Can the pipes prevail? Part III.

Part II looked at the nuts and bolts of the classical pipe organ. The third and final part, seen below, ventures more into sociological and theological territory, as my interviewees explore how a shift away from certain Christian denominations has caused the organ to recede from its former prominence—and what new generations of musicians are doing about it.

 

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The gardens and grounds outside Trinity Episcopal Church on North Meridian. (Source: American Dirt)

“Some churches demand a statement of faith and profession of creedal belief of any applicant. Other churches never even ask that question because they’re interested in finding a musician,” Michael Messina told me from our seats near the chancel of Trinity Episcopal, where he is the Director of Music. “For full-time jobs in a church such as this, typically a faith-based question is asked.” But it wasn’t always easy to articulate how a church and its organist relate to one another theologically…or how they don’t. For many pipe organists in Indianapolis, it’s simple: they play at churches whose denominational creeds most align with their own faith background or interpretation of Christianity, as is the case with Nichols. Sometimes it’s a product of what they’ve always known: Jacobs would be what Americans call a “cradle Episcopalian”—except, of course, he grew up in the Church of England. But, he asserted, “[the differences are] virtually nil. . . In the first instance there was definitely a very close approach to how worship was done and the place of music in worship. . .There are churches [in the U.S.] that use the English hymnal.”

However, for Messina, the professional/theological dichotomy has always been nebulous. “I was asked a pretty non-threatening question nineteen years ago when I auditioned: ‘Tell us about your faith journey.’ That was it. There was no kind of litmus test.” Messina grew up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but he has long maintained professional ties to the Episcopal Church, and he generally agrees with the spiritual expression as well. “One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that we are not a people of common faith; we are a people of common prayer. . .We leave the rest up to God and individual conscience. So there is a tremendous breadth of experience and range of religiosity in the Episcopal Church, all the way from complete fundamentalists to some of the most famous Anglicans of the 20th century. . .Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who were both professed agnostics.” From time to time, Messina also lends his talents to an altogether different religious faith: “When I was in graduate school, I had Friday night and Saturday morning at the synagogue. . .What I do at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation is. . .direct the high holy day choir.” Reformed Jewish communities rarely worry about faith differences: “I’ve never known a Jewish organist who works in a synagogue.”

Contrary to Messina, other local organists endured their share of spiritual cuts and bruises upon entering the profession. A few years ago, in Bloomington, David Sims served as an organist to a church of a different denomination from his childhood Presbyterian Church (USA). “I worked at. . .this church for a year,” Sims confessed. “The very first thing that I was told at this church was, ‘Well, you know you can’t take communion, right?’. . .One of the first things I was told at [North Christian in Columbus] was that communion was open to everybody. . .I don’t in any way have judgment for the [Bloomington] church for believing what they do. . .It didn’t work for me, but that church was correct in doing what they did.” Sims’ current organist placement falls under the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a smaller Mainline denomination (headquartered in Indianapolis) that resembles PC(USA) enough that he has not encountered any real theological conflicts.

The same cannot be said about Nick Johns, an organist whose employment challenges exemplify what organists can encounter when their core beliefs conflict with the churches where they work. In Johns’ case, the Catholic church where he had served as organist and music director fired him suddenly after a stray post on social media revealed his sexuality. News of the sudden dismissal quickly migrated to several media outlets around Atlanta, where Johns lives and studied organ. Not surprisingly, some news journals sharply criticized the decision; others praised it. Though an exception among the organists I interviewed for living outside Indy, Johns’ predicament is unsurprising: organists’ stances on contemporary issues can clash with the theology of the church that employs them. Or, in Johns’ case, the disharmony can emerge when a church acquires a new pontiff, who implements standards in keeping with his theology. Despite the dismissal, Johns identifies strongly with the Roman Catholic Church. “I was raised in it. My dad is a deacon,” he observed. “Part of childhood vacations involved visiting Catholic churches in the area.” But he sometimes felt that the Presbyterian and Methodist churches where he began his career as an organist are “more Christ-like in their view on things.” Johns suspected that, if he were to continue as an organist, he would “most likely have to look for work in one of the Mainline Protestant churches.”

