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Of God and Man and Organists

Man's search for God is as old as mankind itself. At whatever moment of history one chooses to look, there are people yearning and striving to create a condition that might enhance their nearness to, and facilitate their dialogue with, that Being — call it what you will — from which all creativity and energy stems.

Towards that end, they set aside corners of space or blocks of time exclusively for the pursuit of the holy. Some of them also use arts and artifacts to help them in their contemplation, these often proving invaluable in isolating, at least for the moment, the person, tiny and alone, from the world that's too much with him, and permitting him to dwell solely on his inner life.

One of the arts that has proved effective in getting people focused is music, and one of its artifacts is the organ.

This ancient "king of instruments" is unique. It is capable of filling great spaces and whispering a fluttered hush. It can create a panoply of sound unlike any other musical instrument. It can blend with other instruments, accompany singers, contribute to sacramental or ceremonial functions, and provide the vehicle for dazzling concert virtuosity.

A great pipe organ, old or new, is an amazingly complicated construction, an ingenious amalgam of engineering, acoustics, musical sensibility, and unfathomable mystery. The same description may be applied to that strange clan of practitioners who have made the organ their life's passion.

Organists, particularly the church organists that makeup the great majority of professional players, are different from most other musicians. True, they must learn the same craft, develop the same technique and musicianship, assimilate the same musical literature, overcome the same fears as players of wind or string or other keyboard instruments. But beyond that, they all seem to have a certain mechanical aptitude: they are as genuinely interested in what makes that great beast of keyboards, pipes, and pedals work as is a racing driver in the motor of his car. And more important yet, they are willing and temperamentally able to put their art at the service of something outside of even the music they perform, at the service of their listeners' meditations.

The typically devoted organist intuits that meditation is the climate in which spirituality blooms, that, like all creative acts, the reaching into one's own inner self requires aloneness. Like any competent enabler, like the midwife assisting at a birth, the good organist never loses track of his listeners' purpose for being there — that purpose being perhaps as manifold as the worshippers, congregants, audience in attendance. Some come by habit, some from conviction, some out of faith and hope, some to hear wonderful music, wonderfully played. The sensitive organist provides nourishment to all. He has, after all, had training in disciplines other than music. He is often a minister of music, either by disposition or by actual certification.

That combination of skills makes the organist more than merely a keyboard player, no matter how consummate his artistry. Not only does he frequently choose the repertory, administer all musical matters, lead the chorus, and provide a dimension of education to young and old, he also functions as a colorful and highly individualistic connector — using music as his medium. He reminds us of our heritage, of the distant and near past and how it relates to the present. He assists the clergy in creating a suitable climate for the contemplation and connection of God and man. He fulfills his duties without being in the least professorial or pedantic, but rather people-oriented and pragmatic. And what's more, he's been playing the same role in society for as long as anyone can remember.

Nowhere could one find a more vivid demonstration of the multifaceted interests and enthusiasms of organists than at the Centennial Convention of the American Guild of Organists that took place in New York in July. Over 3,000 of the AGO's 21,000 members swarmed all over the city for four days of intensive continuing education combined with a camaraderie that would be hard to match in any profession. There were workshops galore, ranging in scope from the art of playing given composers' works and improvising, to educational, administrative, financial, organ-building, -buying, and -restoring, liturgical, ethnic, computer, and legal questions. Fleets of buses whisked delegates from church to church, uptown, downtown, east side and west, on organ tours featuring first-rate organists in demonstration of particularly noteworthy organs throughout town. (One doesn't always realize the wealth of truly great organs here, another byproduct of New York's splendid history.) And of course there were concerts each day: concerts of old music and new, concerts in churches and concert halls, even a concert featuring Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach) at Radio City Music Hall and a concert in conjunction with the AGO's Annual Meeting which packed The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on a sweltering July evening, beginning with a specially commissioned work by Dan Locklair and culminating in a memorable performance of Berlioz's Te Deum.

What most particularly elevated the spirit was the realization that each one of the participants in this jubilee convocation, indeed each one of the 21,000 active AGO members and organ practitioners, was a potential local megaphone, a strong and promising conduit bringing music to the people, and through it, sensitizing so many with a divine spark.

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