Organ Repertoire: Why Catholics Don’t Care

I was asked by a student today, “I just don’t understand why we need to have organ repertoire.  When would you ever use it?”  I stared at the student, confounded, dumbfounded.  And then I had an intense moment of Catholic soul-searching.  How many Catholics would understand why you’d want to have organ repertoire—how many Catholics ever do hear actual repertoire in the course of a liturgical celebration?  I asked the student, “Have you not ever experienced a Mass which began and ended with a prelude and postlude?”  The student said, “No.”  (And I know this isn’t true, because I play preludes and postludes here at our own University Masses, but, perhaps this student was considering personal parish experiences.)

More importantly, this student did not care, and could not fathom why anyone might care about liturgical organ repertoire.  But I say, how could anyone say that liturgical music didn’t matter?

Such questions conjure up for many of us Thomas Day’s classic text, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Crossroad, 1992).  But, in the case of organ repertoire, I feel our title should be: Why Catholics Don’t Care.  This absolute lack of “care” or understanding as to why music might elevate and complement a liturgical experience is deeply troubling to me.  It is particularly troubling as I preparChapel1e to embark upon a pilgrimage to Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Valparaiso University is a great advocate of church music, and of liturgical worship, and contributes to this advocacy by hosting an annual Institute of Liturgical Studies.  First convened at Valparaiso University in 1949, the Institute began, to a certain extent, as an iteration of the liturgical movement from a Lutheran perspective—one which promoted sacramental life, the study of liturgical history, and ministerial practices which promoted active participation.

Over its many decades, the Institute’s program has become more ecumenical, deeply interested in pastoral practice, and devoted to renewing and refreshing the lives of ministers and, in turn, Christian congregations.  This present year, the Institute of Liturgical Studies’ 69th session, commemorates the 500th Year of the Reformation, with the title: “Liturgy Serving The Life of the Church: How Worship Re-forms Us.”  Far from being a celebration of divisions across our ecclesial boundaries, however, a number of Roman Catholic theologians and historians are included as plenary speakers and workshop leaders.

Aside from its ecumenical atmosphere, about which is cared deeply, I am also confident that both the worship—and its accompanying repertoire—will be cared about deeply, and inspire others to care deeply.  Our worship is shaped by aesthetic experiences, and by symbols.  The more we learn to participate in aesthetic experiences (be it singing, or prayer accompanied by an organ or other instrument), and contemplate the rich multi-valence of symbols (e.g. baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine), the more we might be changed by our liturgical experiences.  Just as symbols give rise to thought, music gives food to the spirit…and helps us to pray twice.

I learned to love church music from my Protestant brothers and sisters—and from my friends at places like Valparaiso University.  I was changed by my experience of Lutherans who love music.  My mission now is to invite other (Catholics) to see…or hear…why caring matters.


  1. This reminds me of a complaint of a congregant in a former community of mine about music. This was a community where there was a mixed repertoire, hardly traditional. We had a top-drawer organist and a historic organ, and she often offered improvisations before and after Mass. But the complaint was that there wasn’t enough music “of our time” – the complainant was befuddled when it was mentioned that there, in our midst, we had a great woman artist providing music of our time in our very place. But most of the others in attendance got the point, even if they had never fully engaged the idea before.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful conference. Will papers be published?
    I hope you will share some reflection on your experience …

    1. @Katherine Christensen:
      Thanks for your response! I know that some information is kept on their website, where they have some documents:
      I’m not sure if there’s a regular publication of some kind which follows.

      I am looking forward to my experience this afternoon! It may indeed inspire further reflection! As some have helpfully reminded me in the comments this morning, we have to be careful not to “romanticize” the liturgical music of other traditions–each of us, indeed, have our struggles!

