The Organ and Liturgy

A contribution of Prof. Dr. Friedhelm Mennekes SJ


The organ has established itself relatively early in churches of the western cultural area. At latest during the baroque area, one cannot think of a church without an organ. Certainly, this development has practical reasons, but in fact aesthetical ones too. Practically, this instrument requires only one player despite its inner diversity and the richness of its sound. Aesthetically, it combines many other wind instruments. By using complex stop combinations an acoustic diversity can be built which then can also be used for contrapuntal arrangements. Variations of themes and fugues are only two examples. 


At the latest with the influential works of Johann Sebastian Bach, was the organ able to claim its own place in the history of compositions. This counted especially for the areas influenced by Protestantism, but later also for the Catholic influenced regions. The instrument has ever since inspired a wide stream of new creations for the congregational singing, for choral and solo pieces. Those creations are connected with great names e.g. Buxtehude, Händel, Brahms, Reger, Bruckner, Messiaen… The organ also conquers the grand concert halls in the 19th century although, her main role plays still in churches.


The instrument bore many creative organ builders, Silbermann is only one of them. The development of this craft created in a diverse environment different types and a far intertwined organ scenery: in Spain, France, England, Germany and the Netherlands…


There is one thing what makes it unique: The organ as such is never finished. It is always in the position to develop itself and to acquire the fashionable tonality of the times. The organ, alone amongst the traditional instruments is therefore the avant-garde instrument. Maybe due to that circumstance there is a new timeliness to an old expression of appreciation: It is the King of Instruments.  The organ always looks out for the new, in music as well as in technology. “An organ is actually never large enough. Although not the volume is important, it is the potential for colour and esprit. The organ is a highly intellectual instrument, because it unites the arts and the technologies” as Peter Bares once said.  


The first and foremost role of an organ as an instrument in the church is during worship. It expands the sacral building with its acoustic into a kind of aesthetic-cosmic range as determined by the religious belief of the individual, the liturgical culture of the parish and, of course, by the quality of the music. For that reason, the meaning of an organ in a congregation can never be reduced to ornamenting the liturgy and serve as an accompaniment. Only in this relationship, liturgical culture and musical vividness can develop. The actual matter here is an ability to listen which has to be developed like the ability to see.  



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 Foto: Carlos Albuquerque 



Next to those generic tasks in the sense of musical education, the organ has its main tasks during worship and there in the first instance during songs of the congregation. Here, the organ takes a certain song and makes it the subject of a prelude, supports and leads the singing and varies the musical colours in different verses before concluding with a short postlude to reflect on the singing. It is understandable, that this is not only pleasant but can also be a challenging for the singing.


It is without a doubt that a good organ music requires regular concerts. They are the anchor of the musical duties of a parish in history and development of organ literature. They not only lead to a specific knowledge of a specific type of music, but also to an important distinction listening to music which results not only in an aesthetical recognition but also to the experience of being emotionally touched at the moment through sound and compositions.


For that reason, there is another, maybe the most important dimension of the musical duties of an organ, the improvised accompaniment of all liturgical acts i.e. at the beginning of the liturgy, in between the lectures, during the offering and at the reception of the Holy Communion. Those liturgical accompaniments can have diverse characteristics. They possibly open up a favourable or critical contemplation, or maybe they are able to question critically the willingness to devote or even join into the inner community with god. Such improvisations are bound into the schedule of the liturgy, but not exclusively as the instrument also requires its freedom within its own time in certain situations.


So, it is those three forms which determine the organ music within worship: the accompaniment of the congregation, playing organ literature and improvisation. The musician and the organ have, with those three forms of music, a tremendous opportunity to shape the atmosphere of such celebrations. Of course, generally seen there are three further influencers: The architecture, the ornamentation of the spaces, the liturgical culture of the parish (in prayer and song, in lectures and movements) and naturally not at least the tone and the speech of the cleric (the greeting, prayers, sermon and liturgical procedures).


