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The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

August 15, 2014

Assumpta est Maria

evelyn @ 7:38 pm
Assumpta est Maria

There wasn’t an enormous crowd at the morning Mass – most parishioners had probably been at last night’s Vigil – but I was still able to bring out all the stops on this Feast Day of the Assumption. The hymns were all hymns to Our Lady, and as usual with hymns to Our Lady, the singing was first-rate.

This enthusiasm suggests that devotion to the Virgin Mary could be an instinctive thing with Catholics. It certainly goes back centuries, and was one of the causes of the Reformation. Why the Reformers objected, I never understood, but this isn’t a theological blog, so I won’t pursue the question. Also puzzling is the apparent side-lining of Our Lady in Catholic liturgy after Vatican II, but let’s not pursue that either, as its effect on hymns features in an earlier blog post.

Coming back to today’s music, we had I’ll sing a hymn to Mary – without the wicked men, alas! – but still sung lustily. The other hymn that has made it through the shoals of the twentieth century is Hail Queen of heaven, which we sang at the end. There was also My soul is filled with joy. This paraphrase of the Magnificat is sung to the melody of the ‘Wild mountain thyme’. Although the ‘Wild mountain thyme’ song itself is in copyright, no-one can work out whether the tune is Irish or Scottish, or how old it is.* All the hymnals have it in 4/4 time, but I play it, possibly Scottish-fashion, in 6/8, a steady 2-in-a-bar, boosting the stops at ‘through all generations’. The response from the people below is always excellent.

Before Mass, I improvised on some of the older, forgotten Marian hymn tunes, and the exit voluntary was Schubert’s Ave Maria. All very satisfying.

Must go and listen to Palestrina now …

*For what it’s worth, I didn’t meet this tune when working on my PhD in early Scottish secular music, although there were one or two seventeenth-century melodies not unlike it. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t early, just that without the survival of a written-down version, we can’t tell.


August 8, 2014

Bridal chit-chat (15) – the non-weddings

evelyn @ 12:32 pm
Bridal chit-chat (15) - the non-weddings


Bridal chit-chat has been off the radar for a bit, mainly because for one reason or another I haven’t been able to play at many weddings. But now weddings are coming into view again, and I thought I would start the season by recollecting three weddings which never were.


In the first of these cases, they booked me, then all went suspiciously quiet, always a warning sign. It wasn’t my own church, so I eventually phoned the bride’s home, and got her mother.

‘The wedding’s off! It’s been off for ages!’
Her tone made it clear that I was stupid not to have known that.

‘Someone could have told me’, I suggested mildly.

‘Huh!’ she snorted, and I gave up, deciding not to pursue the matter with such a termagant, from whom the prospective bridegroom had no doubt fled in terror.

In the second case, the bride’s father had been a parishioner of ours before moving to Edinburgh. He phoned from his new home to tell me his daughter wanted to get married in her former church, and would I play? Weeks then passed in silence, so I phoned. The bride herself answered and, coward that she was, said I should speak to her Dad. Dad came to the phone, full of embarrassment and apologies. They had decided the wedding should be in the Edinburgh church after all, and had forgotten to tell me. I wondered if they’d forgotten to un-book the original church as well.

The third non-wedding was much more dramatic, and the only one I have ever pulled out of. The bride’s mother, an incredibly rude and overbearing woman, was ‘running this wedding’ (her words), and insisted, two days before the ceremony, that I was most definitely going to accompany ‘her’ soloist, even though the promised music had failed to arrive, and I had no idea of its content, technical level or indeed whether it was suitable for organ at all. When I pointed this out, the woman became downright objectionable, and I told her to find another organist.

My spies informed me that she did manage to find someone else to play, but even so, I felt a bit guilty about the bride, who was pleasant and rather meek (understandably, I suppose). I sent her a note of apology, referring her to her mother for the explanation, and wishing her well for the future. No doubt her new husband would shield her from the old bat that was to be his mother-in-law (no, I didn’t put that in the note).

The music for the solo arrived two days after the wedding.


August 1, 2014

The Sign of … well, Tension, mainly.

evelyn @ 8:40 pm

Apparently the Vatican has been reconsidering the Sign of Peace, both its placing in the liturgy, and how far it should go, in every sense.

The Sign of Peace has never been my favourite part of the post-Vatican II Mass. Sometimes a priest will come down and shake hands with all and sundry, while at other times he’ll content himself with greeting the altar servers. Among the people, the sign in question can vary from the newly-weds’ Smooch of Peace, through the friendly Bear-hug of Peace and the assertive bone-cracking Grip of Peace to the distant and barely-touching Slither of Peace.

My husband finds the custom a complete embarrassment and loathes it far more than I do. Though not Catholic himself, he accompanies me to Mass a lot, especially when we’re on holiday. In one dark medieval French church, he managed to find a pillar near the door, behind which he planned to dodge at this point in the Mass. It was no good. The priest got his large squad of altar servers to fan out and target every single person in the congregation. Forced out of his hiding-place, my poor husband had to shake hand after hand, all the time muttering something which might or might not have been French.

Organists have to be on major alert at the Sign of Peace. The Agnus Dei follows it immediately, so you have to watch like a hawk for the Fraction (breaking) of the Host, which is the Agnus signal. If the priest leaves the altar to shake hands with people, you have to keep him in view constantly. At the same time you have to fend off people trying to pull your own hand off the keys in order to shake it. Sometimes you even have to hiss ‘Get out of the way!’ to those who decide to shake hands or embrace across your bows, blocking your view of where the priest has got to.

No, the Sign of Peace for the organist is anything but peaceful. Rather, it is one of the biggest tension-creating moments in any service.

You can read more about the Vatican’s plans on Father Z’s blog, while my very favourite blogger, Eccles, has some hilarious observations to make here.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of creating a notice for my own organ, to be brandished at the ‘Let us offer each other …’ moment:



July 25, 2014

Where is everyone?

evelyn @ 7:23 pm

I’ve just done a short update of the Mass page. Very little seems to be happening regarding liturgical music, and I’m wondering if I’ve somehow got out of the loop. Even though July is not the busiest of months, you would think the advertising of autumn events would be starting, but the only one I’ve heard of, and that was by chance, was the Cumnock special music day in September.

The Forth in Praise website has the facility to advertise events, to link to composers’ websites and to point people towards official announcements concerning music in the liturgy.

But it’s all a big blank at the moment, and I have to make do with stories about piano-playing cats.

One exception, I have to admit, is indefatigable composer Eugene Burns, who does keep in touch. A few months ago, he sent me his new St Magdalene Sanctus and Acclamations, which I have tried out in my own parish with some success. He has now uploaded the music to his website, with the usual copyright proviso – freely available for a single parish, which means you can copy it for your whole congregation if you want. Thanks, Eugene.

But where is everybody else?

July 18, 2014

A Wonderful O-Puss!

evelyn @ 6:10 pm
A Wonderful O-Puss!


I don’t usually post twice in one day, but a friend has just sent me
the link to this video, which you must, must look at if you haven’t
already come across it.

It’s beautiful, and so, so clever! Well done, composer and conductor
Mindaugas Piecaitis – and soloist, Nora.



House-keeping (2)

evelyn @ 9:45 am

Have now added the Index by Date of posts. Indexes go up to the end of June 2014. Have still to work out an updating strategy …

July 11, 2014

He who sings prays twice? Really?

evelyn @ 3:42 pm

‘I can’t believe it’s as long ago as 2011 that the new liturgy came in.’

So mused a friend who had been looking at last week’s Index by Title page. In his parish, he continued, they sing one refrain Gloria, one Sanctus – always the same ones – and the usual hymns. ‘It’s as if the new liturgy never happened’, he concluded.

And so it is. The practical problems which hit parish liturgical music with Vatican II are still with us. The 2011 change of words has done nothing. Indeed, it has added an obstacle or two.

Personally, I think the Second Vatican Council’s vision of EVERYONE singing the Mass has set parishes a truly impossible task. Many parishes have done their best by learning ONE example of each part of the Mass for singing EVERY Sunday. A widespread interpretation of the Vatican II instruction seems to be that singing – any form or quality of singing – is better than speaking. ‘He who sings, prays twice’ is often quoted.

But is the prayer really better when one is totally and utterly bored by singing it to the same tune week after week after week?

To introduce a variety of Mass settings is the obvious solution, but this has been made very difficult with issues such as expense, copyright, approval committees, teaching, learning, finding resources, information or support … I won’t go on.

On the subject of the ‘prays twice’ quotation, American Father Z makes an interesting point on his blog:

  • St. Augustine of Hippo … is often quoted as having said “He who sings, prays twice.”  The Latin cited for this is “Qui bene cantat bis orat or “He who sings well prays twice”.

A-ha! The word ‘bene’ makes all the difference. I think it must refer to the soaring, uplifting feeling one gets when the singing of sacred music is just right. When the congregation responds gloriously to a wonderful tune. When the organist uses the stops to respond in turn to the people. Reeds on final verse. That’s ‘bene’. That’s praying twice. But it nearly always happens with hymns, rather than Mass settings.

So unless a major upheaval takes place with regard to the music, and not just the words of the Mass, I think I’d rather sometimes just pray once.

July 4, 2014


evelyn @ 1:25 pm

July. The slack time. Mass reverts to the Sundays of the Year. Priests on holiday. Choir on summer break. Organ pupils at the seaside. Weather in typical British fashion varying from downpours to hot sunshine (today is a downpour).

Time to tidy up the blog a bit.

It’s amazing to think that it will be five years in October since the blog began, so I thought a bit of indexing might be in order. I’ve made a provisional though not perfect start with an Index by Title, giving links to everything. Similar indexes by date and subject to follow. Then I’ll try to tidy up the peripheral detail on main and index pages, and maybe weed out less relevant stuff. It’s quite fun exploring the technology.

But I’ve just realised that today at least is far from being a slack time for the blog’s surprisingly large number of American readers. Have a happy day, all of you!

(image by ChristArt.com)

June 27, 2014

It’s happened again!

evelyn @ 4:31 pm

This is getting ridiculous. I gave my second organ lesson last Saturday. On the Sunday another pupil – let’s call him Martin – received compliments on his playing, this time at the early-morning Mass. He texted me to say he’d decided to experiment with last verse stop changes, and had got ‘rave reviews’. When I arrived at the church later in the morning, our priest met me in the car park to tell me how well Martin had played.

Time to pause and consider this phenomenon. It can’t be due to my teaching experience – this was only lesson two, for heaven’s sake – nor do I possess a Harry Potter-style magic wand. It can only be that these are people with considerable musical ability who don’t understand the fundamental nature of the organ. When once (and I mean just once!) a feature is pointed out to them – wow! They apply it with instant success.

Some readers will think I’m being incredibly naïve here about something very obvious, but this is a matter that directly affects the standard of liturgy in the average Catholic parish. It isn’t the same in churches, even Catholic churches, where organists are paid professionals. But in parishes where organists are unpaid, persuading a pianist out of the pews and then leaving him or her to sink or swim with an instrument that nobody understands is regrettably quite common. And I suppose you can’t blame priest or parish council for their lack of what is in effect specialised knowledge.

I really feel that our Church could do more at diocesan and national level to help amateur parish organists. There must be many of them out there, doing their best to play an instrument which they don’t understand. And all the while the most basic bits of information could transform their performance.

It clearly doesn’t take much to effect the transformation. The personal touch of a lesson may not even be necessary. A booklet of handy hints could be sufficient.

Maybe I should start writing one …

Or wait!  Let’s not get carried away.  Maybe I  just have extra-special organ pupils, who happen to be coming for lessons at just the right time.  We shall see.

June 20, 2014

Bringing them in

evelyn @ 1:17 pm
Bringing them in

Am preparing another lesson for the troops. They’ve been asking about the organ introduction to hymns and Mass parts. So while getting together all the usual advice on this topic, I find myself remembering with some embarrassment one or two of my own experiences of this aspect of organ playing.

I discovered the hard way that the Church of Scotland really has the introduction business sussed. The first time I ever played for an ecumenical service, I got quite a shock.  It was in my own church during the old harmonium days when the instrument was down at the front.  I was a real rookie, although I should have been warned by the presence of all the nearby hats that the other churches were there in force.

At the end of my two-line introduction to the first hymn, it was as if someone had pressed a button. The hats all stood up as one – instantly. Anyone who knows Catholic congregations will understand my astonishment at this level of discipline. A rush of adrenalin nearly had me off the harmonium bench – did I think they were going to attack me? – and there was probably a longer gap than there should have been before the start of the first verse.

Since then I’ve played at many C of S services, and am used to this phenomenon. Even in the funeral parlour it works. Most people there are not church-goers, but a sign from the minister at the end of the introduction does the trick, and I duly wait until they are all on their feet.

Another memory was of a long-ago holiday in France, the land of organ improvisation. At Mass in a biggish town in the south-west, I was enchanted when the organist’s opening improvisation effortlessly turned into the introduction to the first hymn, to which the people responded immediately. ‘Must try that at home’, I thought.

I did. It was a disaster. Either the French, being used to improvisation, come in naturally, or that particular organist had them trained. All I got in my own church gallery was a feeling of ‘huh?’ from down below.  I had to stop, wait a beat or two, then provide the proper introduction, while priest and altar-servers no doubt wondered what the hold-up was.

Ah, well. We live and learn.

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