  3. One of the great blessings of our community is that an organist “showed up” one day – materialized after mass, as volunteers are wont to do; and told the music director (whose philosophy tends more toward pop/contemporary style and instrumentation) that she’s available if he could use her. It turns out that she plays really well, and teaches organ at the college level. She is not Catholic, and if not at the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I am still not sure what drew her to us. She plays preludes and postludes (drawing from both classical and contemporary repertoire), and provides very skilled foundational support to the congregational singing – complementing rather than competing with the piano, guitars, electric bass and so on. She’s an artist and a treasure.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been a handful of complaints about her playing. I think it’s mainly the contemporary repertoire in the preludes and postludes, which can be a bit dissonant and jarring. Organ playing in church isn’t as common as it used to be, and people aren’t nearly as exposed to it as they were in the days when every parish had an organ and one or more organists. Until this organist showed up that day, my own children hardly had ever heard an organ in church. So I’m not too concerned about the complaints. And I’m grateful that we have this artist offering praise to God in this way.

  4. I appreciate your appreciation of my adopted tradition, though I am afraid that the reality in our parishes is that our overwhelmingly number of smaller congregations means that many lack the resources for even an organist. I was the visiting presider and preacher in a parish yesterday where the praise band was front and off the altar while the organ was supplied via the computer. While the computer operator messed up the dialog of the Preface, the rest of of the Mass was handled by the computer pretty well. That was weird.

    The praise band, often in the chancel with a small altar for the Eucharistic elements, is far more common in our larger churches. While the good organs are still being played, often quite well, many are being left to gather dust because of the expense of maintaining the pipes and valves. My most recent parish before retirement has elected to do this, much to my chagrin. Their feeling is that an electronic keyboard can be set to “pipe organ” and no one will be offended by it.

    We have a lot going for us in this regard, but have our issues too.

  5. Actually, as an organist, I have to say – the student’s question is a good one. There is a long and colorful history of the organ playing an integral part in Catholic liturgy – including the officially-sanctioned replacement of required texts with improvised or composed organ versets. Following Vatican II, this tradition no longer had a place in liturgy, prompting a crisis of faith and artistry especially in the French improvisational school. Whatever we think about the liturgical developments in question (and most would agree that singing texts is better than organ versets), this was quite a setback for liturgical organ repertoire! Organ improvisation is still essential liturgically, especially at large churches, but what is the value of repertoire? I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with this question yet, given that most of our conservatory training focuses on repertoire. Having said that, I do think preludes and postludes are valuable complements to the liturgy.

  6. I think that we learn to appreciate music. Many people think the appeal of music is immediate and visceral and hence untaught, but it’s actually something acquired and intellectual as well as sensory and experiential. Not caring is a symptom of ignorance, it seems to me. Not knowing what to listen for or why something is better or worse than something else reduces all music to a blur, and makes it seem less interesting than it really is.

    The study of music and courses on “music appreciation’ have dropped out of school curricula across the US by and large, and I think this is a big factor in why people don’t care / or are too ignorant to notice it. Commercially, music is considered a commodity that’s cheap and instant entertainment, rather than an art form that is laboriously acquired, and involves skills and instruments that are anything but instantly obtained. When someone learns to play an instrument, I think she or he begins to appreciate someone else’s playing in a deeper way.

  7. Catholic congregations are used to yakking through preludes and postludes, and even reasonably devout congregants will raise their voices to talk over the music, because they have all learned (by example, nobody ever taught this in so many words) that these pieces are merely “background music” and they just don’t listen. I often feel sorry for the organist and sorry for the congregation when this happens, because it’s often great stuff and could be part of the devout recollection that prepares for and savors the liturgical action.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Not only is that rude to the organist, but no unnecessary talking should go on in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. If people feel the need to chat, they should do that in the vestibule…how to inculcate this to Catholics who don’t know know any better…

  8. Since I essentially do the work of two full-time musicians, I rarely have time to practice and play difficult repertoire for preludes and postludes – but I do insist on doing a prelude and postlude each week in a variety of styles and from a variety of countries and times, listing them in the worship aid, etc. I only allow myself improvised preludes and postludes once a month. Some people do notice and like them and I’m sure many do not care.

  9. I would agree with Rita–uncaring stems from not knowing or not understanding. Or being taught that a lot of music at Mass, especially organ music, is just filler or background. How many parishes list the pieces and composers for the prelude and postlude in their service programs? And that these pieces are integral to the Mass? How many encourage, through words in the printed programs, the congregations to be still and recollected during the organ prelude and postlude? The bigger issue to me is that the use and importance of the organ in Catholic worship is becoming less and less, much to the Church’s detriment and impoverishment.

