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Pipe organs hit high note despite challenges

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From the softest pianissimo to the most dramatic swells of sound, the pipe organ's range and capacity to lift the voice and spirit accord it "pride of place" among instruments used in Catholic liturgy.

It "gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation," said Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 during an organ blessing. "The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God."

But recent headlines strike a somber note for the majestic instrument: "As number of church organists declines, fears of a dying art"; "Soaring instrument appeals to fewer churches"; "The decline of the church organ."

Although some trends support this bleak outlook, the status of the pipe organ in the U.S. church is more nuanced and optimistic than the headlines suggest.

"Overall, the state of organ music is positive and uplifting," said Paul Skevington, past chairman of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians' (NPM) section for organists. "It's not going anywhere; it's simply becoming part of the bigger mosaic."

Captions: Paul Skevington, director of music and liturgy at St. Luke Church in McLean and former dean of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, plays the pipe organ at St. Luke. Along with those at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, the St. Luke organ is one of the largest in the diocese. The instrument has 3,100 pipes, some measuring 16 feet tall.

Change in tone

Over the past few decades, membership in the country's major associations supporting the pipe organ - the American Guild of Organists, composed of academic, concert and church organists, and the NPM, which serves as a resource for Catholic pastoral musicians - has declined.

Meanwhile, interest in studying the organ has waned. AGO's magazine reported that the number of students seeking a master's degree in organ performance in the United States fell nearly 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, dropping to the lowest number ever reported by the guild. The data, compiled by the College Music Society, also shows fewer students entering bachelor's and doctorate programs.

The reasons for the declines are complex, but competing priorities, church construction decisions and diversity in liturgical music are contributing factors.

Skevington, director of music and liturgy at St. Luke Church in McLean and former dean of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the AGO, said the problem is not a shortage of organists but a dearth of full-time, well-paying church organist positions.

"At universities and at the national level, there's a big commitment to organ music, but when it comes down to the parish level, then you have to make decisions, and I think oftentimes music does not receive the priority that it should," said Skevington, acknowledging the church has many important responsibilities to fulfill.

Skevington said that funding a full-time organist always has been a challenge for smaller parishes, but as "the income gap between the 1 percent and 99 percent widens, young people pay more attention to the profession they are going into."

According to John Romeri, director of liturgical music for the Philadelphia Archdiocese and past chairman of the NPM, some new parishes are not leaving space in their building plans for the pipe organ. Organs are pricy and dip into strained church budgets.

David Mathers, director of sacred music at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and chairman of the Arlington diocesan chapter of the NPM, estimates an organ like the one at St. Mary can cost between a half a million and $3 million.

"We need to help parish building committees understand why the organ is worth the expense and important," said Mathers.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that while other instruments may be used in liturgical services, the "organ is to be accorded pride of place."

Although held in such esteem by the church, some blame Vatican II for what might be seen as the organ's fall from this revered place. Mathers said that blame would be misplaced, though the Second Vatican Council indirectly contributed to new challenges for the organ.

Vatican II put a high emphasis on liturgical participation and left much of the musical style up to local communities, said Mathers. "Since folk music was going on in the popular culture, that was reflected in the music.

"There were churches that literally tore out organs and put them in dumpsters," he said. "There was a big cultural shift."

Alongside folk, African-American gospel music and Hispanic instrumentals now compete with traditional organ music.

But even with their unabashed love of the organ, Skevington and Mathers see many of these influences as positive and believe they add richness to the liturgical tradition. And with the number of Hispanics in the U.S. Catholic Church increasing, said Skevington, "we need to celebrate that heritage."

A second look at tradition

In spite of the challenges, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the pipe organ in the Catholic Church.

"People are now examining what was left behind and what could be brought back," said Mathers. "They are taking a second look at what was discarded."

Richard Parsons, president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, said that while fewer organs are being built nationally, the industry is doing well.

