From the September/October, 1999 issue of Touchstone

Death of the Organist by Joseph Swain

Death of the Organist

Joseph Swain on Church Music

Traditional organists are fast disappearing. The decline of this once thriving species began about three decades ago and is now precipitous, noticeable everywhere. What is the number of advanced organ students attending the “highly selective” college where I teach? One. Next year, in all probability, zero. What is the problem here?

Let us be quite clear about the term “traditional church organist.” This is a musician, many years in the making, who is trained to meet the precise demands of “a well-appointed church music,” in the words of its most outstanding exemplar, J. S. Bach.

Foremost among these demands is the accompaniment of traditional hymns, and yet this is the least appreciated. The underestimation stems from a general misconception about what constitutes a traditional hymn. A hymn is not a stately melody harmonized by chords. It is rather a complex tapestry of four simultaneous melodies, often named after the sections of a choir that might sing them: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. The topmost melody is the familiar one sung by the congregation, but the other three are nonetheless integral melodies. When sounded at the same time, they magically create rapidly changing chords that unify all the melodies in a harmonic dimension having its own kind of coherence and musical impetus.

Now the organist’s job is to preserve the individuality of each of these melodies while bringing out a sense of the whole that the congregation can follow. Generally, two melodies are played with the right hand, one with the left, and one with the feet. Each may have distinct patterns of rhythm and articulation. The requisite physical coordination alone is daunting, never mind the musical intuition that must give it all life. That is why organists learn hymns the way pianists learn sonatas, that is, slowly and with great care.

They also play a wide variety of service music (the Gloria, psalm responses, Sanctus, etc.) wherever parishes accept (as the Catholic bishops have made clear) that this music is of primary importance in liturgy, taking precedence over the hymns. Moreover, the organist can establish the proper sacred ambiance with selections from the vast organ repertory. Perhaps he will begin with a prelude that quotes one of the principal hymns for the day; perhaps he will offer a festal postlude, if appropriate, at the liturgy’s conclusion.

In any case, it is the organist who provides a musical frame and substance to the liturgy, a definite beginning and ending and all the transitions required to make of the liturgy a living, sacred artwork.

Losing Heart

Why should such a sophisticated musician be losing heart? Why do so few young people aspire to this once glorious ministry? Because, preceding the decline of the organist himself, there has been a calamitous loss of the essential incentive to become one: a demand for liturgical music of the highest quality, music fit for the glorification of the Most High. And the proximate cause of this loss, beginning in the 1960s, seems to have come from a most unexpected competitor, the pop guitarist.

How the pop guitarist came to church is a complicated matter. Arising first in Catholic parishes, the phenomenon was probably brought on by a coincidence of misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council, whose documents clearly reserve pride of place for the traditional organist, and the so-called folk revival in American popular music during the early 1960s. The guitarist appeared as a timely and easy solution to the problem of the council’s directive to get congregations singing.

But his arrival, far from establishing a tradition of congregational singing, introduced instead a period of unabated rootlessness, and degraded the organist’s position to boot. By lowering both performance and compositional standards for liturgical music, pop styles in church undercut the demand for organists themselves. Organists began to lose their prerogatives and their esteemed roles as chief music ministers. At the same time, the new attitudes toward liturgical music and debased musical tastes increased the demand for the newcomers.

Once demand for great music sickened, the rest of the organist’s milieu dissolved. Why maintain expensive pipe organs when pianos are so much cheaper and guitars are carried in for nothing? Why embark on long years of organ lessons when the requisite three chords on the guitar may be mastered in a summer?

Worst of all, composers and publishers perfidiously caved in to the new dominance of the guitarist. The new songs that descended like locusts out of Vermont, St. Louis, and Oregon have very slow harmonic changes that pop guitarists can negotiate. There is no attempt at counterpoint, the marvelous texture of simultaneous melodies that was once the pride of Christian church music. To compensate for this tedium, the singing melody must have a rhythm so complex that no congregation can sing it without ragged entrances and endings.

