Music Post: Music of the organ, in classical music, jazz and rock


With a Presbyterian father and an Episcopal mother and a Baptist church across the street, and living in the suburbs rather than a big city, I saw plenty of churches but no really big ones until my teens at least. I heard organ music in church, sure, but nothing with huge pipes stretching to the cathedral ceiling.

My first understanding of an organ bellows came courtesy of Aunt Mary, whose home in Rehoboth, Delaware, including a foot pedal organ. You pumped it yourself if you wanted the keys to sound.

My voyage of classical discovery, a self-guided tour, mostly, started with Bach, so early on it included close encounters of the big organ kind. On visits to Hawaii I went to Bach’s Lunch recitals, and I well remember a visit to Kawaihau Church when a man was working on the organ.

“Play Melancholy Baby,” my wife Marilyn said.

Without blinking he played the beginning of Bach’s Toccata in D.

A big pipe organ has not one but several keyboards, called manuals, and a foot manual, too, for bass notes, and each keyboard can be programmed separately to use wooden or metal pipes that alter the timbre of the notes. The buttons, when pushed in, stop the air from flowing through those particular pipes. For a really big sound you “pull out all the stops,” which is where that phrase comes from.

Every organ sounds different, which is why albums of organ music always tell you which organ was used. I don’t mean which kind of organ, I mean which specific organ. The organ at Central Union Church sounds different from the organ at St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Pipe organs were first developed in their more or less modern form in the 1300s, so by Bach’s time – he turned 15 in 1700 – the organ was a mature instrument, and its technology far perfected. The organ at Il Duomo, the great cathedral in Milan, was two centuries old by Bach’s day.

Some organs are portable but the biggest are far from it, and fundraisers are held just to acquire a couple extra pipes. I attended one at Central Union that seemed to draw every organist on the islands. It was my favorite organ concert ever. Each piece had a different player. One played my favorite piece for organ, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, a dark and stormy piece, and during it a great storm moved over the island with wind gusts blowing through all the side doors.

The Germans have kept alive the Baroque organ tradition, but the French had their own organ heyday in the late 19th century, when Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck and Gabriel Faure all worked as church organists and fresh organ masterpieces were composed by Joseph Jongen and Charles-Marie Widor.

Another organist was Nadia Boulanger, which led to organ works being composed by American composers like Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Howard Hanson.

The advent of the Hammond electric organ brought organ sounds into jazz and rock.

Jazz great Fats Waller trained as a church organist in Harlem and made some recordings on organ. The great boogie-woogie pianists sometimes made recordings on organ. Jazz combos of the 1960s often included a Hammond organ and in some cases this allowed them to function without a bassist.

In the psychedelic era, an organist was de rigeur for many rock bands, and took a lead role in some, including the Doors, Iron Butterfly and Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Who can forget Ian McDonald’s organ lines on “The Court of the Crimson King”? Well, it’s a Mellontron, not an organ, fooled you.

Several of the best Blood Sweat & Tears album tracks featured organ. Every babyboomer remembers the first time he heard the fat organ sound that opens the Santana cover of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” though I thought it was a Santana original and the first time I heard the original I thought Tito Puente was cool to be covering Santana.

Tony Kaye, the original keyboard player for Yes, was replaced by Rick Wakeman in large part because he didn’t want to play synthesizers, but now if you listen to “The Yes Album” or its two precedecessor albums you’ll find some of the best parts are Kaye’s cheesy Hammond organ effects.

Minimalist composers, including Steve Reich (one of his first hits was “Four Organs”) and Philip Glass, wrote a lot of music for organ, appreciating the precision the instrument could produce. This affection often transferred later to synthesizers.

The following weekend, March 25-26, I will be off-island, but I have recorded a program of unfamiliar music with the same titles or topics as famous works. For example: I’ll open with the famous Satie Gymnopedie No. 1, but then I’ll play a Gymnopedie that isn’t by Erik Satie at all.

I know several people who say they don’t like organ music because they associate it with funerals, so I have made a point for this program in programming pieces that sound nothing like funeral music, mostly because they’re too rowdy.

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