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The King of Instruments

On the organ.

A few weeks ago, I was the recipient of a very kind gift: a working Conn 643 theatre organ, donated to me by a fellow who wanted to ensure that his late father’s prized instrument would go to a loving home. Sitting down at the console for the first time in nearly twenty years, I found myself almost overwhelmed, for my earliest memories are of playing musical instruments and of being given them as gifts—sometimes, as a genuine effort to aid my musical development, and sometimes as a sort of practical joke upon my parents. My aunt Victoria gave me a one-man-band complete with a (quite loud) recorder and slide whistle. Easily amongst the best presents I ever received, it was repeatedly confiscated by my parents. But my aunt always knew the straightest road to a little boy’s heart: some years later, she gave me a chemistry set. I used it to burn holes in my bedroom’s carpet.

By the age of six, I had already bailed out of Little League when a ball to the face simultaneously smashed both my nose and my interest in playing the game. My parents were from then on reluctant to invest time or money in potentially abortive hobbies. Hence my incessant pleas for a piano instructor went unanswered (a piano was an expensive proposition in those days). But, when we were put into childcare with Mrs. Behm, who had a piano, she offered to provide me one thirty-minute lesson each week. Words cannot express the joy of my little heart at that time. Suffice to say that I still have the lesson book.

We had no piano at home, but I practiced whenever I could. In the first-grade talent show, my first opportunity, I played Für Elise somewhat imperfectly. When my interest in music did not wane, my mother bought me a Casio keyboard, allowing me to supplement my weekly instruction at home. I also taught myself to play patriotic songs from a little book. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” was a particular favorite, as was “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

Then fate intervened: we attended an organ performance, which dazzled, and I begged for serious, proper lessons and was offered a choice: piano or organ. I chose the organ. It is, after all, the King of Instruments. I had a wonderful organ instructor, Melissa Ambrose-Eidson, who taught me not just to play well but also to love organ music. Previously, I had thought of such music as rather stuffy. It summoned up images of decrepit performers droning out entirely forgettable hymns in the slowest tempos hitherto recorded by mankind. But my teacher introduced me to theater organ music: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, show tunes, and razzmatazz. I learned about music theory, the circle of fifths, and the structures of chords. I began to understand the construction of organ music, which helped me to appreciate the sorts of music I had once disliked. My detestation of Bach gave way to awe at majesty of his art and a deep love of his works. The beautifully mathematical structure of Baroque music opened up my interest in Philip Glass, whose compositions rely upon working both with and against Baroque theory. Through Akhnaten, I came to a more general love of opera. In short, the organ became a gateway to an entire universe of music that I might otherwise have foolishly ignored.

Having been raised in nondenominational evangelical churches, the organ did not feature in our life of faith. Had it been otherwise, then I doubt that I would have had such a low opinion of organ music. Instead I gather that my mental idea of organ music was constructed by those around me as a sort of reaction against its use in the church, and particularly in the Catholic church: “Organ music is for boring old Catholics. We have guitars—and tambourines!” So it was that for me, perhaps quite unlike the experience of many Catholics, I came to know the organ as an instrument entirely outside of its liturgical use. It was only after I began working as a musician at a Catholic church that I started to experience the rich tradition of liturgical organ music, opening still other doors to composers such as Lennox Berkeley and William Mathias, whose 1964 Processional is amongst my favorite pieces of organ music.

But there is more, far more, to the organ and its music than their capacity to broaden the musical appreciation of those who know them. They are also exquisitely crafted—the absolute summation of human endeavor. Baroque music approaches mathematical perfection like no other art form; and the pipe organ is the most complex and wondrous of all musical instruments, especially when one realizes that its invention predates the use of electricity. To behold one installed within a cathedral, employed in the worship of the Mass, in which God is literally present, is to see the ultimate form of human artistry celebrating the ultimate encounter of the divine with humanity. Understood thus, the role of the organ is vital, and even essential. In the words of the well-known verse in Romans, “every knee must bend” when the King of Instruments offers its service to the King of Creation.