What future for the organ?

It is not often that I find myself having to wait twenty minutes in a queue to enter a place of worship. Nor in order to attend a concert including one of my own works. But at Notre-Dame de Paris standing in a long line to enter the Cathedral is an absolutely standard occurrence on Sunday afternoons, and one which of course has nothing whatever to do with my music and, if we are to be frank about it, not a lot more to do with Christianity. Playing an organ recital in the long-standing series at Notre-Dame is somewhat akin to giving a poetry reading in a crowded train station – as I discovered for myself when playing there back in December 2001. And yet there is something unique and curiously thrilling about the experience both for the performer and the listener, both because of the magic of the edifice and the fact that in the midst of the hordes of noisy tourists a genuine audience of several hundred sits and concentrates intensely.

Notre-Dame de Paris (photo: Benchaum)

In order to ensure something resembling an acceptable ‘signal to noise’ ratio, the guest recitalist (the excellent German organist Reinhold Richter) and I spent two evenings in the Cathedral in search of appropriate sounds for his programme. In the case of two works by the under-rated composers Jean-Jacques Grunenwald (1911-82, successor to Marcel Dupré at the church of Saint-Sulpice) and Auguste Fauchard (1881-1957, priest and musician for the diocese of Laval, a pupil of Louis Vierne and Vincent d’Indy)  this was relatively straightforward, as their music was written with large French ‘symphonic’ organs in mind. Not so the remainder of the programme. This Reinhold Richter began adventurously with the substantial, highly imaginative and technically demanding Schaallu schlom Jeruschalajim (‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ – Psalm 122,6) by the prolific German composer Oskar Gottlieb Blarr (1934-). Inspired in its melodic and rhythmic parameters by Hebrew liturgy, the sound-world of this challenging and graphic work is wide-ranging, comprising both polymodal/tonal harmony (reminiscent of Jehan Alain’s Trois Danses) and resolutely avant-garde elements. The striking result somewhat resembles another important organ work of the 1980s, the ground-breaking Laudes of the late Jean-Louis Florentz (1947-2004), author of arguably the most significant additions to the organ repertoire since Olivier Messiaen, whose many ethnomusicological travels also included a spell in the Ethiopian Orthodox monastery of West Jerusalem.

My own Pelikan der Wüste (‘Pelican of the Wilderness’), which Reinhold Richter commissioned in 2009 and had already performed it twice in Germany prior to Sunday’s recital at Notre-Dame, is quite different from Blarr’s Sonata both in structure and harmonic language. Like it, however, the piece takes a Psalm as its inspiration, the title being derived from the haunting imagery of Psalm 102:

1 Hear my prayer, O LORD!
And let my cry for help come to You.
2 Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress;
Incline Your ear to me;
In the day when I call answer me quickly.
3 For my days have been consumed in smoke,
And my bones have been scorched like a hearth.
4 My heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away,
Indeed, I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of the loudness of my groaning
My bones cling to my flesh.
6 I resemble a pelican of the wilderness;
I have become like an owl of the waste places.
7 I lie awake,
I have become like a lonely bird on a housetop. (North American Standard Bible)

Although v.6’s reference to the pelican (pellicano solitudinis in the Vulgate) may be a mistranslation, it is the source of a long Christian tradition of allegorical interpretation associating the bird with Christ on account of the legend of the pelican’s drawing blood from its own breast to feed its young. An example is the hymn Adoro te devoto by Thomas Aquinas:

Pie Pellicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda Tuo sanguine.

(O Loving Pelican, O Jesu Lord,
Unclean am I but cleanse me in Thy blood.)

Making use of the organ’s unparalleled dynamic range and supreme ability to evoke both darkness and light, Pelikan der Wüste attempts to mirror Psalm 102’s progression from despair and inner turmoil to consolation (which certainly can be read Christologically):

8 My enemies have reproached me all day long;
Those who deride me have used my name as a curse.
9 For I have eaten ashes like bread
And mingled my drink with weeping
10 Because of Your indignation and Your wrath,
For You have lifted me up and cast me away.
11 My days are like a lengthened shadow,
And I wither away like grass.
12 But You, O LORD, abide forever,
And Your name to all generations.
13 You will arise and have compassion on Zion;
For it is time to be gracious to her,
For the appointed time has come.
14 Surely Your servants find pleasure in her stones
And feel pity for her dust.
15 So the nations will fear the name of the LORD
And all the kings of the earth Your glory.
16 For the LORD has built up Zion;
He has appeared in His glory.
17 He has regarded the prayer of the destitute
And has not despised their prayer.

Purists may scoff a little at the present-day instrument in Notre-Dame on account of its stylistic eclecticism; despite its prestige it has to be admitted that it lacks the cohesion of some of the great French Cavaillé-Coll organs (in churches such as the Saint-Sernin basilica in Toulouse or St-Ouen in Rouen). However, there can be no doubting the sheer visceral impact of the organ in the Cathedral – a sensation which, it should be added, can only be partially conveyed via recorded media.