Johns’ fractious departure from his Catholic church begs the question: do some denominations place music talent ahead of theological fidelity when hiring organists? By now, the answer should be obvious. A disproportionate number of my interviewees across metro Indianapolis affiliate themselves with The Episcopal Church of the USA. Johns admitted that, among the well-known Christian denominations, TECUSA is the one most musicians associate with “having maintained its hymn and choral tradition from the beginning.” Dotty Huffman conceded, “Many of the best organists grew up in the churches that kept [that tradition], particularly the Episcopal Church. I don’t know any other church that comes close to it—here, but it seems to be true across the country.” Huffman’s Unitarian Universalist Church is more torn: “Those that had [the organ] have kept it,” she observed. “In the East where the Unitarian churches are prevalent, I’m sure there are more organs. . . UUI close to Butler [has] only a piano. I would think they would be more likely to be piano and less likely to be rock bands, but Unitarian churches can be very different.”

Other denominations beyond the Episcopal Church tend to retain their pipe organs: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church. Collectively they form what scholar William Hutchison referred to in his 1989 book Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 as “The Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.” The more common term, however—used sparingly thus far in this article—is “Mainline Protestantism”, which broadly captures those Protestant denominations originating either in Europe or colonial/frontier America. In short, they’ve been around awhile. But the origin to the appellation “Mainline” is murky. The most common speculation is that it correlates to the Philadelphia Main Line, a thread of older suburbs extending westward from the City of Brotherly Love, generally characterized as much by their high concentration of these churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian) as by their almost uniform affluence.

Sims admitted that any stereotypes of staid old Mainline Churches guarding their pipe organs (and their venerated organ tradition) are, to some extent, true: “So many of the organs that are around were built in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when people came back from World War II. . .and they wanted to have the perfect life and they all joined churches. And that meant that, ‘Well, we have to have an organ’. . . [These organs] weren’t great to begin with, because there were factories that were just churning them all.” Smaller churches formed at the dawn of the baby boom are replacing their already deteriorated organs with digital ones—if at all—because “they aren’t in the market for the highest quality craftsmanship organ. The churches that are buying these sort of artisanal organs. . . those are the really affluent churches. Absolutely [Mainline]. Methodist, American Baptist.” And while some of the Mainlines have transitioned to rock, acoustic, or blended serves, most still keep an organ on hand.

John Webb singled out one denomination that he feels surpasses the ECUSA in its commitment to traditional hymnody. The Moravian Church, according to Webb, has “hymns that are still being written by members. During the service, you’ll probably sing about eight to ten. They have services of nothing but hymns—the Singstunde. . .Hymns are a part of the culture; it always has been. . .I have one of the older hymnals of the Moravian Church in America which is [from] 1820-something, and there’s over 1500 or so hymns.” As a member of the Board of Trustees for the Moravian Music Foundation, Webb recognized that the public knows very little about it because it is so small, with only about 40,000 members across the US and Canada. Like most other Mainline Protestant churches (with whom it shares a European heritage), the Moravian Church in North America is shrinking: while it still enjoys moderate strength in the mid-Atlantic states and Carolinas, Indiana has only one location, in the tiny town of Hope, outside Columbus. The Indianapolis locations closed years ago. “My [Moravian] church in Charlotte—very small church, but . . . while they couldn’t afford a lot of things, they made room for their organ,” Webb observed.

But the churches that valiantly preserve their organ and hymn traditions have only earned a Pyrrhic victory: nearly all are steadily declining in membership. Not one of the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism is growing: American Baptist Churches USA remained stable through the 20th century (dropping slightly in recent years), while the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost more than one-third of its adherents since 1990, recording a staggering 5.25% drop in 2012 alone. Frank Boles at St. Paul’s Episcopal recognizes that the Mainline churches sounded the warning bells: “I certainly think that was the 90s argument. . .because you could go over to this church which was just always a band. You have that either/or.” Some Episcopalians have raised the question that organs might contribute to their decline—that they are even scaring parishioners away. Boles felt his church will prevail. “Look which tradition has lasted the longest. . .It doesn’t mean that the organ has to be archaic; it just has to change its paradigm. I think amplified band music is a fad, because we are in a technological age. You’re opening the whole thing about hymnals being on wide screens. . . Religion has a lot to do with community. People can be spiritual, but they’re not going to find spirituality by themselves. The organ is a vehicle for that community.”

But the numbers don’t lie, and the churches where over half of the pews remain empty echo those statistics. All of the aforementioned Mainline churches, broadly characterized by high median incomes and low birth rates, struggle with identity as their relevance and influence has diminished greatly since 1950, or even since 1970, when they comprised over half of American Protestants. This fairly recent Wall Street Journal article recognizes that the acronym WASP, originally neutral but mostly linked with Mainlines, has morphed into a greater pejorative synonymous with privilege, even as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant political dominance is in serious retreat. The Catholic Church is in better shape—thanks mostly to surging Latino parishes—but the organ’s future is murky: “[Hispanic immigrants] are not an organ-supporting demographic,” said Tom Nichols from St. Luke’s Catholic. “It depends very much on the clergy. Some Catholic parishes here in town don’t have an instrument at all. . .but it could be because they can’t afford it. . .The majority of the Catholic parishes in this area do have an instrument. Most of them are not pipe organs; most are electronic.”

