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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Where Have All the Organists Gone?

Musicians in Catholic Worship, Part II

by Lucy E. Carroll

This article first appeared in Adoremus Bulletin: Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 6: September 2003, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor, Helen Hull Hitchcock, and the author, Dr. Carroll.

This is the second of a three-part series, Musicians in Catholic Worship.

Part II

Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (translation: those who do it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!)

In many Catholic parishes today, there is a section up front — usually on an elevated platform — that holds a drum set, amplifiers, microphones, and stands for guitars and electric bass. There may also be a case holding such percussive additions as maracas, tambourines, finger cymbals, and wood block. One might see, as in some churches I have visited, xylophone and marimba. In use there will be a tangle of wires, and several persons running around setting up, setting levels, and adjusting things. A soloist will croon into a microphone.

In many such churches, the organ sits mute. It does so by choice of the back-up group performers, as it is unsuitable for the pop-style secular music thrown at us by so many publishers today. This has helped lead to a shortage of organists. The American Guild of Organists a few years ago suggested that for every 200 paid positions, there is one qualified organist.

As one such organist, I know there are any number of jobs I could take were I interested; I am constantly turning down requests. Organists are disappearing. Where have they gone?

Many have retreated — as I did myself thirty years ago — to the larger Lutheran and Episcopal churches where the quality of music is still high. Many opt for the concert stage, or for the field of music education. In their absence, replacements are not being trained. And in the parishes, when all that people see and hear are rickety electronic keyboards, or strummed guitars, why would any young person even consider learning the "king of instruments," the pipe organ?

I know of one young woman who had played the organ in her parish, then left to attend a distant college. She took organ lessons on campus, and was playing very well. She gave her time on Sundays to a local Catholic Church with a pipe organ. (Lucky parish, indeed!) One Sunday, however, the pastor said to her that she was no longer needed. They were locking up the organ and sticking to guitar, which better fit the (non-sacred) style of music they were using. What a disaster!

The pipe organ is the instrument named by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as the traditional instrument for our worship. We have seen in Part I of this series (Banish the Soloists – Let the People Sing) that vocal soloists were not envisioned by the Council; choirs were. And the choirs were to be led by the most suitable instrument to lead a congregation:

... the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, chapter VI, #120).
Pope Paul VI's 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram repeats this. And in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), once again the pipe organ is reaffirmed as the instrument to be afforded first place. And "it is appropriate that.... the organ be blessed according to the Roman Rituale" (GIRM §313). So important a part of the church is the organ that the instrument has its own special blessing rite!

So why do we have electric keyboards, jazz and rock groups and an abundance of guitars instead of the pipe organ or a good pipe organ facsimile?

Protestant churches have rightfully held title to strongest congregational singing. These churches have known for centuries — as have Catholics — that the organ is the best way to lead a congregation in song.

Instruments are mentioned in the Old Testament, particularly in the psalms. In the temple's Holy of Holies, however, music was provided by specially trained priests. When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and synagogues became the only center of worship, the human voice alone was retained for praise. While this is still true of Orthodox Jewry, today the organ can be found in Reform and some Conservative synagogues.

In Christianity, too, only the unaccompanied voice was used in worship for several centuries. Early gatherings were, by necessity, small. But as Christianity grew and emerged into society, larger houses of worship were built. The larger congregations did not stay together well when it came time to sing.

Sometime between 600 and 800 AD the pipe organ was introduced into a monastic house. The immediate response of the brothers was... revolt! The early instrument was a noisy, wheezy thing: the keys were large and had to be struck with the fist, and in the absence of electricity, the bellows had to be pumped by hand. The brothers felt it covered the sound of their singing. Well, it did, but it also gave a strong lead for the congregation, who could hear it in all corners of the larger churches, and a tradition was born.

The organ is still the very best way to lead a congregation. It can be powerful and authoritative in a way no other instrument can. It can play all the voice parts simultaneously from soprano through bass, thus encouraging all voice parts to sing.

The Pipe Organ as Leader

I was fortunate to have been trained both as a concert and a liturgical organist, especially fortunate to attend Pius X School of Liturgical music in 1963 and 1964 just before the deluge of post-Vatican Ii liturgical changes. Much of my professional life, thereafter, was spent in Protestant churches, beginning with the Lutheran.

Now, few denominations sing with as much gusto as old-time Lutherans! Luther was a firm believer in congregational singing, and began the tradition of German hymnody that continues strong even today. The pipe organ — or a good electronic equivalent — is still the song leader of choice.

The pipe organ is not only powerful and authoritative because of its depth and volume, but because it mimics the human voice, a fact alluded to by Pope Saint Pius X. That is, air is pumped through pipes (organ pipe/human windpipe) via a wind chest (lungs and diaphragm) and follows a nice straight path out the round opening (pipe opening/human mouth). This means that, like a singer, a pipe organ can actually breathe.

A well-trained organist will lift his hands at the end of each phrase, resulting in an obvious silence and a clear indication to the congregation that they can all breathe together at that spot. Strummed guitars, drums, and other percussive instruments cannot do that. And again, the organ can provide several lines of music simultaneously: melody, harmony, descant, etc. While playing, an organist is a whirl of hand and foot activity.

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