The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog
The personal views of a Catholic parish organist
October 17, 2016
The other day I looked into the Twitter app on my iPad and found … amazing things! Some people have been following Forth in Praise, some have retweeted one or two of our tweets, and some have even been sending messages. And I never knew!
For someone of the older generation, I had always thought I’d kept up quite well with advancing technology. Facebook and Twitter, however, have always defeated me. I was on Facebook briefly, but was put off by the jargon and worse, by the eternal fear of clicking in the wrong place and sending a friend request to a stranger. I gave up on Facebook, and just put the odd bit of news on the Forth in Praise Twitter account, which had been set up by our previous webmaster.
Now I’ve discovered all this Twitter interaction which everyone will think I’ve ignored. So apologies all round and thank you to followers for remaining with Forth in Praise.
I’ve decided I must work at Twitter now. The next thing is to find out what happens when you follow someone.
Yes, Forth in Praise will become more active on Twitter. And the first thing I’ll do is tweet just that.
October 10, 2016
I suppose every funeral organist at some point will start thinking about the music for his or her own funeral. Many of my organist friends, including younger ones, have actually decided what they want, and some have even written down their wishes.
I haven’t got that far yet, but I have some very definite ideas about hymns I don’t want:
- Walk with me. I just hate this ditty with its totally inappropriate accompaniment. Yet it is incredibly popular, and I’ve never understood why.
- I watch the sunrise. Hate this one, too. The gaps in the melody make it so difficult for the people to keep together.
- How great thou art. The wide range is tricky to sing and there is that awkward downward leap of an augmented 4th at the first ‘How great thou art’, which so many people overshoot.
- Going home. The well-known symphonic melody is great for orchestra, not so good for singers, with its wide range and all the high notes towards the end. And the words vary from hymn book to hymn book.
- Anything by Graham Kendrick.
- Anything with meaningless and cringe-making tempo indications, such as ‘Worshipfully’, ‘Thoughtfully’, ‘Prayerfully’, and the like.
- Most – possibly all – Catholic post-Vatican II hymns.
Strange to say, I wouldn’t automatically count out those two old faithfuls, Crimond and Abide with me. There’s always such a massive response to them. Even the non-churchgoers know them, and can make the rafters ring.
However, I mustn’t assume there’s going to be an enormous crowd …
October 3, 2016
Yesterday I got off the organ bench and joined the choir.
Our soprano situation has got so bad (we have ONE, and she is also the choir leader and conductor) that we couldn’t sing an anthem – any anthem. Hymns in parts are OK, because the people all sing the tune, but just imagine, say, Mozart’s Ave Verum with a minimal melody. We’re completely out of balance.
We’ve tried recruiting from the congregation, with so far no success. We’ve tried to persuade some altos to turn soprano by lowering the pitch a bit, although you can’t go too far with that without complaints from the other parts that they are singing in their boots. I’ve done some rearranging into two parts, trying to give everyone notes within their range, with the organ filling in. But it’s all very unsatisfactory.
At last week’s practice we hoped that a very simple little three-part choral piece might work, but our solitary soprano said she couldn’t concentrate on projecting her own voice while conducting the others. The alto we got to join her was willing, but unhappy about the high notes.
Then I had my brainwave. ‘Let’s try it unaccompanied‘,I said, ‘and I’ll sing soprano’.
Now I don’t have much of a voice at all – that’s probably why I’m an organist – but what there is of it is most definitely in the soprano range. High (well, reasonably high) notes have never been a problem, even if somewhat weak and breathy.
So we tried it, and our baritones and altos proved to be so reliable that the lack of organ went unnoticed. And yesterday, with the two sopranos well to the front of the gallery and helped by the lovely church acoustic, we successfully sang our little anthem.
It was well received. The fact that it was unaccompanied gave it novelty. We must do this more often, was the feeling.
Hmm. Maybe I’d better go in for a bit of voice training …
September 19, 2016
They were processing out to the Trumpet Voluntary, and the bride and groom had already passed under the gallery. Suddenly the guests following behind halted. Guests standing in the pews ready to make their way out also stopped where they were. The entire church was at a standstill. The only thing moving was the music.
At first, I thought it was just a log-jam, perhaps caused by a photographer taking pictures of the bridal couple exiting the church. But the pause went on and on, minute after minute. Even with a log-jam there is some inching forward here and there. Not this time, however. No-one moved, not even to chat to each other. Everyone was just staring at the door. It was like a video with the pause button pressed.
