Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Luxuriant Lutheranism - the organ on a pedestal

We Lutherans love our organ music, and rightly so. Hearing fine organ playing can be awe-inspiring. Parishes that have fine organs and organists to fully utilize them receive the great rewards that the instrument has to offer. The organ offers a panoply of colors, expressivity, and sensitivity in hymn accompanying, and of course, the great organ music of the Lutheran ├╝berkantor – J. S. Bach. Bach has always been my favorite composer, long predating my years as a Lutheran, extending all the way back to my childhood. The more Bach I hear, the better.

But recently we have encountered some problems in our American Lutheran Churches. There are many, probably even a majority who do not have the kind of organ or organist that would inspire such awe. Many a seminarian, after living in the beauty of the liturgical life at St. Louis or Fort Wayne, and hearing great organists like Henry Gerike, Richard Resch, Kevin Hildebrand and Paul Grime, have left that sublime atmosphere for a more mundane parish existence, where the organist struggles to keep an even tempo and who may have unpredictable, even contrary views on how things should be done. Other parishes, fewer, but still enough to rightly deserve our attention, do not have an organist at all. They have been looking for one, but cannot seem to find one. And the ones they do find are mediocre at best. What to do?

The organ is a great instrument, and it is always wonderful to have a good organist. But if we do not have either, we as Lutherans, may need to rethink our values. What makes Lutheran worship efficacious? Is it the organ, or is it the things that are played on the organ? Is it the chorale preludes of Bach? Or is it the chorales themselves, which place words and melodies on the lips and in the minds and hearts of parishioners for their spiritual nurturing? No chorale prelude can do that.

Is it possible that, without an organ at our disposal, we may need to be resourceful in finding ways to guide the congregation’s song? Perhaps the use of a combination of instruments, or one or two good singers from the congregation can accomplish this goal. Will it be as grandiose, as majestic? Probably not, but will it fulfill the admonition of Colossians 3:16 to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us?” Absolutely!

We Lutherans may be growing fat from the luxuries we have been afforded in this great country where our churches are not persecuted. Our “fatness” manifests itself in that we think it a travesty when we do not to have an organ in our church buildings. So, we have elevated this instrument to "king of instrument” status, placing it on some high pedestal in our worship life. We think the organ to be absolutely essential to our worship – that we cannot possibly worship without it.

But, how important has this instrument been in the history of the Christian faith? St. Paul never even knew of one, let alone the ancient Jews who were given the Psalms and encouraged to sing them. The early church never had one. Yet they sang canticles and hymns just as do we. All through the Medieval period, I understand that organ playing was not in full grand use. The Renaissance composers focused on a pervasively vocal art. No great chorale preludes were being produced at that time. However much the organ was used then, it was not until the Baroque period that we get a truly instrumental art that elevated the organ, through Buxthehude and then Bach (and others, of course). If I am a little inaccurate in my timeline, I think you get my point. Christian worship (and I include the faithful ancient Jews in this, who were saved by Christ's atonement) is 8,000 plus years old. Yet, the organ has played a really significant role for only about the past 400 years, and that’s a charitable estimate.

CPH has come out with a product called The Concordia Organist (TCO). This product provides prerecorded hymn accompaniments on the organ for congregations who do not have a real live organist. You can have an organ playing in your parish even without a person to play it. I view this product as elevating the organ to a level it does not merit. What’s communicated is that, if we do not have an organ, we must use this, because we cannot possibly worship without an organ. It is a symptom of our luxuriant Lutheranism. Well, I have good news. You can live without it! And if you are in this position, it might be a healthy exercise for you to live without it. You have the opportunity to look for the benefits that living without an organ can give! You can start by singing the hymns unison a cappella. One or two singers or a small vocal ensemble can assist the congregation in doing so. As you go, you might add a flute, simple chords on a guitar or a combination of instruments, even a keyboard. You might also begin to sing in parts.

Rather than neglect whatever musical talent lies dormant in your congregations, use them. They are your parishioners too and they need catechesis and pastoral care. Teach them what worship means as they learn to guide the congregation in song. Do not neglect them by employing a “sanctified” manifestation of Karaoke in your parishes. CTO is not altogether different than the canned music that soloists in evangelical protestant churches use to sing contemporary songs so they can sound a little more like Nashville. Think about it:

“You too can sound like the Fort Wayne Chapel! Just buy TCO.”

Is there not just a tinge of theology of glory at work here? Perhaps living life under the cross means, for some, getting over personal aesthetic preferences and considering the notion that unison a cappella singing can serve just as efficaciously in rendering a great hymn or Divine Service setting. But even more, it serves to catechize your congregation just as well, if not better than fancy hymn accompaniments. You do not need to be beholden to some aesthetic ideal that you experienced at seminary or a worship conference, all the while forgetting that the true treasure is in our sung hymns themselves and building a faith community that sings that treasure with great authenticity. Our hymns are an immensely valuable, meaningful, and profound treasure, no matter whether we sing them with an organ or not.

You do not need TCO. Sing your hymns. They are the true treasure. Do it with or without an organ. Use your pianist, your guitarist, your high school flutist, whatever. And when you do not have them, sing a cappella! Putting the organ on a pedestal is nothing more than style over substance. The hymns are our substance and sustenance with or without an organ. They are our true treasure.

