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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

February 21, 2011

Bridal Chit-chat (9)

evelyn @ 5:00 pm

It was the grand-daddy of all ciphers, or so I thought. I had been playing quietly on an 8-foot flute as the wedding guests came in, when suddenly a massive, out-of-tune, diapason-like note joined in. What on earth? As I frantically checked for its cause, the cipher launched into ‘Scotland the Brave’, and then I realised. The piper had arrived.

That was my first experience of the wedding piper, and his effect on the wedding organist. The problem is simple: the bagpipe is a uniformly loud instrument, and if played outside the church door, is clearly audible inside the building. If the guests are to be piped into the church, the piper, in full Highland rig, will play for the same half-hour in which the organist is expected to entertain these guests as they sit chatting and waiting for the bride. If there is to be a piper, I usually suggest to the couple that for this particular half-hour they should choose between him and me. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m not doing my job if I decide not to compete.

They generally choose the piper, who is picturesque and probably more expensive. Occasionally a compromise is attempted, and we’re each asked to do 10 minutes or so at a time. For the clock-watching organist this isn’t a problem, but to ask Braveheart, who has both hands playing the instrument and his gaze solemnly focused on distant mountains and lochs, to keep checking his wristwatch is just plain anti-climactic as well as difficult. So I usually tell the bride that I’ll fill in with something short whenever he takes a breather, and leave it at that.

Not many organs can drown a piper, but mine can when it puts its mind to it. I wouldn’t dream of doing it as the guests come in, though sorely tempted sometimes. At the end, however, as they all stream out again, it can be fun to have Mendelssohn fighting for supremacy with ‘Mhairi’s Wedding’, and nobody seems to mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I am fond of our national instrument, and feel the stirrings of patriotism whenever a pipe band passes by on parade. And a lone piper’s distant lament can be incredibly moving. It’s just that the bagpipe is a wind instrument tuned in a special way, and the organ, also a wind instrument, can have stops involving complex tuning, not to mention the effects of temperature. When the two come into conflict the resulting cacophony has a quality like no other. But if that’s what the couple want – and some of them do, believe it or not – what can one do? He who pays the piper …

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