All this time I’d been bashing out the Trumpet Voluntary, going round and round. I thought I’d better give them a break from the decibels, so I removed a few stops and even added a variation or two. After a further few minutes, I decided they must be sick of the Trumpet Voluntary. I certainly was. So I stopped. I got off the organ bench, and looked over the gallery rail. No-one noticed me. They were all still staring ahead at the door.
Had they really become frozen? As in a science fiction film where time stands still? Then I noticed our priest, pottering about at the altar, not apparently bothered by the situation, and certainly not frozen.
All of a sudden the pause button was released. The crowd surged forward. I returned to the organ bench and played them out with a fairly subdued Trumpet Voluntary. Once they had gone I hurried down to our priest to find out what had happened.
‘Oh, it was raining’, he said casually.
All became clear then. It was one of those days when beautiful sunshine alternates with short but intensely heavy downpours. Had the bridal pair left when they were meant to, they would have been completely deluged. So everyone in the church had been watching the downpour through the open door, waiting for it to cease.
Everyone except me. I couldn’t see the door, and hadn’t a clue what was going on.
We have a huge window in the gallery, but it is frosted. There is talk that it might be changed to stained glass, with some clear panes included. That change can’t come quickly enough for me.
September 12, 2016
Saturday’s recital in our church by Robin Bell was excellent. It was wonderful to hear the organ properly put through its paces, the counterpoint of Bach bouncing round the church. Some interesting unpublished sixteenth-century Scottish keyboard music, too. Glorious.
Quite a crowd came from far and wide, and stayed for tea and chat afterwards. A couple of Catholic organists who now play in the Church of Scotland (see last week’s post) told me of a particular horror story in their own diocese. In one parish, quiet organ music is strictly forbidden before funerals, presumably on ‘organist-mustn’t-show-off’ grounds. The mourners must sit in silence for up to half an hour.
Now everyone knows that if there is one time when gentle background music is really needed, it is before the start of a funeral Mass. Soothing and consoling, it makes all the difference. Undertakers demand and expect a full half-hour of such music before their funeral parlour services. Family mourners appreciate it, and often ask for particular melodies. It helps.
But it does look as though some clergy are still living in the dark days immediately following Vatican II, when many believed that no note of organ music should be played that wasn’t a humdrum accompaniment to the people’s song. It was as if the organist had to be kept down.
However, there’s no doubt that I am one of the lucky ones. I’m very privileged in my Catholic organ job. My only problem on Saturday was nervousness at the thought of having to follow on Sunday the wonderful performance we had all just heard …
September 5, 2016
We had a visitor a few days ago, who casually remarked that the last three organists in her Church of Scotland church had been Catholics. That immediately added three to my ever-increasing tally of Catholic organists whom I personally know, or know of, who are now playing in the Church of Scotland.
As far as I can tell, these musicians don’t abandon their religion. They make use of Vigil or Sunday afternoon Masses to fulfil their obligation. One or two even play at those Masses now and then, in addition to their official Church of Scotland commitment.
But what is our Catholic Church about, that these gifted members of its flock feel they have to take their talents elsewhere?
It’s easy to say that they are doing it for the money, but the situation is more complex than that. Certainly, for some the payment is the important thing, but these are usually people who need the money, students in particular. A more subtle attraction is perhaps the fact that organists are seriously valued in the Church of Scotland, where they have good, well-maintained instruments, responsive clergy and congregation, the chance to extend their skills with voluntaries and choral works, and a voice in the running of the worship. In contrast, Catholic parish organists can often find themselves stuck with aged, decrepit and inappropriate instruments, indifferent clergy and perhaps even some hostility from the congregation (he’s just a big show-off, playing that stuff as we go out!). There are notable exceptions, of course, such as my own church, but is it any wonder that some organists decide to escape?
Professional playing in the Church of Scotland is not easy. The standard expected is high. Organists have contracts and can be sacked. The Catholic organists who make the transfer are therefore highly skilled and motivated musicians. Why should we have to lose these people?
If our Church saw its organists as providing the essential basis of liturgical music, and valued them as such, it would invest in them. Not just payment, maybe not even payment. What we need is encouragement, resources, decent instruments and a modicum of appreciation. A little TLC could work wonders, and might bring back people whose real desire is to play good music in their own church.
When will they ever learn …?
