The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About

Women as Organists.

Women have yet to make a decisive mark in the world as organists. Despite the rapid strides they have made with regard to other instruments, comparatively few can play the organ really well. By this I do not mean the mere accompaniment to an ordinary church service (a performance which admits of considerable latitude in its interpretation), but a thorough mastery of the technic of the instrument, and an artistic rendering of legitimate organ-music, such as Bach’s “Passacaglia,” Smart’s “Postlude in E-flat,” or the more difficult sonatas of Rheinberger and Merkel.

Exact statistics are not easy to come by; but I suppose that, of every thousand girls who study Liszt’s arrangement of Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in G-minor,” not more than one can play it, as originally written, on the organ. In extenuation of the disparity between the playing of men and women organists it has been urged that, unlike the household pianoforte, the organ is often difficult of access. But this is no logical explanation, since it is as un-get-at-able for all alike; and the average girl has more time at her disposal to go in search of practice than the average young man. One hazards one’s own opinion with diffidence; but my personal experience (which has covered some wide ground in Europe) inclines me to think that this inequality is partially due to the fact that a man’s work is usually subservient to his brain, while a woman’s work is more influenced by her emotions. And this is particularly evidenced in music. A woman is at her best when interpreting music on a pianoforte, a violin, or any string instrument, since these respond the more delicately to the emotional force of the performer; and on this primarily depends their success.

On the other hand, although she has “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” the preliminary course of purely mechanical work, that is imperative for the making of a good organist, is often a stumbling-block to the woman-player. Not that she cannot do it; she can, if she makes up her mind to it. But in a large proportion of cases she simply won’t! It does not appeal to her. It is not that she shirks the hard work; rather, the routine of months of pedal-practice on a 16 ft. Bourdon coupled to an 8 ft. Diapason, can become intensely irksome to her by reason of the cold, colorless quality of the tone of an organ-pipe. Men are seldom affected in this way; at least, I have only known one,—a somewhat hysterical youth, who always substituted a Mixture for the Diapason on the Great, because he said it seemed to give more “point” to his pedal-practice! (I believe he has since discarded the organ for the bag-pipes, and his nearest relatives are being removed to the lunatic asylum.)

Men likewise owe some of their facility in organ-playing to the mental ease with which they are naturally able to grasp the intricacies of the instrument itself. It is a greater effort to the more impulsive woman to bear in mind every mechanical detail of this complex erection—more especially when each organ has individual peculiarities, and seems to require individual treatment. I would not be thought to imply that no woman has any aptitude for mechanics; quite the reverse. Many have conspicuous ability in this direction. But, since Nature often balances her gifts with a sense of nice adjustment, it seldom happens that such women are likewise possessed of the artistic temperament that is essential to the making of a musician.

Moreover, we read too much of the picturesque side of organ-playing and nothing of its drudgery. Not long ago, with the advent of “The Lost Chord,” our songs and novels were crowded with lovely girls who strayed into dim, deserted cathedrals, seeking out the organ-loft (the instrument being always unlocked), and then improvising in the most marvelous manner (the insignificant detail of the harmless, but necessary, blower being prudently ignored), and all this without any apparent previous training! These stories, however, seldom find a counterpart in real life.

Owing to the scarcity of really brilliant women organists, there is no doubt but we lack the impetus that is given to any study by one central figure, whom the student takes as teacher and model. To have known Madame Schumann is to feel a zest ever after for the pianoforte; to hear Madame Norman Neruda (Lady Hallé) is to be filled with boundless enthusiasm for the violin. There is practically no limit to the inspiration such exceptional genius can be to lesser mortals who are seeking to follow—no matter how far off—in their footsteps.

Popular prejudice, again, has much to answer for. One of the most absurd delusions is that the organ is too “heavy” for a woman; that she has not physical strength sufficient to cope with it. The uninitiated seem to imagine that the large volume of sound the instrument is capable of producing is due to the sheer force with which the keys and pedals are struck,— much as the Flemish carillonneur strikes the wooden lever in the Belgian belfries. One has sometimes the greatest difficulty in making non-musical people comprehend that the result they hear is due to brain rather than muscle. They cannot comprehend that the touch of the organ at Westminster Abbey, for instance, is as light as an Erard piano, though it has five manuals, and is two distinct instruments in fact, placed two hundred feet apart, yet played from the one console.

In this connection I may, perhaps, be pardoned relating a personal experience. The first time I played publicly on any organ of note was while I was still in the school-girl stage, when I was selected, after a competition, as the organist for a choral concert at the Crystal Palace, with a choir of six thousand voices; and a recital was to be given on the famous “Handel organ” before the concert. One member of the committee, however, strongly protested against the appointment’s being given to any but a man, on the ground that no girl would be strong enough to play that unwieldy instrument. Royalty was expected to be present; and this pessimistic person gloomily prognosticated a complete fiasco. I knew nothing of this beforehand; but when I went to the organ to give the opening recital I noticed a well-known organist sitting not far from the organ. He afterward confided to me that the poor committeeman had privately engaged him to be in readiness to rush to the rescue when my strength should fail!

In reality, a modern organ is less fatiguing to the nervous system than the pianoforte, though parents do not realize this, and consequently fewer girls are taught the organ than would otherwise be the case. The very necessity for spreading one’s mind over a wide area, and attending to the various manuals, pedals, stops, pistons, swell, composition pedals, etc., instead of concentrating the whole attention on the one keyboard and fingers, lessens the strain of the nervous tension while practicing. Organ-practice alone never produces the nervous wrecks that are encountered from time to time among pianoforte students.

A woman’s dress is another point upon which most erroneous ideas are extant. The fact that she cannot see her feet, as a man can, when learning to pedal, is actually an advantage; since, if properly taught, she learns from the very outset to feel for her pedals, instead of trying to look for them, as the masculine beginner invariably persists in doing. As a rule, if she once overcomes the initial difficulty of the technic, she is ever after as sure of her pedals as she is of the fingers on the keyboard. The dress need not be the slightest hindrance. Of course, no sane person would attempt to play in a frilled and frou-froued trained skirt; neither, if she be experienced, will she allow even a shaped flounce on the bottom; while any such frailty as lace on the underskirt will inevitably catch in the shoe, and land one in catastrophe. But a dress that just clears the ground, of some firm material such as cloth, that is not too full, and is of that straight cut that rides up slightly when one sits down, is the ideal garment for the woman organist. If the skirt is too full, or if the material is too flimsy or over a silk slip, it falls limply about one’s ankles, as soon as one begins to play, and is then a great hindrance to absolute freedom of movement.

Another fallacy is the notion that some special form of footwear is indispensable. Avoid a habit of fussiness about the shoes,—for it is only a habit; and it is usually one of the besetting sins of the indifferent player. Wear habitually light-weight walking shoes, in preference to boots, not too thin in the soles, and with low, broad heels; and accustom yourself to play with whatever shoes you have on at the moment. A woman scores over a man at this point; she is smaller footed, and more lissom in her ankle movement; and should have no trouble in acquiring dexterity in rapid pedaling.

Her chief difficulty seems to be in acquiring a firm seat, in the first instance, independent of her feet’s touching the ground. And also, owing to the more hampering nature of the dress-sleeve, when compared with the looser coat-sleeve, she is not quick enough in her stop-changes. A woman is seldom as smart as a man in “flicking” the stops in and out, and in touching the pistons and composition pedals. The result is often a tameness and lack of color in her playing, even though it may be note-perfect.—Flora Klickmann.

<< A Chinese Organ     Theodore Dubois >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music