When was the last time you listened to organ music? Be honest. That’s what I thought. Maybe even “never.” What a shame. The repertoire is rich and varied and the capacity to induce awe great. Admittedly, the organ is an intensively “site-specific” musical instrument. (Though early medieval and renaissance organs were quite portable.) Perhaps the increasing secularization of our age keeps people out of the grand arching sacred spaces that are perfect for organ music.
One of the shames of modern New York City is that not one of the major “secular” concert spaces has a quality pipe organ in it. At one time, they all did: Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall. Even Alice Tully Hall’s recent glamorous renovation was revealed without the organ. (Officials have promised that it is being reconditioned and will “eventually” be returned to the hall, in accordance with Miss Tully’s wishes.)
Disclaimer: I attended Westminster Choir College in the late 1970s, home of the largest organ department in the U.S. The school’s primary mission and tradition is the training of church organists and choral directors. I always liked hanging out with the organists (and singers) rather than other pianists. I’ve always believed that we learn to expand our idea of what’s musically possible by listening to instruments (and speaking with instrumentalists) other than our own.
The “Westminnows” were very particular about their dislike of electronic “substitutes,” which is all you can hear in Avery Fisher when the NY Philharmonic plays, for example, the crowd-pleasing Third Symphony by Saint-Saëns, nicknamed the “Organ” Symphony. It’s so disheartening when the tinny electronic sounds fed through speakers then malfunction, overload, and distort, which inevitably happens. At WCC, these pseudo-organs were often called “transistor radios.”
One thing organists love to do is “talk tech.” There are so many (so many!) mechanical components to an organ, and so many variations, that provide seemingly endless food for discussion. As with pianos, no two organs are alike, and an organist, unless he/she plays only one instrument for a lifetime, must cope with the different registration possibilities and the changing acoustics of different spaces, both of which have huge influences on the resulting music.
A (very) “short list” of great composers who wrote for the organ would probably have JS Bach as the “Everest,” with lively debate as to who would be the “K2” composer. The French 18th century produced lots of glorious music: Couperin, d’Anglebert, de Grigny. The French romantics too: Franck, Widor, Vierne, Tournemire. In other countries, figures as varied as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt. And let’s not forget the 20th century: Alain, Duruflé, Dupré, Roger-Ducasse, Poulenc, Hindemith, and in our own US of A: Rorem and Barber for starters.
So go to a real cathedral with a real pipe organ and (usually free) an organ recital or service, and absorb the reverberant voice of air being forced through wood and metal tubes of different lengths. Let your spirit expand and float. At this point, I risk violating one of the pet peeves of the aforementioned American composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923), creator of the organ work “A Quaker Reader” (1976):
“What can be told about music that the music itself cannot tell? Only how it came to be written.” _ From “Why I Write as I Do” in An Absolute Gift (A New Diary), © 1978 Simon and Schuster, New York
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs