The organ and the blues

Tonight is our annual blues concert. It is a recent tradition in our church. We’ve been doing it for a few years. The idea is to recognize the blues as a distinctive art form with a deep relationship to grief, sorrow and sadness. As we journey through Holy Week, one of the skills we teach our people is that there are things that we can’t fix. Our instinct is to rush into situations of grief and want to make everything better. Sometimes, however, things can’t be made better. Sometimes we need to learn to simply sit with our grief. Our annual blues concert is about acknowledging that deep sorrow and sadness exist in the world and that there are things that are beyond our power to fix or make better. So we sit with the blues.

The concert is just one example of an incredible luxury that I have as pastor of this particular congregation. I have access to live music and musicians who share the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Not many pastors can count of the power of a 33 rank organ and an organist capable of making the instrument sing. We also have two grand pianos in our sanctuary, a 9’ concert grand and a 6’ choir piano. We have a technician who keeps the instruments beautifully tuned and ready and a half dozen exceptional pianists to provide music from them. Our piano is the recording instrument of a touring classical pianist. We also have five octaves of handbells and ringers skilled in advanced techniques such as singing bells, mallet work, four in hand and other skills. We have a brass choir. We have flute, violin and cello soloists, all symphonic musicians. We have a jazz pianist and world class fiddler, both recording artists. And when I call up the blues musicians for our annual concert, they respond with eager assent.

I acknowledge that music is one of the real luxuries of my position. Not many pastors have it so lucky. There are many who work in larger and grander churches with more extensive inventories of instruments, but few who have access to the musicians that I enjoy.

Tonight, however, when we sit with the blues, there will be new and raw grief in the room. We watched from a distance with horror as flames roared through the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The spire fell. Flames burst through the openings where the grand rose window once had been. And as I watched I imagined the heat and flames ripping through the grand organ.

This morning I can’t find a definitive assessment of the condition of the organ, but I know where it was located, high in the building. Of course the grand organ has been, for centuries, the product of centuries of development and is really many organs all controlled from an incredible 5-manual console. The magnificent instrument had many parts that are very susceptible to fire and heat. In addition to the electronics, most recently upgraded in 1992, the instrument had nearly 1,000 wooden pipes among the over 8,000 pipes in its inventory. As I watched the fire burn, I couldn’t help but think of the zinc pipes, which would melt under the intense heat of the fire, dropping molten metal to the floor below like giant teardrops at the tragedy.

There is no sound like a grand organ echoing off of the walls and ceiling of a huge cathedral. It isn’t something that can be replaced no matter how much money they raise or how deep the commitment to rebuild the cathedral.

The grand organ began with a medieval instrument somewhere around 1330, under a high window in the nave. A new instrument was begun around 1400, installed on a stone gallery above the western portal so that the old organ could remain in use during the construction. The new organ was dedicated in 1403. A restoration of that organ began in 1473 and lasted over 50 years. It was a classic French organ - the organ that defined the genre - with a plenum, a flute chord and batteries of reeds. A third manual was added in 1620 and a fourth one in 1672.

With the age of enlightenment a new organ was ordered in 1730, incorporating the pipes and similar divisions to the existing organ. The mighty 32’ pipes joined the organ and the Louis XV organ case placed pipes high enough to partially shade the west rose window. It was those pipes that came to my mind as I watched the flames lick through the window in pictures taken from the outside of the building as the fire raged.

Building and rebuilding the organ continued with a major reconstruction begun in 1828. By 1862, the goal of building a symphonic organ had emerged and the instrument was expanded to have different pressures in different chambers of the instrument. The instrument was powered by pneumatic lever machines until electric blowers were installed in 1924. Restorations were carried out in 1932, 1959, 1963, 1989, and 1990. Thus the grand organ that greeted the 21st century was the product of 689 years of development, additions, furniture-making, pipe forming, air compressing, wind directing, tuning, valve constructing, electronics installation, computer programming.

The keys on the manuals and the stops have been touched by some of the world’s greatest organists. Angela Kraft Cross, who played the dedicatory concert on the rebuilt organ in our congregation in 2007, has played the grand organ. There is a picture of her in front of the main console on the cover of one of her albums. More directly, the classical organ sounds of the reeds and flutes in our organ were influenced by sounds developed in the great organ of Notre-Damme. The power and beauty of the sounds of that instrument have inspired organ builders around the world. When we reconfigured the great and swell organs in our church and added the choir division, one of our goals was to enhance the wonderful Austin Classic American Pipe Organ with more symphonic sounds, making the instrument capable of playing repertoire of the French enlightenment.

So we will sit with the blues today and although our memories are incomplete, we will recall the echoes of the grand organ of Notre-Dame and weep for the simple fact that those sounds are forever lost. A new organ will undoubtedly emerge, but it will take centuries for it to mature. Perhaps the grandchildren of our grandchildren will one day experience those sounds.

In the meantime, it is good that we have the blues to allow us to sit with our grief.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!