August 29, 2016
Once or twice on this blog I’ve spoken of consulting The Oracle. This fount of wisdom on organ-playing matters is actually my former teacher, Robin Bell. Robin is an excellent recitalist and on Saturday 10 September at 2 pm, he’ll be giving a recital on our organ at Linlithgow. He knows our 1874 Hill well, having taught one or two of us on it, as well as doing a couple of Easter Vigil stints when I was out of action.
So if any readers are in the area and able to be there, they won’t be disappointed. Full details on our News page.
Or download in PDF format here.
August 22, 2016
Priest: Just start the bridal march when I give you a nod.
Me: At that distance a nod is no good. You’ll have to semaphore! Or just announce the thing.
The lot of a short-sighted Catholic organist in a gallery at the far end of the church is not a happy one. As you get older and reach the reading-glasses stage, you realise you need middle-distance lenses for the music and distance lenses for nodding priests. Varifocal, and to a lesser extent bifocal, lenses can work if you place your head and neck just right, but if the music rest is high it can become a strain. And how can you know just when and through which part of the lens to look for a priestly nod?
I much prefer single-vision lenses, and some years ago a sympathetic optician, who was also a member of our congregation, created my flip-up organ glasses.
Flip them down and I can read the music easily, flip them up and I can see right to the far end of the church. I used them happily for years, but last year, following an eye operation, I had a series of problems getting the right lenses, my friendly optician having long since retired. However, I’ve now found another sympathetic and clever optician, and yesterday, for the first time in months, I surveyed the scene from the gallery and everything was as clear as clear. The new lenses passed my personal eye-test (reading the hymn board beside the altar) with flying colours.
Only one problem now: I’ve been warned that the flip-up mechanism has a finite life, and it seems they don’t make these frames any more. But my new optician is going to do some research for when the time comes. There may be other answers.
There is an odd thing, though. I also thought that with the new glasses I was hearing things better yesterday. But that can’t be right, can it?
August 15, 2016
They acclaim one of three texts, but usually they don’t know which one until it actually happens.
This applies if the acclamation is chanted unaccompanied in response to the priest’s ‘the mystery of faith’. It applies if the acclamation is a composed setting. It even, and especially, applies if the words are spoken rather than sung.
When the Memorial Acclamations first became part of the people’s responses, many years ago, the lead-in problem was there at once. The 2010 revision gave a chance to resolve it, which wasn’t taken. And yet we are told that this is one of the most important responses of the Mass, if not the most important. I would have thought that working out a helpful approach to this great moment, so that it could be given the acclaim it deserves, would have been a priority. As it is, however, the priest often has to lead off the acclamation, the people joining in once they have recognised which one of the three he is using.
There are some ways of letting the people know in advance what’s coming:
- to have the same acclamation every time. But I understand this is frowned on, and priests would probably want to vary it anyway.
- to have the actual acclamation words for this Mass on the Mass sheet rather than the three alternatives.
- to let the organ give a few notes introduction, which is what is done in my church. Even so, the similarities between some of the chants can make people hesitate.
These similarities do seem to be deliberate. In fact, composed Memorial Acclamations submitted for approval are required to be related to the Sanctus of the same Mass, which means that they usually resemble each other as well. Composing three clearly distinct melodies all linked to the same Sanctus can be quite tricky. I’ve never understood the need for this, especially as the three ICEL Memorial chants seem unrelated to the recommended ICEL Sanctus.
Oh, maybe I’m just fussing too much. No-one else seems to care. But the idea of ‘acclaiming’ an important event seems to be lost in the inevitable hesitation of the people’s response. If we have something good to shout about, we should surely be given the chance to do it properly.
August 8, 2016
Older Posts »
Our priest has just come back from his holiday in a German-speaking part of Europe, and is very enthusiastic about a hymn book called Gotteslob (meaning ‘God’s praise’ – I think), which contains Mass music as well as hymns and seems to be the official Catholic liturgical music book for the German language. He wants me to find out more about it and to decide whether our parish would benefit from having a copy in the organ loft.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m trying to learn German, but although I’m sticking at it, my progress is slow, and I can’t make out much of the German websites which Google brings up, even with a dictionary. I managed to work out that there are pocket editions on offer, but these will be limited, perhaps even words only.
I wouldn’t want to go and get the wrong thing, so I’d like to ask if anyone can help. I know there are readers of this blog in Germany, who may well be familiar with this hymn book. If anyone can direct me to a website where I can buy the full music version, I would be very grateful. Please comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.