Could TCO be helpful to some congregations? Sure. Is it expedient? Sure. But living without an organist and TCO may afford our congregations many hidden benefits as they strive to cultivate their singing voices and utilize other musical resources that may be of great value to their worshiping communities.


Phillip said...

While certainly there are salutary uses for "The Concordia Organist" - home devotions, shut-in visits, classroom use - I agree that the main purpose of this product is bad news for the church. Already I have encountered abuses: a pastor with a dual parish who has three organists was gleefully telling fellow pastors at a conference recently how TCO was enabling him to GET RID OF HIS ORGANISTS. You see, he doens't like dealing with them. So much easier to push a button, you know.

And yet the problem remains that our people have relied on the organ for so long that they just don't know of any other way. And one cannot deny that organ playing has had a positive effect on the quality of singing in our congregations, as the "King of Instruments" does lead the human voice well.

So, if there are not viable alternatives in a small parish somewhere, might there be a role for recorded music? Upon reflection, I think so - but not The Concordia Organist. Instead, I think we need to have recordings of a small unison choir (5 or 6 voices) singing all the contents of LSB for the church.

If such a resources were used, people would recover a more natural form of music-making. The recording would blend in better with the congregation and sound more authentic to the sanctuary. (No issues of "That Kramer Sound"/"That Nashville Sound"). And the chanting would model good speech-like tempi on the canticles and psalms.

Such a resources would also allow for the local high school flute player to play along. Maybe she would be too nervous to lead the congregation at first, so playing along with a recording of voices would ensure that the worship would not get interrupted should she make a mistake. The local country-western guitarist could learn to strum the simple chords out of the LSB guitar edition and learn to accompany the singing in a liturgical way.

In time, the recoring could have its volume turned down, as the local worshippers become more condient in their own abilities and as local musical resources are developed. Some may need to keep these "training wheels" on for a long time, but others might find that they can quickly take the training wheels off as they move for more authentic worship.

Such a set of recordings would be truly helpful in these unusual situations, avoiding the pitfalls presented by use of The Concordia Organist for congregational song.

Papa Olson said...

Soli Deo Gloria
Soli Organ Gloria

CMS said...

You made a major oversight in your article in neglecting to mention that the Bible encourages the use of the pipe organ. Psalm 150:4b says (Authorized version), "Praise him with stringed instruments and organs."

It's in the bible, and, I have learned, according to research, that the pipes were located in the Holy of Holies."

Stephen R. Johnson said...


Oh, my goodness, you are so RIGHT! And with the Authorized Version at that. I am so ashamed! Nix everything I said. Quick, Phil - take it all back! I've been trumped! Thanks so much for pointing out my gross misunderstanding of Holy Scripture! I knew I should never have discussed this without an MDiv. in my back pocket!

Papa Olson said...


Just so you know, its PASTOR Olson to you buddy.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

...and it's Kantor Johnson to you, pal!

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Nice post. We sometimes us handbells to provide starting pitches for a capella singing, when no organist is available, or to support the chant tone.

Phillip said...

Precisely what we are talking about, Gifford!

There are so many ways one can support singing w/o resorting to canned music.

I hope the synod will be promoting workshops to help smaller congregations discover these alternatives in the future.

T. said...

A very interesting post, and a thoughtful proposal about a possible vocal recording of LSB, too. It is such a relief to me to find your site's commitment to liturgical music and hymnody while still encouraging creativity in music.

There was a pastor in our circuit who used TCO, and I found it pathetic and sad that he liked canned music so much. I found it outrageous that he would use it even when I tagged along with my husband to Winkel. (I have a piano performance background, and hold a BMus. in Church Music.) It truly is a slap in the face to live musicians.

There used to be a practice in our LCMS colleges to give future pastors and teachers basic organ training. So, I'm sure some of the expectations you mentioned about THE ORGAN was sort of built in, there. I'll bite my tongue about the rest. :)

I think a larger problem, though, is that it is rarer to have an organist who is a wider musician him/herself, who can involve student musicians, who can be creative with music in service to the Word, and who can function decently on/with a variety of instruments. I'd think this should be a crucial requirement for any graduating DPM today. But sometimes the insights or inspirations you gain do depend greatly on your professors....

I am always surprised when I play a service somewhere and afterwards someone comes up and says," Wow, we've never heard all those neat, different sounds come out of that organ before!" And I'm thinking to myself: I didn't do anything weird.... Just how many churches ARE there that have never heard their liturgy or hymns played well, or creatively, or reflectively of their texts?


I guess we need to support the Arts, support our college music departments, encourage student musicians, give them lessons, give them resources, give them recordings, send them to hymn festivals. And Play.


Stephen R. Johnson said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful post. There are many variables here, but I think you hit on something very important. Many times organists are just that and they do not have the training or skills to bring together all the other components that make parish music so vital and filled with variety. Using all ages, many kinds of music, many textures and timbres that do not rely on the organ exclusively is all part of the challenge and the beauty of good church musicianship. Thank you for your comments.