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The king of instruments: Scary or sleepy?

Whenever I tell people I’m an organist, I usually get one of two reactions. The person I’m talking to hunches over and sings the formidable opening notes of J.S. Bach’s D minor Prelude; or, the person relates the organ’s slumberous effect during seemingly interminable church services.

Why the disparity in reactions? Why would the pipe organ signify something scary for some people (cue the organ-accompanied Vincent Price monologue in “Thriller”), and something sleepy for others (cue “Nearer, My God, to Thee” played at half speed)?

When you think about it, the pipe organ is simultaneously pew-shakingly powerful and geographically limited. The organ can produce a wide range of sounds. As a composer friend said when I was showing him around the instrument: “The combinations almost seem limitless…” Nonetheless, I will only be able to play the composition he’s writing for me at the mostly religious, somber venues that house pipe organs — to the exclusion of the more hip New York City contemporary music venues.

Of course, adventurous composers like Bach (an organist practically from the time his feet could reach the pedal-board) have chosen to channel the unearthliness of reverberant religious locales into their music, composing powerful — at times, shocking — pieces of music.

Case in point, another composer friend wrote a piece for my Master’s recital several years ago, based on the hymn tune “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” He had worked this composition so that when the music reached the point at which the hymn text mentions Hell, the piece would reach its apex with an extremely loud and reverberant chord. When I played the Hell chord in my performance, an elderly woman jumped so violently she nearly fell out of the pew (and left my recital directly thereafter).

This recording of György Ligeti’s Volumina is also an excellent example of the organ’s potential for shattering the sobriety of its locale. (N.B. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of Volumina, which is usually around nine minutes long. I just couldn’t resist this particular monk’s interpretation.)

Whatever you think of when you think of the pipe organ (if you think of it at all), remember this: There’s a person behind that instrument! Very few of us live in church basements plotting evil schemes, and even fewer of us purposely set out to bore you to sleep. We’re just in love with the king of instruments.

Recent Comments

  1. Duncan Vinson

    Thank you for a thoughtful post. I think the phenomenon you describe (wildly different associations among audience members) is not limited to organ music. For example, it gets my hackles up when a radio station plays an intricate work of Baroque music, and then a somnolent announcer tells us that the station provides “tracks to relax”. It goes to show that the meaning of music is very dependent on context.

    I think it would be a shame if the organ were relegated only to the most “somber” religious venues. A hundred years ago, the culture of the organ was found in small spaces as well as grand, secular as well as sacred, and vulgar as well as refined. Perhaps with digital approximations of the pipe organ we can continue this multiplicity of venues for hearing organ music. I had my first experience of organ playing on a Conn theater organ (with one octave of pedals, drum machine, and banjo stop) in my grandmother’s living room, but I fear today’s young musicians and audiences do not have such humble introductions to the culture of the organ.

  2. Meg Wilhoite

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Duncan! My first organ experience was also with a small electronic organ owned by my grandmother, which she gave to me as a child so I could learn to play. It would be nice to see more of these types of instruments (or even just small pipe organs) in smaller/more secular venues.

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