Mainline Protestants stare across the yawning divide toward their biggest counterpart, the Evangelical churches, characterized by youthful membership, high birth rates, a far more literal interpretation of Scripture…and a renunciation of liturgical traditions—i.e., the organ and traditional hymns. The Evangelical churches typically offer drums, electric guitar, and bass each Sunday morning, in unadorned churches, presided over by male pastors wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Juxtaposing these generalizations with WASP stereotypes only reinforces the latter culture as staid and exclusive. It doesn’t help that the Mainline churches routinely hire music directors with advanced degrees, while Evangelical churches often just pull members of the church—volunteers who usually lack academic music training. Perhaps the worship band is a fad, but it’s also a contemporary reaction to authoritarianism and hierarchy that many Mainline churches guard as heritage—if they haven’t already started offering “contemporary” services to compete. Tiantian Liang did not think established churches gain much through compromise. “As an organist we need to help [the churches] build their signature. If we just keep changing our style of music. . .we will not get more people; we will lose the ground we have already established.” At Liang’s All Souls Unitarian, people appreciate the fact that the music doesn’t yield immediate gratification. “Classical music is something we don’t ‘get’ right away. Since. . .we want everything so fast, people don’t want to take that kind of time to think about the sermon or. . .the music.” But the concern over relevance persists: even if praise bands recede, the subsequent trend could just as easily push the organ further to the periphery. How can organists expect that we’ll ever return to a liturgical language many see as aristocratic?

Not only is Sims confident the organ will retain its footing, he challenges the notion that the Evangelical approach is all that democratizing. “If the music is basically pop music with religious lyrics, it may make it more accessible in the sense that it’s like something that we hear all that time. But that also means that church music sounds just like mall music, which sounds just like car music. . .running music. It’s all the same thing,” he observed. “Whoever is hot on the charts this week is probably not next week, and church music goes through the same cycles. [I]t’s damaging to have all of your religious songs. . .attached to a medium that is disposable and temporary. What does it say about this message that we find to be eternal and to say, ‘Well, I can write a pop song about that’?” Peter Rogahn agreed. “One of the main advantages of the churches that stay really traditional. . .the congregation actually participates in worship. Whereas when. . .they’ve got the rock band up front, it becomes much more of a performance. . .In my experience with those, people stop singing. They stop participating in worship because of that. . .It’s kind of the common thing to say that to get young people through the doors for churches, you need to do the rock band thing. . .But one of the things that [young people] tell me is that. . .[Bethlehem Lutheran] actually feels like going to church, because we sing hymns. . .We chant the Psalms together. It’s a very communal experience. Maybe what we’re experiencing is just a shift in the pendulum that will eventually make its way back.” Rogahn cites a study by the ECUSA that asked young people what worship styles they prefer. Many of the respondents said they preferred the organ and traditional hymns because it was something they could take seriously.

Nonetheless, Boles, who has witnessed the Mainline implosion for a generation, acknowledged that organists’ inability to adapt aligns with their perceived elitism: “Organists have to be so careful because we come off that way; we are that way. We snub [praise music] and we can’t. It’s got its place and its own acoustical style.” Sims took issue with the charge that his preferred instrument is highbrow simply because it’s elaborate, expensive, and requires a skilled musician at the helm. “The whole point of an organ and why it was developed for Roman gladiator battles is because it’s loud or soft, one person can control it, and it can fill a stadium—or a church—with sound,” Sims observed. “We’re not used to singing along with that amplified sound. . .The people holding microphones. . .are performing for the congregations. So there’s a way in which the organ is more egalitarian than many contemporary praise bands. They’re designed to enable everybody from the first pew to the back pew to sing together, and they work with wind. . .just like our voices. For many praise bands. . .there’s a barrier they create between themselves and the world—amplifiers, a stage, the lights, and everything. That becomes very elitist to me.” Like any Biblical exegesis, the argument on which type of sacred music is appropriate depends largely on the context built around it.

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“It sounds wonderful in there because of the acoustics, and it’s resonant, sort of like All Saints Episcopal Church,” Bob Schilling noted. “It sounds like twice as much of an organ as it is. And singing in there is great, too.” As some out-of-town visitors arrived to tour the expansive sanctuary at North United Methodist, Schilling and I migrated from the chancel over to the modest chapel down the hall. There he proudly showed me one of Indy’s greatest unknown instruments, a Letourneau tracker organ with 15 ranks, imported from Canada in 1996. The simpler mechanics behind tracker organs—in which the key/pedal pressed directly activates the valve that allows air to flow through the pipe for the corresponding note—fell out of favor during the Romantic era, when the great French churches demanded the intricacy and grandeur of the pneumatically assisted organ that most of us associate with the instrument’s unwavering, expansive sound. But trackers have recovered some of their desirability in the second half of the 20th century, to the extent that well-known American builders have begun crafting them again.

 

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The Letourneau tracker organ in the small chapel of North United Methodist Church. (Source: American Dirt)

Understandably, Schilling wanted this handsome instrument to fall under my radar, since it rests in the shadow of the mighty 1931 Kimball from the church’s sanctuary. I deliberately grilled every interviewee about what they felt were the best pipe organs in metro Indianapolis. While responses varied greatly, a few names emerged time and again: Frank Boles’ mighty Casavant at St. Paul’s, the Goulding and Wood at St. Luke’s UMC (choice number one when organ festivals come to town), and the 1968 Aeolian-Skinner at Second Presbyterian are among the most common. Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ has a solid Kimball organ with a Casavant antiphonal, carefully restored fifteen years ago. All Souls Unitarian and All Saints Episcopal win accolades for the sensitivity of the placement of the organs within their buildings, maximizing their acoustics. St. John the Evangelist has a good Goulding and Wood Opus 14, perhaps the best among the Catholic churches in the region.

Outside of the church setting, many of the interviewees mentioned the 1892 pipe organ (the city’s oldest) at the Indiana Landmarks building in the Old Northside, from Thomas Sanborn & Son, a long-defunct builder originally Mass Ave, down the street from Goulding and Wood, who rebuilt the instrument a few years ago. Decades ago the building housed the Central Avenue United Methodist Church. The Scottish Rite Cathedral hosts the city’s only 5-manual organ, an E.M. Skinner. Schilling stated that the installation is problematic: “It’s buried in a chamber up in the ceiling. It’s very muffled, but it’s a wonderful instrument and it is maintained, so it’s quite playable.” But the one that seems to take the top place, with enthusiastic thumbs up from all but one of my interviewees, is the Taylor and Boody in the gallery of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, where Simon Jacobs plays. Nichols agreed that “there’s nothing else like it in town, as far as an authentic instrument. . . that’s almost a replica of the organs that were popular in the time of Bach. It’s the north German tradition. It even has the capability of being winded manually by people, as all organs were back in the day. They made space in the tower. . .a place where you can hold on to the bellows. They do it for special events.” Yet again, the Episcopal Church shows a devotion to the integrity of the instrument that most churches lack the resources or congregational will to replicate.

 

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Viewed here from an oblique angle, the Taylor and Boody stands perched above the congregation in the gallery of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral. (Source: American Dirt)

Somewhere between the sanctuary and the chapel—between the Kimball and the Letourneau—Schilling offered me a healthy list of other Indy organists whom I simply had to interview. So did everyone else. Like a cell reproducing, my list of contacts grew exponentially from the one or two whom I knew beforehand. Deadlines and space limitations required that I cut the string at some point, but this article provides evidence that Indianapolis organists are well connected. No doubt this is typical among any variety of specialized talents, but I never received the sort of affirmative response in my subsequent home of Detroit that I found in Indy. Virtually everyone offered three simple letters: A.G.O. The American Guild of Organists. The Indianapolis chapter is robust, its membership cohesive. Sure, they attend one another’s performances, but they kick back together from time to time. “There’s the Royal College of Organists [in the UK], but. . .the AGO here is a far more active organization with its conventions and its chapters, so each city or town/region will have things going on,” Jacobs observed. “I think it’s very important, because the AGO is more aimed. . .to promote the organ to everyone. I’m in the minority being a full-time professional musician who’s a member. . .A majority of its membership are either part-time musicians or aren’t professional at all, and who do it because they enjoy it and wish to support the organ.” In July of 2015, musicians and aficionados from across Indiana and the four surrounding states will congregate in Indy during the AGO Convention to hear some of the fine instruments mentioned earlier. Virtually all of my interviewees, including Jacobs, are involved in the preparation of this upcoming convention.

