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The organist at the church where I worship recently celebrated ten years of playing for that congregation.  There was cake, and wine, and it was splendid.  During the same week, I was trying to think about how church services work, on a more technical level than usual.  I’m not a liturgist, but I have some training in drama and theatre studies, which encourages me to articulate to myself what goes on in services, and how meanings are made in physical performance.[1]

The kind of support which an organ provides to the congregation struck me as worth thinking through.  As I understand it, the advantage of an organ historically included both unity and variation.  When compared to the bands of musicians which preceded them – and which are still flourishing in many traditions – the organ offered unity, since it combination of sounds were coherent across their range of tones and timbres, and could be brought together by one musician.  (A flute, a violin and a drum are a lovely combination of sounds, in comparison, but they don’t necessarily cohere in the sound they produce the way the various pipes of an organ do.)

But it also offered variation, since the organ covers so many octaves and so many different tones.  The different lines of melody and harmony can be sounded in ways which emphasize their distinctness as well as their relations to each other.  I began to appreciate organ music more when I started to think of it as the equivalent of an orchestra, rather than a giant keyboard instrument, with the echoing and replying between parts of it being like the conversation within the instruments.

Listening to the organ play in the last few services I’ve attended, I noticed the range of relationships it had to the hymns we were singing.  Before we began our first notes, it gave us a grounding in where those notes would be.  It also – because this was a skilled organist – provided a precis of some of the tune.  It summoned up phrases we should be looking out for, or reminded us of both the opening, and the turn the music took later on.  It foreshadowed the moods of the hymn, and the keys these would take place within.

All this was sketched very deftly and quickly, in fact in the time it took us to stand up, find the hymn, and prepare ourselves.  But by the time we hit that first note, we had been reminded of what we’d be moving through – though, crucially, we had not done so yet.  Our own musical journey had not been pre-empted, but it had been prepared, and part of that preparation was a summoning-up of memories from previous times we had sung this one.

Then in the first verses and choruses, the organ provided the chords and the melody.  It carried us along as we embodied the song ourselves, coming back to meet us from the preparatory musical sketch of the introduction, and accompanying us as we took our proper place within the music.  It strengthened (or covered up discreetly) our wobbly low notes, and helpfully gave a pure tone we could aim at in the high ones.  It provided an exemplary account of the tune we were singing, and supported us by harmonies and chords.  Those latter gave a richness and a meaning to our own voices which they would not otherwise have had: they contextualized the movement of our melody, and shaded it with calmness, or joy, or stoicism, or melancholy or any other of a number of emotions.  The broader tonal and harmonic range provided by the organ drew out implications from the notes we were singing.

Through these verses the organ bolstered us as we took on the demands of the hymn, and put our own voices at its disposal.  We breathed in air and breathed out music, and the organ’s sound provided frequencies where our voices could join each other, our bodies resonating with the same pitches.  It provided a cloud of vibrating air in which we met, supplying our deficiencies and coaxing us into full voice, until we were both doing the music and being the music at the same time.  The organ gave us the space and the security to open out our lungs and our throats together, and drew us into that same space until we filled it.

At the final verse, it offered something slightly different.  The traditional harmonising of the final verse took off in another direction, causing a slight uncertainty for some of us, but enough of us were completely confident of the music by this time that we could support ourselves and each other.  The shifting chords and even rhythm of the harmony presented us with a sudden new vision of the hymn, and what it might mean.  Where in previous verses the harmony had deepened and emphasized the meanings of the version we knew, this harmonisation made our own voices strange and challenging to us for a moment.

We heard, even as we were singing, what this song might mean in other places and other times.  We were no longer the centre of the hymn, no longer securely carrying all its significance, but this did not stop us singing.  On the contrary, we raised our voices further, holding our notes and our melody to give a full account of what we had been singing so far, whilst around us the musical universe pivoted and wheeled, throwing up new horizons.  It was both the same hymn, and utterly, disorientingly different.  The scope and parameters, which the organ had previously provided for us, and helped us swelled into, were now challenged and subverted.  We had not misunderstood exactly, but we had only brought out one strand of its meanings.

The words, as it happened, in one of the hymns I’m thinking of, were an orthodox doxology.  “Praise be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever, world without end, Amen.”  Except they were rewritten into rhyming verse, and to the right metre for this hymn.  This seemed stunningly apt for what the organ was suggesting all around us: everything we had sung so far had led to this phrase, its significance could be found within this phrase, and it was one of the possible ways in which this phrase could be embodied.  But at the same time we were aware of the subversive richness and mystery of the doxology: at the very moment we came to encompass it with our tune, we heard it being reflected and refracted through other musical worlds.  We heard the fullness of this meaning spilling wildly into other spheres, at the very moment that it met the melodic line we had followed to reach it.

There can be something profoundly theological about the way an organ provides music for a hymn.  I’m not suggesting that this can’t happen with other instruments or in other traditions; of course it can, and does.  But this was my experience of the generous and challenging way the organ music has surrounded us over the recent weeks, when I’ve been thinking about it in a particular way.  Looking back at the metaphors I’ve – rather awkwardly – been using to sketch out that experience, I notice that they could probably be employed to talk about our experience of liturgy, of the Scripture, and of many other parts of Christian life.  But I’ll spare you the “Isn’t that a little bit like…”  Because of course, it is a little bit like…, but it is also itself.  One of the wonderful things about music (see also: liturgy, Scripture, etc.) is that it is a sign of other things, whilst also being something.  An experience of music can be both like a theological point, and also profoundly theological in itself.


[1] Unfortunately I also lack the kind of liturgical sense which allows some people to instinctively know where everyone should be, and what patterns they make in movement.  This appalled a friend who, even when kneeling down with her eyes closed, can just sense everyone’s position, and how far they’re through the rite.  She’d have made some team a splendid quarterback, I always think.