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)

As I walked up the steps to the organ loft, I passed through an ante-chamber where the historic playing console is preserved, as played by legendary figures such as Louis Vierne (1870-1937) (click for rare video footage) [1] or indeed Anton Bruckner, who improvised in Notre-Dame shortly after the inauguration of the grandes orgues in 1868. The console is a relic of the organ’s glorious Parisian past uniting performance, improvisation and composition; it is not so long ago that on any given Sunday in Paris one could hear musicians of the stature Pierre Cochereau, Jean Langlais, Olivier Messiaen or Maurice Duruflé playing in their respective churches. This tradition, even if its lustre has faded somewhat in recent years despite the noble efforts of figures such as Thierry Escaich and Olivier Latry, stretches back unbroken across many generations, through Dupré, Vierne, Widor and Tournemire to Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Franck.

I was reminded of this a few days prior to the recital at Notre-Dame when speaking to a group of visiting Germans on a tour organized by ORGANPromotion at the church of St-Vincent-de-Paul near the Gare du Nord, home to two Cavaillé-Coll instruments that arguably both outdo that of Notre-Dame in sheer beauty of tone. In front of the church is the ‘Square Franz Liszt’, a reminder of the great Hungarian composer’s stays in Paris in the 1830s when he would pray at a chapel on the site of the present edifice (one of the parish priests, Jean-Baptiste Bardin, was Liszt’s personal confessor and also hosted house concerts by musicians including Mendelssohn). Constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, the church of St-Vincent-de-Paul exudes luxuriance, with the organ integrated into the thorough-going opulence of its architectural decoration.

Organ, St Vincent de Paul, Paris (photo: Benchaum)

For all its magnificence, this instrument’s origin in an age of triumphalist institutionalized Christendom left me feeling a little uneasy. Not only does the richness of the setting seem to sit uncomfortably with the tradition of St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) himself, the saint being primarily known for his work among the French poor), but it begs the more general question of the prospects for the organ’s survival at a time when the nineteenth-century model of Christendom has been more or less consigned – not without a certain justification – to the poubelle of history. From my conversations with church musicians in various countries, the sense that the organ is in crisis is evidently not restricted to France. Dwindling job prospects for organists, declining recital audiences and a dearth of new compositions of genuine quality for the instrument all suggest that the organ is being shunned both within the Church and without, for reasons which are as socio-cultural as they are musical.

Constructive suggestions for remedying this state of affairs seem to be in short supply. Is the answer to ‘de-sacralize’ the instrument, as the flamboyant enfant terrible of the organ world Cameron Carpenter is presently suggesting, in order to give it a new, wholly secular lease of life ? Much as I can understand the rationale behind this and appreciate Carpenter’s formidable virtuosity (I can’t claim to be able to play Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Etude on the organ, but then again I’m not sure I’d want to try), I have grave reservations concerning his enterprise. The plain fact of the matter is that the organ’s many centuries of repertoire are rooted in Christian spirituality and that amnesia in this regard is less than helpful. The instrument’s corpus may well require a new type of contextualization and presentation to the public, but its rich heritage does not need to be discarded as worthless. Played badly, the organ is admittedly an instrument of aural torture rather than one for making music, and I would be the first to acknowledge that the taste of organists typically includes large measures of the bad and the ugly alongside the good. Nonetheless, anyone who has experienced the intensity of a Frescobaldi Toccata all’elevazione, Franck’s Prière Op.20 or Messiaen’s Apparition de l’église éternelle played well under the right conditions will attest to the depth of spiritual expression of which the organ is capable. Above all, any idea that the instrument needs to be severed from its Christian past is contradicted by the monumental and sublime oeuvre that on its own would merit its protection as an endangered species – the organ music of J.S. Bach.

The question is therefore not whether the pipe organ is worthy to survive, but how it can do so in an age when even in a Church context it is often seen as liturgically irrelevant. Finding solutions is going to require substantial creativity, but I cannot help thinking that, precisely by its ability to speak counter-culturally of the transcendence of God, the virtues of contemplation and the submission in a hierarchy of values of the often ‘invisible’ performer to the music itself, the organ can still make a vital contribution to worship today. The instrument is certainly not about to recover its once-privileged position in the Church’s life, but I still find it an extremely moving to think that pipes made perhaps three hundred years ago in the time of Buxtehude or Bach still resound in the face of the ever-increasing pace of change in the world. To denigrate the spirituality with the organ is impregnated on the grounds that it is outdated is surely to adopt a short-sighted perspective. Indeed it might just be that the timeless beauty and depth of, say, Bach’s O Mensch, bewein’ and the call to repentance that it embodies actually provide us with the most contemporary message of all.


[1] Titular organist of the Cathedral between 1900 and his death at the keyboard in 1937, Vierne deserves to be regarded as more than an ‘organist-composer’, his finest compositions perhaps being his chamber works, of which his tormented Piano Quintet (written after the death of his son Jacques in World War I) is on a par with the better-known quintets of Franck or Fauré, even perhaps exceeding them in emotional power.



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