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March 9, 2004
Vol. IV, No. 8

"All the Stops (A Rampaging Review)"
With "All the Stops," Craig Whitney makes reading about the organ downright fun (a first?) and I whole-heartedly recommend his book to every organist except, of course, those who already know everything there is to know about the organ (you know who you are). I have a little problem, though, with an organist Whitney quotes on page 258:

"Organists should be exposed to, and taught how to play, the musical vernacular they live in. I don't play 'organ recitals.' I do silent movie programs, I do the Nutcracker Suite, I do improvisations on the songs of humpback whales, I do Sinatra and Glenn Miller stuff and I improvise, all INSTEAD OF DOING PIECES FROM THE ORGAN LITERATURE THAT AUDIENCES HAVE HEARD TOO OFTEN." (capitalization added)

Aargh!!! That last sentence is like nails on a chalkboard. It's just another version of an organist blaming the literature (usually Bach) for the organ's decline in popularity and it doesn't even make any sense. If people aren't going to organ recitals, how can they be bored with the organ literature? In fact, the only people I ever hear talking about being bored with Bach are organists, ones that generally don't play Bach.

The fact is that the average person hardly ever has an opportunity to hear the organ, let alone the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but when they do, they're grateful. I've never had someone come up to me and say, "I am so sick of hearing that Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Why don't you play something else?" I have had people come up to me in tears after hearing Bach on the organ so I guess I'm a bit skeptical when it comes to replacing the organ literature with improvisations on whale song.

Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Back to the book...

In "All the Stops," Whitney presents the story of the American pipe organ. However, in the course of describing its phenomenal rise in popularity during the first half of the 20th century, and subsequent fall, he fails to classify this series of events as a phenomenon per se. I believe this omission is important because I see it is a reflection of current thinking in the organ world.

Organists regard the immense popularity enjoyed in the past by the organ as a state of affairs that was, and should continue to be, the norm. Given this assumption, it's understandable that the organ's decline in popularity would be viewed as unwarranted. This, of course, leads to a further assumption that someone did something wrong or stopped doing something right and if the guilty party would only change that something, the organ would once again achieve its former glory.

As a product of this thinking, "All the Stops" places the blame for the organ's decline on organists and organ builders although it does so diplomatically; no fingers are pointed at specific individuals. Meanwhile, a scan through the quotes in the final chapter of the book reveals today's organists blaming other organists, past and present, for the problem (their registrations, repertoire choices, interpretation, lack of technique or expression). The quote in my opening discloses another supposed culprit, the organ literature.

We could avoid all this unpleasantness if we would simply recognize the organ's surge in popularity and its subsequent fall for what it was: a cultural phenomenon. By definition, such a phenomenon is a one-time event and doesn't last forever. Put another way, all good things must come to an end. If we accept this viewpoint, there's no need to assign blame and nothing broken that needs fixing.

Where does that leave us? Whitney's final chapter, "Rebirth," paints a very optimistic picture for the possibility of a repeat of the organ's surge in popularity. When it comes to the organ, I'm as interested in a happy ending as Whitney but this particular possibility seems highly unlikely. Not only is it not in the nature of a cultural phenomenon to repeat, but the world we now live in is a very different place. Our corporate-driven culture would make it extremely difficult for even a Biggs or a Fox to achieve today what they accomplished in the past.

Instead, I'd like to suggest that an equally happy ending for the organ is possible but will require organists to adopt a very different approach to promoting themselves and what they do. While it remains for every organist to build their own audience, much as Biggs and Fox did, the tools for doing so have greatly changed since the organ's peak in popularity. Digital recording is finally affordable for all musicians and the Internet offers free and unlimited worldwide distribution of digital music files. Never before have such empowering tools been available to organists. Herein lies the possibility for a new cultural phenomenon whose name is Organ.

Congratulations to Craig Whitney for writing a book capable of stimulating discussion about the organ!
Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

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Have a great week!

Dan Long

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