“Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.”
(Charles Marie Widor)
In the “Century Marks” section of The Christian Century (March 19, 2014) there was a little blurb titled Name That Tune that confirmed what I already suspected about church organist . . . they like to slip in unexpected tunes into the worship services that they are playing. According to the blurb, “At least half of the churchgoers in in the United Kingdom claim that they have heard their church organist occasionally slip in unexpected tunes, from popular songs to advertising jingles and theme songs from TV programs or movies.” I would imagine that the same statistic is true here in the colonies of the United States of America.
In my thirty-some years of serving as a pastor in churches I have had approximately a third had organs as the primary source of music in their worship services. Of those churches, two-thirds of them had pipe organs . . . expensive pipe organs. I am well acquainted with organs, especially in worship services. Even though I have had my suspicions about organists sneaking in unholy music into the worship service, I feel pretty safe in saying that none of the ones where I served ever snuck in a secular tune. Yet, at the same time, being unmusical, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. According to the blurb in The Christian Century there are a lot of reasons that organists slip in this unholy music.
The article suggested that often the reason for the addition music comes from either playfulness or revenge. One organist played Money, Money, Money by Abba while the offering was collected during worship. Another played Roll Out the Barrel at a funeral for person known for drinking . . . the organist got fired for this one. Another organist, at odds with the congregation’s elders, played a thinly disguised rendition of Send in the Clowns during a procession at worship. I had to smile and laugh . . . smile and laugh because there are a whole lot more songs that I would love to be seen slipped into a worship service . . . slipped in and then see if the congregation got the humor in them.
I have always wanted to use the tune of Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera during the benediction. It has always been a benediction I would love to use, but have not yet had the nerve to use . . . Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be—Amen! I have always thought that it would be neat to have the organist play a drum roll and cymbal crash whenever I used a joke in the sermon . . . sort of like an old vaudeville act . . . but never could convince an organist to do that for me.
One of my favorite scenes from a movie that involved a church organist was in the movie The Big Chill. A group of college friends have gathered years after graduation for the funeral of one of the group’s friends. The group is sitting in the sanctuary as the funeral is nearing its completion. The organist begins a very solemn recessional tune . . . very church-like . . . that leads into the Rolling Stones song, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Catches everyone off-guard; yet, at the same time, so perfect . . . so beautiful . . . so fitting. And, it was played on a church organ.
Now, I am not an idiot when it comes to music. The organ has not only been used for church music. In the mid to late seventies the organ started showing up in that devilish rock and roll music. Some of my favorite artists . . . like Neil Young . . . Crosby, Stills, and Nash . . . and others . . . used the organ in their music. Sporting teams, especially hockey teams, use organ music to spur their fans on . . . who among us have never heard the “charge” from the organ at a sporting event. That is the one thing that I think in missing from the local big city’s baseball team and park . . . an organ. Nothing beats singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame to an organ. Yet, the organ belongs to the church.
Once, during a particularly warm summer morning . . . and, having an older organist . . . I started my sermon only to be interrupted when the organist fell asleep, dropped her head onto the organ’s keyboard letting out a terrible howl out of the organ. After a good laugh, we went on . . . but, that was an event that was talked about for months afterwards . . . no one remembered the sermon, but everyone remembered the organist nodding off during the minister’s sermon!
As a minister, I love the organ. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said, “To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the King of Instruments.” Charles Marie Widor said, “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.” Yet, the organ is a dying breed in the church. There are fewer and fewer people learning to play the organ . . . and, sadly, the organist playing today are quite old. The organ is being replaced in the church . . . replaced by drums, electric guitars, and a variety of other instruments. People just are not playing the organ any more . . . especially in the church . . . and, it is a sad, sad day in the church. But, I have to agree with Ezra Pound when he says, “If I could believe the Quakers banned music because church music is so damn bad, I should view them with approval.” If the organ is going to be integral musical instrument of a worship service it should be done well. Trust me when I say that I have endured many hours of organ music that was better left buried than played by organists . . . shoot, if they could have mastered “charge” I would have been happy. Some of the organists I have endured took to heart the psalmist’s words of “making a joyful noise unto the Lord!”
God likes us happy. The music that adorns the worship that we offer to God should be happy. Whether it is played on an organ, piano, guitar, or drum . . . it should be happy. It should reflect an act of praise . . . reflect gratitude . . . reflect that we are tickled to death to be in relationship with a God that showers us with such a radical love and grace. The instrument does not matter, what matters is the attitude of those lifting up the noise . . . I mean, music. Organs are cool . . .pianos are a nice second . . . but, in my heart, any music that reflects the joy I feel is more than adequate.
Organ music as a vision of eternity . . . yeah, I have sat through a few organ recitals that felt like an eternity. Any music has the ability to be a vision of eternity . . . but, in the hands of a competent organist, the organ has the ability to truly reflect eternity . . . you just have to listen. It is not the instrument . . . it is the attitude and heart.