This same Guild of Organists recognizes that, whether or not it’s accurate, the pipe organ culture seems remote, fussy, intimidating and unapproachable to many. Young people in particular are (again, regardless of accuracy) apt to associate this instrument with older generations, who might have grown up at a time when seeing organs in churches was the norm rather than the exception. Schilling acknowledged that it’s difficult for such an organization to expand its demographic reach beyond white, Protestant males: “We have some Catholic musicians who are active in the AGO. . .I think we have two African Americans. . .A lot of people in the AGO don’t have church jobs. . .they just love the organ.” But he appreciatively observed that the AGO is “very intentional about reaching out to young piano students through. . .Organ Encounters, held in various places around the country. Indianapolis is making a bid to host one of those in a couple of years. The Organ Historical Society also offers scholarships to young people to attend Convention.” Schilling noted that some high school teachers deliberately take their kids whenever the AGO hosts a recital. “We have another program called Pipe Works which goes into schools by pre-arrangement twice a year. . .presenting the organ as an instrument. At those Pipe Works occasions I impersonate Johann Sebastian Bach. . .We own a small, movable pipe organ. . .take it to a school for a two-week period, set it up in the classroom, use it as a demonstration instrument. Kids themselves can play the keys. . .we have another person who impersonates César Franck. We tailor it to the scientific interests of fourth and fifth graders to know how the pipes make sound.” Schilling was particularly pleased that people who never otherwise would never step foot in a church—or at least one with a pipe organ—get to learn about the mechanics of sound production. The Pipe Works class culminates with a field trip to one of the mightiest organs in the city: St. Paul’s, St. Luke’s, East 91st Street Christian.

A few prominent organists have visibly striven to expand the organ’s audience. Marko Petričić referenced Chelsea Chen, an organist-in-residence at a New York church whose primary vocation is as a concert artist, having performed last year at East 91st Christian Church. He was impressed “that she takes very popular themes like Super Mario, and she made an improvisation of that theme using the organ to its fullest potential. She could really appeal to the kids, to the people who ordinarily wouldn’t get interested.” According to Petričić, the Julliard-trained Chen “taps into pop culture and meets [the audience] halfway and tries to pull them along by relating to them,” which he felt is a worthy approach. Meanwhile, the young iconoclast Cameron Carpenter (also Julliard-trained), who performed at the Palladium last March, draws widely mixed reviews among organists for blurring the boundary between highbrow and lowbrow in his performances. Perhaps more polarizing, as Rogahn observed, is that “Carpenter brings. . .his own electronic organ, and you’re starting to see that a lot more often too. . .I think there’s kind of a divide. . .you’ll get some people who are a little more purist and want the pipe organ experience.” But Rogahn noted: “[T]here’s another whole camp who will say that he’s making the organ more accessible to audiences, which is a great thing.” While the considerable skills of a handful of organists have elevated them to international recognition, very few achieve the emoluments to make a full-time career as a touring artist. Even fewer have won Cameron’s crossover appeal—a condition generated as much by his aesthetic compromises as his controversy (both of which, not surprisingly, are inextricably linked).

As I concluded my interviews, virtually everyone offered guarded optimism about their instrument’s long-term relevance. If the pipe organ recedes further, it won’t be because its biggest proponents raised the white flag. They’re working hard. While any successful freelance musician must display some entrepreneurial flair, Michael Messina believed that organists have always had to be consummate managers and multi-taskers: “Most musicians learn their instrument; they practice their instrument; they perform their instrument, and then maybe they teach their instrument. . .We as church musicians also have to be knowledgeable in another field—namely, choral conducting. . . We end up doing full-time office work, directing ensembles, choral music.” Not one to put a romantic sheen on the profession, Messina asserted that “the craft of a church musician can be dangerously close to running an office, rather than being a musician in the sense that a symphony musician is.” Nonetheless, few of the trained organists see themselves as ever fully retreating back to the piano, even though they all began that way. Liang, who splits her time between the two keyboards more than most, said, “Since the organ is not so common, and people have to have some music training before playing the organ, it is more about passion than obligation. I was not forced to take organ lessons, but the more I played the more I loved growing into it. . .The organ is pretty much the conductor and orchestra. I feel more satisfied after having an organ concert than piano concert. After a chamber music or piano solo recital, I just feel I’m still a soloist. But after an organ recital, I feel like I’m the conductor and also the orchestra, because I was controlling all the sound—whatever sound I want or don’t want. . .I feel like I’m creating whatever is in my imagination.”

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