Now in his 60s, Parsons said he recalled what old-timers in the business once told him: "There's a pendulum. There's a classical sound people want, and then it swings in the other direction."

There are "still bands in church, but people want tradition, too," said Parsons. "Right now we are seeing a swing."

Despite fewer students studying the organ, many credit the positive shift to the young. And those who do take up the instrument have a great passion for it.

"Thirty years ago, young people and seminarians wanted to play the guitar. Now they are interested in sacred music and the organ," said Romeri.

"I see a lot of interest in young people in Gregorian chant, the organ, in bringing back music that is our tradition," said Richard Gibala, director of music at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, music coordinator for the Arlington Diocese and past recipient of NPM's Pastoral Musician of the Year.

"Young people are interested in off-beat things and are fascinated by the organ," added Mathers. "Once they hear it and feel its power" they are drawn toward it. "That's why having a pipe organ in a parish is so critical."

Both NPM and AGO are reaching out to the young to further cultivate enthusiasm for the instrument. AGO offers a program called "Pedals, Pipes and Pizza," as well as Pipe Organ Encounters, which provide high schoolers with weeklong summer courses that include lessons, church tours and the opportunity to interact with like-minded people.

Skevington said young organists also need mentoring post-college. "Good organists need more than the degree," he said. "Mentoring is a crucial step in their development."

Prayer not performance

For John Mitchell, who grew up a parishioner of St. James Church in Falls Church, a Pipe Organ Encounter solidified his decision to pursue the organ as a career. Now a junior studying sacred music and the organ at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., he spent last summer interning at St. Thomas More under the guidance of Gibala.

"Being a teen interested in the organ - it's not really the most popular thing, like being an electric guitarist," said Mitchell. "The Pipe Organ Encounter was the first time meeting people my age who were sharing my feelings about sacred music."

As a young boy, Mitchell's feelings for the organ burgeoned as he heard it played each Sunday. "It sounded so beautiful - the contrast between the raw power and quietness - and its ability to lead people in song, community and worship."

Worship and community are at the heart of his love for the instrument. "You don't play just to perform; it's the idea that you're using song as a way of praise and community-building," he said. Unlike any other instrument, said Mitchell, the organ has the ability to lead a full congregation in song.

Christine Canavan, a junior at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and parishioner of Precious Blood Church in Culpeper, also is studying liturgical music and the organ. Like Mitchell, she hopes to make a career as an organist.

"Of all the instruments, the organ is the most tied to the liturgy," said Canavan. "And it draws you into the Mass."

To those who play the organ for the liturgy, it is not a performance but a prayer.

"You paint a picture of the hymn, of the text, through harmonies and rhythms," said Mathers.

"When you play it, stops are like ingredients, like spices - you have to know how much or little to use," said Gibala. "During Lent you use less; no music at all can be deafening. Then on Easter Sunday the organ is blaring and you feel the joy of the Resurrection."

The ancient, powerful instrument - long synonymous with church music - may not be as omnipresent as it once was, and the next crop of organists will be smaller. However, the zeal of young organists and a pendulum swing that favors the organ give it a hope-filled future and ensure its enduring presence in the tapestry of liturgical music.

The pipe organ is here to stay, said Gibala. "The organ is the voice of the church."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

How a pipe organ works

When an organist presses specific keys, pressurized air blows through pipes and the organ produces a sound. Each of the "stops," the small knobs on the organ console, corresponds with a set of pipes, or ranks, each representing a unique organ sound. Pulling the various stop knobs activates these different tonal colors.

Diocesan pipe organs

In the Arlington Diocese, about a quarter of the 69 parishes have pipe organs. A number of parishes have a hybrid digital/pipe organ. St. John Neumann Church in Reston recently added nine ranks of pipes - about 500 pipes - to its digital organ. The largest pipe organs in the diocese are at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, St. Luke Church in McLean and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg. Each has around 3,200 pipes.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015