The Organ, the Churches, and COVID

Author: Fassler, Margot

Person Playing The Organ While Wearing Gloves For A Live Streamed Mass

The news came like a punch in the solar plexus, inevitable though it was: no choral singing, no congregational singing. This message (in some form or another) has gone out to many churches, especially those in the so-called liturgical traditions in which many of us serve: Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran, but in other denominations as well. Ever since the appearance of grim stories from the State of Washington and from other regions of the country, we in the business of church music have had to face up to the fact that singing is a  "spreading" activity, and that singers and speakers can be superspreaders within a crowd of people. At the University of Notre Dame, the administration has told us that there will be no choral singing indoors for the Fall semester, 2020. Who knows what the flu season may bring to Spring, 2021?

For much of our work in the churches we are turning to the organ, that great breathing instrument, the ideal partner in congregational song and the inspiration for a treasure trove of sacred music, past and present. Organists by their very natures work in a socially distanced universe at the console, often out of sight and surely out of reach. Yet their connections to what is happening in the sanctuary remain direct, immediate, and powerful. Our organists -- alums, current students, and faculty -- have stories to tell about the ways in which organs and organists can serve in these difficult times. I spoke to three organists this past week who teach at Notre Dame: Professor Kola Owolabi, Head of the Graduate Organ Studio at Notre Dame; Professor Emeritus Paul Walker, who teaches many of our secondary organ lessons, works with DMA thesis committees, and whose book Fugue in the Sixteenth Century is forthcoming from Oxford University Press; and Dr. Kevin Vaughn, who, in addition to an administrative position at the Kroc Institute, teaches organ literature in our program and is a practicing church musician in the area. From their deep well of expertise and creativity I drew up several ideas and perspectives about the foundational importance the organ can have in the COVID era as the go-to musical force for Christian worship.

Several aspects of services and service playing were broached in our conversations, and I'll mention some of them here, in hopes that we might broaden discussion in the future on the SMND website.

We discussed the importance of preludes and postludes in a time when congregations can no longer gather at the beginnings and endings of services. More than ever, the prelude has become the welcoming committee, present to embrace. It is the organ now that shakes the hands and focuses the minds and spirits before communal prayer. The postlude, too is more important than ever. It is no longer merely a backdrop, the rouser that gets people up and out of the pews and into fellowship at the coffee hour. Kevin Vaughn expressed his surprise and appreciation when the presider at one of the Lutheran churches where he serves said that the congregation would remain seated for the postlude. He is finding that now there is an opportunity to offer more meditative repertory for the ends of services, sometimes featuring a drawing together of hymn or chorale melodies that have been heard and that are especially appropriate to a feast or season. The ways in which the presider has preached the Gospel, and its very text, can also guide choices for themes as well as for the general tone of the music.

Kola Owolabi, who is beginning a new course in service playing and improvisation at Notre Dame, spoke about hymnody and hymn accompaniment during these times when there is nothing quite like a skilled organist to shape and lead the practice. In sensitive hymn accompaniment Dr. Owolabi says the text is the guide, and each verse is an opportunity to render meaning, both generally and through word painting. He thinks a great deal about every hymn or chorale to be played in the days leading up to a service, especially concerning their theological and emotional contents, and works to translate these understandings into the music itself. This is meaningful when congregations are singing and hear their words echoing along with and in partnership with the organist; all the more so now when their voices have temporarily been silenced and they can recall the words as the organist plays. The participation cannot be with full voice, but it can be with full heart, and the organist can lead this, and help congregants to use the art of memory in praying the hymns, many of which are familiar and lead the mind to different places, services, and sounds, pointing us to a better time than ours. Such prayer can be renewing, especially refreshing to the spirit, providing continuity with what was and what surely will be once again.

Paul Walker described the many times in the history of organists and service playing that the organ has perforce been a stand-in for the choir and/or the congregation. From the very beginning, organists adapted three- and four- voice motets for the keyboard, thus providing the polyphonic texture prized in choral music of the renaissance to congregations who, for one reason or another, lacked the choirs to sing the repertory. In the Roman Catholic tradition and in liturgies of churches directly descended from it, there were and are several places in a service where the organ would and does customarily provide points for reflection and prayer, especially at the offertory, the elevation, and at communion. At these points the organist possesses the richest of repertorial choices and all three interviewees spoke about the ways in which an organist can choose the music to explore the prayer traditions of a particular place and/or time, weaving together a group of pieces that make both a theological and artistic statement.

At this particular moment, for example, organists might use the many places for hymnody, prayerful reflection, and liturgical action in a service to feature the music of African-American composers and settings of melodies too from that tradition. Of special value for an organist wishing to play in solidarity with Black Lives Matter is the multi-volume African-American Organ Music Anthology (Morning Star Music). A short description of excerpted discussions and useful resources by Mickey Thomas Terry points to several of the composers featured in this series, and this commentary in itself can lead to further exploration.

By the time congregational and choral singing return to our sanctuaries, the organist can have done her work well, priming the pump for the time when once again we sing with full heart and with full voice, with the accompaniment of the organ.

Margot Fassler, Keough Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy, specializes in repertories of Sacred Music, especially those of the Latin Middle Ages and of the USA. She is a past president of the Medieval Academy of America, an Honorary Member of the American Musicological Society, and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University (2019-2020). She is a former director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and presently directs Sacred Music at Notre Dame, a graduate program of the university.