The traditional hymns? They often appear now in horribly disfigured, simplified arrangements, with guitar chords printed above the traditional notation, and emasculated texts, ghosts of their former selves. To play them, a new species of organist has arisen who plays the tune with one hand while sustaining chords with the other in a mimicry of the guitarist’s production.

This mode of accompaniment perfectly suited many new compositions, which concentrated any sophistication as may be in the rhythm of the melody and thus defeat most congregational attempts to sing it. More recently, such defeats have forced the simplification of melodic rhythms to something quite far removed from the inventions of the folk revival, rather closer to singsong or nursery rhymes.

Doomed to Extinction?

Is then the traditional organist doomed to extinction? In an attempt to revive him, the Roman Catholic diocese of Syracuse founded a program to train organists. Master teachers were designated and examination standards specified.

A string player by first training, I enrolled in this program rather late in life to gain the skills necessary to help one parish, somewhere, strive toward the “well-appointed church music.” I found the program very well designed. A first certificate requires mastery of 25 excellent traditional hymns as well as several examples of mass ordinary settings and psalm responses. The second certificate requires 12 additional, very difficult hymns and advanced compositions from the classical organ repertory.

Shortly after gaining the first certificate, I advertised twice in the diocesan newspaper. Few calls have arrived. A music director in one parish was anxious to hire a new organist, but when I explained that an enduring program of liturgical music must be grounded in “traditional church music,” she did not understand the expression. For her, the history of sacred music began in 1970.

The Syracuse program, for all its good design and intents, has changed no parochial attitudes. The music of skilled and knowledgeable organists is not wanted. I don’t really blame the parishioners; “easy listening” is all many of them have ever known. So the Syracuse program ironically provides a scarce commodity that in Catholic circles, at least, finds no market, and the organists it trains, if they find work, are asked to do much less than they could. This is akin to spending years training horses to race, only to put them to plow in the end.

It is no longer a matter of preference. No, we are faced with a near-total ignorance of traditional music. The memory of what a real hymn should sound like is growing dangerously dim. Its disappearance would sound the death knell for a once living musical tradition and this is what is most frightening. For as any ethnologist knows, once a tradition ceases to be practiced, it dies and is very difficult to revive. For ephemeral, intangible music, revival is more precarious still. Instead we must prevent this priceless loss through emergency catechesis.

The Reformers’ Dilemma

Such catechesis should by rights be carried out by those who have power in liturgical matters, by those who can insist that the music of sacred liturgy be held to a standard higher than what pleases immediately, higher than what the majority like, higher than what is merely workable.

The dilemma is that those who have such power almost never have the musical experience, and seldom the will, needed to make such judgments, and the professional musicians, disillusioned and alienated, who have that experience and who justly ridicule modern church music with distressing candor, have not the power. It is now the time for church leaders to conclude an alliance, to solicit the advice of senior musicians who know the traditions and execute that advice. The first essential, the demand for absolutely excellent liturgical music, must be revived.

Such demand will not arise from vox populi, for in this case, as in theological matters, most sheep know not where the verdant pastures lie. Shepherds must lead and teach the truth. Music, as the most palpable of liturgical symbols, should be taught as all our symbologies are taught. It will be a difficult, bootstrap operation. But the rewards of success are great, for the traditional organist offers nothing less than the lifting of spirits.

In the end, if given half a chance, the inestimable quality of Christian sacred music, the greatest repertory of any tradition in the world by far, will prove to be its own best evangelist. Traditional music is traditional because its merits have inspired generations far removed from its creators. The pity is that nearly all of that repertory lies dormant, and unless it is soon awakened, unless our leaders act, it may be too late for it to amaze yet one more generation.

Joseph Swain is associate professor of music at Colgate Universtity and the author of Musical Languages (Norton, 1997) and other books.

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