How To Guides

Exploring the Organ and Its Beauty - Part 1

March 17, 2009


“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Organ Case viewed from left-hand side.

This phrase usually surfaces when artistic judgment is at hand. When working within an art form we must be sensitive to the various sights and sounds of beauty as experienced by the senses of those who lead and participate in the artistic activity.

Liturgy is such an art form which calls for pastoral and artistic judgment.  The color green is refreshing to one and dull to another. What is too loud for one satisfies the needs of another who seeks an aural experience of God’s mighty power. What is graceful and comforting as strings are arpeggiated or plucked to one person, is too secular a sound for another. The art form is subject to the taste and judgment of the beholder.

Be that as it may, direction in liturgy – its course, style and quality – is vital to the success of a worshiping community. The space in which we worship, the sounds we hear, and the sights we see are very much a part of the sensory experience of liturgy that define its quality.

Musical instruments are a prominent aspect of worship. In particular, the organ appeals to both the aural and visual aspects of the liturgy. “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and to higher things.” Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy ¶120.

Close-up view of organ keyboard.The backdrop of a beautiful organ case in the sanctuary can certainly lead the eye heavenward and enhance the visual aspect of the worship space. The tone of the instrument must lead to a sense of the Sacred, God mysterious, God almighty.

Too often, in planning the design or renovation of a worship space, the organ is little considered. While the success of congregational song is named a priority of the community, the idea of “organ,” the instrument which leads and supports congregational song like none other, may be a distant planet to those making decisions.

If we require the most precious of metals for our vessels, silken threads for vestments, green plants, bread and wine from the earth, why should we settle for less quality when it comes to choosing instruments for the liturgy?

Budget is usually the limiter. The organ may carry a large price tag and for that reason alone it may be ruled out. But it is a much more costly mistake to steer from any exploration of the organ and its power to lead congregational song and sacrifice the ultimate success of worshipful sound.
Close-up view of organ case.
Another limiter may be the experience the parish has had of the organ as played by someone through the years who was not competent. It may always sound “loud” or “brash” or “muddy.” A worshiper may believe that these are the only sounds that can come from the instrument. Appropriate registration and use of the organ in liturgy and concert are required for maximizing its potential in the space.

The first step is to include on the planning/steering committee a professional organist and church musician who carries the experience and vision of the artistic value of the organ in worship. It may be a musician presently employed at the parish or an invited professional. The best combination is to include both. An amount of money may be needed in the budget to accommodate the study, even the services of an organ consultant. Politically, it is best for a resource person outside the circle of the parish to lead the study. Their report may be respected more than that given by a music employee of the parish.

To plant the idea of “organ” and to explore all options is the responsibility of these appointed committee members. These leaders:

» Open the minds of the committee to exploration;
» Present a vision of what could be;
» Provide the visual and aural resources necessary to educate and inspire;
» Plan Saturday morning field trips to churches with organs in fine acoustical settings; offer a brief recital there; have the committee sing hymns/songs in various styles with the organ.

Organize a timeline for exploration within the committee structure and establish it as a strong component of the project

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll explore where our work leads us from here.

Dr. Lynn Trapp is Director of Worship & Music and Organist at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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