WHY IS THE ORGAN AN ENDANGERED INSTRUMENT, AND DOES IT DESERVE TO BE SAVED?
As most organists and music educators are aware, the organ faces a serious threat of extinction in today's world. Never before has a musical instrument been so acutely threatened with extinction in a timeframe of less than a single generation. What has happened to cast such scorn on what was once the King of Instruments, and what can or should be done to reverse the trend?
A common sense look around any major city would indicate that there are plenty of organs out there. So, you ask, "how can you claim that the organ is in danger of becoming extinct?" The answer lies with not the instrument itself, but with the people who play it and who are entrusted with its care. To arrive at an honest answer to the question of what went wrong with the organ's popularity ratings, we need to retrace the steps in the development and evolution of this troubled instrument.
The pipe organ is almost as old as man, himself. There is evidence to indicate that prehistoric people had discovered that musical sounds could be made by blowing air across certain plant stems. Artistic representations of whistles, made of Bamboo or other plant components, have been found in the early scribbling of our cave dweller ancestors. We know, through recorded history, that pipe organs were around as early as 900 A.D. By the "Middle Ages", substantial organs had found their way into churches throughout Europe. Interestingly, from that point, until around the mid 19th.Century, the organ and its literature were exclusively associated with the functioning of the Church. From the Fourteenth through Eighteenth Centuries, recognized composers of organ music wrote almost exclusively for the Church, and the organ attained an almost "sacred" place in liturgy. It is easy to see how the association between the organ and church, even today, was established.
In the mid-Ninteenth Century, a drastic change came about, mostly as an outgrowth of free-thinking people in France. Several notable organists in France's most prestigious cathedrals, had begun to introduce secular music into the Church, mostly as preludes and postludes. There developed a contest-like atmosphere among these musical greats, to produce more emotionally stirring compositions that took advantage of the tonally powerful instruments that were evolving under scientifically trained builders such as Airside Caville Coll. Coll applied what were then modern scientific and industrial ideas to the organ. With complex mechanical technology applied to the art of making music, the French builders were able to create instruments that were capable of producing exciting bone-shaking sound, which was further augmented by the huge, acoustically live cathedral rooms in which they were played.
As Widor, Vierne and others took organ music from chant and hymn singing to what we know of today as organ performance, the world began to realize that these sacred music machines were actually one-man orchestras, capable of exciting and entertaining audiences. The momentum had been established, and by the beginning of the twentieth-century, the organ had reached what is probably the epitome of its development. By that time, a good deal of scientific research had been conducted to determine how sound was produced and what worked best in the design of organ pipes and actions. Engineers and physicists became actively involved in organ design, and the technology of the industrial revolution, especially with regard to pneumatic and electrical control, allowed the construction of organs that could literally play themselves. This era yielded some of the most exciting instruments ever built.
In addition to the symphonic organs being installed in churches, public auditoriums, and even private homes of the wealthy, the organ had found a place in the entertainment industry. With the advent of silent motion pictures, the theatre organ was born out of necessity. Raised wind pressures, thundering diaphones, and real percussion instruments played from the console, enabled the organ to give most stage orchestras a run for the money.
By the mid-1930's the theatre organ had been replaced by talking pictures, and the cost of maintaining large public and church organs, in the height of the depression, had seriously curtailed installation of new instruments. A new movement was evolving, at the hands of some musical purists, to return the organ to its Bach era status, thereby ignoring or even reversing the two-hundred years of evolution that it had seen during the industrial revolution. By the 1960's a definite change had occurred in the new classical organs, and the advent of the totally electronic organ muddied the waters even more. Relatively inexpensive organs were proliferated throughout the American landscape as Hammond organs and other electronic products were finding their way not only into churches, but also into clubs and restaurants, radio and television studios, and living rooms all across the country. Music stores and private teachers flourished as children were encouraged to take organ lessons in order to play the family Hammond or Lowrey.
At the same time, a resurgence of interest in the 1920's motion picture palace organ was spurred by easily available recordings from personalities such as Jesse Crawford, George Wright, Eddie Dunsteder and several veterans of the original theatre organ era. Many classic movie palaces were in danger of demolition, and the sentiment turned to preservation. Early Hi-Fi organ recordings were exciting to the senses. Hobbyists who were normally attracted to scientific hobbies such as amateur radio, model railroading and mechanical musical device restoration, became interested and formed groups to work on and play existing theatre pipe organs, many of which were finding their way into the private homes of eccentric and well-to-do collectors. Many of these individuals were already up-in-age, and while the hobby became popular for a small segment, there was not a lot of interest from the general populous as time passed. Furthermore, many of these preservers of instruments considered the instruments to be their property, even if they were in public venues, so the general public was often discouraged from participating in organ activities to protect the assumed rights of a few.
