“Four alternatives to killing your pipe organ”

From a liturgical music Facebook friend in Boston, Margaret Felice, who I’ve never met in person but admire from afar. Pastors, parish administrators, and those who want a real transformation of their music ministry and not just a quick-fix need to read this.

Four alternatives to killing your pipe organ


  1. Thanks, Diana, the author is very spot on with many observations.
    The one thing Ms. Graham does zero in upon correctly is the ridiculous notion that some of the material from all the way back to the SLJ “SILVER NOR GOLD” collection and forward was- that organs could serve to accompany much of the genres that were emerging. One can bother to look this up, but I believe it was the late, great Sister Theophane Hytrek that actually collaborated with the SLJebbies and fancified some of their tunes with fully annotated, arranged organ accompaniments.
    But the net gain was a loss. Imagine at the time and ever since (as some of my stubborn song leaders insist still) the song “Blest Be the Lord” or “Lord of Glory” played on any organ. It becomes a carnival carousel ditty, no way around it. So, Ms. Graham’s call to properly render contemporary music via proper orchestration (so to speak) is quite valid. OTOH, cross-fertilization is quite possible in either direction, it depends upon the tune and text in question. From the ensemble POV, John Foley’s “May we praise you” or “Take Lord, receive” can beautifully be voiced by a great organist. Conversely, “Kingsfold” or “Gott Vater sei gepriesen” may, emphasize may actually be set to a Celtic pub or even bluegrass version and still work, believe it or not.
    So, as Todd has reiterated and with which I agree completely, one cannot dismiss performance discretion and assignment from these concerns about “licit” instruments, or even “no instruments.”

  2. One doesn’t run into this often, but some have figured out how to use the organ well with guitar and other instruments to accompany what we think of as contemporary catholic liturgical music quite beautifully. Steven Warner, a guitarist himself, and the Notre Dame Folk Choir, comes immediately to mind:

    In my experience the biggest battle is often getting the organist and guitarist to buy into the fact that they can work together on the same piece (note, this is not appropriate for every piece… everyone need not play every measure of every piece!) and the result can be beautiful. I actually much prefer the guitar/organ combination to the piano/organ.

  3. Of course there is the stereotype that those who love the EF Mass and more formal worship don’t care about the poor although they are more staunchly Catholic in identity in other ways. Then there is the stereotype that those who love non-organ, more contemporary music are more liberal and oppose the Church on sexual issues and the like. So it must be a conspiracy by the Boston Globe to undermine true Catholic identity for a more vapid approach to Catholicism more in line with the Globe’s ideology, which is own by the New York times? 🙂

  4. I find myself mostly agreeing with Charles. I think there are many songs designed for guitar accompaniment which work very succesfully on the organ in the hands (and feet) of a skilled practitioner — including, incidentally, “Blest be the Lord” ! “Sing of the Lord’s goodness”, to name one obvious fence at which many fall, can easily be translated into something which will have the most diehard anti-organ folk enthusiast tapping their feet.

    It’s mostly a question of technique, and it’s one that I find myself often teaching organists who want to knpow how to bridge the gap between “folk” and “trad”. (By the way, the organ accompaniment that OCP publishes of “Sing of the Lord’s goodness”, which has my name attached to it as the arranger, is not an arrangement that I would ever play myself. It was designed for those who cannot imagine what rhythmic music sounds like on the organ! I only produced it under duress.)

    I agree with those who praise Steve Warner’s arrangement of Bernadette Farrell’s “Bread for the World”. I only wish he had slowed the tempo several notches. It sounds rushed to me. That’s what often happens with guitarists, and also with people who know they are being recorded. The adrenaline clicks in, and Hey, Presto! (literally). I know of one music director, a household name in the US, who used to take sedatives before broadcast liturgies in order to slow himself down! It didn’t always work….

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #6:
      Paul, I wonder if your endorsement sent some of our friends scampering to their bomb/survival shelters?!? Yes, and I concur that the extremely gifted organist, one of whom has blessed me with his 21 years of service, can skillfully negotiate an accompaniment to genres that, at face value, would seem antithetical. Ernie’s tribute to Desmond/Brubeck isn’t that much of a stretch if you know the likes of Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff or even Brian Auger. I still would have to hear (even my guy’s or another) version of “Blest be the Lord” in the original (Dufford?) tempo to confirm your contention;-)
      And a hearty shout out “yes” to Jeff Rice’s pairing of equally qualified guitarist/organist duos. I’ve been blessed in Central California. I think the whole schmeer does well if both instrumentalists are accomplished classical players AND improvisers whose ears and intuition are keen to listen to one another.
      I think RCC practicioners missed the forest for the trees as regards the accomplishments of Mssrs. Paul Winter, Paul Halley, Eugene Friesen and the rest of the Missa Gaia Consort/Choir era. Forget all the environmental or pantheistic/political who-hah that bug people, and listen to the rather brilliant blend of genres which, by the way, INCLUDED chant. I know that many folks can or will not make a distinction between this sort of “new age virtuosi ensemble” format and a LifeTeen Band caught between covering Stryper or Matt Maher, but it’s apples to oranges if the performers are solid. Hand percussion doesn’t always mean spoons and tambourines. But “unbelievers” in this model should listen to the version of the Beatitudes from “Missa Gaia” to hear a wonderful synthesis of genres layered ingeniusly.
      Glad we’re off the other subject.

  5. Missa Gaia is one of the remarkable recordings of our time, IMO, for all sorts of reasons. Return to Gaia with Winter and Halley is nothing short of genius.

    I am intrigued that the CD is not exactly identical with the tape cassette that I originally purchased all those years ago — does anyone know why?

  6. This was great – thanks for the link and the reminder of Margaret Felice’s blog, which I was first introduced to by a real-life friend of hers.

    In my experience as a liturgy person with so few musical skills of her own, but strong opinions, I love the organ. That said, in the wrong hands, it is a mess, in poorly planned liturgy, it is a bigger mess. But killing it is not the solution, at all. I will be sharing this with many. Thanks again!

  7. ANY instrument in the wrong hands is a mess. I am a guitarist and have worked with an organist/pianist for years! We simply adjust our instruments to the piece we are playing. Kingsfold, for example, comes out delightfully Celtic with a light organ touch and strong finger picking. O’Connor’s Lift up Your Hearts has a heavier rhythmic guitar and pedal bass from the organ. I even use my guitar (12 string) as a sort of harp when accompanying chant! It is not the instrument that is the problem, it is the ability and vision of the player/planner to make all genres of music a part of liturgical prayer.

  8. One reason pipe organs get a bad wrap, I suspect, is because organists too often fail to accompany the cantor or singers and, instead, compete with them, or drown them out. Good accompaniment is one feature of monastic liturgies (generally speaking) that can be successfully transferred to parishes. Any instrument should support the singing not rival it.

  9. The writer of the Editorial lost her bet on my iPod which contains Bach’s T&F in D Minor. She would also find herself very wrong on how amazing the Mass can be accompanied by a good pipe organ and an excellent organist.

    While “They’ll Know We are Christians by our love” on a pipe organ is enough to make me appreciate the “guitar Masses” of the late 60’s of my youth, Lutheran hymns played well contain so much doctrine and beauty (OK, I’ll concede that they can also sound more like dirges) that a challenging melody line are worth the effort.

    I pray the day of the non-liturgical “Willow Creek” meetings that pass for Lutheran worship is coming to an end, and it cannot happen soon enough for me.

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