No organist? No musicians? No problem!

This week saw the passing of György Ligeti whose choral work Lux Aeterna touched millions. In the same week articles about the new technology of MP3 downloads featuring music by Mozart and historic performers generated the kind of readership figures On An Overgrown Path that most commercial websites would kill for. If a Google search for MP3, Ligeti or Mozart brought you here I urge you to read on, this article is important.

Comment posted to my recent tribute In Memoriam Kenneth Ryder - God rest your soul, sir.
I just learned of your passing via my parents. I was one of your original 'Norwich Boys' Choir' members back in the early 70's. For sure you helped shape my musical career. You touched the lives of so many.
Roger Hewett, Musical Director, Cirque du Soleil, Montreal, Canada.

The fact that the organist and director of music of a church in distant East Anglia could 'touch the lives of so many' on other continents started me down An Overgrown Path which the Guardian also explored in a recent article:

Not every member of the congregation will approve, but at least it solves the problem of who will play the organ. The Hymnal Plus, a karaoke-like machine with a repertoire of almost 3,000 hymns and psalms, is becoming a must-have item at churches around the country. As well as traditional songs of praise, the British-made machine can play a disco version of Amazing Grace and a jazzy adaptation of The Lord's My Shepherd. Church-goers who struggle to remember the words can look up at a big screen for help, just like real karaoke.

Traditional churches will, no doubt, favour the "pipe organ and piano" settings or perhaps even try the "big strings and harpsichord", but the more adventurous will be able to experiment with driving drum beats and horn sections. Built-in Midi and MP3 players mean that music directors can add their own songs - hymns or rock favourites - to the standard repertoire. And clergy beware, the Hymnal Plus can also lead parishioners in prayers and recite pre-recorded sermons.

Worried by the shortage and ageing population of organists, churches are beginning to snap up the machine, which costs £1,900 ($3500). The 15th century St Mary the Virgin church in Mudford, near Yeovil in Somerset (photo right), was one of the first customers. The parish does have an organist, Christine Whitby, but she is in her 80s and sometimes wants a week off.

Bill Watkins, a church warden and now "hymn DJ", will have his fingers on the remote control when it makes its debut next month. He said: "We don't want to replace Christine with this box of tricks but it will allow her to take a break or to stay away without her feeling guilty when she is feeling under the weather. There are no young organists on the horizon, which is a nationwide problem so one day it might be all we have."

Mr Watkins is impressed with the flexibility of the machine. If the congregation is struggling to hit a particular note, he can change the pitch at a touch of the button. If a rousing finale is required, he could alter the tone, volume or style. But he said: "We are quite a traditional church so I don't think we'll be going for any disco beats or jazzy sounds just yet." Alan Kempster, a director of the machine's makers,
Hymn Technology Limited (motto: No organist? No musicians? No problem!), said there had been growing interest in the product, not just from churches but also hospitals, prisons and military chaplins.

He said the response from organists had been positive. "It's not about putting organists out of business. It's about giving churches an alternative. I spoke to one church organist from Gloucestershire recently who had been playing the organ for 50 years and was sick to death of it. This takes the pressure off people like that," he added.

A thought-provoking piece from the Guardian, but not everyone agrees that churches should be given an alternative. The Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir has been established because: 'We must never forget how many of our leading musicians and music-lovers in this country today were cathedral or collegiate choristers when they were boys. They have certainly enriched the musical life of this country and made this country once again highly respected in the musical world. England must never again become 'the land without music'. We must encourage all that is best in the music of our Church at all times.' And a very interesting read is 'Thine Adversaries Roar .. ' by Michael Howard (Gracewing ISBN 9780852445303) who was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral in the 1950s, and who also founded influential choral group the Renaissance Singers. And UK Cathedral Music Links is another useful resource for Anglican music.

Here On An Overgrown Path I have recently written about the wonderful organs in Oberlin College, Ohio, Norwich Cathedral, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, St-Louis-en-l'Ile, Paris, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, the recently restored Frauenkirche in Dresden (photo at head of article) and St Thomas', Leipzig, and it is vital that new technology is not allowed to destroy this great tradition of church music.

And if you need any convincing of how ghastly 'a karaoke-like machine with a repertoire of almost 3,000 hymns and psalms' actually sounds listen to this five minute sample linked from the Hymn Technology Ltd website -

Now playing - Herbert Howell's Office of Holy Communion (Collegium Regale) from Decca 470194-2. Howells (right) was a central figure in Anglican church music, and his compositions include a complete Service for King's College, Cambridge (the Collegium Regale) and settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for the choirs of St John's College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester, St Paul's, and Gloucester cathedrals. The motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, written shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is dedicated to Kennedy's memory, and is considered by many to be perhaps his finest a cappella anthem.

Image credit, Frauenkirche photographed by Pliable for I am a camera - Dresden, Lantern of Ely Cathedral from Wikipedia, St Mary Mudford from church website. Herbert Howells from Cantori. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to In praise of Richard R. Terry


Anonymous said…
There are no young organists on the horizon, which is a nationwide problem

This seems surprising... Do you believe that this is also true in other countries with many churches and organs?
Pliable said…
I'd be interested in hearing non-UK reader's views on that one.

There are a lot of knowledgable readers outside the UK. Looking at the reader stats for On An Overgrown Path today they break-down as follows:

US = 50%
UK = 18%
France = 9%
Netherlands = 4%
Italy = 2%
Canada = 2%
Greece = 2%
Spain = 1%

But one caveat - this is point of entry to the internet backbone, which is not the same thing as place of residence. For instance all AOL customers come through the US irrespective of where they live, so the US figure is over-stated, but the split is indicative.

Views on the shortage, or otherwise, of young organists in the US, France, Netherlands and elsewhere please.
Berend de Boer said…
I've never read stories of a shortage of organists in The Netherlands. I play the organ myself, and I never got an indication that getting an organist was a real issue.

You had of course the dying congregations, but in the churches I went to there were more than enough young people playing. Unfortunately, the skill level wasn't too high, but I'd rather have an enthusiastic 16 year old than a machine that spits out some sound waves. That's just the foreboding of a horrible future.

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