May. 26, 2016

The Pipe Organ In Worship, Part I

"Playing the organ in church is like wetting your pants in a dark blue suit ... it gives you a warm feeling, but nobody really knows what you've done."
-- Camille Saint-Saens

Ask any pastor and (s)he will tell us that the Holy Scriptures are essential for the sowing of the seed of the Word of God, but nothing can or will prepare the soil of the human heart to receive that seed like hymns and other songs of faith; true worship therefore calls for companion volumes: a Bible and a hymnal -- the two are as inseparable as the sword of the Spirit and the shield of faith, and Christians really need both to stand firm in the strength of His might.
No other musical instrument is so well geared to leading congregational singing of hymns and songs like the pipe organ, and no other person is more responsible for the success of the music ministry than (s)he who is in command of this colossal machine.
With the onset of rhythm driven worship in many of our churches today, and with the thirst for entertainment some church-going people seem to have when they attend a worship service, and with the difficulties being encountered by some congregations these days in attracting regular attendees supportive of a budget which can employ a regular organist, some are calling into question the use of the pipe organ at all.
Rick Warren, in his multi-million selling book "The Purpose Driven Church," has even written that, if your church happens to have an organ, it should be broken down into firewood.
Praise bands, guitar groups, pianos, drummers, and percussion instruments all have their place in worship, but they can't sound like an organ and they can't do what an organ does.
What can people like this be thinking ... ?
Before we say to ourselves, "We don't use it any more, why don't we just take it out and put the drum cage over there ..." we should rethink its role.
The pipe organ is one of the oldest instruments ever invented, dating back to 250 B.C.; an interesting piece of history is that some of the first organs were used in the Roman amphitheatres and coliseums where gladiators and wild animals killed Christians and each other; after many refinements and improvements it eventually made it's way into the church over a thousand years after its invention; and for many centuries it's been the dominant instrument among composers of sacred music.
While it's generally acknowledged that no musical instrument was developed for the express purpose of use in worship (except perhaps arguably the human voice), and that every musical instrument has its roots in either secular music or pagan worship, the pipe organ has been instrumental (no pun intended) in helping to develop the rich tradition of hymn singing and has almost single-handedly defined the splendor of the congregational song.
We can read in many published articles about people bemoaning the fact that church congregations don't sing like they used to sing; and most people would blame it on the newness of the songs or the decline of church choirs.
These are valid points, but something else has also contributed to this reality, and it's the reduced role of the pipe organ.
Historically, it was the King of Instruments that underscored congregational singing back when congregations really sang; the church organ was the "voice" of the people, giving the average congregant a place where their voice could "hide" in the awesome sound of resounding hymns; the pipe organ sound is a safe place to put your voice no matter how you sing.
The singing congregation is the living congregation; when a church dies we may be certain that it's music was dead first.
It is in this last statement that we find the church organ's true function -- that it exists not for itself but, just like the church choir, for the sake of the congregation.
Only when it helps its church to have a living congregation has it achieved its destiny.
Instead of shutting down that pipe organ in our places of worship, why not use a few less singers on microphones and allow the organ to undergird the congregational song, no matter what style of music being sung.
The organ need not be dominant on every song in order to be relevant; it need not be a showpiece, but it can be a really great support for the singing.
The power of this instrument might just be rediscovered that way.
And, every once in a while, why not let the organist lead the congregation in a transcendent worship experience using an instrument that has the range of power unmatched by any other.
Some of the most divine music ever written (particularly in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions) requires an organ; in these churches, it can't be replaced or omitted.
Those who know this will almost have a heart attack reading anything else; they'd be the first to say, "Bach and Buxtehude, and Britten and Vaughn Williams, with a praise band? ... NEVER."
Anglican choral music is very probably the apogee of Christian choral art, often both transcendent and breathtakingly beautiful ... and it wasn't written to be accompanied by piano, praise band, drums, harmonica, sax quartet, or any such.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is coming soon; our worship center could mark it early with an awesome pipe organ rendition of Luther's immortal hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
Granted, we are supposed to be attending worship services to surrender our hearts to God, partly in praise and song, not to be entertained or to judge how well the praise band is doing; and yes, the admonition of the psalmist [Ps. 150] is to use whatever instrument we have, and our own voice, to praise the One Who is worthy (with lyres, harps, cymbals, trumpets, stringed instruments, as well as "pipe"); and yes, all of this sounds like a description of a praise band.
Even so, somehow the guitar can't touch that one.
Bottom line: the majority of pipe organs are found in churches; that's where the majority of organists work; those are the venues that have the most bearing on the art of organ playing; and that's where the majority of organists can expect to meet most of their challenges.
(con't in Part II)

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