A New Year Message for 2017
The organ is the overall principal liturgical instrument. In its earlier forms, the organ took its place in Western Christian worship somewhere between the 10th to 12th centuries. Far from being ‘old instruments’ used in liturgy as museum pieces from the past, organs have their place in all contemporary music, liturgical or otherwise, in the same way as other instruments, classical or contemporary.
The organ of today is an extremely versatile ‘modern’ instrument by way of its range of dynamics and musical colour, able to accommodate contemporary forms of music as it has done for centuries. New organs continue to be built the world over – a notable recent example in this country being the new instrument for Manchester Cathedral, and existing organs are renewed and upgraded regularly for use in churches and town/concert halls.
To quote from the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council “Instruction on Music in the Liturgy” (50 years out of date now but still very relevant) “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendour to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lift up men’s minds to God and higher things. Organ repertoire and improvisation weaves through our liturgy to link, underpin and partner it, drawing together the elements of that liturgy; prayer, symbol and ritual into the whole. It does not exist for itself. Under the command of a competent organist – who is both technically accomplished and liturgically trained, aware and sensitive – the organ can “pray with and for the Assembly” in its joy and in its sorrow. It is highly desirable that organists and other musicians should not only possess the skill to play properly the instrument entrusted to them: they should also enter into, and be thoroughly aware of, the spirit of the Liturgy, so that even when playing extempore, they will enrich the sacred celebration according to the true nature of each of its parts, and encourage the participation of the faithful”.
Despite the affirmation of church documents that the organ is to be given “pride of place” in liturgical celebrations, fewer people are learning how to play it. Already there is a growing need for organists, even as more and more churches are abandoning the instrument. This decline in organists has lead to it being described by some as “a dying art” and to lament its inevitable disuse. However, I believe that the future of the organ is much brighter than headlines suggest. The organ is currently becoming part of the bigger musical picture. The problem is not a shortage of organists but a dearth of well-paying church organist positions. As I said back in November, around 80% of university organ scholars do not intend taking up church or cathedral posts. There is a serious lack of proper funding for music ministry in most parishes. It seems that the decline in organ playing can be directly tied to across the board cuts in parish budgets. Foregoing an organist is just one example of attempts to keep parish budgets in the black amid declining collections because the instruments are pricey (even digital instruments) and dip into strained parish budgets whilst Music Groups are usually volunteers and provide their own instruments at no cost to their churches! We must make a great effort to maintain our place in this all-encompassing musical scenario. Discussion and sometimes compromise are the way forward, not immovable dogmatism! If we move our positions towards others then hopefully others will move towards us.
I am extremely well blessed to be at Yeovil Parish Church where we have an exceptionally good and dedicated music group (all very good musicians with a truly gifted leader), a superb three manual Harrison organ, a large “occasional choir”, a local Benefice Choir, and a large and growing congregation. Musics of all genres are greatly appreciated as well as excellent preaching and teaching from a dynamic clergy and lay ministry. Everything we do is to the very best that we can achieve, and this is a very important point – our congregations must be comfortable with what we do for our ministry to be effective. I hear many organists, choirs, and music groups (and clergy) who leave a lot to be desired!
Looking to the future and following from what I said in November, as a Society we need to expand our horizons to include singers and their choirs from the many choral societies, school, and community choirs that are flourishing throughout Somerset together with their Musical Directors and accompanying organists and pianists. I am certain that we can find ways of reaching out to them if we put our minds to it. Supporting a charity has been a unifying project for us in recent years with concerts, organ recitals, and other fundraising events giving us a joint sense of purpose and achievement. This year’s charity is the St Margaret’s Hospice who use music therapy in their work. I have already met with Ann Lee their CEO when I was organist for a Hospice carol service, and she is thrilled that we will be supporting them and is very keen to meet with us to develop the relationship further. Watch this space for more details and please begin making plans for this very worthwhile venture for SOCA.
It just remains for me to wish you all a very happy and successful 2017 with lots of good music making. A society, by its title, should be sociable, so please spread your wings beyond your individual organ lofts and consoles and make SOCA an organisation to be acknowledged and known throughout Somerset.