In addition to the rather static architecture, which lives strongly from the light, and the design of the church space, it is above all the dynamic elements that define the atmosphere of a worship: the language, the moving liturgy and the music. If language and cult are determined primarily by priests and altar ministry, so is the music of the organist. Interplay and mutual empathy is of highest importance here. All three powers have the specific task of enlivening and shaping the mood in the room of the celebration.



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Raumvisualisierung des Büros Dr. Schrammen Architekten BDA, Mönchengladbach 



The music here assumes the sensual-acoustic excitability of the human emotions, but must resist all temptations to inebriate and overpower, as well as all vanity, in order to create by its own ability to speak and express, i.e. in measure, number, and order, a sublime and solemnity. The people who come to worship, in their good will to concentrate on and turn to God, not only want to be supported but also challenged, awakened and accompanied. Music can achieve this, if it is placed in competent hands.


Similar to architecture and art, music knows how to awaken above Euclidean space an inner one that places people to them self, before God and in their own world. To do this, the musician does not need to accept the harmonious sound expectations of an uninspired community; For getting attuned to the world of the spiritual and the faith, i.e. The personal and communal articulation of previous questions, the opening up before God and peers, it never consists only of praise, gratitude and expecting pleas, but always also in lamentation, concern, doubt, anxiety and pain. Both sides of the differentiated life are expressed in faith. This is why harmonic and disharmonic chords are equally necessary. In these spans, Christian worship has its true character, which is borne by the ongoing tone of a biblical promise. It extends from the historical, wisdom and prophetic books to the Gospel and the Apocalypse: I will be with you. People can trust in their God in all situations.


The meaning of Christian worship ultimately lies in its sacramental culture. This opens up in space and time, i.e. in a sacral space, as at an hour of celebration, the inner space of faith. People are being elevated into that space by the liturgy and lets them step before God and the holy cosmos of heaven. Such elevation is, of course, always the mystical moment of grace and the surprising spirit, which is said to stream where it wants. Therefore, the higher meaning of a worship is never only fulfilled by the cultural level or faithful proceedings and customary expectations, but by its spiritual density. This especially counts for music.


In its freedom as an art, the organ play reaches beyond the mere musical-setting to words, as music essentially is a wordless event. It is true that it can elevate a mystery of faith into the height of a composition, but it must not turn into programme music. Music can elevate itself from the personal and exalted faith of the musician, i.e. rise from the musician’s artistic and human vividness, as the credibility of the priest's praying and proclaiming lives from his personally lived, touching and convincing faith. Every prayer text remains dead as long as it is not spoken in faith, if it does not live out of the request: Lord, open my lips ... There is in fact no sacred music, unless it derives of the spiritually inspired faith of the musician and  also of the by faith inspired listening to a congregation, God willing.


No known literature of a composer be it Bach, Mozart, Bruckner, or Messiaen, is automatically of a sacred nature - from whatever inner elevation it owes its origin, and which text accompanies it, unless the listener hears it in a corresponding inner attention. Today, this is no different to earlier times. All art, as sacred as it might be from its nature, works only in a corresponding atmosphere and attention, i.e. in an open and blessed ear.


Improvisation on the organ is act without rules and boundaries. It moves in the world of music and has therefore always experimental and traditional elements. The musician seeks the new, the unheard of on the grounds of the already acquired experiences - for the moment. He often ties his creative thoughts into a theme. This can be linked to a song text and thus connect to content of faith, but it can also be freely developed. The artist at the console follows an old profession and is therein the peculiar instrumentalist who exposes himself with his creations to a congregation. Of course he is also always subject to controversy. He should not seek the pleasure of the listeners. This needs courage and artistic confidence, which does not court applause. Even Bach was always criticised, he mixed too many strange (sic) notes into the chorales, his preludes were much too long, or too short.



