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

The Organist and the Congregation

It is well to remind the organist now and then that he is the servant of the congregation. The attitude of aloofness that some organists bear toward the congregation is not compatible with the “reasonable service” they should render it. The organist is at his post, primarily, to assist the congregation in its worship. It follows, then, that he must understand the kind of worship that his particular congregation wishes to offer. He ought to be enough of a liturgist to know the significance of this and that point of the service, the lesson of the day and of the season, and the other numerous de tempore variations that occur in the course of the church year.

There is such an abundance of material at the hand of the organist and choirmaster that almost all these liturgical shades of meaning can be re-enforced by appropriate music. This, of course, is particularly true of anthems. But even in the sphere of organ-music there is a field for intelligent discrimination. For example, preludes suggest only in a very general way some predominant mood or state of mind; and, while they are of some value in attuning the mind of the worshiper to the proper key, they fall far short of some familiar selection from oratorio or anthem or hymn-tune that will more adequately suggest a definite association of ideas and emotions. The German organist has an immense advantage in this respect in the choral, which has called forth all varieties of choral preludes from Bach down.

It will be a long time before we can have such a resource at our command. Meanwhile, however, our congregations are learning hymn-tunes, of which quite a number are good, substantial compositions, and in a measure our people are becoming acquainted with some of the standard oratorios and cantatas. This sort of material the organist can exploit with advantage in short preludes before the opening hymn or processional, or before the anthem, or immediately after the benediction before the postlude proper.

When we compare the average prelude with this kind of material, it is not difficult to see that the latter will certainly help the worshipers more, even if it be less interesting from a purely musical standpoint. There are plenty of hymn-tunes, however, that will compare favorably in musical merit with the more ambitious preludes, and the organist with any sense of color can arrange and registrate a hymn-tune that will vie with the usual prelude in interest and challenge of attention. But in thinking of such a use of the hymn-tune we have in mind not the usual variations that are so popular in certain quarters, but such a treatment as Bach gives in his simpler choral preludes, such as Herzlich thut mich verlangen, and Alle menschen müssen sterben. The conception should be more of a contrapuntal nature as over against the arpeggio and staccato-chord embroidery, of which there is a surfeit. There is here a legitimate field for honest endeavor in sacred art that has scarcely been touched by our composers. And conversation with thoughtful clergymen and laymen on this subject warrants us in saying that there is a feeling in this direction which we have been slow to meet.

This use of familiar bits of oratorios, etc., will also have a beneficial effect upon the attitude of the congregation toward the opening prelude. We all know only too well what a perfunctory thing the congregation thinks it is. The fluster of the pewholder as he or, more often, she enters, removes wraps, gets books ready, rights herself in dress and in spirit, and looks about casually, does not leave much room for her or her neighbor’s intelligent and sympathetic appreciation of the opening prelude. And this lack of sympathy is emphasized when the content of the prelude presents nothing distinct enough to claim attention. Imagine the difference if “Oh, rest in the Lord” were played, and what a hush and sobering of the spirit would ensue. Such a selection says something intelligible and appealing to the worshiper, which he can appropriate and for which he will be thankful. In fact, so grateful will he be that he will look forward to some such appeal the next time, and he could be brought easily to an attitude of respectful attention if there were something to command it.

At any rate, the usual organ prelude has so little that is accepted as congruous or effective that ministers instinctively feel that an opening hymn or processional or anthem is necessary to give the service a suitable liturgical opening.

But, besides being a helper in the worship of the congregation, the organist is also an educator who strives to bring his people to a better appreciation of the highest order of church music of which they are capable. This is an immense problem, but it need not be so hopeless as some despairing idealists think. In laying out his plan of campaign, he must take cognizance of the conflicting factors in the situation. The older folks cling fondly and jealously to the old tunes, many of which are rich in associations, but poor in music. The oncoming generation of young men and maidens, who have had many musical advantages denied their elders, recognize the poverty of such music and rebel occasionally. Manifestly it will be uncharitable to ignore either party. The best working rule is to use more of the older tunes in the services most frequented by the elders, and use more of the better tunes in services having the younger element more in evidence.

Educators are just now keenly alive to the self- evident principle that to have a good, substantial superstructure one must have a like substructure. We suppose the organist is familiar with the story comparing the house built on the sand with that built on a rock. There is little hope of a higher standard of sacred music until we are willing to get at the foundational influences among the children of the church. Every organist knows that most of the poor music used in churches comes through the Sunday school. It is very encouraging to note that the music in our Sunday-school hymnals is steadily improving in quality. But the greatest evil comes from the practice and use of the average Christmas, Easter, and Children’s Day exercises demanding music of a more festal character, too often synonymous with the most intolerable jingle. And the practice of this music takes up three or four of the best months in the year, when attendance is at high-water mark. It is somewhat reassuring to be told by music-dealers that even this class of music is giving some promise of better things to come.

When we remember that the younger people are almost always to the fore in the musical activities of the church, the organist must realize that he should begin with them by taking the oversight and direction of the Sunday-school musical forces, and by weeding out here and supplanting there. Suppose, for instance, he trains the school to sing a Te Deum by Dykes or Smart as a part of the Easter (Sunday-school) festival, dividing the school in two or more parts to bring out antiphonal effects; or selects a dozen or more boys to practice some old English carol; and perhaps gets some of the young ladies together for a two- or three- part song.

The practice of using such material as the congregation offers in assisting to bring forward some church cantata by Stainer, Buck, etc., is a growing one, and it is bound to produce wholesome effects upon the church music of the future.

These few suggestions simply illustrate that relation of organist to congregation which lead some ministers to speak of the organist as “the musical pastor.”—William Benbow.


<< New Organ in Brown University     Anthems to Suit American Congregations >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music