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Sunday, 21 February 2010
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part II: Or, the Demon of Faddism
Topic: Music Commentary

When was the last time you:  1) paid to hear an organ recital, or 2) even went to an organ recital?  Yeah, I thought so.  Why is it that organ recitals are so confoundedly somnolent?  I realise this may startle that marginal and cloistered group of people who are devoted organ music fans; but, trust me folks, to the majority of classical music lovers (who are already an infinitesimal microcosm of American culture) the organ is a loud,  often shrill, usually monotonal monstrosity; and is at best, to be avoided, primarily because of the people who are associated with the thing.

Over the past four or five generations the organ accumulated a lot of baggage; going from one of the most popular instruments in America and Europe to virtual pariah status.  And, notwithstanding a number of efforts by the American Guild of Organists (AGO) to generate interest in the organ, it still remains the purview of a pretty self-indulgent, insular group; and is, therefore, largely dismissed as a legitimate concert instrument.  Most major music competitions which involve more than one instrumental category don't include the organ because it's generally assumed that no one can make a living as a concert organist: at least here in the USA.

I've already touched on some of the more obvious, and lighter baggage such as Lizzie Leftfoot and horror movies; however, in this second part I plan to focus on a lesser considered, yet more serious aspect of this "monotony" onus, and that has to do with classical musical trends and their influence on both organ builders and organists.  

When the "Early Music"/"Period Instruments"/"Authentic Performance"/"What-Have-You" movement was taking hold of the classical music world, the New Music and Anti-Romantic movements paralleled as part of a backlash against what was considered to be the overtly sumptuous, oversized, decadent remnants of Le Belle Epoch and the English Victorian periods preceding World War I.  The immense destruction and gratuitous murder of millions through the wanton perfunctoriness of modern war machinery left a dystopic society disillusioned about the past and pessimistic about the future.  The arts hypostatised the quest for a newer society based on the here-and-now and a more empirical world view than the speculative metaphysics of the 19th Century.  Representation in the arts acceded to abstraction, the emotional to the cerebral.  The opulent and ornate were out, austerity and clarity were in. The clean, spare lines of the "new" exhorted the efficiencies of the The Machine Age.  Architects like Wright, van der Rohe, and Gropius; artist/sculptors like Cezanne, Brancusi, Mondrian,  Picasso, Gaudier-Breska,; writers like Pound, Eliot, Michaux, Hemingway, Lewis; dancer/choreographers like Graham, Balanchine, Nijinska; and composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Ives, Varese not only eschewed the what they thought to be the excessiveness of the 19th Century, but openly rebuked it.  Rather, they looked back to the moderation of Classical Greece and (more so with music) the Age of Enlightenment for their wellspring of inspiration.  The term Neo-Classical entered the vernacular of the arts.

Music being the most abstract of the art forms there was a natural affinity for many musicians to this more classical, abstract approach to the arts.  No longer was there the impetus for composers to try and paint pictures with notes as had been attempted with the orchestral tone-poem or with picturesque titles (which, of course used words to describe the character or emotions to be conveyed by the piece).  Composers could return to the craft of musical composition.  The discipline of Musicology became a serious endeavour.  Although music historians couldn't practically return to the Age of Pericles they could dig back to the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and especially the Baroque were there were written records i.e., books and pamphlets, by principals of the time which elucidated, often in painstaking detail, to colleagues and novices matters of music theory, proper performance style, technique, and instrument construction.  This quest for historically accurate — more scientific if you will — manner of performing plus resurrecting long forgotten music coincided neatly with the modern neo-classical, no frills fashion of the age.  Performers and instrument makers began to examine Palestrina, Bach and Handel with a greater concern for not only the appropriate resources, but, just as importantly, the proper æsthetic. Along with the gut strung, shorter bridged violins and valveless wind instruments, and the resurrection of instruments such as the lute, recorder and harpsichord came the eschewing of all vibrato and what had come to be considered excessive, even unctuous legato. 

The organ world eventually caught on to this trend.  This trend not unlike other trends or fashions began to have a life of its own.  Whereas in the orchestral, vocal, instrumental world the Romantic, though considered outré by "the movement" was still able to coexist with it.  Architecture and organ building had disastrous consequences.  The the lust for the "new" led to the destruction or mutilation of grand buildings from all periods; however, the 19th Century received the brunt of the massacre.  Gloriously ornate Second Empire, Greek and Gothic Revival buildings were replaced with vapid, colourless, soulless, metal, cement and glass boxes posing as the new, the modern, the efficient.  Perhaps the quintessential example of this perverted thinking was the destruction of New York City's Penn Station, a truly magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture on a grand scale; only to be levelled and then, to add insult to injury, replaced by Madison Square Garden, easily one of the ugliest buildings conceived by the mind of man.  Such was also the fate of pipe organs around the country.  Organists, not wanting to be left behind jumped onto the band wagon with gusto. Following the dictates of this new scholarship, one of these newly minted organist/scholars would be hired at a church, find a late 19th or early 20th Century instrument and immediately start a campaign to convince the members of the church that their organ was all wrong and needed either rebuilding or replacement. Organs by master organ builders of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were either completely gutted or were "updated" to make them "historically correct."  The end usually resulted in instruments so restricted that they could only play music from the 17th and 18th Centuries and the new bare bones music of the 20th Century, or so badly mutilated as to render them useless for any repertoire.   

  At the same time music schools became more and more isolated from the general music public.  The Ivy Leagues with their focus on the purely academic led the way with their emphases on Musicology, Theory and Composition.  Treatise after treatise permeated the music world and professor after professor exhorted young musicians what as to what was considered the "correct" way of playing Bach and his contemporaries; that anything that smacked of the Romantic or the emotional in music was frowned upon if not openly ridiculed.  The only possible exception allowed was the "affect" in Baroque music, a form of ornamentation that was suppose give a piece some sort of contrived emotional content.  Peer pressure, especially among an already cloistered group can be a destructive thing to the individual creative artist.  Such destructiveness has become very evident with the plethora of virtual zombie organists graduating from prestigious music schools, whose photos show up in the adds of inept concert managers which fill the pages of The American Organist magazine. Organists who, as Stephen Best so succinctly describes in On Passionate Music Making had lost or forgotten why they became musicians at all:

"I've started listening more closely to former students who have moved on to college organ study at some of America's most distingished schools, keeping in mind the question my colleague posed [“Why is it that when students come home after studying with all kinds of well-known teachers, they don't play as well as they did in high school when they studied with you?”]. And you know, at times I think he may be right! I hear highly polished technique and great attention to historic performance practice, but I hear dry and unmoving performances. The passionate music-making that characterized high school days has disappeared! Isn't anyone teaching it any more? Where are the other voices in the wilderness who cry with me: “No, technique by itself is NOT enough!”

Unfortunately, those voices were squelched by the disinterested, historically correct elite of musical philology who are more interested in determining if that speck is a dotted note or just a piece of fly dung.

Needless to say, organ builders saw gold "in them thar sanctuaries."  The lust for authentic, Schnitger style "Werkprinzip" organs became all the rage.   Everybody had to jump on the band wagon; from early, earnestly sincere, yet (as was discovered after much damage had been done) misdirected devotees like Holtkamp, Flentrop and Schlicker with their free-standing pipes, to rabid later converts like Lawrence Phelps at Casavant (who later prostituted himself to become Allen Organ's bitch) and Robert Sipe at Æolian-Skinner, to the Johnny-come-lately's at Möller and Austin who really didn't give a damn about "the cause," they saw a whole new market for pipe organs in an effort to fend off the spreading virus of electronic organs.  Not unlike what happened in the recording industry when CD's appeared on the market and everyone wanted to replace their LP's with the latest thing that was supposed to be so much better. Suddenly churches were replacing instruments originally designed to accompany choirs and congregations in buildings with distinctly American non-reverberant acoustics with organs full of spitting ("chiffing") tissue paper foundation stops and an overabundance of upper work. 

Now, don't get me wrong; a well designed German or French Baroque style instrument (of which most of these new American instruments were poor imitations), with all of its  associated upper work is designed for an highly reverberant European church; and, in its proper setting can be a scintillating and crystalline sounding organ.  That's because of the architecture of most European churches and basilicas which have anywhere from two to ten seconds of reverberation. From a practical standpoint, with money being a very scarce commodity in the 16th and 17th Centuries, a relatively small instrument had to be designed that could fill a very large, very crowded nave (back then you HAD to go to church) so that Günter in the back of the church could hear the chorale melody in order to sing along.  Moreover, they were designed for a specific cultural æsthetic for the time: an æsthetic alien to most people today. So, if you take this same scintillating, crystalline European organ, or one designed like it, and place it into an American church with its "dead" acoustics, the bloody thing screams at you.  This is essentially what was done during the decades from the late 40's through most of the 90's.  Then there is the further associated complication of purely mechanical ("tracker") keyboard action as opposed to electrical (including electro-pneumatic) action, which I'll get into in Part III of this polemic.

There are still companies and "consultants" who still insist that German or French Baroque design is the only "true" organ design and continue to shove their dogma down the throats of unsuspecting churches.  And of course, the result is tens of thousands more will learn to despise the organ as a loud, shrieky instrument played by an unimaginative, pedantic organ "scholar" or Lizzie.  Is it any wonder why the organ has become so unpopular?


Posted by ralph.fisher at 11:52 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 21 February 2010 11:55 PM EST
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