A Timeless Box Full of Whistles

Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonder and Home.

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17 Responses

  1. fillyjonk says:

    And so many different locations. I have some recordings from the great pipe organs of Europe (I love “church” music, both choral and instrumental). But also the old-style movie palaces – used to accompany the silent films, and there are still a few theaters who do that at times for revivals of the old movies. And ballparks… even some of the more elaborate pop music of the late 60s/early 70s used organ occasionally, sometimes even one that sounds a bit like a pipe organ.

    I always liked visiting my parents’ church; they have had several good organists in the past 30 years, and they have a much grander pipe organ than my own church does. The current organist is a woman who’s been there maybe 10 years; she is excellent. In most churches, the postlude is basically “shuffle out and talk with your friends” music; in my parents’ church, many people sit down to listen to what Luann has chosen. Before her, there was a man who started his first teaching position in the music department at the local university in the year my mom was born….he made it nearly to the age of 100, retiring only a few years short of his death. (I still think of his advice to keyboardists as I now struggle to learn the piano at 50: “Make sure you get the first note right, and the last note right. And don’t fall off the bench.”)

    I also remember watching a program – I think it still airs on EWTN, though I remember it from PBS – with a woman who traveled the world playing the organ. (Diane Bish! I remembered her name). I think my dad was actually the person who introduced me to the show…

    I’ve been told that fewer and fewer people train/qualify as organists with each passing year, and that’s a little sad to me. I don’t want to see classical music entirely die in my lifetime, where all I have are recordings, but I suspect that may be coming.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to fillyjonk says:

      I don’t want to see classical music entirely die in my lifetime, where all I have are recordings, but I suspect that may be coming.

      There will always be amateurs that play classical music.

      While I was working for the Colorado state legislature our building was next to the First Baptist Church which has a pipe organ with 114 ranks and 7500 pipes. Occasionally I was able to sneak in and listen while one of the University of Denver music school students was practicing for their final recital. Not on the same order as the big cathedrals, but still impressive.

      When I was out riding the train in Denver I saw an old building adjacent to the tracks with “Morel Pipe Organs” on the front. After some research, it turns out the firm does restoration, salvage, and design/build new organs and seems to have as much business as they can handle.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

        There definitely are active organ builders/restorers. I don’t know how many, but they expect to travel. My church in Baltimore used a company in eastern Pennsylvania, which actually is not that bad. My recollection is that they were not the only possibility, though they were the ones our organist recommended.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to fillyjonk says:

      “I’ve been told that fewer and fewer people train/qualify as organists with each passing year, and that’s a little sad to me. I don’t want to see classical music entirely die in my lifetime, where all I have are recordings, but I suspect that may be coming.”

      Classical music in the general sense is in no danger, though the economics of the hundred piece Romantic orchestra are sketchy. Church organ music is now a cultural niche, but not one which is going to go away entirely. There will always be a few churches committed to it. Those of us who want that have to look for it, and may have to drive a ways, but it can be found.

      My church in downtown Baltimore (a 45 minute drive from my house) is one of these. We recently committed to a major renovation of our organ, which was in danger of falling into a pile of dust. By “major renovation” I mean three quarters of a million dollars. I am downright giddy to report that we have paid off the loan. The renovation should be good for a half century or so. Our organist, who has been there over forty years, presumably is not. When the time comes, I trust that the prospect of stable employment will bring someone out of the woodwork.Report

      • Our local symphony, which includes mostly folks who play in multiple symphony’s/groups as is common now like Richard was eluding to for economic reasons, do a half-dozen or so chamber and ensemble pieces dates at the historic, downtown Episcopalian church. The result is at least one or two of these gets an organ spot involved as it is right there, might as well use it.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

          It is also worth noting that the economics of the large Romantic orchestra have always been sketchy. There was no golden age when support for these was so broad that there was little financial stress. Before the Romantic era, orchestras weren’t really following any economic model. They were employees of the high aristocracy, who maintained them for the prestige.Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    An amazing essay, wonderfully written.
    I’ll add more when I’ve had time to reflect.Report

  3. DW Dalrymple says:

    Masterful piece my friend.Report

  4. Aaron David says:

    Down the street from me, four whole blocks is the local Presbyterian church of White Spires. It has an actual pipe organ that they are perpetually being fundraised for. A beautiful building, and a beautiful instrument. I am not religious and I am not a fan of classical music, but I long for the day I can hear this in all of its glory.

    Wonderful piece Andrew.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    A lovely piece.

    It’s weird to think about modern instruments and what we’ve done with them…

    We’ve got the electric guitar (which is pretty much a guitar, only teslafied/edisonated) and… what? The Theramin?

    I suppose we could point to either of those as being capable of stirring the soul the way the pipes do and did… but for as greatly advances as we moderns are, I can’t help but notice that we do a lot of resting on the laurels of giants.Report

  6. Mike Schilling says:

    A Bach fugue played on this very organ/


  7. Chip Daniels says:

    As I read this piece, I was reflecting on my own thoughts on K. William Huitt’s piece on churches, specifically on the idea that church is a consumption of aesthetic pleasures.

    It reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s description of how as a boy he imagined that Catholic churches must be, with marching bands and elephants and fire trucks in some gaudy spectacle, and later when I joined the Episcopal Church how they joked about “bells and smells” of the high churches.

    But part of me sees the spectacle, not as empty theater, but as a tool that allows us to access mystery.

    I remember the first time I heard Pachelbel’s Canon, and for some reason, maybe the mood I was in or something else, but I was seized with emotion, and felt a lump rising in my throat which took me entirely by surprise.

    It was so sudden, so unexpected, as to leave me bewildered that a piece of music without any words could do such a thing.
    But then, I’ve experienced that many times, where a painting or sculpture or building is so beautiful and moving in a way we can’t quite explain.

    As a person who hasn’t been to church in a long while, I can’t claim to have this all worked out or understood.

    But I think there is a connection between the mystery of beauty, and the mystery that religion tries to explain.

    The thing that is our life, with all of its beauty and joy and ugliness and sadness is mysterious and yet it moves us, the way that a beautiful work of art slides in between our ribs like a sideways knife to touch our heart, in a way that our intellectual armor can’t defend against.Report

  8. North says:

    Brilliant piece! Wonderful musings!Report

  1. May 3, 2020

    […] piece originally appeared in Ordinary Times August 19, […]Report