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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

December 12, 2010

In the beginning

evelyn @ 9:43 pm

‘Are you planning to time me?’ asked the Church of Scotland minister, eyebrows raised, as he spotted the little grey clock that sits on the console wherever I play. I had been sent by the undertaker to play at a funeral in his church, and this was the first time I had met him. I explained that the clock was needed as I approached the end of the statutory half-hour of quiet music before the service began. By keeping an eye on it, I would know not to begin a long voluntary just as he was due to come in and start the service, and the easy-to-read clock face meant I didn’t have to keep taking a hand off the manuals to look at my watch. He seemed quite taken with the idea and said yes, it can be a bit awkward if the organist takes a long time to finish off. But what can be even more uncomfortable, he added, was when an organist just suddenly stops playing mid-voluntary as the minister enters.

Hah! I thought, the classic Catholic organist’s nightmare! Aloud, I remarked wryly that I was only too well aware of the second situation, as it was a standard feature of my own Church’s liturgy.

Maybe I should have been a bit more loyal, but really, the moment when Mass begins can be a major headache for the organist. The C of S system is gentler and much less nerve-racking. With the help of my clock, I am able to glide to a close in a few seconds after the minister appears. There are voluntaries, such as Pachelbel’s Canon, which will actually do the job for you.

But in the Catholic Church, no matter what the signal for the start of Mass, be it bell, announcement or simply the emergence of the priest from the sacristy, the congregation surges to its feet and the opening hymn must begin immediately. Anything already being played just gets the chop.

Many Catholic parish organists, especially beginners, don’t play at all before Mass. They are not prepared to risk it, and I don’t blame them. As well as the shock and embarrassment of having a voluntary cut off, there’s all the business of reorganising the stops for the first hymn while priest and people stand there wondering what the hold-up is.

More experienced organists will have found ways round the problem, such as making sure any voluntary is finished shortly before the deadline, then waiting in silence for the signal. Or improvising, never straying too far tonally and diving for a cadence as the bell goes. Or organising things with the priest: in one of my churches the organ was placed so that I had eye-contact with the priest in the sacristy; a nod would pass between us before he rang the bell.

But I still think the Church of Scotland’s style is better.


  1. A little clock is definitely essential for organists, as well as trying to know what time your church bells ring at if they don’t match your watch. Maybe I’m lucky since I’ve only ever played for Church of Scotland services but even if I was running slightly over time I would tend to take the approach that an organ is pretty hard to argue with if you really want to finish! I would hope it comes down to a matter of trust between the clergy and the musicians (although I realise that opens a whole can of worms in itself). If the minister/priest knows that you time your voluntaries and will be aiming to finish just as the service is supposed to start they should be happy enough to wait until you finish, whereas if they know you’ll always run late then they’ll be inclined to just start when they feel like it.

    Comment by Iain — December 20, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  2. Iain

    I can understand your reaction. All my C of S friends say the same – some are quite incredulous. But sadly, this is the way things have evolved since Vatican II – at present, organ voluntaries are not seen as being particularly important. Some of us have music-friendly priests, and can arrange things so that we don’t get cut off, but what I’ve described is the default. However, things are still evolving, and could well improve …

    I liked your mention of bells. Anytoun Old had bells, and it was a new experience for me.

    Comment by evelyn — December 23, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  3. I would like to play more voluntaries, but somehow they don’t seem to be encouraged in the Catholic Church. There’s always the feeling that people think you are showing off.

    Comment by Flora B — December 24, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

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