The King of Instruments

BY Simon Gonzalez

“To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the King of Instruments.”

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It’s the Christmas Eve service at St. John’s Episcopal. The priest has given the benediction and the congregation begins to leave. Justin Smith sets the stops of the Estey pipe organ and then launches into Johann Sebastian Bach’s “In Dulci Jubilo.”

His hands and feet move over the keys and the foot pedals forcing air into the pipes.

The church on Forest Hills Drive in Wilmington echoes with the triumphant music.

“It’s a big piece for organ and it is tradition that you play it as the postlude to the Christmas Eve service ” Smith says.

It is ideal Christmas music as Christians gather to celebrate the birth of their Savior. “In Dulci Jubilo” translates to “In Sweet Rejoicing.” It is the tune for the stirring hymn “Good Christian Men Rejoice ” written in 1853 by John Mason Neale.

“Good Christian men rejoice

With heart and soul and voice;

Give ye heed to what we say: News! News!

Jesus Christ was born today:

Ox and ass before Him bow

and He is in the manger now.

Christ is born today!

Christ is born today.”

It is also a perfect piece for the pipe organ showing off the full range and majesty of the venerable instrument. It is the kind of piece that first drew Smith to the organ.

“It was the majesty and the power ” he says. “And the ability to lead people in worship as well. There’s no other instrument quite like it. The sustained volume and the ability to accompany congregation singing that’s what the organ does best and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Special music is planned in churches throughout Wilmington for the high holy days of the season.

First Presbyterian downtown will feature a series of organ recitals for the Advent season on Tuesdays. Grace United Methodist will hold the traditional service of lessons and carols. The Temple of Israel will have special music for Hanukkah.

All the services will include dedicated musicians playing what Mozart dubbed the “king of instruments ” the pipe organ.

“I don’t think there’s any instrument out there that has quite the range or sonority of sound that it can produce ” says John Tabler who plays the famous James Sprunt Memorial Organ a fully restored 1928 E.M. Skinner organ at First Presbyterian. “It can be a solo accompanied by an orchestra it can be soft as a whisper or it can be loud and roar like a lion. It really has the whole gamut of color and sound. It’s versatile quiet enough to accompany an ensemble a soloist a choir or 700 people singing on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. It has the ability to do all of those things very well.”

The pipe organ has been a staple in churches for hundreds of years especially in traditional Protestant denominations. But as membership in those churches continues to decline — only 15 percent of U.S. adults claim affiliation with congregations in the mainline Protestant tradition the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study reports and the number of adults attending those churches is 60 percent lower than it was in 1970 — so does the number of organs and organists.

Over the past few decades membership in the American Guild of Organists has declined. The AGO’s magazine states the number of students seeking a master’s degree in organ performance in the United States fell nearly 14 percent from 2012 to 2013. Data compiled by the College Music Society also shows fewer students entering bachelor’s programs.

Add in the prevalence of churches adopting contemporary forms of worship with electric keyboards guitars and drums and the cost of installing and maintaining a pipe organ and it’s no wonder the once ubiquitous instrument is now comparatively rare.

Still organists are not ready to associate the word “dying” with their art.

“It’s still vibrant ” says Sara Bryant who plays an organ originally installed in 1914 at Basilica Shrine of St. Mary. “With the decline in the number of mainline Protestant folks there are fewer than there used to be. A pipe organ is a huge investment for any church. A small church wouldn’t be able to afford it. But there are still a lot. There are great lovers of the organ.”

Organ proponents cite the instrument’s ability to convey a vast range of sounds and emotions.

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

Its pipes can sound like flutes or strings or trumpets or even tubas French horns oboes and clarinets.

“It’s melodic ” says Judy Siebold the organist at Grace United Methodist since 2004. “It can be dynamic. It can be nice and slow soft and beautiful. I love flute stuff.”

Organists like Tabler who has been playing for more than 35 years 17 of those at First Presbyterian are happy to enthusiastically educate neophytes and hold lengthy discourses about the mechanics of the organ. Some can easily pass over the head of beginners but this is the gist.

The sound is produced by air passing through the pipes. The flow of air is controlled by stops. When a stop is pulled it opens a valve and allows the air to flow into a pipe or rank of pipes. When pressed the keys and foot pedals release air into the pipes. The length and width of the pipe determines the pitch which combined with the number of stops pulled determines the sound.

“It’s the only instrument I know you can play with your feet ” Tabler says. “It’s also the kind of an instrument designed for people who have attention deficit because you can do multiple things at the same time. You can be the orchestra leader you can orchestrate your own piece and you are sort of your own band at the same time.

“Do I want to solo that out do I want to use a tuba do I want to introduce it with a flute or a French horn an oboe or a clarinet or a combination of instruments?”

Tabler says the air gives the organ its unique and special quality and makes it ideal for leading a congregation in worship.

“Because it has wind behind it it’s as close to breath and the human voice as you can get without having an orchestra every Sunday ” he says. “There’s something about having breath that has life to it and takes on its own characteristics. The voice is the primary instrument of all time. When we are born into this world we come in crying. We are finding our voice. Your voice is important. The instrument complements that voice and encourages the congregation to find their voice.”