  10. Mr. Saur-

    I have found little music “of our time” at church. That is unless our time refers to the late 60s and 70s.

    1. @Michael Enright:
      I’m skeptical of this claim and suspect there is some other agenda lurking in the wings.

      I started grade school in 1969 and I remember well the music my parish did from c. 1968 – 1979. NONE of it is still being sung today, there or anywhere else, except the classical Protestant hymns such as “Now Thank We All Our God.”


  11. Only one of our weekend Masses includes no choir or ensemble. The organist regularly plays a prelude. At the choir and ensemble Masses the organist plays a postlude after the closing song. During the latter I am in the commons greeting people. During the former I’m in the sacristy getting vested. My respect for the skills of these organists is great, my “caring” for their repertoire pieces is somewhat low. In my experience, organ music is an acquired taste like opera. Most folks seem pretty indifferent to it, except perhaps in parishes where the priest has instructed the people that organ music is superior and more reverent than all other varieties.

  12. Out here in Goa/India, organ music has a long tradition. It certainly serves the solemnity aspect of our liturgical celebrations.

  13. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that people chat during the prelude and postlude. But for that matter, I also don’t think it’s bad that they chat in the presence of the blessed sacrament. There is a holiness in building the bonds of discipleship. That the organ music is serving as “background music” to this bonding is fine. Just my opinion.

    My experience in providing preludes and postludes (not as an organist, but with a variety of other instruments, and/or chorally) is that most people aren’t attentive – but some, usually a few, are. Those who are attentive generally are very appreciative. And every once in a while there is a “wow” moment where the quality and beauty of the music captures everyone’s attention, they all listen, and they all applaud spontaneously when it’s done. That sort of thing always felt like a victory to me.

  14. Here in the UK a chance would be a fine thing.
    The town where I live has five catholic churches. Not one has a functioning organ and the two of them that were built post war don’t even have a place to put one.
    My travels around the country tell me that this situation is far from rare.
    This has real implications when it comes to liturgical music repertoire choice and style.

  15. Thanks for the article. This Catholic cares, at least in part credit to my Lutheran mother who subbed on organ at her church. My parish has an amazing organist who plays preludes and postludes and occasionally an extra piece after that (Stars and Stripes Forever around July 4th). When my mother visit, she insists we are ‘on time’ for Mass to hear all of the introductory music (usually a few choral or solo pieces in addition to an organ prelude). She sits quietly through the postlude, head down, eyes closed. I can’t say I do the same, but I do listen. And I applaud when he’s done.

  16. When I am pressed for time, which is to say nearly always, practicing organ literature is the first thing to go. When I do find a few hours here and there to rework an old favorite or learn something new, I figure it’s for the glory of God and for my own enjoyment. If I play a well-executed postlude, or a not-so-well-executed postlude, or just an instrumental verse of the closing hymn, it’s all the same to everyone else in the room.

  17. I see many organs gathering dust and falling into disrepair, and “praise band” equipment moving in. I hear music of stubenville and lifeteen replacing real liturgical music.

  18. #18 awr…

    1979 would have been the first two albums of the St. Louis Jesuits… Do you sing any of those hymns? Or were you talking organ repertoire?

  19. The St. Louis Jesuit repertoire was being rolled out to parishes prior to 1979, I think? Some of those songs are copyright mid-70’s, IIRC. I’m just trying to remember when my parish started singing those songs. Believe it would have been a few years before ’79. Happy to be corrected.

  20. The first collection of music by the St. Louis Jesuits, “Neither Silver Nor Gold,” was published in 1974. The one song from this book that I have heard in recent years — and I nearly fell out of my chair because I hadn’t heard it in so many years — was “Glory and Praise to Our God.” It’s a perfectly serviceable hymn, and can be accompanied by a variety of instruments. I just hadn’t heard it in decades. So I think Anthony’s observation is fair. Some of the StLJ hymns that remain popular, such as “Be Not Afraid,” were later. Most of the early repertoire of the folk revival faded.

