Published in The Diapason, November, 2005
Why is there air?
Forty years have passed since Bill Cosby raised this question in his recording by the same name. The record (remember those black vinyl discs?) was released in 1965 and the title cut referred to his days as a Physical Education major at Temple University. With tongue in cheek he teased philosophy majors, observing that they wandered around campus mulling over such fundamental questions. I no longer own a turntable and couldn’t refresh my memory so I paraphrase his response:
“Any Phys-Ed major knows that. There’s air to blow up basketballs, air to blow up footballs…”
I was in elementary school at the time, and my friends and I thought that was the funniest thing ever, but forty years later the Wyman School has been converted to condominiums and I think I have a more sophisticated reading of what Mr. Cosby was getting at. As our lives and society grow ever more complex we often lose track of the fundamental questions that drive what we do.
What are the questions?
Ours is a field rich with people who “caught the bug” – who were excited, even enchanted by the pipe organ early in life. I’ve heard plenty of those personal stories. One colleague told me how when he was very young his family traveled clear across the country to attend a wedding. The trip itself was a huge experience for him, but he had never seen such a large and ornate church building, and when the organ started to play he knew what he wanted to do with his life. Another friend told that when he was shown inside a large organ as a child the concept of the apparently contradictory relationship between the organ’s industrial interior and its glorious sound led to his important career as an organbuilder. My own introduction to the instrument was a natural succession – the organist of the church I grew up in (my father was the rector) was a harpsichord maker and the community of instrument builders was well represented in the choir. My childhood piano lessons led to organ lessons and why wouldn’t I have a summer job in an organbuilder’s workshop? Was there in fact anything else one might do?
A wonderful world has grown up around the pipe organ, a world full of talented people dedicated to both the study of what has preceded us and to innovation. It’s a complicated subject with a very deep history, myriad technical issues, and elusive artistic concepts that drive the whole thing. The instrument itself is tangible – you can build it, touch it, feel it, play it, care for it. But the basic concept is more difficult to explain. This is not like the admiration directed toward the first person to eat an artichoke or lobster, rather it is the understanding of the collective contributions of countless people through the ages. The intertwined relationship between the instrument, its music, its builders, and its players is like those quirky philosophical questions about trees in the forest, smoke and fire, chickens and eggs – or Bill Cosby’s why is there air? Any organbuilder knows the answer to that question: There’s air to blow organ pipes, air to leak through worn gaskets, air to cause ciphers. We are the heirs of erring air. (Remember E. Power Biggs talking about pumping the bellows of an 18th century British organ – “handling the handle that Händel handled.”)
However lofty our introduction to the pipe organ, once we are engaged in our careers we often move from one deadline to another somehow forgetting that original inspiration. We may know the thrilling sensation of a huge Swell box opening, allowing the sound of powerful reeds to gradually join the choir procession during a festival service. (If the procession is slow and in the middle of the service, we could use the Swell box to gradually join a gradual Gradual!) But what do we have in mind if we are in an organ chamber struggling to get a Swell motor to work properly – technical issues, skinned knuckles, and holed leather, or that spectacular procession, banners a’flying? Try whistling a hymn tune as you work – I recommend Westminster Abbey!
The struggle between art and commerce is well defined and frequently written about. A friend who loves to paint recently put it succinctly when she said she simply doesn’t have the time for it. Who was it that said, “time is money?” At what point does the thrill of creating a monumental pipe organ become a battle between time and money?
I recently stumbled across a quotation from Daniel Barenboim: “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.” Did Mr. Barenboim forget the past as a third face? Aren’t great works of art at least informed by the past? Certainly pipe organs are.
There’s a debate in the world of pleasure boats between the merits of wood and fiberglass hulls. A purist might say there’s nothing like the sound of water slapping against a wooden hull. But there are many arguments in favor of fiberglass boats. Does this debate actually confuse questions of personal preference or convenience with whether or not it’s a good boat?
The debate between the merits of mechanical and electric keyboard actions has been raging for more than fifty years. It seems to me that one can argue that the debate couldn’t really get started until electric and pneumatic actions were well-developed and prevalent so there was strong basis for comparison. I’ve said many times that the result of the debate is that our organbuilders are producing excellent instruments using all kinds of actions. The questions surrounding the construction of organ cases, the design of wind systems, or the deployment of stops in divisions are just as fundamental as those concerning keyboard action. Let’s debate the relative merits of balanced or suspended tracker key actions, or whether the keyboards of electric action instruments should be pivoted in the middle or at the end. My point is I want to play and listen to good organs, well conceived and beautifully made. Just as I’ve had great days sailing in both wooden and fiberglass boats, I’ve been thrilled by both tracker and electric action pipe organs.
When I say I’ve been thrilled by both tracker and electric action pipe organs I have also to say that I’ve equally been disappointed by both.