“There is nothing to playing the organ. You only have to hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

— Johann Sebastian Bach

Judy Siebold sits at the console of the organ at Grace United Methodist and discusses her art.

“You just hit the notes ” she says. “You hit the right ones at the right time. That’s what J.S. Bach said. And it just plays itself.”

Grace’s organ is a pipe and digital hybrid. The M.P. Moeller pipe organ was installed in 1961 and augmented by a Rodgers electronic organ in 1996. It’s a meld of high tech and old school.

“It gives it more variety ” she says. “The electronics are getting quite quite good. With the mixture here you can’t tell. They have different timbres in them. This organ also will play hymns in different keys for me. I can shut off the pipes and just play the digital part of the organ. There are lots of good things here.”

Siebold is surrounded by a complicated array featuring dozens of stops keys pedals and other buttons. What was Bach thinking when he said there’s nothing to playing this thing?

“It’s a good quote ” Siebold says. “It doesn’t play itself does it?”

It takes time to learn how to play the organ and to play it well. Siebold has been playing for 57 years. Charles Woodward the organist at the Temple of Israel and former organist at First Presbyterian has been playing for more than 60.

“I’ll play until I drop over dead or until I can’t do it anymore ” says Woodward who is 80. “There comes a time when you realize that you really cannot do it up to par. Then it’s time to stop.”

Motivation passion and starting at a young age combine to produce the longevity. Many organists have a similar story of falling in love with the instrument when they were children.

“I grew up in a small town ” Tabler says. “We went from attending a small country church and started attending church in town. The first time I heard that organ I thought ‘Oh my gosh.’ It transformed worship in a way I had never experienced as a child growing up in this little country church that had nothing but a piano. I was just in awe of the sound. I had heard recordings of the organ and thought that’s an incredible sound. Then when you experience it and you feel it under your feet? It speaks to a particular kind of person. When they feel and they hear that they think how glorious would it be to be able to make that sound yourself to be behind all that power and that sound.”

Smith tells virtually the same tale.

“I knew I wanted to be a church organist when I was 4 years old ” he says. “I heard it in church and said ‘Oh I want to do this. This sounds amazing.’ I was very fascinated. I always sat right in front of it and watched the pedals even getting in the way sometimes. Eventually they figured out I was very serious about the instrument and let me play it.”

When Siebold was growing up in Minnesota her role model was a church organist.

“I just felt it when I went to the church and heard the organ ” she says. “I knew that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be just like that lady. Her name was Carol. I admired her and would do everything she did. I sat how she sat and I would do what she did. I started in first grade. They made me do piano first. Piano piano. Now can I be a church organist? No not yet.”

Organists typically take lessons at a young age but not too young. Their legs must first be long enough for their feet to reach the pedal board. When word gets around that they can play the organ many quickly get their first jobs.

“I’ve been playing in churches since I was about 15 ” Bryant says. “You’ll find that to be true for almost everybody. They start when they still can’t drive and their parents have to take them to church. With small churches it’s always hard to find apprentices. If you start taking organ lessons then pretty soon somebody calls your organ teacher up and they say ‘Sara is doing pretty well ‘ and then you get this call from a church: ‘We need an organist we hear you’ve been taking lessons for about three months would you be our organist?’ That’s how it works for most people. There’s a lot of on-the-job training.”

For those who have the passion and the ability it’s hard to step away from the console. Woodward moved to Wilmington in 1962 to be the organist at First Presbyterian. He “retired” in 1996 but by then he was already playing on Fridays at the Temple of Israel. And once word got around that he wasn’t playing on Sunday he soon was busy filling in at churches around town.

“When I retired in 1996 from the church I thought I can stay home and get all this reading done ” he says. “But the organist over at the Fifth Avenue Methodist church called and said ‘Charles can you come and play for me? I’m going to have a baby.’ I played until she came back. Then I went and played at Trinity Methodist until they hired somebody. From there I went to St. Paul’s Episcopal and stayed until they hired somebody. They I went to Pearsall Presbyterian until they hired somebody. I thought OK I’m done but now I’m the interim organist at Covenant Moravian Church. I have not stopped playing in all of this time.”

Woodward has seen church music change over the years from hymns sung by choirs and congregations accompanied by organs to contemporary praise choruses played by bands.

“Churches are going more to praise and glory and bands these days ” he says. “I don’t mind at all. You have to do what you have to do to get people in the door nowadays. My attitude is you can be stuck and say ‘No I’m going to do it this way ‘ and then you are out in left field by yourself.”

That seems to be a common attitude among organists that play at churches with traditional and contemporary worship services.

“There are varying ways that people worship ” Smith says. “As organists we have to respect that. We do favor the organ because it’s our instrument. We think it’s a good way to worship God but it’s certainly not the only way. My church has multiple services and multiple styles and I’m OK with that.”

They believe they are playing the king of instruments but peacefully coexist with other forms by keeping their eyes on the reason why they began playing.

“As Christians and church musicians we want people to feel a sense of connectedness to the divine and to the Almighty ” Tabler says. “We are not alone God is with us.”