Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Church Organs and Church Music

Recently I had the good fortune to hear an organ concert in Westminster Abbey.  Not long afterwards I heard someone asking whether churches should get rid of their old organs.  The question is a reasonable one, since organs are expensive to maintain, nigh impossible to move, and not many people can play them well.  To those charges we should add the charge that organs are old-fashioned, and we are not.

I happen to love organ music, so that's one reason why I think we shouldn't get rid of the organs that remain in our churches. But there is at least one more important reason to think carefully about replacing them.  Sometimes organs don't fit well with the buildings they are in, as though the organ was purchased on its own merits and not for the way it matched the acoustics of the building that holds it.  In those cases, I don't see the loss if they're removed.  

But this is a failing of architecture and economics, not just of music. The problem in that case is far greater than the sin of not being contemporary.  An organ that does not match the church, or a church that is not made to be acoustically beautiful - both of these are failures, the kind of failure that comes from people who think that design and aesthetics are luxuries.  But design is never neutral; it always helps or hurts. Efficiencies and economics can be the enemies of accomplishing the most worthwhile ends.

Here's what Westminster Abbey reminded me of: a well-built organ is not just an instrument; it is a part of the edifice itself. Specifically, it is the part that turns the whole edifice into a musical instrument.  When the organ at Westminster is being played, it is not just a keyboard or pipes that are being played, but the whole building. Every bit of the building resounds.  The music is not an isolated event anymore; the notes played and the place in which they are played have merged, and each reaches out to affirm the other.  A good organ turns a church into a musical instrument.

Too often churches think of aesthetics last, if at all, or refuse to make aesthetics part of their theology.  This is a huge mistake.  The prophets describe the architectural adornments of the Ark and the Tabernacle and the Temple, giving those aesthetical elements a permanent place in Jewish and Christian canonical scripture.  Similarly, the scriptures are full of songs and poems that - one could argue - are unnecessary to salvation. As Scott Parsons and I have argued, art and the sacred belong together. Our faith is not a matter of mere talk; sometimes what must be articulated cannot be said in words, but needs the smell of incense, the ringing of a sanctus bell, the deep bellow of a pipe organ, the beauty of light well-captured in glass or terrazzo.

If you're not sure of what I mean, listen to Árstí∂ir sing the medieval hymn Heyr himna smi∂ur -- in a train station.  Can you imagine that being sung in a church with similar acoustics?  Here's what I love about the video: when they sing that beautiful old song, everyone around them stops to listen.  The beauty of the song is arresting, especially when it is paired with the building.  What keeps us from dreaming of building churches, writing music, and designing instruments that could similarly arrest us?

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