Anecdotes from the World
Of the King of Instruments

Jenny Setchell, Editor
(Pipeline Press)
Jenny Setchell lives in New Zealand, and has played organ for over forty years. In Organ-isms --- silly name! --- she distinguishes between the concert organist and the church organist. She is the former. In the introduction, she says, "Welcome to the world's best-disguised booby trap."

    Few people fully understand that the touring concert organist must play his or her program each time on what amounts to a strange instrument.

"Each instrument is unique and has its own robust way of reminding players who is, ultimately, the boss. Nothing is ever in exactly the same place, at the same height, called the same thing, or works the same way."

The secret, she says, is arriving with plenty of time to get to know the organ you will be performing on. For every ten minutes of performance time, "an organist will generally need one hour of preparation."

There will be around 360 different stop types to work with, a registration must be chosen, the acoustics in the building checked out, and, overall, one must make sure that the organ is plugged in, or, in truly ancient organs, the pumpers are up to snuff. Organist Gerard Bunk tells of one pumper, an "old man [who] did not charge much for his services. However he seemed so weak on his skinny little legs that I did not dare to draw more than an Aeoline-Salicional stop, otherwise he would stop pumping immediately."

There are seventy-two contributors here, and the problems they report in their everyday work are sometimes very strange. Noisy audiences, long-winded sermons, earthquakes, and the inevitable dumb joke: "So you have the biggest organ in town?"

    Yawn. Very droll. Yes, you are the 156,092nd person to mention that.

It seems that one of their main problems of visiting organists is not only getting into the church to play, but getting out once they are done. Many organs are located in isolated cathedrals, where there are no watchmen, no people around before and after rehearsals; where the wardens tend to drop off to sleep or wander away inadvertently leaving the doors locked.

Here is David Rumsey in Basel, late into the night, practicing Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G minor: "After a couple of hours I had done what I could and started to leave, only to discover that the whole necropolis had long since shut down, was in total darkness except for pallid icy tombstones and dark, unlit wind-blown paths. I was alone and locked in with an uncertain chance of getting out that night."

    I stumbled and slid towards the main gate, through 300 meters or so of graves that all seemed to be moving as the trees danced a macabre frenzy in the night.

Fortunately, there was a tree near the gate, "but you can imagine the looks on the faces of people waiting opposite the gate at the bus stop when this apparition, hair standing on end, emerged from the pitch-black graveyard."

§     §     §

Organ-isms can be very funny. The knowledge of the contributors is staggering, though sometimes the language can bamboozle the everyday reader with words like coupler, trumpet 8ft, tabs, swell, trackers, 32ft Diaphone, Tuba Mirabilis and, ach du lieber, Der Fuchsschwanz.

But it is a feast of musicians and high-class music: Bach, Diabelli, Handel, Max Reger, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbon, and to my surprise, Olivier Messiaen. Who would ever consciously attend a concert including Le Banquet Céleste, I ask you?

In 1935, Jean Langlais, who composed Les Rameaux, was invited by Messiaen not to go to a recital he would be giving. Langlais wrote later,

    The piece was played by Messiaen very slowly, everything staccato, and with a pedal so soft that you could not hear the Gregorian theme on the pedal.

"I came back home and wrote Messiaen the following note: 'I heard my Rameaux this morning at La Trinité. If you are still a good friend of mine, do not play again one note of my music, please.'" The moral, perhaps, is never to perform a concert with the composer in the audience.

A final message: if this is your trade, know your organ ... or get there early enough to practice.

    When the great Italian organist Fernando Germani's plane was delayed before a concert his subsequent late arrival left him no opportunity for rehearsal. Sportingly, he went out onstage as scheduled and sat down at the organ, but alas, it had not been switched on. He pressed a button, and promptly vanished from sight; the console had sunk without trace. A minute later, the fascinated audience saw him again, as the console rose from the depths and then continued to climb high above them, turning lazily as it went. A moment of contemplation at the summit and a third button was found, and the shaken maestro made a safe landing on terra firma.

--- Richard Saturday
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