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The Future of the Organ in America

January 14, 2003

When Albert Neutel asked me to address the topic of the
?future of the organ,? I was somewhat dumbfounded. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  At this point in my life I have
experienced a lot of past, but I have minimal experience with the future.
?Change is inevitable; growth is optional,? as our minister William
Jackson described in a recent sermon. Indeed, there has been phenomenal change
in the organ from the hydraulos to the large medieval Winchester organ, the split
keyboards of Italy and Spain in the 17th century, the German Baroque organ, the
French Baroque organ, the English Cabinet organ, the double pedalboards of
19th- century Germany, the innovations of Cavaillé-Coll, Ernest Skinner,
the ?Praetorius organ? and its descendants, the theater organ, and
digital sampling, to name just a few metamorphoses of the organ. We have
experienced change. And I anticipate confidently that we shall encounter more
change in the future.

Happily the organ has demonstrated astonishing flexibility
and adaptability to accommodate great changes. Instruments which have not been
flexible in this manner have become artifacts of history, museum
curiosities—the aulos, the shawm, the Bible regal, the serpent, the viol
da braccia, the pedal piano. We thank our ancestors that they preferred change
over death. Now in our time we will face the same challenge. Certainly some
innovations will not prove themselves ultimately to be worthy; but we must make
that determination from experience, not from fearful resistance to the new.
?Change is inevitable; growth is optional.?

Throughout history the fate of the organ has depended
heavily upon its integral connection with religion. When religious culture has
been strong (i.e., Germany c. 1700) the organ has thrived. When religion has
been threatened (i.e.,  France c.
1800) the organ has suffered. Indeed, had Pepin the Short not donated his
acquisition of an organ to a religious order in the 8th century, thereby initiating
the relationship between the church and the organ, we might possibly not have
the organ today and we would not have had this wonderful dinner! style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Variations in style of worship have
been appropriately reflected in varied organ design (i.e., 17th-century German
Lutheran, vs. 17th-century French Catholic, vs. 20th-century American
Protestant worship styles and the organs germane to each epoch and country).
When the organ has adapted to and accommodated the requirements of changing
religious ritual, the happy marriage between the church and the organ has

Now we find ourselves immersed in a sea-change of worship
practices in America. For better or for worse, new musical repertoire has
emerged in churches throughout America and abroad. Because organs, and
organists, have been perceived as incapable of handling and unwilling to
address this repertoire and shift in worship pattern, one guru has even
predicted the quick demise of our cherished instrument. I believe that we face
a challenge similar to that of organ builders and organists in France in 1800,
when traditional religious practice was abolished. Those clever organists who
learned to play patriotic tunes saved many organs in France from almost certain
destruction. The challenge for the church musician, and the builder of church
organs, has never been greater than it is today. The way in which we respond to
that challenge remains to be documented. But I believe that simple logic would
indicate that an organ designed in Germany in 1700, no matter how wonderful
that instrument may be, and a comparable strict diet of German Baroque music,
would not serve effectively the requirements of today?s American
church.  We must summon our
greatest artistry and creativity to respond to the liturgical challenge of our
generation, to build instruments with the flexibility to respond to the demands
of the best current repertoire as well as traditional sacred music literature.
By analogy to French organists 200 years ago, perhaps we all need to learn how
to play patriotic marches until this present cultural storm blows over. We must
build instruments capable of performing our entire organ solo repertoire,
accompanying the widest range of choral and solo vocal literature, supporting
and encouraging congregational singing, and moving and exalting the human
spirit. A very tall order!