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 Foto: Carlos Albuquerque 



Improvisation is always an event, lives from the current idea, is full of surprises, impertinence and challenges. Its musical development, its structure and its dimensions are new. It is therefore perceived not only by musical knowledge alone, but through its immediacy, its novelty, and its integration into the space and time in which it is played. It arises during worship from the musically and faithfully inspired mood of an organist who creates tension and relaxation whilst playing, who struggles and wins, shapes it harmoniously or differently. This does not mean that familiar sounds can appear, or even those that are temporarily associated with a certain thematic (Non confundar, Dona nobis, Tuba mirum, Puer natus ...). The musician goes along the paths of the music, both old and new, in style, genre and musical systems. All this wants to be received, understood, and heard, in acceptance or distance, in understanding or not understanding... It is to serve the elevation, the concentration and the opening of the personal inner spaces of the music.


While the artistic inner spaces, where they arise, are strongly influenced by the consciousness, from contemplative synthetic understanding and decision-oriented desire, the inner spaces which are touched by music are more likely to qualify as experiential moods. They are stored as ascending embellishments differently in experience than the former, and perhaps act as their basis and presupposition. The music touches, liberates, seizes, overwhelms. It creates what oscillates in the subconscious, what has remained unfulfilled, caused pain, has disappointed, or awakened, and evokes what has not yet existed: a new sensibility born of experience and a sense of body and spirit. The organ knows in its own way to bring feelings of happiness or dissonance, faith or doubt in the ear and inner feeling. The music, therefore, gives the vague a guess and the approximate a feeling.




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 Foto: Carlos Albuquerque 




Both - art and music - combine their anchoring in the moving atmosphere in the celebratory space. On the other hand, proclamation and preaching could lead such attitudes and sentiments to a specific insight, to consolation and strengthened confidence. It is always important to look at the atmospheric as an entity, which is determined by space, the language and the music. Such space-related atmospheres are, using the words of phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz, spatial-distributed emotions, which are experienced as affecting powers. They are impressions and affective sentiments, which pour into the room through deliberate cultural impulses and which can be experienced to the extent that someone opens at this moment, in which they flow.


Music, like all art, does not live from the memory of the past, not from recognition, but from the event of the new and creative that means, of the inventions. As in the fine arts, a distinction can also be made between the music, which is between a piece of art that was created earlier and one that is just being created. The greater secret of them both is, at first, always the thing arising at the very moment. "There is nothing indisputable. You have to be open to all inventions, also in music, of course"(P. Bares). Here, spiritual music has no other criteria than the music at all. It too lives from inspiration and from the elevation into the spiritual, though with a specific distinction: that the spiritual can be touched within the space of a church by the Holy Spirit, which creates the music in the musician and the hearing in the listener. Theologically, therefore, it can be said with regard to the Trinity of God that this spirit is ultimately the Spirit of Christ, which leads us to the Father.


Faith also lives essentially from surprising news. To articulate them is the task of the proclamation. It also opens spaces. Of course, there are the known certainties, which the congregation reassures itself in every credo. But next to it stand also doubts and uncertainties. The sermon must therefore deal with content and tone. Here too, inner spaces are opened. The priest must open them with voice and speech. They have a clear structure: to welcome the congregation, to gather before God, to reflect on the conscience, to commit misdoing, to awaken repentance, to ask for forgiveness and then: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Dona ..., Ite ...


Decisive in everything is, in each case, the mood of the faith of the human being, which he brings into the service, a disposition of denomination as well as of doubt, of an open desire, as of the pushed into the dark. Faith, therefore, always wants to be awakened new, from the personal longing as well as from the grace of God, from open expectation as from reception. In this tension are both the parish and those who shape the sacred proceedings. To pick up, to strengthen and to shape the expectations is therefore the permanent task of all those who give make the framework of that celebration and shape it. In addition to the spatiality that has become home, it is the proclamation and the liturgy, but amidst them two the music is central. For the latter, however, counts what one of us has said is: "Music can cause deepest excitement. And that is why it is on the trail of the mysteries. I believe that music can reach people as deep as nothing else can" (P. Bares).


                                                                                                                  Friedhelm Mennekes SJ




Orgel und Liturgie