I’ll never forget an experience I had some years ago while sight-seeing in Paris. I found myself standing on the threshold of the great Cathedral of Notre Dame on the First Sunday of Advent. As I entered the nave through soaring Gothic arches, the organist began a prelude. It started with the organ just whispering, slowly increasing in volume until a discernable melody breathed through a fluid mixture of tones and harmonies.
The intensity of sound continued to magnify and, after several minutes, it simply thundered throughout the vastness of the awe-inspiring space. It put chills down my back.
Just as the stained-glass windows in that exquisitely designed cathedral told stories, the organist crafted in music the story of how Christ would come into the world.
He played an improvisation on the Advent chorale Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the Heathen, Come). Relating the sentiments of the faithful, it began with a quiet, almost non-distinct longing for the Incarnation followed by a joyous outburst after pondering the immensity of the coming Epiphany — an event that would shake all of creation to its foundation.
Even though this work was a musical improvisation, it was not an afterthought. The organist set the tone for Advent by using long-established traditions of sacred music as well as employing an instrument that has withstood the test of time.
The pipe organ traces its origins to ancient Greece and Rome, as do many traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Powered by water, the first recognizable ancestor of the organ was called the hydraulis. The sound generated by the hydraulis was thought to be so terrifying that it was used at the ancient Roman circuses, which at that time were more of a horror show than family entertainment.
The organ first appeared in northern Europe in 757 A.D. — a gift from the Emperor Constantine V to King Pippin of the Franks, where Roman liturgy was beginning to take form. The organ evolved over time, eventually working its way into mainstream liturgical use where it hasn’t lost prominence.
The versatile pipe organ slowly adapted to its environment, changing in sound, construction and nomenclature wherever employed. It became popular in Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Electricity and the introduction of pneumatic controls allowed the instrument to sprawl along vast choir lofts of European cathedrals.
During the middle of the 19th century, these behemoth instruments took on more secular characteristics and complete symphonic works were composed for the organ during a golden age of organ building.
Over the years, various composers cherished this venerable instrument.
J.S. Bach’s poetic choral improvisations musically depicted sacred themes in ways not possible with words. Mozart thought so much of the organ that he named it “The King.” French composers Jehan Alain and Cesar Franck also wrote sacred compositions for organ based on Catholic themes and ancient liturgical prayers. And Olivier Messiaen gave a 20th-century musical testimony to his obvious devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in his sublime organ composition “Celestial Banquet.”
In reality, all of these great organ works began as improvisations in the minds of the composers. Like the Advent prelude, none are afterthoughts, nor is the organ’s unique sound, which may be part of the reason it has been such a successful and enduring instrument.
Like the human diaphragm, life for the organ begins at the bellows that were once hand-pumped. Wind makes its way from the bellows through circular ductwork similar to the human throat. The lungs of the organ are its wind chests. These simple wooden boxes have a lid connected by flexible leather that regulates wind pressure like the human diaphragm. Air eventually makes its way to the pipes which are the vocal chords of the organ.
Individual pipes typically range in size from 32 feet tall and more than 1 foot in diameter to several inches high and about the width of a pencil. They are fashioned out of wood or a metallic mixture of tin and lead.
Pipes even have their own anatomy: a “foot” they rest on, a speaking “mouth,” and “resonators” that are their bodies.
The pipe’s length creates pitch that ranges in timbre from a thundering helicopter-like sound to a high-pitched whistle nearly imperceptible to the human ear.
They are “scaled” and “voiced” to imitate instruments of an orchestra or to generate sounds that are truly indigenous to the organ. Large pipes that appear on the front of organ cases comprise what are called “foundation stops,” which resonate with the human ear and give support to the singing voice.
An organist plays the organ from the console where there may be as many as five keyboards and one pedal board awaiting. To play the organ, 61 keys and 32 pedals must be deftly managed by 10 fingers and two feet. The organist selects various sounds by pulling a “stop” that allows air to flow under a “rank” of pipes. The organist may combine various sounds and can — literally — “pull out all the stops.”
The employment of the organ in Catholic liturgy throughout the ages demonstrates its unparalleled ability to generate a diverse mixture of musical simplicity and majesty as it assists the soul in contemplative prayer or gives glory to God in transcendent musical celebration.
It’s hard to argue that any other instrument is more appropriate for use in the Church.
In fact, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council document on sacred liturgy states that, “In the Latin Church, the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher thing.”
Even Pope Benedict XVI himself, while recently presiding at the blessing of a new pipe organ in Regensburg Germany, stated that the organ “takes up all the sounds of creation ... and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.”
So the next time you find yourself standing on the threshold of a beautiful church — glance up at the choir loft. Perhaps you will see and hear part of the timeless and ongoing tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition worthy of sustaining as it continues to enable the faithful to give glory to God.
Whether we build new instruments or maintain existing ones, generous utilization of the pipe organ enables us for fitting worship of God that is not for the fainthearted.
And so: Long live the King!
Darryl Podunavac writes
from New York.