About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

An Idiot's Guide to the Organ

I’m conscious that it’s a while since I gave you a slice of Cathedral Close life. So at random I will select a topic. The organ. Organs are like Marmite: people either love them or hate them. If you are in the latter category, this post is for you. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to woo the hostile into a life long love affair, by providing a brief history of the organ. (Church organists, look away now.) This Part I. Part II will follow in a later post.

Organs are associated in the public’s mind almost exclusively with church music. And boring church music, at that; ponderous, funereal, menacing. You hear organs in the background of films where doors creak, birds explode from the undergrowth, and the heroine is obliged to flee in her negligee during a thunder storm. The exception is the popular wedding repertoire. I’m sure you are familiar with these pieces, but here are the top five anyway, complete with notation for the musically illiterate:
1. Wagner: ‘Here comes the bride, all fat and wide, stepped on a banana skin and went for a ride’.
2. Mendelssohn: Diddly-dum! [pause] Diddly-DUM! [pause] Diddly-DA-da-de-dadada, da-dum-diddly-dum-dum-DUM!
3. Handel’s ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’: Diddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-um.
4. Thingy’s trumpet tune: Tah. Dah Tiddle-um-ty tah, dah! Tah, dah, dah, tiddle-um-tumty-tum!
5. Widor: Diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee.

Today’s cathedral organs trace their origins back to little hand-held keyboard instruments powered by bellows; the sort of thing renaissance St Cecelias are depicted playing. Who could have foreseen what these apparently harmless accordion-bagpipes would become? But as the years passed, they evolved into ever larger and more complex creatures, and in time the player sat at the keyboard, while someone else worked the bellows. It was here that the first seeds of megalomania were sown.

Why stop here? the Ur-organist thought. Why settle for one rank of pipes, when by adding another manual (keyboard), I can have two ranks? Or three? Or four? And wait a moment—I’ve got a pair of perfectly good feet here dangling idle. I could add a pedal-board—and another set of pipes. If only there was a way of getting each manual to control more than one rank of pipes! Quickly, invent me a device, somebody! Organ stops—thank you! Now I can have as many different ranks as I like: brassy pipes, flutey pipes, pipes with a blast like Satan’s foghorn! AT LAST! I shall have ALL THE PIPES IN THE WORLD, from shrew in a spin-dryer down to the rumble of tectonic plates! All controlled by ME, from my Secret Console of Darkness, mwa ha ha!

For around three hundred years, until the advent of the telephone exchange in the late 19th century, the pipe organ was the largest most complex device ever made by human hands. Yokels came to gawp. A cathedral organ was nuclear power, it was stealth bombers, it was the internet. Over the centuries new technology was pressed into its service—hydraulics, wind turbines, steam, electricity, computers. There were those who named it The King of Instruments. And the cathedral organist thought: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Hence the joke, popular in choral circles: Q. What’s the difference between a terrorist and an organist? A. You can negotiate with a terrorist.


  1. I must show this to the organist with whom I share my life....(yes, it is the popular clergy-organist combo...thank G-d we don't have to be in the same church, or even diocese).

    I look forward to The Organ Part 2 with great interest...

  2. But notice how carefully I said 'hand-held keyboard instruments'.