Changes in church music and public opinion had also begun to erode the organ's long-standing place in the church. New liturgical music, designed to attract a dwindling youth population in the churches, was more suitably performed on guitars and band instruments. Motion pictures, for most of the Twentieth-Century, depicted organs and organ music in a diabolical way or in a setting associated with death or suffering. Beginning with Lon Chaney's Phantom of The Opera, and later in pictures such as "Sunset Boulevard", "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast", the organist, and even the instrument itself, had taken on the role of "villain".
In churches where the organ still commanded a certain amount of respect and support, far too many pompous organists, many of whom suffer from emotional issues themselves, tended to keep the organ shrouded in a mystique that discouraged the next generation of musicians from having access to become interested in learning to play. Far too often, the personalities of the organists discouraged new and unconventional uses for the organ. Unfortunately, most of us know a few organists who lock up the console and who would never think of allowing an untrained young child to touch the keys and feel the power of the organ to generate interest in learning to play.. Well trained, educated organists are far too often obsessed with their own greatness to the point where they discourage or belittle their students. Some fear their positions and therefore forbid any other performer from being heard on the chance that the church leaders or congregants might hear something they liked better than the resident organist. AIDS has also taken its toll on far too many talented musicians, causing the ranks to be thinned. Where it was have large classes of organ students in universities during the latter part of the last century, today many organ departments have only one or two students, if at all. Students who would have customarily studied organ literature, are now attracted to electronic digital keyboards instead.
Today's instruments have also become cost prohibitive. With the average cost of a new pipe organ often approaching two million dollars, and electronic organs starting at around forty-thousand dollars for a stripped-down two-door, not many churches, businesses or individuals can afford to have even a top-of-the line electronic organ. There are no more organ manufacturing "factories" such as were operated by Wurlitzer, Kimball, Morton and Estey. Wicks does still operate an impressive plant in Illinois, but most new organs in this country are being built by exclusive "niche" organ builders, many of whom have jobs backed up for years. Institutions that could afford good pipe organs, often elect for the less expensive alternatives.
So we arrive at a point of asking "what can be done to save the organ"?
The answer is complex. First, it is imperative that organ lovers and supporters, "talk up" the organ at every possible chance. If people don't understand the organ and its music, we can't expect them to be supportive.
Attend concerts, open console programs and workshops. Show support for the organ and its music.
Put aside our loathing of the "unwashed masses" and make the organ accessible to everyone. Let that inquisitive child sit up on the bench and even touch a few notes when the church is empty. Encourage that young piano student to play, no matter how how badly he or she might pedal at first. Give tours of the organ to teens and adults. Explain how it works and show what it can do. Show them that it is an awesome music machine and not just some dusty old relic befitting of Herman Munster.
Consider that not everyone out there cares to hear Bach played the same way, all of the time, on the organ. . Where churches will permit, hold popular music performances. Let everyone see how that old mortuary Moller can handle a medley from "Star Wars " or "My Fair Lady." You will not believe the interest you can generate when the congregation hears a steam locomotive roaring across the choir loft during your best rendition of Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Show the little ones that the same organ they hear in church on Sunday can also play music they recognize from "Beauty And The Beast" or "The Lion King".
On the maintenance front, don't allow your church to trash an organ. Never, never believe the organ repairman who tells the church that is going to cost a million dollars to fix the organ. Even ten-thousand-dollars can buy you a lot of organ, or go a long way toward repairs, providing you shop in the right places. Where funds are tight, many churches have instituted programs to restore their organs, or even install new organs, with the help of volunteers from the congregation. With the exception of voicing and some metal pipe repair, most organ repair and maintenance functions are well within the capabilities of electricians, air conditioning mechanics, carpenters and plumbers in the congregation, provided they are properly supervised by a knowledgeable organ repair technician. ATOS volunteers, from all walks of life, have been successfully restoring theatre organs for a quarter century or more. Why not establish a group of trained volunteers to keep your dying church organ playing.
We may have just put some musical purists into the Coronary Intensive Care Unit with these comments, but the only way the organ and organists will survive, is if we take the organ into main stream society and make it accessible to the masses. Any campaign to save the organ depends on public interest, understanding and support. We can't expect to attain that level of interest that is needed to save a dying instrument, if we continue to lock up the console and belittle our students and interested youth in the name of achieving musical perfection and enhancing our academic reputations. No matter how many concert honors or academic degrees we attain, as organists, we must never forget that the king is the King Of Instruments, and we are only here to serve in the king's court.