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:
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?