied a hymn in my school chapel in 1973 – and made a mess of it. I was totally nerve-racked and little less than racked by my housemaster and fellow pupils of the Junior Common Room.

I have known many organists in my time, from Dr Francis Jackson at York Minster to my own teachers at school and many musicians of prestigious churches. A youth can have the impression that being the titular organist of a church confers status and stature. This is above all true when there is a fine and large instrument. I have been lucky in my time, and have played many cathedral and parish church organs in England, and a few here in France. The rest depends on our musical training.

Myself, I started piano lessons when I was eight in something like 1967 after having heard the mighty Wilkinson organ in our parish church in Kendal (St George’s). The most impressive was hearing this instrument accompany the hymns. I started the organ in 1972 on going to St Peter’s School in York and joined the choir at the same time. I still had a year left of my unbroken boy’s treble voice. That was the beginning of my initiation into English church music. We also had lessons in musical theory including harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. I became a good sight reader, which means that, within the limitations of my keyboard technique, I can play pieces without having to practice them. Obviously, a piece needs to be refined in terms of flawless playing, phrasing and registration.

I reached my limit and was brought to understand that I was not going to be a professional musician or attain the exalted world of cathedral organ lofts. In England, you have to be really good to get through the ARCO and FRCO, a university course up to the B.Mus or M.Mus, a polishing-up course at the Royal College of Music with the best teachers in the country. One must be humble and be grateful for the level we have attained. One can be a good parish organist without being the best, but there are conditions.

The most important is to have a passion and a feeling for music, not only church music but a wide range of the “classical” repertoire. There is a difference between an organist and a musician who plays the organ. The latter often sings and works with choirs, and sometimes plays another instrument, not necessarily keyboard. There is also a quality called musicianship – not just playing pieces either learned and polished or sight-read, but also open score reading, transposition and accompaniment. There is a difference between following the choir and its conductor – or leading congregational hymns, using the organ to set the rhythm and to lead. All this takes a lot of feeling and empathy for the clergy, choir and congregation.

The next thing is to be aware of one’s place. The organist serves the liturgy, so has to understand what it is about. When I was a young church organist, I understood little about the liturgy, and had to follow it in a book. It helped when the Rector would announce the hymns for the benefit of the congregation. Surely, it isn’t difficult for an organist to read Proctor & Frere’s history of the Prayer Book and learn a thing or two about the structure of the western Mass and the Office.

It then helps to be a believing Christian, and not just to be there to have the use of a large church organ free of charge! The purpose of liturgical music is to be a part of the liturgy. We are not there to entertain the faithful or show off our skill. The Christian organist is modest and keeps as much as possible in the background. Many organ consoles are hidden behind curtains or are even inside the organ case like at Ripon in Yorkshire. To direct the choir, we put on a cassock and surplice and stand to one side of the stalls, conducting with subtle hand movements, just enough to keep the singers together. There is no applause, and the choirmaster leaves the scene when his job is done, silently and modestly. Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam!

One cross the organist has to bear is the unsympathetic clergyman, one who does not appreciate music or even beauty in the liturgy. I would like in this article to encourage a truce between the vicar and the organist. It is a difficult compromise, but the organist has to show modesty and humility as a servant of the liturgy, and so must the priest! Eastward celebration is a great help, as is saying the black and doing the red. An organist is generally happy with a priest who does his job properly and without imposing his extroverted personality. This is the feeling I had last Sunday as I accompanied my Bishop’s liturgy in Canterbury. They have a rather tired electronic instrument (a good clean of the contacts with a special spray would do wonders), and some rather out-of-tune voices, yet I managed to do something. After Mass, I heard of other organists having to practice hymns, getting them wrong, using too much organ. Honestly, for a handful of faithful, I just use a few 8 foot and 4 foot stops, occasionally a 2ft for a final verse.

I also have the benefit of the Roman Catholic tradition of choral music and plainsong. I was responsible for the music at the seminary of Gricigliano for more than two years, and taught myself to accompany Gregorian chant using extremely soft registration and simple harmony. I was writing a while ago about Perosi and the Cecilian Movement which advocated the restoration of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony together with contemporary music written in traditional tonal harmony and inspired by the old music. It discouraged the excessive use of the “operatic style”. I would not be so absolute, as I have accompanied little Mozart masses at St Alban’s, Holborn, and I find them no less suitable for the liturgy than Palestrina or Byrd. Nevertheless, the Cecilian Movement advocated the subordination of music to the spirit of the liturgy. Many organists would do well to drink from this fountain.

I don’t think I need to make any apologia for the organ in church. It sustains singing and is a beautiful complement to choral music, depending on the setting in question. At the same time, we need to appreciate unaccompanied polyphonic music and the sensitivity of composers of such music. This is my own speciality, though I will doubtless write music with accompaniments by the organ and other instruments. The organ has a long history from the Roman circus to the mighty symphonic organ to the current revival of baroque instruments. I have myself worked in organ building and am familiar with their mechanisms and the practical aspects of maintaining them. The organ can accompany as it can lead congregational singing.

There is no reason to insist that the congregation should sing everything, otherwise such would reduce the repertoire to what is known by heart and what can be sung by the musically untrained without any rehearsal. The choir has its legitimate place, as has the congregation and its old favourites.

I am now out of date with what they do at the Royal School of Church Music or the Istituto della Musica Sacra. I was never very impressed with the “brand” of a parish choir as RSCM affiliated. Choir work is demanding and it is difficult to find good singers unless you pay them, and even then they are often out of sympathy with church services and religion.

One solution for small churches is the quartet, requiring only four persons, including the organist. I work with a quartet here in France, but which is not a church ensemble. We mostly sing secular music, but also some pieces of sacred polyphony. We need to be confident singers with training in music and singing in particular. It takes good vocal technique and an ear for all the other singers. In our rehearsals, we often change the order in which we stand, and not always SATB in a row: tenor with soprano and bass with alto. Intonation and good tuning is vital, as are good breathing and support of the diaphragm and lungs. It helps to work with a good teacher, as we do. It is another experience of vocal music. If we accompany a quartet on the organ, the registration needs to be moderate to avoid drowning the voices.

We need to work to restore a musical tradition in the ACC and other churches. For next year’s Synod in Bolton, we already have plans of a quartet, just so long as we can get a bass. Electronic organs can be hired, and we’ll do something really good. It all needs planning and for each of us to make sure we know our voice and part. I would very much like to be of help to whoever takes over the organ at our church in Canterbury. If he or she has a good musical basis, there are certain things for being a good church musician.

I finish this article with the work of one of the greatest English church musicians of the twentieth century, Dr Boris Ord of King’s College in Cambridge. Here is the Carol Service of 1954. Sorry, the recording isn’t brilliant.

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