One thing that sets the pipe organ apart from other instruments in my opinion is the extraordinary variety from one example to another. I know that a clarinetist recognizes countless differences between clarinets, but how can one compare a three-rank continuo organ with a mighty two-hundred-rank job in a huge church? The experiences they produce are worlds apart as is the music that can be played on them? (I’ve noticed that we often talk about what music an organ can play – as if there would not be an organist involved.) What’s really funny is how we try to mix those experiences. Widor’s famous Toccata is a staple of the modern organ repertory and it’s played as often on ten-stop organs as on those of the scale for which it was conceived – many, many more than ten stops. And it’s not just about the number of stops but more important, the acoustics of the room. I remember vividly the first time I played that piece in an appropriate acoustical setting. It was in Lakewood, Ohio in a cavernous church building with a marble floor. It was a Wicks organ of only moderate size but the way the harmonies rolled around the place helped me understand the piece more fully. Of course, this was after I had played the same piece in perhaps dozens of small, dry rooms on dozens of small, dry organs.
It seems to me that our love affair with pieces like that has led us toward an artificial world. We know that thirty-two foot stops add a lot to large-scale organ music, so we add artificial thirty-twos to organs in churches that do not have space for them. Ideally, we design organs using mathematical formulas that have been proven through the ages. The Golden Section, for example, is a classic system of ratios that defines the proportions of countless structures built over thousands of years. There’s a pleasing naturalness when an instrument is conceived well in relationship to the room it graces. Hearing thirty-two foot tone in a building with a fifteen foot ceiling leaves one somehow confused.
An organist’s work is often defined by the struggle between tradition and innovation. Christmas is coming. Are you preparing for the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth Christmas in the same church? How do you program innovative exciting music without disappointing the expectations of tradition? Think of the congregation that was first to sing O Come, All Ye Faithful (there must have been one). Did anyone go home that day grumbling that the organist didn’t understand the value of tradition? One piece that struck me at first hearing as a future chestnut is John Rutter’s Candlelight Carol. Easily singable, absolutely beautiful, text full of meaning – I wonder if that’s what people experienced when they first heard In dulci jubilo some seven hundred years ago.
I had a parallel musing the first time I visited St. Sulpice in Paris. I wondered how many of the older people in the congregation would remember Marcel Dupré as their parish organist. It’s a stretch, but it’s at least possible that a few of them remembered Widor – it was fewer than sixty-five years after his retirement. Think what those people must have experienced in the way of musical tradition when so much of what they heard from the organ was improvised!
One of my greatest professional struggles has involved wedding music. It’s the privilege of the parish organist to be a part of so many celebrations. I played for more than four hundred weddings at one church. It’s a thrill to be able to share one’s skills to enhance such an occasion. I didn’t keep proper records but I would be fascinated to see a spreadsheet that showed a statistical analysis of the music I played at all those weddings. At what percentage of weddings did I play Mendelssohn, Wagner, or Schubert? How often did a couple listen to eight or ten choices before lighting up when I offered Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring the evening they were choosing music? It’s very likely that the only time a couple actually chooses what will be played live on a pipe organ will be their wedding. How does an organist introduce creative and meaningful music into a wedding service without disappointing the expectations of families and their friends? When I was first an independent organbuilder I had as an employee a young woman who worked for me for nearly ten years. She was both a terrific worker and a close friend. She had many opportunities to hear my reports of “last Saturday’s wedding” when I would regale her with the trials of the wedding organist. (Maybe there’s a movie title in that sentence.) It is a great regret of mine that she formed such an impression of my feelings about weddings that when she got married she asked someone else to play the organ.
Is the future of the pipe organ better assured if we sustain tradition or if we find exciting new ways to use it? How do we strike a balance between those concepts? Are consumers of organ music always going to be happy with old favorites? How do we find, write, create those pieces that will become tomorrow’s chestnuts or are today’s chestnuts good enough to last? And if we find such a piece, how do we introduce it in the place of something else?
What is the future form of the pipe organ? Can its builders stay faithful to ancient forms while continuing to be innovative?
What is the future of the economics of organbuilding? Will churches, schools, concert halls always be willing to commit to such enormous expenditures? Does our society value artistic expression enough to justify that? How do we share our passion and enthusiasm in the interest of the future of our art? Do we assume that a strong future for our art will add to the cultural wealth of society? How can we sustain the wealth of the heritage of our instrument in the world of the sound-bite, the mega-byte, the Big Gulp®, the Big Mac®, the Playstation®, VCR, DVD, or PCD. With music education in public schools in decline, who will be the next generation of organists and who will be the next generation of music lovers?
We are stewards of a glorious heritage. It’s essential that we find new ways to communicate that wealth. We must be informed by the past, but we shouldn’t dwell on it. As we are informed by the past, we are better able to inform the future. How many ways can we read the phrase, The Past Becomes the Future?