During this past year or two the American Choral Directors Association has nurtured relationships with other specialized organizations, and one of those relationships seems to me to be most important and profitable. The AGO (American Guild of Organists) has been around a long time, and although their cause is the pipe organ, choral music figures very prominently in their promotion of the instrument. Indeed, the upcoming National AGO Convention in Washington D.C. highlights some choral performances, and I am hopeful that in the future ACDA will do the same at their conventions by highlighting some organ performances.
Whatever the outcome of that relationship might be, I worry about the future of these magnificent creations in our modern day culture. Most of our students have not heard a pipe organ played, and might not even consider the possibility because of its connection to the church. It is unfortunate that young people have this perception, but it does exist and limits our appreciation of its possibilities. When I taught at Colchester High School I team taught a course that paralleled the development of art and music throughout history. Each year we would take a cultural trip to a major city, and on the off years we would take students on a 10 day trip to Europe. One of my first endeavors on any of these trips was to arrange at least one organ lecture/demonstration. For instance, if we were visiting Boston, I would take students to the Mother Church of the Christian Science faith, and arrange for the organist to explain to the students how the instrument worked, explain its history, and end up with the performance of some showy piece that might capture the students attention. It is difficult to ignore these instruments; they are visually impressive and sonically capable of the most intimate sounds followed by massive waves of sound. Students always left with a new appreciation of the organ.
Each organ has its own character; its own soul. Organists will often speak of their instruments as if they were indeed human, and my interest in these instruments is intense enough that I would agree. I cannot imagine a more pleasurable experience than attending an organ performance by a capable organist; in the hands of a master these instruments are capable of anything that an orchestral ensemble might be able to do. I have organized trips to Methuen, Massachusetts, where each Wednesday evening during the summer a virtuoso organist plays a performance of the best organ literature available. The Methuen Memorial Music Hall was built for the sole purpose of housing the huge Walcher organ that used to sit in the old Boston Symphony Hall; it was removed to make way for the ever increasing Boston Symphony, and was purchased by Henry Searles, a businessman in the Lowell/Methuen area. It has been restored to pristine condition and is a marvelous way to expose students to this most magnificent of instruments. There is no way that one can walk into this concert hall and not be stunned by the imposing organ case that literally jumps out at you as you enter.
Those of us going to the Convention in Philadelphia in a few weeks will have the opportunity to hear one of the great organs of the world, played every business day in what I now believe is the Lord and Taylor Department Store in downtown Philadelphia. The store used to be the Wanamaker Department Store, and the organ is the very impressive Wanamaker Concert Organ which for many years was the largest pipe organ in the world. The capabilities of this instrument are more that once can imagine; it truly is magnificent!
There is a wealth of choral literature that is attached to this instrument and worthy of performance by choral groups. If you are lucky enough to have an organist that is capable and supports your enthusiasm for choral music, what a wonderful project it would be to introduce our students to the world of pipe organs and a whole new world of timbres and textures. The fact is that pipe organs are NOT just for church, although that is where many of them reside. Many communities have municipal organists on the state staff payrolls and take great pride in their instruments and their organists. Portland, Maine is one such city that has a huge pipe organ in their City Hall Auditorium, complete with Ray Cornils, their resident municipal organist. The organ is the Mighty Kotzschmar Organ, and on any Tuesday evening during the summer one can take in an organ concert of the highest calibre performed by a virtuoso organist. Imagine, a pipe organ in City Hall, not a church! But maybe, just maybe, the original intent of the instrument as realized in our churches throughout this country is the one place where these instruments has had the most profound impact through the worship service. For me it is difficult to realize and appreciate a worship service without this time honored instrument at the heart of the service. And it might just be, if we as music educators try to build an appreciation of the pipe organ into our curriculums, that the draw into the church to experience their sounds might also have a hidden impact as students are again drawn into an appreciation of teachings that are not presently a part of their experience.