Are all organs the same…. or are some different?

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If ‘being an organist’ was all about just playing an organ, it would be fairly predictable, safe and uneventful! But, as most people who choose to follow this noble profession will know – uneventful it ain’t!

You get to meet people at important times of their lives, births, marriages and deaths, and that alone is a real privelige. As told before, our job on one level is just to advise on choices of suitable music for a special occasion usually a wedding, and you develop a certain rapport with the excited couple, (and, of course, the bride’s mother!)

Sometimes, I even get invited to the wedding reception. Many years ago a younger, slimmer and slightly gaunt version of stmarysorganist naïvely accepted the invitiation – in retrospect, I think the couple felt sorry for me and probably thought I needed a good meal!! So there was I, at a rather well-heeled ‘do’, sitting at an enormous circular table which was brimming with farmers and their families, who all knew each other, understood each other’s sustainable agricultural techniques, use of crop waste and animal manure, and conversations were flowing aplenty around the table.

I don’t know about you, but after spending minutes trying to pick out a thread of conversation I understood, I resorted to concentrating on my own feeding trough. I avoided extraneous eye-contact with any other fellow diners – a technique which worked for most of the meal, until a silence fell around the table. I realised I was being sympathetically scutinised by dozens of pairs of eyes, and after introducing myself as “just the organist”, a pregnant pause was waiting to be filled with some memorable or witty anecdote…

It was then that one guest, being extremely polite asked in all bumbling seriousness ” So – the organist, heh? Well now, tell me – are all organs the same…. or are some different?”

My chance to introduce the assembled bunch into my world had finally come. But at the crucial moment, images of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ became merged with the Thomas electronic I had learnt on at home – how could I begin to explain the glorious variety that we encounter with every instrument?

So my answer, which still baffles me to this day, came out meekly –

“Yes, many organs are the same…. but some are different….”

I had blown it, there was no possible recovery. I had let down the ‘King of Instruments’ and this assembled group continued with “Anyway, Ned – where do you buy your horse-sh*t from?”

To experience the wide variety of organs around, you need to go on a choir tour! This will inevitably throw up all sorts of instruments and places, one worth naming is St Bartholemew in Sitges – a venue of romantic beauty with an instrument to match.

St Bartholomew Church in the dark

This organ was a totally unexpected gem (G Grenzing 1985), and I enjoyed this experience from rehearsal to the end of the concert! The only negatve was the abject pain I had when playing the ‘Trompetta en Chamade’ which were a row of horizontal trumpets perched within a foot of my head, and there was no means of protecting my ears from the head-shattering scream that came out of those pipes!

ad sitges

( I did manage to get a recording of ‘Danses et Estampes’ by Jan de Lublin from this concert – Listen to it here).

One moment when the instument completely underwhelmed my overblown epectations was on a visit to a Cypriot convent, where with great excitement I discussed with our organ scholar, which great pillars of the organ repertoire we would play on this anticipated ‘tour de force’ of the organ world. There was no internet back then, so prior research had been limited to some fruitless letters requesting specifications.

We had pretty much decided on a mixture of Bach before the service, and Vierne as a voluntary. So imagine our incredulity at being introduced to this beauty:

Organ

Once again, as with other tours, rehearsal time was almost non-existant, and the choir processed in as I found the ‘on’ button and selected with care a ‘churchy’ registration. What ensued was a variety of different buzzes at different pitches, all bound together with a constant droning hum of electrical interference of some kind. I managed to find a selection of noises on the Upper manual that were usable, so I played on them for most of the service.

At a moment that I was to later regret, I bravely plunged my hands onto the Lower manual for some much-needed variety. And variety was certainly in evidence, as the third verse of ‘Let all mortal flesh’ was now accompanied by a ‘Bossa Nova’ rhythm section with automatic chords!

It could be that some of the people attending that service could have been moved by this particular addition to a well-loved hymn, and if you were to visit the same convent now, you may find it a regular feature. But judging by the looks of imminent disfigurement that were being darted at me by the assembled throng – I very much doubt it. My voluntary was sensibly short, the organ scholar held the door open for me, as we both made an undignified dash for the coach after the service!

So, nowadays, if I ever find myself as the only organist at a wedding feast again, I shall proudly announce that “There are no two organs the same…anywhere!”

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5 thoughts on “Are all organs the same…. or are some different?

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only person that has happened to! Some years ago, one of my husband’s Aunt’s passed away and we were to attend her Memorial Service at the small, clapboard, country “Family” church. We pulled into the parking lot to greet family members, and one of the Aunt’s daughter’s looks at me and says I’m told you play the organ. I saw spots for a second and said Yes, do you play as well? No, I don’t, but would you play for Mother’s Service? It never occurred to us to have an Organist (you ARE kidding, right?) play ! I shot THE LOOK at my husband when I saw an old Broadman Hymnal coming my way with Cousin JoAnn flipping pages. I was surprised and relieved to find it was not an old pump Reed organ but a small 2 keyboard Thomas home-sized Spinet. I started the first verse of Holy, Holy, Holy. No problems. Went to the lower keyboard for the second verse, and out came Latin Chords, Drum & Rhythm !! I recovered, went back to the Upper and stayed there. I could FEEL my face burning red, and after the service when we went to Cousin Janet’s house to eat, EVERYONE thanked me for playing, never mentioned the mishap, and welcomed me totally into the bosom of the family.

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  2. Pingback: “And tonight’s Psalm will be….’Maggie’s Den’… number TEN!” | St Mary's Organist

  3. Many years ago I developed a policy when asked to play for services at unfamiliar venues of rehearsing a relatively simple version of the requested music assuming limited choice of stops and no registration aids, on the basis that it is easier to embellish on the day than to scale back. Despite that I have still been caught out twice at weddings when, arriving with my organ music, the only available instrument has been a Clavinova. My biggest double-take though was at a family funeral. I knew the church in question had an electronic organ, but it was only when I got to the console that I discovered it had two full manuals, an acceptable range of voices, but no pedals! I muddled through, but only just!

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