We frequently lament that during our generation we have lost
the audience for the organ. Could it be that this tragic decline of interest in
our instrument has been occasioned in part by our creation of some instruments
which are just ?plain ugly? and our insistence upon playing
Titelouze when the people want to hear ?What a Friend We Have in
Jesus?? I recall from more than 30 years ago the lecture of a composer
who said that modern composers had retreated into the universities, where it
did not matter to them if their compositions ever reached a large audience. In
some ways, we organists and builders of organs have sought that same shelter
from the demanding reality of public taste and the dynamic opportunity to
engage that large public. We have entertained ourselves with magnificent
duplications of historic organs and academically sanctioned performance styles.
We have sought to replicate the past in an effort to find the future. And the
American musical public has lost interest in our pursuit of historicity, while
we frequently have neglected the dictates of musical aesthetics and
functionality. Now to survive and to thrive we must respond to the needs of the
church, the worshipper, the participant, the listening public. We must relocate
that dynamic which drew thousands of Americans to frequent organ recitals early
in the last century. In short, we must imagine the future rather than copy the
past; we must pursue aesthetic beauty, not confusing it with historic
authenticity; we must energetically seek new beauty rather than to repeat the
beauty of another time and place. In the words of James Russell Lowell,
?Time makes ancient good uncouth.?

In San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas has undertaken a
bold and daring venture to create a new audience for the San Francisco Symphony
Orchestra. He has actively courted those young persons who normally would not
be seen at a concert of classical music. He has implemented innovative
programming, including his own piano improvisation with the surviving members
of the Grateful Dead. He has featured many works which challenge the
traditional envelope of symphonic repertoire. Now he finds that packed houses
grace his concerts, drawn by the creative vitality of his adventuresome
programming and repertoire. He then takes the golden opportunity to introduce
this new audience on the same program to the wonders of Beethoven! style="mso-spacerun: yes">  And it is succeeding brilliantly! Last February
I had the privilege to perform the world premier of Stephen Mackey?s
?Pedal Tones? with this orchestra. The composer, whose own
performing instrument is the electric guitar, infused this score for orchestra
and organ with the idiom of the rock band. It was 30 minutes of sheer sonic
extravaganza. Countless young persons from three capacity audiences commented
?Wow! I?ve never heard a real pipe organ before! It was
awesome!? These people were attracted by the visceral power of the organ,
by its multitude of colors, by its capacity to respond on an equal basis to a
huge orchestra, by its flexibility, the fascination of its console and its
façade.  They were not
concerned with its historic authenticity but purely its sonic splendor. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  I challenge organ builders to focus
upon that sonic and visual splendor, seeking to invent even more beautiful and
diverse timbres and to expand the palette of available sonorities while
retaining the best tonal designs of our heritage; I also challenge performers
and composers to ?push the envelope? of repertoire to reach and to
create a new audience.

In this post-modern era, in which the secular world often
appears to engulf the sacred arena, those who would preserve and promote the
organ must look beyond the traditional church for a new audience. Although I
believe firmly that the ultimate fate and design of the organ are inextricably
tied to the church and its worship practices, I also believe that we must
engage the entire populace with our instrument. A growing number of major
concert halls now house pipe organs, and an expanding number of Americans is
initiated to the instrument in secular concerts, thereby discovering the
majesty and mystery which first attracted each of us to the organ. Could we
devise an agreement whereby every organ builder would resolve to sponsor one
concert hall instrument somewhere in America (with enthusiastic cooperation
from the local concert administrators!) and assist with underwriting the cost
to present and publicize concerts and recitals on that instrument? Just imagine
what that could do to introduce, educate, and motivate a new audience (who in
turn will purchase new organs!). This pattern would be
?out-of-the-box,? but ?Change is inevitable; growth is

