From The Organ Loft: The Role of the Organ

From The Organ Loft: The Role of the Organ

Edwin Kwong talks about the role the organ plays in musical society. 

Edwin Kwong
Melbourne, Australia

From The Organ Loft: The Role of the Organ

Edwin Kwong talks about the role the organ plays in musical society. 

The pipe organ – in my opinion, the most unknown well-known instrument in the musical world. Now what exactly do I mean? Well, it is quite rare to find someone who has never heard of a pipe organ before, within the Western world at least, whether or not they have any musical knowledge or experience with classical music. This is because of the ubiquity which the organ once had, and still does to a lesser extent, in Western society – present in many of the major events of one’s life: weddings, funerals, graduations, the list goes on. However, it is largely unknown in that most people will also never have actually listened to a pipe organ in concert - it is simply background music. It is a tragedy to me for such a wonderful instrument to be relegated to a mere supporting role.

Organ at the Sydney Town Hall

Organ at the Sydney Town Hall

In a recent article by music critic Thierry Chervel in the German newspaper, Die Welt, he noted that early encyclopaedia entries noted that instrumental music before Bach was an “eine Sprache ohne Vokale”, or “a language without vowels”. Whilst obviously we now know that is entirely untrue, I think that phrase is rather applicable to the world of the organ today. The language of the organ is an inimitable one, and whilst this has created a unique niche and interest for the organ amongst the pantheon of instruments, it has also perhaps limited access from the wider public to it. The increasing unfamiliarity of non-organist composers with the instrument, particularly in Australia, is also problematic. Whilst it cannot be expected for composers, or the public, to be familiar with every instrument within the classical world – I believe that an adequate level of musical literacy should comprise a good knowledge of the pipe organ.

For such an awesome (in both senses of the word) instrument to be propelled back into the mainstream classical world, we not only need organists to speak out and advocate for the instrument, but also for composers to take note of the endless possibilities that the organ can offer them in terms of creative expression. The body of classical music is expanded every single day, with new music composed for many instruments – so why ignore an instrument which has been so critical to music in the past, and which continues to offer such an astonishing range of possibilities?

In the high-pressure and volatile society we live in today, fine music should be valued more as a curative solution to the stresses of modern life. Organ music in particular, has long been associated with the induction of strong emotions for centuries. It is not by chance that it is the designated instrument of the Christian church – research has shown that infrasound (sound below the range of normal human hearing, 20Hz) may stimulate feelings of awe, “chills down the spine” or even fear. It is interesting to note that the notes between bottom C to E of a pedal 32ft stop, or C0 to E0, have frequencies between 16.35-20.60Hz. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that listening to organ music, especially when it involves the lowest range of notes, can be a moving and sometimes even cathartic experience for many people. Indeed, our preoccupation with bass began long before the arrival of modern electronic music…

The highly decorated façade of the organ at Eton College Chapel

The highly decorated façade of the organ at Eton College Chapel

By way of remarking upon the exceptional character of organ music, it is important that composers should put themselves in the shoes of an organist when composing for the organ – as much as organists enjoy a challenge, there are limits to our multitasking abilities, and to our instruments! So here is a message from this organist to all the composers, young or old, out there: learn about the organ, and write music for it! It is much like learning a new language – challenging, but incredibly rewarding. The tonal palette of the pipe organ is unbelievably wide and highly variable from instrument to instrument, and arguably is only second to a symphony orchestra, in terms of being the most immersive musical experience.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I have stimulated your interest in composing music for the ‘King of Instruments’, I would be very happy to chat to you about organ music, and perhaps even to perform your work!