The scientist Ctesibius of Alexandria, an engineer in the 3rd century BC is credited with inventing the Hydraulis, and early type of pipe organ. The hydraulis was powered by converting the power of water into wind pressure which sounded the pipes. The organ was later adopted by the Romans and Byzantines. Byzantine and Arab inventors developed automatic hydraulic organs which according to historical accounts could be heard from as far as sixty miles away.
During the organ’s early history, it was used primarily in secular settings. At this time, early Christians used unaccompanied vocal music exclusively so as not to imitate Jewish and pagan worship,both of which used a variety of instruments. Overtime, the organ slowly crept into the Roman Catholic Church to support the singing of Gregorian Chant. It wasn’t until about the 15th century that solo organ music found its way into Catholic liturgy.
Generally speaking, the importance of music in the Catholic liturgy is one that cannot be argued. Before the presider even recites the Opening Prayer, we sing. And before we sing, the organist plays a prelude to prepare the assembly for worship.
The following statement is from the recent document on the role of music in the Catholic Church, “Sing to the Lord Music in Divine Worship.
87. Among all other instruments which are suitable for divine worship, the organ is “accorded pride of place because of its capacity to sustain the singing of a large gathered assembly, due to both its size and its ability to give resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation.; Likewise, the manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.
88. In addition to its ability to lead and sustain congregational singing, the sound of the pipe organ is most suited for solo playing of sacred music in the Liturgy at appropriate moments. Pipe organs also play an important evangelical role in the Church outreach to the wider community in sacred concerts, music series, and other musical and cultural programs. For all of these reasons, the place of the organ should be taken into account from the outset in the planning process for the building or renovation of churches.
Because the average parishioner only hears the organ at weekend Masses, it is important to have a clear perspective on the usage of the organ. Each year, it is played for 260 weekend Masses, 40-50 weddings, 125-150 funerals, first Communions, Confirmations, Graduation, and other special liturgies. In addition, it is used as a practice tool for the organists preparing for those liturgies. On average, we are at the organ a combined total of 30 hours a week and sometimes more. It is not uncommon that one of us will play a funeral, two weddings, and evening Mass on a typical Saturday and then 4 Sunday Masses.
The organ is the primary instrument of choice because it alone is capable of orchestral sound required to support congregational singing in such a large space, accompany choir, and provide the widest range of expression for instrumental musical selections. It is capable of expressing the gentlest whisper of the Spirit as well as the jubilation of the Resurrection. A well built, well-maintained pipe organ can last hundreds of years. It is not only a work of artistry musically from the combination of stops selected to make up its sound, but also from a visual perspective both inside and out. When one crawls inside a well-built organ, one sees thousands of working parts that are masterfully engineered.
Sadly, our instrument is failing. Mechanical issues are occurring with greater frequency and severity. Within the upcoming weeks, we will continue a series of articles intended to clarify the issues we are having with the organ, inform the parish of solutions, and provide a best option for St. Paul of the Cross to procure a beautiful instrument capable of sustaining the sung and musical worship for generations to come.
If you have not done so already, please take the time to read the full evaluation of our current organ.