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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

January 29, 2011

Listening for the angels

evelyn @ 2:52 pm

‘Not yet, not yet!’ I hissed in a sort of shrieking whisper, as trainee No. 3 (let’s call her Jane) was about to crash in with the Sanctus miles early; we weren’t even within sight of the Preface. She pulled back as if the keys were electrified. ‘Phew!’ we both said. Then without warning she decided to have another go, still in the wrong place. More whisper-shrieks, more sighs of relief.

Yet again I repeated my Sanctus-playing mantra. ‘You MUST listen for the angels. They may have saints with them, and if you’re really lucky, they’ll have an unending hymn of praise. But even without that, you’ll always have angels. Listen for them.’

When the angels and the moment finally arrived, Jane, not unnaturally, hesitated. ‘Go on, go on, go on’, I hissed, Mrs Doyle-like. And she did. In fact, she played it beautifully.

Organists have to ‘learn’ the liturgy in a way normal churchgoers don’t – as a series of cues. Most parts of the Mass are never announced – one is just expected to come in. Some entries are easier than others. Often the Agnus Dei is considered the most difficult because it has a visual cue – the fraction (breaking) of the Host – but for my money the Sanctus with its angels is the worst. What makes the Sanctus extra tricky is the fact that the preceding Preface can change from week to week. So you can never be sure quite how the angels will turn up. Of course, one can always find out by asking the priest in advance which Preface he is using, but most of us don’t bother. Prefaces are many and varied, often seasonal, and they keep inventing new ones. So long as the priest’s microphone and the PA speaker in the gallery are working, and children or mobile phones don’t go off at the critical moment, the angels will come through, and we’ll all join in their unending hymn of praise (or however they are manifesting on this occasion).

So what Jane was learning last Sunday was not organ-playing technique (she’s doing fine at that) but ‘organist-organisation’, which is absolutely critical in a Catholic setting. As a result of our efforts I’m busy compiling a little leaflet detailing what to look/listen for and when to come in. For a beginner, or someone from another tradition, it could be quite a useful thing to have.

That is why my advice to Church of Scotland organists drafted in at short notice is not even to start trying to learn the cues (unless they are SCOTS candidates, of course). Instead they should ask to be provided with a Mrs Doyle from the congregation who will stand beside them and say ‘Go on, go on, go on’ in all the right places.


  1. I approve of your plan to compile a little leaflet for the guidance of hapless beginners! I’m fortunate in that our orders of service don’t vary a huge amount, and I almost always have a written order of service to follow along with.

    Comment by Kathryn — February 2, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

  2. You’re right, Kathryn, written orders of service are wonderful when you can get them, as I’ve found when I play for different denominations. My leaflet will be a cross between an order of service and a ‘handy hints’ document! I’ll probably upload it to our ‘Playing the Organ’ page.

    Comment by evelyn — February 3, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

  3. Hi, I am a beginner organist in a catholic church. I have just discovered this interesting blog.

    It sure helps to have an experienced organist sitting next to you.
    I should add “Before you start playing something, watch if the leading singer is ready to sing too.”

    But blunders are still possible. At my last mass, I played the Kyrie without leaving the priest the time to say the “Confiteor” prayer before (but I think that the leading singer and I both agreed to make that mistake at the same time…)

    Comment by Pierre — February 13, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  4. Pierre, thank you for your comment, and glad you like the blog. Sorry it took so long for the comment to come through – my fault for not checking sooner. I’m wondering if you’re French because of your name, and because you talk about your ‘leading singer’, with whom you obviously work very well. Would this be the same as our cantor?

    Please do comment again. I’ve arranged that the website will send it through right away now. And it will be so interesting to hear from an organist abroad. It does look as if we all have similar problems!

    Comment by evelyn — February 18, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

  5. Hi,

    Yes, I am french. In our church, the cantor is standing a few meters from the organ, so it is easy to keep eye contact at the crucial moments. The cantor’s task is not easy either : some assemblies like to sing, and others far less, and then the cantor feels lonely.

    I think that in all countries, beginner organists have trouble learning the liturgy accurately. It is not that easy, even for a regular churchgoer.

    By the way, the calendar of musicians for masses has just been set. I have been chosen to play on the Sunday of Easter. Wow. I just hope everything will be all right…

    Comment by Pierre — February 18, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

  6. Ah, yes, it’s the same here. You never know whether a congregation will sing or not. I’ll be doing a post about this some time.

    Easter will be great – you’ll enjoy it!

    Comment by evelyn — February 21, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

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