FestivalOrgan: King of Instruments

"FestivalOrgan: King of Instruments -- an interactive exhibition on the history, architecture, and craft of organ building" has been making its way around the country and still has a number of sites to visit. I caught it in Old Deerfield, MA in June.

The exhibition, organized by Lynn Edwards and the Westfield Center for Early Keyboard Studies, and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sponsors, is a museum show, but wherever it appears, it is joined by a host of other events -- concerts, panel discussions, and school programs -- that serve in part to connect the exhibition to organs, churches, and performers from the local area. In fact, there are no headphone experiences of great organs of the world in the exhibition -- go hear the local product, that absence seems to say. It is one of the great strengths of this entire "festival" that it treats the organ as a fixture of our everyday (or at least, every week) culture that we will never again take for granted once we have learned something of its amazing musical and technological history.

The exhibition itself emphasizes the construction of organs; it is full of pipes, bellows, keys, and other parts, some assembled in interactive displays, so that you can pull stops, press keys, and "see" how the sound is produced. Here the old has an advantage over the latest. A tracker action -- aside from the virtues of responsiveness and sound that organists love to tell the rest of us about -- has the charm of being comprehensibly complex, while an electronic action -- like any electronic system -- is opaque to the eye and touch. I am reminded that in science museums, children may flock to the virtual volleyball courts and other computerized wonders, but they are still hooked in a different way by simple mechanisms that allow them to see how waves move or inertia is transformed. Here the exhibition is teaching an appreciation for history -- for what a technological miracle the Baroque organ was in a society that hadn't harnessed electricity. But the appreciation is not simply historical: we come to understand exactly how sophisticated a machine can be that doesn't rely on electricity or electronics.

History and art are given their due as well. "2600 Years of History" are presented in a twenty-four-foot-long timeline -- events of organ history mixed in with events from general history, like the invention of paper in China and the Great Chicago Fire. A scaled-down version of this timeline, amply illustrated with pictures of historic organs and organists, is available as a handout at the exhibition. Panels all around the exhibition show how organs and their buildings have been designed and built to complement each other in function and beauty. Naturally, most of these panels show church organs and church architecture, but considerable attention is given in the exhibition to illustrating the lives of the organ elsewhere -- in the parlor, the jazz studio, the department store, the civic auditorium.

Nevertheless, it is the ancient and deep association of the organ with religion that gives the instrument its special resonance in Western culture. In operas or movies, for instance, you so much as hear the sound of an organ intruding into the orchestral track and you know that someone's salvation is on the line. The distinctness of that association might suggest that religious music is distinct from other music in this culture. Actually, it is a matter of never-ending dispute in religious denominations and in individual houses of worship how distinct from -- or continuous with -- other music current in the culture their music should be. Should the music in religious services be like the music the congregation is most familiar with -- the music it listens to the rest of the week -- or should the sacred have its own ground? The organ can serve as a powerful means of giving the sacred its own sound.

Of course, the perpetuation of a specifically religious musical tradition creates its own kind of familiarity, its own form of cultural continuity. In churches or temples where people sing and hear what has "always" been sung and heard there, the music is in fact familiar precisely because it is distinct -- because it resists the changes to which the secular music of the culture is prone. And to the extent that a congregation continues to sing and hear the same music as "always," that music contributes to the larger perpetuation of tradition on which every religion depends, in one way or another, for its authority.

FestivalOrgan should enrich anyone's thoughts about the organ in history and in particular should help anyone trying to sort out the issues of tradition and distinctness in religious music to think more consciously and creatively. It promotes awareness of discontinuities within the apparent continuity of religious practice: that is, it shows us an instrument older than Christianity and still evolving, with a tremendously varied repertory from which any one organist, sitting at any one organ, creates a "tradition" only by endless choices, mediations, and adaptations. At the same time, this event helps us see beyond the apparent distinctness of the organ as the quintessential saged instrument: it does this by demonstrating the place of the organ in the general history of Western technology, music, architecture, and commerce. This is a demonstration of what a profound service the "early music" movement can provide to our culture.

The remaining sites for FestivalOrgan are Provo, UT; Richmond, VA (November 23, 1996-February 2, 1997); Los Angeles, CA (March 9-May 18, 1997); Buffalo, NY (June 20-September 28, 1997); Boston, MA (Fall 1997); and St. Paul, MN (Winter 1998). For more details write The Westfield Center, One Cottage Street, Easthampton, MA 01027-1658 or phone 413-527-7664.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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