Association for Reformed and Liturgical Worship Newsletter (Fall 2015): XI: 2
In the small city where I live there are a number of very fine organs. I know of organs by Schantz, Holtkamp, Skinner, C. B. Fisk, and Casavant. A couple of Reuter organs produce excellent results, and a vast mechanical action organ by Reiger-Kloss from the Czech Republic presides over the worship space of Charleston’s Kanawha United Presbyterian Church. I could go on and on. Charleston congregations have been willing to shell out the cash for some fine instruments. The local Roman Catholic Cathedral’s majestic Schantz has been expanded, though for what reason I do not know.
I can speak with some authority, since before I lost most, and then later, all of my hearing, I was a supply organist for a couple of churches in town. I studied organ at Davidson College and served as organist for a few congregations, including my own.
To start, may I mention that the world of organ manufacturers has undergone change? The once great firm of Aeolian Skinner has stopped producing. Moller builds no more, and one of the sadder days in my life was when I visited the Moller firm in Hagerstown MD, the head person was the former chief at Aeolian Skinner! When the additions were made to the large Schantz in town, one of the workers noted that most of their work was for Catholic churches. Not all, though, as there is a nice Schantz in the small community of Sistersville, WV. Two United Methodist congregations here in Charleston also have Schantzes.
Still, whether first class pipe organs, or state of the art digital organs abound, I ask, “Where are those who will play these giants in the future?”
The cadre of organists in town is aging. Recently, a friend of mine retired after many years at the Fisk. It was a bad day for us since she understood her instrument and was able to use it to the fullest in a Presbyterian setting. Now this grand old Presbyterian church has a newer second organ, a Casavant, which occupies the old choir gallery at the front of the church. I am only guessing, but I think that the second organ with its placement above the central pulpit is considered easier for less skilled players to master.
The once active local chapter of the American Guild of Organists has shut down. I was their chaplain for over twenty years and as a minister with some musical skills, I was a good bridge builder, hoping to reduce clergy-organist divisions. I was also involved in yearly Pipe Organ Encounters, known as POE, leading worship and encouraging young people to consider entering the organ playing world, even if doing so meant no lazy Sundays. In my youth, to make ends meet in a low paid profession some organists would play for a local synagogue that permitted the use of an organ, as well as for a Christian congregation.
How can the organist scarcity be addressed?
If a Presbyterian or other Reformed church wishes to preserve its organ-accompanied worship, some things might be done:
First, local congregations must become academies of keyboard playing. My earliest accompanying skills were developed as I played hymns for the simpler evening services. Then, after some elementary organ instruction, I found myself playing Hammonds in various settings. My local congregation never paid for my lessons, but was willing to give me a “sink or swim” chance at accompanying the very traditional “hymn sandwich” services on a foot-pumped Estey.
Second, the principal organist in the church should be relatively well-skilled. This is not always a possibility. In my own experience, the organists who played for the services I conducted were marginal at best. The two finest organists who occupied the bench over the years often played music that was not appreciated by many congregants. That is the price of sophistication, I suppose!
Next, I believe to encourage young people, and some not so young, to “take up” the organ would require the willingness of the church to pay the cost of instruction. This decision has to be taken with great care, as there are some liability and insurance issues related to having instructional programs on church instruments. These cautions, in my experience, have been seldom observed. The fees for instruction have often been cash transactions, off the books and under the table. Small amounts were paid, but the issues remain the same. It would be far better to use the resources of a local college, if that college has an organ teacher. My college, in the fifties, had a College Organist with a Master’s degree and the cost of lessons were paid to the college. This is a safer plan, I think.
Pipe Organ Encounters are ways to introduce the subject of organ playing to young people. It is important, however, to inform the young folks who are attracted to the organ that such an occupation demands sacrifice of weekends, and usually means playing in a church. The famous organist Cameron Carpenter, however, has been moving the organ away from the church, providing entertainment as a concert player. Carlo Curley is moving in a similar direction.
In this connection I am wondering if the traditional organ-based worship of the church may be coming to an end. Church praise bands are now supporting some elements of the liturgy. It is also possible to entertain the notion that congregational song be unaccompanied as it was in my great-grandfather’s day. He was born in 1798 and never heard an organ in church. Consider the practice of some smaller denominations who have actively opposed any accompaniment, even that of a piano. The Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, permits no accompaniment and sings only Psalms or hymns from other Scriptures. I suppose that “I am Thine O Lord” is not on their list, not to mention “In the Garden.”
In any case, the times have certainly changed since I completed seminary, when most of the churches had some kind of organ, usually electric or electronic. This of course meant that one could count on organists who knew their instrument well and could use it to the fullest. Today it is not uncommon to meet a player who can only read the soprano and alto parts and improvise the bass. I recently heard of one applicant to a larger church who asked where the “chord” buttons were. Consequently, of those skilled organists among us who remain organ accompaniment of anthems and tougher hymns demand much. So I discovered in my last congregation, which I served for twenty years, where I was sometimes the accompanist using lay worship leaders. Nevertheless, few members listened to the organ (a Rodgers) but would sit up when I played our good piano.
Members of AR&LW will continue to be leaders in making decisions about music in the sanctuary. It remains to be seen whether the organ will continue to have a place in Reformed worship.
Retired Minister and Organist
Charleston, West Virginia