You might associate the pipe organ with hymns and funerals, or with a wheezy, badly-played instrument in a local church. But enter a cathedral or a concert hall and a very different sound might inspire you.
I played the organ in my twenties, had lessons at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh whilst a student, gave a recital in the Kendal Festival over 40 years ago and then did not play again until a friend asked me to play at her wedding 35 years later.
For me it was too unsociable an instrument. Other than for church services it is almost always heard solo. I am not religious; I prefer playing with other musicians, and I became more interested in playing jazz, and so I lost interest in the organ.
But hearing a large and powerful (definitely not wheezy) organ in a large, resonant building like a cathedral can be thrilling, and certainly playing such an instrument – which may have three or four keyboards and over 50 different stops (a stop activates a rank of pipes and each stop creates a different sound) – is mentally and physically challenging, totally absorbing and pretty exciting.
Organs are not just to be heard in churches
The organ has a long and mostly European history and with it a classical repertoire from the 17th century to the present day, in which the music of Johann Sebastian Bach from the 18th century and Olivier Messiaen of the 20th century stand out.
Along the way, it has made occasional appearances in 70s’ prog rock (Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and others), 90s’ pop (George Michael’s song Faith) and film soundtracks (Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar).
In our concert halls, the organ makes only rare appearances. You might be surprised to know how many concert halls in Britain do have a pipe organ in situ: not just the Albert Hall and the Festival Hall. But there is a limited repertoire of music for organ and orchestra.
Perhaps best known are Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, but the organ here is really just a special effect; the aural and physical power of its bass notes entrancing audiences well before the advent of the sub-bass sounds of electronic dance music. In the Concerto for Organ Strings and Timpani by Francois Poulenc, however, the organ has a major and dramatic part in the musical dialogue – it is one of the pieces that inspired me to start playing.
A revival of interest
There does seem to be a revival of interest in this instrument, stimulated by the possibilities of digital reproduction, and more recently by the use of social media. With interest over the last 60 years in achieving an authentic sound for performances of Renaissance and Baroque music, the small, portable chamber organ (played as part of an orchestra) has also had a revival.
While some would denounce the arrival of electronic versions as a threat to the survival of ‘real’ organs, it is now possible – for those who have sufficient space and money – to install a digital organ console in your house and with a good sound system and the right software, play very high-quality digital simulations of some of Europe and Britain’s best instruments.
Richard McVeigh, previously a cathedral organist, now runs a YouTube channel doing just that. He and invited players give online concerts on his own domestic four-manual organ. Some of the videos are just hymns, but the majority offer some great music and interesting introductions to the various instruments (from France, Germany, Holland, Poland and the UK) that are modelled.
Another very influential figure in the UK is Anna Lapwood. She has probably done more than anyone, via social media, to inspire young people to play and listen to the organ. She is an Associate Artist at the Royal Albert Hall and Director of Music at Pembroke College Cambridge. She played recently in the 2023 Proms and, having been heard practising one night by Bonobo, the producer and DJ, she was invited to join in the final night of his Albert Hall residency earlier this year. You can find musical excerpts and other posts including her #PlayLikeAGirl educational work on Instagram (annalapwoodorgan).
The king of instruments – an aural and visual spectacle
The organ has been referred to as ‘the king of instruments’. But it is more than just a musical instrument. In larger churches, the organ case will be a significant visual, historical and architectural spectacle too. Often hundreds of years old, with finely carved wooden frames and pipes up to 10 metres long, the organ can be as awe-inspiring and fascinating visually as the building it is in.
Inside that case, it takes intricate craftsmanship to connect the 61 keys of each of several keyboards to the thousands of pipes. In modern organs those connections may be electronic, but there are many organs (some of which can be bigger than the average terraced house) where the connections are entirely mechanical: a technology that has been used for the last four centuries.
You may not be religiously inclined, but if you want to hear good organ music don’t be put off by the location: most of our cathedrals run programmes of concerts and organ recitals, and you can listen online. The sheer power of the organ is unrivalled outside of a night club or rock concert. Throw away any preconceptions and enjoy it!
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