About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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Many declare that Vatican Council II brought about a true springtime in the Church. Nevertheless, a growing number of Church leaders see this “springtime” as a rejection, a renunciation of her centuries-old heritage, or even as a radical questioning of her past and Tradition. Political Europe is rebuked for abandoning or denying its Christian roots; but the first to have abandoned her Christian roots and past is indisputably the post-conciliar Catholic Church.
— Pope Francis' Chief Liturgist (31 March 2017)

The Pipe Organ in Survival Mode
published 2 May 2014 by Richard J. Clark

HERE IS NO NEWS to report that organists and pipe organs have long been in “survival mode.” It is not news that organ departments in certain conservatories have been dispensed with and many churches are opting out of the use of the organ altogether. This is boring old news, the domain of no one denomination or institution. We’ve all seen it.

While there is decline in some places, there is rebirth in others. Why is this? A recent article in the New York Times, A Harmonic Drone Subsides in Britain: “Once Top Musicians, Organists See Loss of Relevance.” Reporter Michael White begins by discussing the general demise of the once magnificent, powerful and influential Royal College of Organists in London upon its 150th anniversary. Yet it optimistically and creatively forges on.

Creativity is the key. So is tenacity when it comes to the survival of the organ. In this article James O’Donnell, organist of Westminster Abbey and past president of the Royal College of Organists, first speaks of the economic state of being an organist:

“I’m not aware of any crisis in finding the next generation of organists,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “The problem is that there are so few jobs to enable them to do it professionally.”
Mr. O’Donnell continues:

“The important thing for us is to have a sense of ourselves not as organists — a breed apart — but as musicians who happen to the play the organ,” he said. “That’s the task, after 150 years. We need to reinvent ourselves.”

Even when it comes to liturgy, organists can no longer take for granted the dominant use—or for that matter, any use of the organ. It is no longer presumed a given, despite anything Sacrosanctum Concilium states—even this:

120. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.

HEREFORE, IN LITURGY, TAKE NOTHING for granted. No one owes the pipe organ anything, for the liturgy does not exist to serve the organ. The organ exists solely to serve the liturgy. (A news flash for some: playing the service music well is actually more important than the organ prelude and postlude.)

What about the Vatican II Liturgy Documents? To be honest, “to be held in high esteem” can be interpreted in myriad ways especially by those uninterested in the instrument.

So there are times when our art is tested. In music, take nothing for granted. Be grateful for your art and defend it like a mother or father protects their child. There are always times when the integrity of the liturgy (and beauty) is tested. When the pipe organ and organist – even great ones – are optioned for other instruments or styles, then one has choices:

    A • Find a new job. Often this is the only viable choice and may entail moving around the country as many church musicians do. The organ and music program one leaves behind will likely suffer great decay until leadership changes. It could be a long, intolerable wait.
      B • Enter “survival mode, stick it out, and positively influence the future.

If taking choice B, then what? Here are some creative thoughts to keeping the organ alive and rebuilding with the future in mind. You may have additional ideas to suggest:

1 • You may have to accept a potentially diminished role of the organ in the liturgy. E.g., the organ does not play on every single piece of music. The upside is that when the organ does play, it has the potential to become more special (not unlike the limited orchestral use of certain instruments to provide emphasis or color). Using the organ relatively less may in fact increase appreciation of the instrument by its supporters and increase excitement for its music. Very importantly, It keeps the organ in the consciousness of the congregation when the alternative is silence. Make it count when it is heard—not in volume but in beauty.

2 • Be open to using the organ as an ensemble instrument. Whether as a continuo instrument, or in chamber music or even with guitars—(yes this can work quote well! I’ve done it—a lot, even at an AGO event), get creative and keep the wind going through those pipes! Remember, it is not all about the organist but about God. Wait—something wonderful might come of this! Cultivating other instrumentalists is always a good thing for your congregation and music program, is it not?

3 • Keep concerts alive. Retain this creative outlet. Keep yourself and the instrument accessible to your audience afterwards.

4 • Children are always fascinated with pipe organs and their consoles. Invite families with children to sit in on your postludes – or give an organ tour or “Organ crawl” for your parish. Parents appreciate fun and educational experiences for their children.

5 • Do your job with integrity. Having integrity wards off those who wish to sabotage good work. Furthermore, likable and trustworthy people tend to attract more donors and funding, making the political waters relatively less turbulent.

6 • Pray unceasingly for wise judgement.

ETER KRASINSKI, IS ONE OF THE FINEST and most creative musicians in the United States. Thinking outside of the box, he brings new audiences around the world to the pipe organ in unconventional ways and venues. On the subject of organists moving forward, he stated: “All the great music makers I have known are almost always very comfortable with themselves and their art, at the same time open to new ideas and striving to improve THEMSELVES, not someone else.”

Maybe that’s the key to not only surviving, but thriving! While doing so, think creatively and unconventionally to keep alive not only the organ, but prayer and beauty in the liturgy. What lives might you change in the process?