May 30, 2005
Paean to Pipe Organs
-- Martin E. Marty
Call this column "Hearings" this week, since it deals with something auditory, namely pipe organs. Pipe organs as a topic, when there is so much that is urgent in the religion-and-politics world? Yes. I keep in mind the Hans Kuitert book title Everything Is Politics but Politics Is Not Everything. We've had a too-busy, agitation-inspiring spring, and there are no signs of the agitation subsiding. Still, our role is to see how religion is present in public life, as we saw it last week with electronic media. For the moment, let's retreat to pre-electronic technology, take a week off from drumbeating and trumpeting, and visit pipe organs.
The immediate occasion is the retirement of John Weaver, the durable and notable organist at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church for thirty-five years, and a ubiquitous figure as teacher and performer elsewhere. The New York Times considered his career and vocation in a fine feature on Friday, May 20 ("Pipes and Stained Glass: A Master Reflects on a Lifetime of Church Organs"). We do not need the Times, however, to keep us up on the world of pipe organs. As a self-described one-time marginal member of the central committee to celebrate the centennial of the American Guild of Organists a few years ago, I receive The American Organist, a magazine crammed and crowded, filled to overflowing, with articles and advertisements about hundreds -- yes, hundreds -- of organists and organ builders. To read it, you would think all is well on the "king of instruments" front.
The Weaver interview and article is realistic. Weaver says, "Every time I hear a success story, I hear a failure story." But after a couple of decades of decline in the number of organ majors in schools around the country, there are signs now of some recovery. My prejudices, which allow me to hope for some success stories, formed because I am the son of a church organist and the sibling of other organists, and a beneficiary of friendship and tutelage by the likes of Morgan Simmons, Paul Manz, and too many others to mention. My soul is fed even when listening to an organist practice in an empty church on a Saturday afternoon, and I can be stunned and then lifted up, full of awe, by organs in worship, whether in tiny Iowa town churches or great cathedrals.
Today electronic guitars and drums replace organs in many, but not all, megachurches because they make sounds and use rhythms that exactly duplicate what one hears in the rest of the mall. Anti-pipe-organ marketers often have statistics on their side. Look, we hear: In Europe they worshiped with organs and the cathedrals are nearly empty. (It just might be possible that there were other factors present in this European decline). Listen, we hear: Where church music is pop, crowds grow, while congregations decline. There is no point in grumping about change and merely whining about the pop culture take-over of, and term-setting for, worship, though some worry about the theological implications of such a shift.
Still, just as worship from early Christian times to the present has called for special spaces, special languages, and special sounds to go with the ordinary versions of each, many argue that well-done, adaptive, and also contemporary organ music finds its following and enhances worship. Not interested in firing away in "worship wars," Weaver and his kind live out their vocations, reaching at least some of the many kinds of audiences and congregations we know and need.
References and for further reading:
E-mail email@example.com for word about Diane Lewis Heath's fun "Kids Sheets," designed to lure and quicken children for organ performance. The sheets also would help initiate generations for church organ experiences. See The American Organist, June 2005, pp. 72-74.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.