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The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

September 19, 2014

A personal problem

evelyn @ 4:05 pm

I usually post on a Friday, but this week the Scottish independence referendum seems to have paralysed my thinking.   I’ve been genuinely worried about what it would mean if I were to lose my British nationality.

You see, I’m one of the many people – I’ve heard us called Anglo-Scots – in whom Scotland and England are equally represented. Born in England, brought up in Scotland. Scottish father, English mother. Living in Scotland, married to an Englishman, who is an expert in Scottish architectural history. My own academic research on Scottish music at a Scottish university. The two countries are fused together within me, and I am proud of both, and very happy to be British. But if the two components were pulled apart, where would that leave me, and those like me? Stateless? Forced to choose?

However, it’s all over now, and I’m still British.

So, back to business.  There’s a really special ‘bridal chit-chat’ post just waiting in the wings …


September 12, 2014

A light mystery

evelyn @ 2:33 pm

On holiday in rural England in January, I had hopes of getting a chance to try out the two organs in the centuries-old Anglican church beside the cottage we had rented. One was a heritage organ, the other a respectable electronic. I was delighted to be given permission and the key to a small door at the east end of the church, behind the altar.

Both organs were at the other end of the church, by the main door, as was the bank of light switches. Although it was early afternoon and still daylight, my husband insisted on switching all the church lights on, saying I would need them in an hour or so. Before he left me to my own devices he gave me a torch. ‘Once you’ve switched off all the lights, you’ll need this to make your way up the aisle to the door we came in at. Mind the altar steps, there’s a trailing wire on the carpet there.’

The organs were lovely, and I didn’t register the disappearing daylight. Eventually, I looked up and saw that two hours had passed and all the church windows were dark. I closed down and switched off the organs. Then, torch on, I switched off all the lights.

I expected the church now to be in total darkness, apart from my torch. Instead, I found myself staring at a single bright light, far away at the east end, where no light should have been. It seemed to be coming up from the floor in front of the altar. I was certain it had not been there earlier when we had switched on the other lights, and if it had come on in the interim, surely I would have noticed it? Maybe not, maybe not. I had been totally organ-focused. But what could it be?

Three possible answers:

  1. It was an ordinary light on a timer switch, which had come on for some reason I couldn’t fathom.
  2. It was a burglar alarm sensor, and the police were already on their way.
  3. It was supernatural (oooh! shiver!).

Sadly, I had to discount the thrill of the supernatural. I am the most un-psychic person I know, and have never had a spooky experience that wasn’t explained. The burglar alarm idea had to be abandoned, too. The police would have been here by this time, and in any case, these alarms don’t provide burglars with warning lights.

So it looked as if the timer theory was the most likely.

With the help of the torch I went up the aisle and had a long look at the mystery light. It was a single electric bulb in a holder. It sat on the carpeted floor and was attached to the trailing wire my husband had mentioned. Close to, it was blindingly bright. But what was it there for? To light the way of people like me? Should I try to find its socket and put it off? I decided not to interfere, but to mention it when I handed back the key.


‘Oh, yes,’ said the lady, ‘That light is timed to come on at dusk each evening and stays on all night. It goes off in the morning’.

‘But why?‘, I asked.

‘To confuse the bats,’ was the reply. ‘We’re absolutely fed up having to clean their droppings off the carpet.’


Well, well. I hadn’t thought of that one.



September 5, 2014

Keyboard thoughts

evelyn @ 3:32 pm
Keyboard thoughts

The other day I played a keyboard for a funeral service. I had been asked to stand in for the regular organist at a funeral parlour. This wasn’t my usual funeral parlour, which has an electronic piano (see here for my thoughts on electronic pianos!).

The keyboard proved surprisingly responsive, although like all these instruments it was light-weight and needed gentle handling. As it happens, I own a simpler version of this particular make of keyboard, and I had come prepared for the usual disadvantages – hand-operated volume control, sloping surface sending any spare music to the floor, an open piece of bent metal as a music-rest which anything A5-size will fall through. Having sorted these out, however, I found this keyboard’s organ sounds to be far superior to mine. A really rich hymn accompaniment, and a pleasant quieter one for coming-in music. There were one or two other sounds which proved useful in varying the tone. And – joy, oh, joy! – touch-sensitivity could be disabled!

One small incident took me by surprise. The minister announced a pause for people to reflect in silence, and with a little click the keyboard dutifully switched itself off.  Drat, I thought, I should have been ready for this economy feature. It will probably go and reset itself when I switch on again, but I can’t risk fiddling with settings in this deep hush. Just don’t let him ask for a hymn immediately afterwards. He didn’t, and all was well.

