I was at rehearsal the other night (yes, in this post-apocalyptic world we dared to bravely attempt such a mundane thing as “rehearsal”). Upon arrival, I heard four words that no organist wants to hear: “The organ is dead.”
Every member of our little choir stopped and turned, with faces of shock, at our director who’d just released this bombshell. I felt my whole being start to sink into the highly polished non-slip floor.
“Dead?” we repeated, slowly. Dead, indeed—and be assured I don’t mean anything metaphorical, like “organ music is so passé” or “people think the organ is ‘too loud’ [whatever that means].” We mean “dead” as in “inner electronic guts of said instrument are fried to a quite literal crisp.”
In all seriousness, our church really did suffer a pretty serious lightning strike. In a series of early autumn storms that ripped through central Indiana, a single bolt struck some point in the church. The resulting blast shot such a powerful electric current through the building that almost anything electronic—even things that were not plugged in!—were shocked out of existence.
My organ has caught on fire before. But it didn’t survive this act of God.
The challenge for our little parish, of course, is how to replace an instrument of this cost. Even an electronic organ, installed c. 1993, has quadrupled in price, according to our most recent estimate on replacement. This organ doesn’t even have pipes…and yet replacing it now tops $100,000.
Now, don’t worry about us—I know we’re resilient, and that we’re committed to replacing our instrument. But…what about all the places that can’t? Or couldn’t? Or wouldn’t? Isn’t this the story of the slow, creeping reality of lonely, broken organs, abandoned in choir lofts that are roped off-limits? Isn’t this the dangerous invitation to find a cheaper option…not even a piano (let alone a grand), but a keyboard that plays “organ-like” sounds?
To be clear, I don’t think the “fault” of this cost-benefit challenge of music in the Catholic church lies in the organ builders. The computerized possibilities in 1993 pale to what they are at present—which is surely a significant factor in cost. Aside from this, fairly compensated labor is costly, and prices of materials are certainly higher than they were 30 years ago—an issue exacerbated further by pandemic-impacted production limits.
But, in all the time we’ve had since the Second Vatican Council (let alone Pius X’s call for invigorated sacred music more than 100 years ago), Catholics just don’t seem to be able to invest regularly, or robustly, in their music programs. Or their instruments. A broken or poorly cared for organ is a slippery slope into silence, absence, and the neglect of a vital carrier of our liturgical and aesthetic tradition within Western Christianity.
At my little south-side parish, I think we’ll be able to scrape together the cash to replace our Allen—or maybe sweet-talk our insurance company into working with us on our claim. But it brings me pause…as I play all my hymns on the piano for the coming months: this is how…the organ died.