The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog
The personal views of a Catholic parish organist
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
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.
August 1, 2016
Groom (on the phone): … and the cascading one as we go out.
Me: (oh no, not Widor) Cascading one?
Groom: You know the one, it’s very fast-moving.
Me: (please, not Widor) You mean the ‘Entry of the Queen of Sheba’?
Groom: No, that’s not its name. I think it’s called ‘Toccata’.
Me (fighting a losing battle): Oh, the famous Bach D minor Toccata? Da-da daa. Dadadada daa daa.
Groom: No, not that one. And it isn’t by Bach. I remember now. It’s by someone called Vee-dor. They’ve had it at royal weddings.
Me (forced into a corner): Oh yes, that one. But (suddenly remembering) the organ in your church is a very old and limited electronic. The Widor Toccata wouldn’t work. It would sound awful. (And that’s actually true. I’m not prevaricating now. What a relief.)
Groom: Oh, didn’t you know? They’ve had their new organ installed at last. It cost £18,000 and it’s beautiful.
Me: (another organist will be needed) I’m not sure I could get it ready in time. It’s a very long piece. Probably best to find you someone else …
Groom: Are you sure you won’t do it? We’d really love it if you would.
Me (coming out with the truth at last): I CAN ONLY PLAY THE FIRST THREE PAGES!
Groom: Well, that would do.
Me (nonplussed): But if I run out of music?
Groom: Couldn’t you just go back and play the first three pages again?
Me: (Hmm. That’s a thought) Well, I suppose I just might be able to …
Groom (briskly): Great. That’s settled, then.
The Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony is a really exciting piece and I love listening to it. But it takes a lot of work. Technically, I should be able to manage it, with a few adjustments for my small hands, but the real problem is the sheer length of the thing. Depending on the edition you are using, there could be around ten pages of fast semiquavers cascading away, and needing practice. And practice. And practice.
There is a ‘made-playable’ version which misses out the semiquavers altogether, but these myriad little notes are what the piece is all about. The main melody is very simple; the decoration is everything. The groom had it right, and shouldn’t be denied his cascades.
However, as he wisely implied, you don’t need all of it for the end of a wedding in a small church. So I revised the first three pages, tacked on the bars from the very end of the piece, and prayed for a nice sunny day that would have them all out of the church in double-quick time. It worked, although I did feel a bit of a fraud.
I’ve now decided I must get back to a steady practice routine on this one, and do a few more pages.
Maybe one day I’ll play the whole thing.
July 25, 2016
I can’t remember where or when I first picked up the expression ‘a strange priest’, meaning a visiting priest. It may have been a local phrase, and old-fashioned at that. It was queried by one priest that I spoke to. I explained that it didn’t mean he was in any way idiosyncratic, just that he was a stranger to the parish. Fortunately, he was amused rather than offended, and even went on to quote it in his sermon. I never used it again.
However, the ‘strange priest’ problems for the organist turn up regularly, especially at holiday time. You have to be on high alert all through Mass. Ideally, you should have a word with the priest beforehand, with a written note of suggested music. This isn’t always easy when you are stuck high up in a far-away gallery with a cantor wanting to rehearse, and these priests often arrive with little time to spare.
If you do get the chance to ask him whether he has any special wishes regarding the music, the reply will most likely be ‘What do you usually do?’ At this point the temptation is to tell an outright lie, or at least to become devious. ‘Well, we do sing some Mass parts’, you say (in a tone that suggests this doesn’t happen very often), ‘but if you just wanted hymns then that would be fine’. A hint that the regular priest chants a lot of the Mass will usually clinch things.
It’s the Mass music, of course, which carries the most risk. Some things to watch out for:
- Kyrie. There are three of these, and only two actually allow the ‘Lord have mercy’ to be sung as a whole. He might choose the third.
- Sanctus. The Preface just might not end in the usual ‘we acclaim’. A sudden silence means you should be playing.
- Memorial acclamation. Usually spoken, but it’s worth having a sung one ready just in case he chants ‘The mystery of faith’.
- Agnus Dei. A visiting priest will often start saying the Agnus on his way back to the altar after the hand-shaking. You may have a split second to jump in to prevent this, but is it worth it?
Finally, how many hymn verses? Probably best to curtail things, especially at the end, if he moves smartly off the altar as verse 2 begins.
But it doesn’t always follow. One visiting priest waited until the very last verse of a very long final hymn. Afterwards, he sought me out to find out more about our lovely Hill organ, which had come as a real surprise to him.
Now that was strange.
July 18, 2016
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“It’s so accessible!” said one of the participants at the organ afternoon last May. She was referring to the Forth in Praise 100 Hymns for Organ Beginners, which she had been using since first starting to play several months previously.
Before going any further, a word to experienced organists. Unless you are working with beginners, this post is not for you. Stop reading now. I watched one experienced organist push the book away with disdain, saying ‘That’s far too easy’. He had obviously forgotten the stresses of first playing in church. Or maybe he was just brilliant from the word go. Most of us haven’t forgotten, though, especially if we are trying to ensure the succession by bringing in new people.
But still, a reminder:
Imagine that you are not an organist, but play piano or keyboard a little. You want to help out with church organ-playing because there is no one else and the parish is stuck. You think you can manage to play in time simple accompaniments in the easier keys, although you would have to practise, and you have never played in public before. You agree to give it a go.
But when you pick up the parish hymnal you are faced with this:
Your immediate instinct is to run a mile.
It isn’t just the technical complexity, but also the sheer quantity of hymns that you would have to learn to play pretty quickly. Every Sunday a new set of four or five hymns. It would take all week to practise them. Even if you have high piano grades, you need to be an excellent sight-reader to take on with ease the full music version of this lot.
Things do improve, of course. The number of basic hymns sung in the average parish is large, but has its limits. Eventually you would become familiar with them all, and can relax and enjoy what is a very rewarding experience. But it takes quite a bit of work to get to that point.
At the very early stage, many people, of all skill levels, have found the 100 Hymns incredibly useful in different ways. It has been far and away the Forth in Praise best-seller, with orders from around the world.
Full details of this book, how it works, and how you can order it are over at the new Forth in Praise Shop.