Thursday, January 17, 2008

Boy, do I ever have a tough life

I am occasionally beset by strange, nagging doubts about why I bother playing organ voluntaries and what, precisely, their purpose is. If - as is the case at most churches - almost no-one actually listens to the organ prelude and postlude, what's the point of playing at all? This bothers me in particular because I, like most organists, spend a large proportion of my practice time preparing voluntaries - certainly much more time than I spend practicing hymns, psalms or most anthem accompaniments. If organ music before the service turns into Muzak to accompany congregational talking, wouldn't it be more appropriate to have silence before and after the service? I dunno.

The philosophical quandary, I think, is as follows:

One: Christian worship being an offering to God, the performance of organ voluntaries is, essentially, the organist's personal act of worship. Seen in this light, to offer anything other than the best possible repertoire and performance seems mingy - why would we offer God musical leftovers and save our best efforts for other occasions? In fact, it seems entirely pointless whether anyone's actually listening - the important thing is the sincerity and genuine labour you offer.

Two: Christian worship being a community activity, it is more important for the organist (or any other leader of worship) to serve the needs of the congregation than to indulge his or her own individualistic devotion. It doesn't matter how well-intentioned your musical offerings are, or how skilled your performance if the congregation can't understand the music, dislikes it, can't hear it, or simply isn't listening. Music's first priority should be communication, making itself quickly accessible to a wide variety of people.

You see my problem. There's little to choose from between the pietistic idealism of Tweedledum, who doesn't seem to notice that there are other people in the room when he plays works by Ferneyhough and Milton Babbitt, and the creepy socialism of Tweedledee, who makes worship in the body of Christ sound like the cultural policy of Stalinist Russia. There's got to be a way to reconcile the two ideals, for when put so baldly I can't agree with either of them. My own tendency is, if anything, towards Tweedledum, but with the following caveats:

1) Organ music is not merely a personal offering by the organist; it also addresses the congregation to prepare them for worship and send them back into the world afterwards. (This is in contrast to choral music, which addresses God on behalf of the congregation.)

2) The congregation's reaction is not irrelevant; ideally, the congregation should find some of the music immediately accessible and enjoyable; other music might be too challenging to understand immediately. If I receive nothing but complaints, I rethink my music lists - likewise if I never receive any.

3) The repertoire shouldn't always be the best possible, but it should be at a sufficient standard that it could command a person's full attention in another setting. If a piece would never be performed in a recital or recorded because it's too insipid, I avoid playing it. At the same time, the music should be appropriate for worship: this means either specifically designated liturgical music or absolute music, and excludes all music with a secular program (ie: most of the Vierne Pieces de Fantaisie).

Ho hum. This is all well and good, and would probably be accepted by many organists without problems. It does leave me, however, with a few nagging problems which I have trouble resolving:

1) I can't help thinking that we play voluntaries just because that's what congregations expect - because they'd be confused if the service ended in silence. In other words, we are using organ literature as a method of traffic control. This bothers me, and segues into

2) When Buxtehude improvised sectional praeludia in church services, the organ sound was among the loudest things the congregation had ever heard. During the week, they would never hear music of that calibre unless they made it themselves. In the 21st century, however, when schizophonic music emerges from speakers in every public place, there is nothing special about hearing a musical performance. Is it any wonder, then, that people talk over the organ voluntary, when that's exactly what they are forced to do in restaurants? And when the human ear is so unused to the idea of actively listening to music, how can we continue to believe that the performance of organ repertoire prepares anyone for worship?

3) Much of the repertoire we perform is, essentially, concert music. From the 19th-century onwards, major works of organ music were without exception premiered in a concert setting and intended only secondarily for church performance. Although I plan my repertoire carefully for liturgical suitability and thematic correctness and congregation-friendliness and blah blah blah, the actual act of performing a prelude or postlude is almost indistinguishable from performing the same piece in a live concert. (After all, most organ recitals take place in church sanctuaries.) It is difficult for me to maintain perspective, and not to get caught up in the excitement of performance.

Interestingly enough, I've never had any problems with playing during the administration of Communion. At this point in the service, the church is silent and I have an opportunity to directly address the congregation for, perhaps, the only time in the service. With appropriate repertoire (one of my favourites is the "Priere apres la commmunion" from Messiaen's Livre du Saint-Sacrement), this can be one of the best integrations of music into the liturgy.

In other news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.


Alice said...

Interesting a musician in my current and previous non-liturgical churches I have struggled with similar and dissimilar issues. At this point I basically go with what's expected of me...whether that's humility or laziness, I'm not sure.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this article. I need to be careful, or I might be inspired to become a church organist!

In other news, we think Fidel Castro is still alive, but no-one is really sure.