Of all performers, we organists are the only ones who
regularly play instruments of varying dimensions and measurements. We deal with
flat pedalboards, radiating pedalboards, flat manuals, tilted manuals,
French-style consoles, American-style consoles, tilt-tabs and stops, and a wide
range of spatial arrangements. Would any pianist or violinist be willing to
cope with such challenges to muscle memory? And it is now well documented that
organists as a group tend to suffer specific long-term physical maladies from
the constant encounter with their beloved console. Some years ago, my doctoral
student, Catherine Burrell, now also a doctor of medicine, based her
dissertation upon the design of an ergonomically structured organ console.
Basing her research upon findings from computer workstations, Catherine
envisioned a console which wrapped around the player, enabling the performed to
access every control with complete ease and facility.  My own physician suggests that we organists need lumbar
support at the console, such as those used by secretaries and computer
operators at their desks. He envisions a flexible lumbar support invention, one
which would respond to movement of the torso while maintaining therapeutic
support to the lower spinal column. He also suggests a circular manual and
pedal configuration patterned after the newer computer keyboards which encircle
the operator. Another challenge, which organists constantly encounter, deals
with the distance between the surface of the bench and the pedalboard. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Since organists are created in varying
sizes, there is no ?one-size-fits-all? solution to this ideal
distance. Therefore, we have invented hymnals to place under the bench and,
more lately, adjustable benches, some of them even motorized! But a high bench,
necessary for those with longer legs, places the arms at a disadvantaged angle
to the keyboards, thereby creating additional problems of its own. Also a high
bench frequently places the performer?s knees in undesirable proximity to
the lower frame of the manuals, potentially even trapping the performer! If the
question involves distance from seat to pedalboard, the obvious solution would
appear to be an adjustable pedalboard, such as the one created for the organ at
the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Why has this concept not been
generally applied elsewhere? I would suggest sincere study of these concepts,
which could eliminate the skeletal problems which many performers encounter.
Could some clever and insightful engineer design such an ergonomically sensible
console? Could such an ergonomically designed console ever become the industry

More than 20 years ago Jean Guillou published his
fascinating and challenging book L?Orgue: Souvenir et Avenir, in which he
details the history and his vision of the future of the organ. He describes in
detail his idea for an ?Organ of Variable Structure,? an instrument
which would be constructed in several separate mobile chambers, which could be
transported with ease to performance locations where no permanent organ would
be feasible. Such an instrument would go far to extend the impact of the organ
to a vast and expanded culture. Who will build such an instrument and make it
available? ?Change is inevitable; growth is optional.?

Much has been written and said about the last
century?s innovation of digital technology, and frequently there has been
more heat than light generated by this conversation. While the larger musical
world has accepted the legitimacy of ?electronic music? for almost
100 years, with composers of the stature of Messiaen and many others writing serious
compositions in this medium, we organists have been loathe to accept this
expansion to the resources of the pipe organ. I would suggest that the secret
of the organ?s longevity has been the ability and willingness of builders
and performers throughout history to accept and to adopt the best of every
innovation throughout 2250 years of history.  Now the former National President of AGO, Dr. Philip Hahn,
has written: ?I have opened my ears to the latest technology. My soul has
been stirred.? (The American Organist, February 2001) I believe that the
time has arrived for us to catch up to our musical colleagues and to think
openly and creatively about the fascinating opportunities which are available
to expand our tonal resources and to bring a vital new era to the noble history
of the organ. Might we please evaluate the aesthetic worth of this new sonic
resource from experience rather than from obstinate fear? Might we postpone
writing the review until the performance has concluded?

So, what will be the future of the organ? style="mso-spacerun: yes">  To be sure, the future will not be the
past, although it must be informed by the spirit of the past. It has been said
that ?If we fail to evaluate ourselves historically, we shall be
condemned to evaluate ourselves hysterically!? And what is that spirit of
the past? I believe that it has always been a readiness to adapt to innovation,
to serve changing liturgical and cultural needs, and to emulate the finest
aesthetic concepts of every era. By this means our ancestors have given to us
an instrument which encompasses stylistic innovations and changes from the
original genius of Ktesibios in 250 B.C. through the onset of the 21st century.
Let us summon the courage to continue the noble pattern of our forebears to
accept, adopt, adapt, modify, and utilize every creative opportunity. We have
been given an instrument which universally encompasses the history of our
musical heritage. May we continue the open-minded creativity which has
characterized the greatest names among our forebears! May we create yet a new
and even grander era for the organ, so that ever more people may be inspired by
this instrument, and so that in the 22nd century our descendants may know that
we saved, expanded, and delivered this noble heritage to them! style='mso-tab-count:1'>