“Miss no opportunity to practice on the organ; there is no instrument that takes such immediate revenge on the impure and the careless, in composition as well as in the playing, as the organ.”
-Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
I’ll HAVE a…bÄrpfeife?
One of most important aspects of learning to play the pipe organ is gaining a broad knowledge of the myriad of sounds and colors that the instrument can make. This practical information enables organists to move from one organ to another – from a home to a college and their own city to a foreign country – and be able to continue to share their craft. Every organ and its respective stop-list is different, and yet even the most moderately trained organist has the ability to enable each instrument to create music as intended.
Unfortunately, organists are usually the only ones (typically) who have this knowledge. So, when it comes to a collaboration between an organist and a 1.) composer or 2.) an ensemble for a performance, most conductors and composers are completely clueless. While they may intimately know the intricacies and timbre of every woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instrument, they often lack the information and knowledge in order to describe the music and musicians they aim to lead when working with an organ.
Let’s explore each scenario:
1. Composer and Organist – a new commission for solo organ; somewhere in AZ
Composer: “Here is my latest draft of the score. Hope you enjoy it!”
The organist heads off to read through it…and returns sooner than anticipated.
Organist: “Um…you have lots of dynamics marked, but no indication of registration. What do you want at the beginning piano marking, and then at the key change when marked fortissimo?”
Composer: “There are flutes on the organ, right? They’re softer timbres, so, just use those stops for the piano and something louder for the fortes and fortissimos.”
Organist: “Uh…okay. I guess I’ll do my best and make musically informed decisions.”
Composer: “What the $%^& was that? That didn’t sound at all like what I wrote.”
Organist: (Inaudible sigh)
2. Conductor and Organist – a performance of the Fauré Requiem; somewhere in MD
Conductor, shouting across the orchestra to the organist: “What do you have marked in the first movement, six measures after letter D?”
Conductor, who vaguely knows this term because they read an Adler book: “Well, it’s much too loud.”
Organist: “I agree, and I’m trying to balance it, but I only have a 16′ Fagotto, an 8′ Trompette, and a 4′ Clairon that are functioning, and none of them are under expression. Plus, this is a 60’s Möller and the scaling and wind pressure is intense.”
The conductor blinks, confused by the mysterious words being spoken…
Conductor: “Well…fix it.”
Organist: “Maybe if I couple the Gedackt pommer with the Jubalflöte and the Grossrauschquite…?”
Conductor: “As long as they are reeds. Honor the score and what Fauré intended.”
Organist: (Inaudible sigh)
In general, organists are wonderfully nerdy people that are thrilled to be collaborating and sharing the beloved instrument with audiences. And yet, these two scenarios happen nearly every time. Where I become frustrated is 1.) the process leading up to these moments, and 2.) the way organists respond (or lack thereof). However, despite the seemingly apparent wrongdoing in both situations, each party – the composer, the conductor, and even the organist – is guilty.
The composer, knowing that he or she was commissioned to compose for the organ, could have invested the time to research the instrument as well as made the contact with the organist to create a relationship that would benefit the two.
The conductor, knowing that the work calls for organ, could have first contacted the contracted organist. Second, the conductor could have investigated what organ was to be used at the performance – the year, the make, the builder, the location of the chambers. With this information, he or she could begin a conversation with the organist about the challenges of making an American organ sound like the Cavaille-Coll in L’eglise Sainte-Marie Madeleine.
Finally, the organist, though full of good intentions, failed to initiate conversations prior to these moments. Simply put, organists are the source of the knowledge and therefore responsible for helping share that with the people with whom they work.
If you are one of these People…what should you do about it?
Glad you asked.
Answer? Find and use your resources. Luckily, organists and non-organists alike have been passionate about this instrument for centuries. There are books, magazine, articles, blogs, and even real live groups of people that huddle in church basements once a month called AGO Chapters. All of these options can actually help you in tangible and beneficial ways. This world of music isn’t to be feared nor ignored – embrace it!
If this was in the TLDR category for you, but you still want to find answers, here is a place to start:
- Contact your local church/synagogue/college/community/symphony organist. Make a new friend and learn first-hand at a console nearby.
- Check out a book at the library.
- Dictionary of Pipe Organ Stops by Stevens Irwin
- Method of Organ Playing by Harold Gleason
- The Organ – An Encyclopedia by Bush and Kassel – WARNING: this is drier than cornbread that survived the dustbowl in Oklahoma.
- Too introverted to go out? Consult the interwebs:
- Sit down at an organ and play it. Experience the difference between stops for yourself and as Confucius says:
“Tell me and I forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.”