I’m an organist. That means I’m entirely sympathetic to the position that the organ should always be louder. And every instrument should always be enlarged – more reeds, more mixtures, bigger principal chorus.
We organists are like that – our egos rather like the sense of power that comes from being able to blast everyone out of the room.
But as much as I like loud organ music, there’s something else I like – and believe in – even more: the sound of a congregation united in song, and the sound of a cantor proclaiming a psalm text.
As I experience Catholic liturgies in various places, I notice a distressing tendency for keyboard players to work against congregations and cantors by their use of excessive volume.
Let’s start with the accompaniment of cantors on responsorial psalms and other refrain forms. It seems to me that the proclamation of the text by the cantor has absolute priority here. The cantor’s role isn’t that different from the role of a lector in proclaiming a Scripture reading. The accompaniment has the humble purpose of supporting the proclamation and give the pitch to the singer, without in any way overshadowing the proclaimed text. To put it somewhat negatively, the accompaniment should be as quiet as possible while still giving the singer the necessary support.
But I hear organists using the same registration for the verses as for the refrain. I hear pianists playing at the same volume all the way through. What I don’t hear in these scenarios is the verse text – it’s completely drowned out.
Appropriately scaled back verse accompaniment would not only enhance the verses, it would also enhance the congregation’s singing on the refrain. The contrast of louder volume level for the refrain would signal more clearly to the congregation that the refrain belongs to all of them. The clear distinction in volume between verses and refrain would make clearer the congregation’s entry point.
Organists, this means setting pistons and using them. If the gymnastics of hitting a piston during the brief transitions are too daunting, one might set up two manuals in contrasting volume and shift between them.
Pianists, the soft pedal is the one on the left.
Tomorrow: organ volume for traditional hymns