    I learned an interesting detail about “Glory and Praise to Our God” from Bob Dufford, whom I met at a conference recently. It was written as a hymn of praise for the just-baptized at the Easter Vigil, when the RCIA was newly-minted. Looking back on those verses, indeed they were very fitting. I wouldn’t mind a revival of this simple, joyful song!

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Is that the one that goes “Glory and praise to our God who alone gives light to our days/many are the blessings He bears, to those who trust in his ways?” If so, my former parish was singing that one on a regular basis about five years ago when I left. I would actually agree that it isn’t a bad hymn.

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        Yeah, that’s the one! After I wrote that, I realized it probably is still carried in one of the hymnals (maybe OCP?) so it’s in circulation even though I myself had not heard it since the 1980s. I bet you couldn’t name me another song from Neither Silver Nor Gold, though!! 😉 (I really liked “Like Cedars They Shall Stand” but nobody else did, if recurrence is the measure.)

        The stuff from the F.E.L. hymnal, or some of the early “People’s Mass Book” repertoire, now, that really is gone. “Sons of God” or “Take Our Bread” or “Here We Are” — you are too young to remember these, Jack — not to mention “Joy Is Like the Rain” or “Be a New Man”; adieu forever. As much as I would like to recapture my wasted youth, I wouldn’t want to relive that repertoire… 🙂

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        That parish had OCP seasonal missalettes.

        I would agree that most parishes don’t use 1960s folk music (though “They’ll Know We Are Christians” is a guilty pleasure of mine). I’d say the period of 1990-2010 was defined by music written in the 70s and 80s – and that music still dominates the half dozen or so English Masses I still attend each year. Like a lot of liturgically traditional people, I went through a phase where I hated and resented that music, but since then I’ve warmed back up to it – it was, after all, the music that defined the Catholicism of my childhood. Last year I attended a funeral where “Eagles Wings” was played and on Holy Thursday they played “Gift of Finest Wheat” and of course I had to sing along.

  21. Our elementary students, who rarely if at all experienced the organ before last year, are fascinated when they watch up close. I’ve taken some of them into the organ chambers, and they are amazed. Just last weekend, some of our kids sang at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, and Dr. Crista Miller gave them a demonstration of the organ. They were entranced. I’ve gotten numerous questions about a picture of an historic organ in my classroom. The interest is not lacking in the young ones, which lays the responsibility on us. These kids are so tech-savvy, that the impressive old technology of the pipe organ (especially mechanical action organs) is way more interesting to them than a computer chip. All we have to do is give it to them.

  22. Writing from a perspective informed by 40 years living and working in Japan, this is a question that I personally still wrestle with. While I still believe the organ has a role, the more I have read in the history of Church Music, on the one side I see the need to appreciate and receive what traditon has passed on to us in the shape of organ music, another side, looking to the longer and wider history, wonders whether a more balanced assessment of its role is also necessary. And now in a global Church, an awareness of the rich diversity of the musical traditions present across the globe, should surely see us look for a broadening of the definition of what constitutes “sacred” music. Two years ago John Foley edited three slim volumes “The Heart of Music” (The Liturgical Press, 2015), the questions posed there also need our attention as we consider the topic of an organ repertoire.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher svd:
      The post-Vatican II documents already provide that balance by allowing other instruments, provided they are suitable, while emphasizing the tradition and 100% suitability of the pipe organ. The issue is not that the organ is overemphasized; it’s that it is not emphasized enough.

  23. Rita – at one time, we in the Chicago Archdiocese were prohibited from singing that FEL material – something about rampant photocopying and a court ruling, all a bit before my time. Here’s an article from 1990 that recaps the legal battle – hope it’s not behind a subscriber wall.

    Re: the People’s Mass Book – last year on Trinity Sunday, our music director was away, and so chose some music for the substitute director which was thought to be unchallenging. Among them was “Praise the Holy Trinity” (” … undivided Unity, Holy God, mighty God, …). Nobody in the assembly sang it. To be sure, I don’t know if I’d ever heard it sung in this particular parish, and I’ve been there since 1991, in a music leadership role for a lot of those years. But I’d have thought it was a in-the-Catholic-DNA song. If it was, apparently it’s gone now.

