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So you want to be an organist?

3 October, 2014 0 Comments

R. J. Stove, in reminiscent mood, has attempted to oblige tyros with his thoughts on what Mozart called the King of Instruments

The year:  1999. The scene: the choral rehearsal room, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, five minutes before Sunday Mass. The chief organist was away ill. The deputy chief organist was running late. The assistant deputy chief organist was incomprehensibly incommunicado (no texting or social media facilities then, naturellement). An understandable balefulness characterised the conductor’s desperate enquiry of the assembled singers: ‘Is there anyone here with organ-playing experience?’

" organ for home use"? (St John's Church, Vilnius University.)

One sheepish hand in the back row went up. That hand belonged to its no less sheepish owner: yours truly.

‘Right,’ announced the conductor, rearranging his features into a smile at once enthusiastic and grim, like that of Stalin emerging from Yalta. ‘You’re it.

And it came to pass that I, whose own background in the organist’s art consisted mostly of fingering the wretched little electronic-plastic keyboard contraptions known in the trade as ‘burp boxes’ – they sound as if a Las Vegas crematorium would reject them for undue bad taste – found myself giving a cathedral rendition at five minutes’ notice. Admittedly, the piece was the accompaniment to Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, so it is not as if they required me to dispatch The Flight of the Bumble-Bee. The anecdote nonetheless encapsulates the organist’s life, the extent to which that life depends on improvisation of schedules, even where it fails to necessitate improvisation of actual music. How many pianists, violinists, or bassoonists would ever have to step forward with no rehearsal at 2:55pm for an assembled 3pm audience of hundreds?

Assuming you have ever considered becoming an organist, then be aware that no sane person contemplates that livelihood from purely mercenary motives. Even the profession’s biggest names – England’s Jennifer Bate, America’s Paul Jacobs, France’s Olivier Latry – must make do with payments for which neither Katy Perry nor indeed Lang Lang would get out of bed. But if the organ bug has bitten you at all, it is unlikely to release its teeth through mere confrontation with your doubtless wizened bank balance. Organ-playing possesses a strangely addictive nature once you have seriously begun it, and the desire for further such playing suggests that riff from The Little Shop of Horrors: ‘Feed me! Feed me!’

As to how you slake this appetite, three mutually exclusive scenarios are involved:

(a)  You live in the USA.
(b)  You live in France or Germany.
(c)  You live somewhere else.

Scenarios (a) and (b) hardly concern us. If (a) applies to you, then you have already won the jackpot, and will be surrounded – whether or not you appreciate the fact – with a repository of liturgical and educational activism, not to mention filthy lucre, which will ensure that (as my late father said about his own pampered students at Sydney University) ‘the challenge is to fail.’ If (b) applies to you, then you have already won a somewhat smaller jackpot, and will find yourself marvelling at how nations denounced by umpteen Texas Baptists as mere de facto caliphates manage to maintain a thriving musical culture in their churches at all. So again, you need no counsel from myself. What follows reflects hard-won experience in category (c), above all hard-won antipodean experience, evoking Cecily Cardew’s admonition to Algernon Moncrieff (The Importance of Being Earnest): ‘you [will] have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.’

The first step involves arranging organ lessons. Mozart and Mendelssohn no more needed organ lessons than they needed the proverbial third nostril. You, being in every respect a lesser mortal than they, will need lessons in abundance, above all to acquire basic pedal-playing talent. As to where you find training, your approach should be similar to shopping around for a piano or mathematics tutor. Due diligence, almost absurdly simple online, is your ally. What are Teacher X’s formal qualifications? Has Teacher Y passed the relevant exams of Trinity College in London, or some other respected seat of learning? Is Teacher Z on the sex offenders’ register? It scarcely counts as rocket science, particularly if you live in a large or even middle-sized city.

Second comes the use of a practice organ. After the initial few months, constantly trying to reserve blocks of practice time in an often freezing (even if gratis) church gets really, really old. So you will need an instrument for home use. Here too the Internet can aid you, particularly if a nearby parish – not necessarily Catholic – is closing down and wishes urgently to off-load its organ to a conscientious purchaser. Me, I commenced in pre-Internet days with a small digital organ (limited pedal-board) by the Netherlands’ Johannus firm. Eventually I switched to a much bigger, two-manual, full-pedal-board machine (also digital, but manufactured by the Allen company) which I imported all the way from Pennsylvania and which I use to this hour. Yet in 2014, I have heard of tyros obtaining serviceable bargain-priced organs, even diminutive pipe organs, by no more abstruse a method than an eBay auction. A buyer’s market reigns now.

As with a piano, so with an organ: aim not for the cheapest and nastiest instrument you can possibly endure, but for the best instrument you can possibly afford. Digital organs will usually come with headphone sockets. These sockets have their clear value for any apartment-dweller who wishes to practise fortissimo passages without angering the neighbours, although of course you might have other civic priorities if your own neighbours adhere to the Islamic State.

Do not stint on a satisfactory pair of organist’s shoes. Though at least one bespoke store in Massachusetts vends such objects, the most comfortable pair I ever acquired came from, improbably, a Melbourne costumier for ballroom dancers. I baulked at the pumps’ initial price of $200, but I have gained more than a decade’s wear from them, and they are in better shape than I.

Within six months of your first lesson at what Mozart – and the mediaeval Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut before him – called ‘the King of Instruments’, word might well have reached the Catholic grapevine that you can play. Rare is the organist who must beg for pretexts to perform. Such pretexts are likelier to sound you out, than you to sound them out. Sooner or later the nearby padre (let us call him Father Jones) will probably telephone you and ask if you can assist, in a few Sundays’ time, for a feast-day’s musical events. This is where even, or especially, the most inspired musician tends to impede his chances.

It cannot be stressed with enough fervour that any organ-playing you do at Father Jones’s behest is a commonsensical business arrangement.  Father Jones, assuming he has any intelligence, is hiring your services in the same spirit with which he seeks the services of a mechanic for repairing his car, or a plumber for unblocking his drains. Your job is to reach some commercial agreement with him. Your job is not to treat him to half-baked monologues on Medjugorje, the Hypostatic Union, the supernal thrills of the Liber Usualis, whether the consecration of Russia has or has not followed Our Lady of Fatima’s mandate, or the apocalyptic moral consequences of insufficient Montessori schooling. Probably he had heard, and forgotten, the contents of all such crazed tirades before you were even born. Recall Evelyn Waugh’s warning to Nancy Mitford when she essayed theological conjecture: ‘Your intrusions into this strange world are always fatuous.’

If you cannot play a hymn, then you cannot play jack.

If your organ-playing is good enough for regular parochial service, you merit pay. You will not get huge amounts of pay (as noted above), but you should get some. Surely by now we have seen the last of the ‘do it for Jesus’ brigade who assert that you should be inextricably stuck in volunteer mode. This mindset is a mere historical mishap, deriving from the time when an almost infinite number of monastic and conventual drudges existed to carry out musical – and other – tasks for literally nothing.  Such a situation will not re-occur in our lifetimes or in our grandchildren’s.

Again, commonsense is your friend. Nobody advocates that you swagger into the presbytery like Arthur Scargill, with a praetorian guard of Marxist-Leninist yobs.  But there is a vast difference between thuggish threats and, on the other hand, resembling a cross between Uriah Heep and a keening toothless grandmother being dragged from the ruins of a Bangladeshi textile plant. Exponents of the latter syndrome far outnumber aggressive shop-stewards. And should any layperson (priests usually have more brains) berate you for insisting on payment, your most unanswerable rejoinder to such a layperson comprises two simple words: ‘Rerum Novarum.’

Need one say, Rerum Novarum imposes responsibilities as well as granting rights. Much of your employment will involve hymn-playing, and you have a duty to ignore snickering from the local wiseacres about this genre (‘four-hymn sandwich’ is their preferred epithet for it). In truth, if you cannot play a hymn, then you cannot play jack.

Countless organ recitalists out there have techniques comparable to the great Marcel Dupré’s, but when confronted with the simplest hymn-tune, they are an embarrassment. This is because, for all their pyrotechnic brilliance, they just never listen to what congregations – let alone choristers – are doing. Either they accompany the hymn so softly and timidly that the organ might as well have fallen silent. Or, more unfortunate still, they drown out the entire vocal contribution by inflicting on five consecutive verses the same screeching trumpet and trombone stops, redolent of nothing so much as SS tanks barrelling into the Warsaw Ghetto. Always recollect that a good hymn is, albeit in miniature, as much an art-form as the longest symphony or opera. Those in our midst who, while calling themselves Catholic, deride hymns are too morally and aesthetically bankrupt to deserve them.

Supposing a particular hymn displeases you, it remains your role to perform it with as much nobility and skill as you can. Actually, most organists do appreciate this. It is among choirmasters that unmusical self-importance and the Scargill mentality are much more frequent. I shall never forget one Sunday evening in a necessarily nameless Australian diocese, where such a choirmaster felt so uncontrollable an aversion to a recessional hymn that he channelled Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (‘Everybody out!’) and stormed from the church, followed by his choir.  Somehow we rendered the hymn with a hastily assembled band of altar-servers, for whose voices I provided organ support, despite the impossibility of adequate rehearsal.

So nobody ever said that the organist’s calling would be unalloyed fun. Yet it has its splendours as well as its miseries. And the miseries can seldom be predicted. One of them, which I have cited before, I cannot resist citing again. An elderly lady once approached me after Mass. She asked me if I had been the organist. I admitted that I had been. During the Mass, I had included various short works by Mendelssohn, Bach, César Franck, and other composers generally credited with eminence. Alas, I seem to have irked her by so doing. And she told me, ‘I wish you’d play something beautiful.’

That’s the organist’s life for you. Even the insults stay in the mind forever.

R.  .J  Stove lives in Melbourne and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Maryland, 2012).

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