All in all, I would say that in a parlour or small chapel setting, a keyboard with a good organ sound does far better than an electronic piano. The difference in price between the two instruments probably runs into thousands, but the only advantage of the more expensive electronic piano is that it looks better, which is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Obviously, the ideal for this type of situation is a small organ, electronic or even pipe (dream on!), but failing that, give me a good keyboard any time.

I do hope I get asked back.

August 29, 2014

Bless me, Father …

evelyn @ 9:49 am

The Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass can contain a huge pitfall for the unwary organist. There are three variants, all of which include

(1) the ‘Lord, have mercy’ or ‘Kyrie eleison’

(2) the absolution:  ‘May almighty God have mercy on us … ‘, followed by the people’s ‘Amen’.

The problem is that in only one of these three does the absolution come at the very end of the Penitential Act. In the other two, the ‘Lord, have mercy’ follows the absolution. Close examination of any missal (and you have to look closely) will reveal this. However, the Mass sheets used in our parish, and in many others, are a bit confusing at this point, probably because they’ve had to cram so much into a page since the New Liturgy came in. On the sheet, the variants are all given, but at the end we have the words:

After the absolution, all respond: Amen’.     Next on the sheet is the Gloria.

An organist working from these sheets can surely be pardoned for thinking that this ‘Amen’ is the signal for the Gloria. But it needn’t be. The ‘Lord, have mercy’ may not yet have been said.  What we have here reflects the immortal words of Eric Morecambe: ‘… all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order’.

And, of course, much depends on what you’re used to.  Unless we’re in Advent or Lent, our parish priest tends to use the version with the absolution at the end, so that bringing in the Gloria immediately afterwards has become for me a reflex action. This means I can and do get seriously caught out when we have a visiting priest, whose first ‘Lord, have mercy’ can be drowned out by the start of my Gloria introduction. Oops. Sorry.

Even worse, I did it when our new archbishop said his first Mass in our church. It was made more painful by the fact that he chanted the Kyrie most beautifully, accompanied by the first chord of my Gloria.     Oops, oops.     Sorry, sorry.

I made a vow on that occasion always to look out for this possibility when we have a visiting priest. After all, it should be easy enough to register whether one has or hasn’t heard the ‘Lord, have mercy’ words.  No, I would definitely never, never, EVER do this dreadful thing again.

I did it again last Sunday.

Obviously, I’m greatly in need of a firm purpose of amendment.

Mea culpa.

But do check it out, folks, if you are not already aware of it.   It’s a trap.



August 22, 2014

Bridal chit-chat (16) – technical interference

evelyn @ 10:21 am
Bridal chit-chat (16) - technical interference

Very often enthusiastic amateur technicians in a parish are encouraged to tinker with aged electronic instruments which are well past their sell-by dates. Usually to avoid having to buy a new organ. The church organist will of course be fully instructed in how to manipulate the surgically-altered instrument to get it going on Sundays. Trouble is, visiting organists may not be given this information, and are often totally unaware of what is in store for them.

Perhaps my most shattering experience of this kind was a wedding in a large church with a very old and particularly difficult electronic organ. I had played it before, and had always found it tricky to handle because of its loud, harsh tone and confusing stop and coupler labelling. This time it seemed quiet and subdued, with very little of its usual brashness. I fiddled with the various controls, including the dreadful crescendo pedal, without making much difference at all. What had happened to the thing? Was it finally on its last legs?

This was getting worrying. While the guests were coming in it didn’t matter, but I’d have to get something reasonably strong for the bride’s entrance.

Suddenly a girl stuck her head round the door at the far end of the long gallery and hissed ‘The bride’s ready. Start now’.   I added everything I could, opened all pedals to the fullest and began playing ‘Highland Cathedral’.

The same girl reappeared, very agitated. ‘The bride’s READY! Please start!’

‘I have started!’, I hissed back, ‘I’m doing all I can!’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you haven’t got the amplifier on’, and she reached up to the wall beside her and threw a switch which I didn’t know existed. I had everything set at maximum, and the resulting blast just about took the roof off the church.

Needless to say, I haven’t been asked back. And needless to say, that church now heads my ‘never-again’ list.

PS This is a partial re-blog. The original post in 2010 was called Technical Mayhem, but now that I’m organising by subject, I feel this part of it should rightly be in the bridal suite, so to speak.

Oh, and I still haven’t been asked back, not that I would go if I were. The impression I made must have been a really lasting one …

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.



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