  24. “The first collection of music by the St. Louis Jesuits, “Neither Silver Nor Gold,” was published in 1974. ”

    I don’t think I owned that one, but I purchased the books (mostly lead sheets) for most/all of the other collections released through the 1970s.

    Besides the music and lyrics, the notes (not the music notes, the composer’s notes) were helpful. Decades later I’d pull out those old books to show the fret charts to guitarists.

  25. So the situation has changed in the last decade, since a reviewer said:
    ” Their music continues to dominate contemporary songbooks. Of all the hymns in the mixed-repertoire, mainstream Heritage Missal published by Oregon Catholic Press, 24% are by a member of the St. Louis Jesuits, with 70% written in the style they pioneered. The 2000 edition of Glory & Praise, “the most popular Catholic hymnal ever published,” according to OCP[1] , contains 100 songs written by them. One member of the St. Louis Jesuits serves on the US Bishops’ Subcommittee on Music, which is working toward naming a common repertoire for parishes.” ?
    But to go back to the original article, there is truth in the joke “Q: What sort of musician expects the audience to get up and walk out while they are playing? A: An organist”

  26. Rita, if you remember “Here We Are, All Together As We Sing Our Song” and “Sons of God, Hear His Holy Word,” either you have a very good memory for your very early years or you’re older than you look. God bless Ray Repp and James Thiem, who did break ground, even though they’ve been gone beyond.
    Back to organ issues for a bit: I am organist for an early-morning Sunday service at our neighborhood Episcopal church, and I tell them that I come from a tradition in which organ voluntaries are heard but not listened to. (I grew up not on J. S. Bach but on Carlo Rossini’s “Liturgical Organist,” especially volume 6, and thought Luigi Bottazzo and Louis Raffy were pretty hot stuff.) The larger principle—a sound one, I believe—is that organ solos should serve the liturgy as a communal act and not call attention to themselves.
    I do think the rule can be relaxed for postludes. (At that Episcopal church’s main service, the postlude is explicitly treated as a party piece. Talented violinists, flutists, singers, and such from the parish often sub for the director of music as postludists. The congregation is asked not to leave noisily, or to chat, during the postlude.)

    1. @Paul R. Schwankl:
      Ha! Both are true, Paul. I have a good memory for my early childhood, and I am older than I look. For those who missed that era, Ken Canedo’s Keep the Fire Burning is a great resource. I actually listened to the podcasts, which are so vivid because the original recordings are now in the public domain so he used the songs as well as his narrative and history. Blessings on your organ playing. I am glad to hear the Episcopal church contrives to listen to the postlude.

  27. Thank you, Rita; I did not know of the existence of Ken Canedo’s book, which sells used on Amazon for a mere $483.78-$4,422.82! His caring makes up for a lot of Katherine Harmon’s Catholics who don’t care. And we Catholics of, ahem, a certain age will have no trouble continuing from “Keep the fire burning . . .” with “. . . Kindle it with care.” Thanks again, Ray Repp; sorry we aren’t still singing your music, but that option isn’t exactly open to us. You do understand, I hope.
    On organ playing again:
    1. An eminent music historian of my acquaintance, back when he was a graduate student and I was an undergraduate, wondered whether what I played at my home church (viva Carlo Rossini!) was “pious Muzak.” I think it was, unfortunately. But those who agree with me that organ voluntaries should not show off nevertheless have the responsibility of making them musically respectable. (I think there are some analogies with film scores.) Even people like me, who play without the advantage of a music degree, still have to make the effort.
    2. That Episcopal church’s postludes often veer away from strictly sacred music, and even beyond Bach preludes and the like. The biggest departure I’ve seen was a pianist’s thoughtful, intense version of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” In its own way, this church’s postlude practice works as a transition from worship-life to life-life.

  28. Oh Rita! I too, love ‘Like Cedars They Shall Stand’ and still sing it with my group occasionally at Mass. (I’ve still got a few copies of Neither Silver Nor Gold rattling around.) I also remember all the Ray Rep songs fondly from Catholic school in the late sixties and early seventies. Thanks for the mention of the podcast. Looking forward to listening!

  29. I know this thread has faded somewhat, but I thought I would offer a recent prelude experience. My parish has an adequate baby grand and a less-than-functional analog organ. My accompanist prefers the former, and is an evangelical Christian less familiar with liturgical nuances. Her practice before my arrival was to play a medley of familiar Catholic songs before Mass. We are striving for something more.

    We go without preludes for Lent, and for Easter I thought something different, if not hopefully better, might be a good try. A parishioner donated some piano books, including one of Scarlatti piano pieces. So my pianist has been using them.

    E-mail from a parishioner this week: unfavorable reaction from a group of friends in the pew. I was asked to consider instead “Bach, Handel, Schubert as composers of great beauty whose music would bring peace and tranquility to the start of the Mass.”

    Admittedly, I was asking my pianist to go with “Easter joy” in her selections. I haven’t yet decided how much of these specifics I will share with my pianist. And frankly, I’m at a loss as to how to take this input. Maybe this weekend, we go with Bach-Gounod and I cross my fingers. Any thoughts out there?

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      I would say that the problem is that organ is more able (than piano or harpsichord etc.) to *seem* to finesse the issue of sacred instrumental (that is, non-vocal) music. I encounter this issue at a parish I visit periodically southeast of Rochester NY, where the pianist seems inclined to offer very busy Baroque or Classical era repertoire, and it sounds more like a practice than a bridge into the liturgy.

      Perhaps consider using piano transcriptions of seasonally appropriate polyphonic sacred vocal music – there’s a lot out there that ought not be too taxing for someone unfamiliar with the repertoire. Which could be obtained from score reductions. (If your pianist is more ambitious, improvisations on such and on seasonally appropriate chant melodies would be quite the ticket.)

  30. I think that part of the problem is that true “classical” piano repertoire is not sacred nor sacred sounding and was not written for that purpose.
    Conversely, trying to play music from the vast repertoire of specifically sacred organ music on the piano doesn’t really work. Karl’s suggestion to use sacred vocal pieces played on the piano might work better.

  31. Thing is, the organ hasn’t been widely used here in at least 20 years. The claim is there to “love classical music,” but the thumbs up to Bach and Handel and thumbs down to Scarlatti remains a bit of a mystery. But the suggestion to use piano transcriptions of polyphony is excellent. My pianist is easily capable of that.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      An illustration of the idea, which is likely too late to implement this year, for the last part of Eastertide: Byrd’s “Non Vos Reliquam Orphanos”

      I know I’ve sung that many times from the octavo with the keyboard reduction for rehearsal purposes, though that’s not fully available online. (The PDFs at CPDL only have the vocal parts – which, given that it’s five parts, would require a certain agility in reducing in real time, as it were.)

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Thanks. Transcribed the Tchaikovsky this afternoon. CPDL’s only Sib file of the Byrd had some errors. But I have a file of GIA’s ArsAntiqua Choralis series and I’m sure I can find some nice works in there. I’m curious about what my commenting friend thought of the preludes for today’s funeral–no classics, only evangelical/charismatic songs. The choir is barely ready to sing it, but a piano arrangement of In Paradisum works well there when we remember it. Still, some guidance is needed here. I once fielded a question on the appropriateness of O Magnum Mysterium for October.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        If you’ve not heard the choral Cherubic Hymn No.1, this is a fine recording from a German (Hamburg) choir:

        And that one can be reused for almost any occasion. Like the Magnificat, praise of the Most Holy Trinity is nearly universally appropriate in the liturgy.

        If you have a trumpeter to join the keyboard, there’s always the lovely Prayer of St Gregory by Hovhaness. Or a reduction of his “From The Ends of The Earth”, a sinuous adaptation of Armenian chant. Et cet. I know you love Hovhaness.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur:
        I did sample a few recordings of it yesterday. I played it for one of my musicians. “Meh. Pretty.”

        Since our parish identifies as “Holy Trinity,” I think we’ll look at this piece more carefully. I might seek out a few others of that text, too.

        I certainly know the Prayer of St Gregory. I once programmed it when our parish hosted the diocesan Chrism Mass. But it didn’t quite work out.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *