Faith in Focus

The Organ and the Organist in Reformed Worship- Part II


The Church building in Oamaru, formerly Church of Christ, is a very good example of the aesthetic worship interior, designed for aesthetic worship practices, and I would now like to point out some of its features. It was built in 1904, at the height of the aesthetic worship movement. Along with music, the German romantics decided that gothic architecture was also inherently divine. The English romantics also believed this, but their response was quite different from the Germans. They developed very strict guidelines as to how gothic architecture was to be used, as they thought that it made people moral and so you shouldn't make mistakes. Pugin, the intellectual power behind the English gothic revival, believed that gothic architecture was inherently Christian, and that if you put a bad person in a gothic building, they would become good. The Germans, however, believed gothic to be inherently spiritual, and so didn't worry too much about how it was used, as you were going to have an irrational experience with it anyway. This is a Protestant building, and shows in its use of gothic along Germanic lines. If we were to visit the Anglican church in Oamaru, St. Luke's, I could demonstrate the very different, correct English use of it there. This building, however, is basically a classical shell with gothic design features tacked on. The structure itself exhibits nothing in the way of gothic architecture, and only uses a few design features repeatedly. But, as I said, the object was not to recreate a mediaeval church as the Anglicans were trying to, but to create an interior conducive to an aesthetic experience. Gothic architecture in such an interior is not art: like music it was used as an aesthetic device, to induce feelings of devotion, and prepare the minds of the congregation for the aesthetic experience to come. Perhaps the gothic arch was used in a similar way to the New Age movement's use of pyramids and crystals: a medium for the spiritualisation of objects and people.

Indeed, the arch is the main gothic feature used in Protestant aesthetic worship interiors, and here we have two prominent ones. Other churches also use the trefoil and the quatrefoil. The larger frames a blank wall. Had the building been completed to plan (and we don't know what that plan might have been) the arch may have framed a chancel; even now it suggests a chancel, but that is all it needed to do: suggest. The church would have had no use for a real chancel, not being Anglican, but the perceived spiritual connotations of the chancel are suggested in the arch placed where it is. As I said, the aesthetic worship interior uses gothic as a device. Another arch frames a small alcove, but more on that in a minute. Both are surrounded by banners with scripture texts. The side windows are in a simple gothic form, the larger window, mirroring the interior arch, is more elaborate.

Art Nouveau

The exterior tower is simply crenellated, as are also the rafters. The use of Gothic in the baptistry screen and pulpit is more reminiscent of art nouveau. Now the pews. They are arrayed in quarter circles on a similarly sloping floor, giving everyone a view of the worship platform, and a sense of social cohesion. One may elsewhere find the seating in a sloping semicircle, an example of which is found in the reconstruction of Ponsonby Presbyterian, dating from the same year. The circular arrangement, however, is more common in Australia and the United States, but the model for it is found in German Protestant churches, and the principle behind its use there is the Greek amphitheatre. The German romantics were fascinated with the revival of ancient Greek life, just as the British were fascinated with the mediaeval or Gothic revival, and the most famous example of the revival of the Greek amphitheatre in Germany is in the theatre Wagner designed for the performance of his own musikdrama in Bayreuth.

Another aspect related to architecture, is the use of interior decoration and colour. Stencilling was a common way of enhancing the visual splendour of the aesthetic worship interior, and the use of soft toned colours, particularly greens and browns, as seen in the banners over the arches, were popular. There may have been other examples of stencilling in this room, since obscured. The windows also are coloured. But the meaning of colour was more than merely visual. It had also been perceived to be inherently spiritual by the German transcendentalists, and hence also by British nonconformists. As late as 1916, the headmistress of Southland Girls' High School went to church at First Presbyterian, Invercargill, one Sunday morning and to her horror, a new pipe organ had been placed at the front of the church with a colour scheme of which she did not approve. Her subsequent letter to the Deacons reveals how widespread was the romantic confusion of aesthetics with spirituality and morality:

Colour Schemes

While congratulating the Deacons' Court upon the new organ, in the interests of those members of the congregation who are sensitive to colour and of the younger generation, who must be trained to appreciate beauty and must not be allowed to become accustomed to ugliness in any shape or form, I would protest most earnestly, against the colour scheme of the organ pipes. Harmony of colour is no less important than harmony of sound. God, who made the world, made it beautiful; the harmony of colour in Nature is divinely wonderful, an everlasting source of happiness and a joy for ever. Why then should there not also be harmony of colour in God's House? Why should the eyes of those who love the beauty of colour harmonies be distressed by such colour discords as those organ pipes? The interior of a Church should conduce to the feeling of worship - of worship is "the beauty of holiness" - for true beauty in its essence is divine and uplifting. I understand that the purchase of the organ is not yet definite; but would it not be possible to have the pipes painted a soft brown harmonising with the wood, relieved with a little gold, even though the organ may not be installed permanently?

Now we move on to the most important element of the aesthetic worship interior: the worship platform, which is in fact the hallmark of the aesthetic worship interior, and this is a particularly good example. It is always comprised of three parts: the pulpit, the organ and the choir. First, the pulpit. Because of the decreased interest in the spoken word in romanticism and therefore aesthetic worship, the sermon, instead of being a vehicle for preaching the truth, became merely one more aesthetic device, one more means by which the feelings of the congregation would be elevated." Sermons tended to be moralistic, portraying the life and works of Christ as excellent moral examples. The word used most to describe sermons at this time, was "eloquent." Again we turn to Wagner for a model to understand the role of the sermon in aesthetic worship, for in his musikdrama Wagner reduced the role of the spoken word so that the solo vocal line became part of the overall symphonic texture.

In classical opera, the orchestra and everything else served simply to accompany the voices, which told the story. Wagner made the music itself the point of the whole exercise, the voices being treated as just one more musical instrument, the words themselves being primarily connotative, and enigmatic to the point of meaninglessness, much as one would find in any serious rock music today. His use of Teutonic mythology merely as a resource for psychological drama, is similar to the new theologian's use of the Old, and increasingly New, Testaments merely as a resource for moralistic and psychological guidelines, used by preachers to exhort hearers to take up a life of good works.

The Choir a Powerful Institution

Second, the choir. The choir was a widespread and powerful institution in New Zealand history, not only in churches. The larger choral societies attracted the elite of New Zealand society, and the local church choirs likewise vied with each other for members. They tended to be educated and aesthetically-minded, and were always on the lookout for ways to improve their position in the church. They also tended to be young, mostly people of Bible Class age. The choirs were also large, being the largest grouping in the church next to the congregation itself. In classicist Presbyterian churches it was normal for the Session to be seated at the front of the church with the minister, the choir (if there was one) being scattered amongst the congregation. The Methodists and Anglicans in their classicist worship usually had a choir in a gallery at the opposite end of the church from the pulpit; the Catholics still do. But with the increased role of music in worship in the nineteenth century the position of the choir became critical. By the 1880s the choir in all the nonconformist denominations was generally to be found in a prominent position at the front of the church, with the harmonium in tow. In this interior, the choir, although perhaps not as large as some, would have been seated across here. There, they were made an example for the congregation to follow in the way of devotional behaviour and appearance. They were, again, an aesthetic device. They sang music of a sentimental nature, designed to pull at the heart strings, and as their music became more sophisticated, they began demanding a more sophisticated form of accompaniment: the pipe organ.

The third part of the worship platform was, of course, the organ. It was interesting to discover in the course of my research that most of the 150 organs built in New Zealand from 1895 to 1930 were ordered and purchased by church choirs, not congregations. It was the choir that needed the organ, as the congregation in its singing followed the choir, and the increased use of anthems by choirs in worship demanded it. The demand for the organ was not only accompanimental, it was also used to set the devotional atmosphere for aesthetic worship, so the design of the organ was changed to include a greater range of soft sounds. It is for these reasons that so many of these pipe organs today seem so woefully inadequate to lead congregational singing: their position at the front of the church does not support singing, and their volume is too quiet. Because organs, particularly pipe organs, were moved to the front of churches to accompany the choir, the visual appearance of the organ became an important aspect of aesthetic worship. The prominent placing of the organ was always the most visually compelling aspect of the aesthetic worship interior. Coloured and decorated pipes were painted to blend in with the existing colour scheme and stencilling of the interior, but from around 1905 to 1910 a new trend becomes apparent. Pipes were now arrayed in straight rows without any apparent supporting casework, standing above a plain dull wooden base, and painted in plain dull aluminium. The effect is of a formless shining flat of pipes, detached from the seemingly earthly, temporal case. The "spiritualised" pipes thus mirror the "spiritualised" music of aesthetic worship. And of course, being spiritual, it became normal for the organ to be associated with the gothic arch, and the examples of organ pipes surrounded by an arch in New Zealand Protestant architecture seem endless. A German romantic writer had stated that the impulse that gave birth to Gothic architecture also fathered the music that developed, several centuries later, like a kind of nobler and therefore more slowly ripening fruit... It is of the same kind, but its form is clearer, for it is created from more spiritual materials and its uplifting effect on the spirit is less restricted...

In this church we have a good example of the association, with the small gothic arch framing the chamber where a small pipe organ or large reed organ has at some time been placed. Indeed, the hole in the side of the chamber for the wind trunking is still visible. The use of the word "praise" in the banner is also confirmation of this, as by this stage the praise part of worship was considered impossible without choirs and organs; indeed, as one Methodist writer said, again under the influence of German transcendentalism, "Praise lifts our souls to God; music lifts them higher."

Worship Platform

In considering the worship platform as a whole, we notice that the choir would have been seated in front of the organ, and that both are not only positioned on the same level as the pulpit, but all three parts are physically associated by being positioned together on the raised and railed platform, separate from the congregation.

Again we turn to romanticism for the answer. Because music had been spiritualised, and the role of preaching diminished, music was now its equal, if not its superior. At St. John's Napier in 1907, it was said that "while words were wonderful in appealing to the mind and intellect, music was still more wonderful in appealing directly to the heart and soul. Music was the language of God Himself." Another preacher suggested that Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 55 was more effective than the original text, as music was a "more adequate medium of expression" than words.

Having considered the aesthetic worship interior and its various elements, we must now look at aesthetic worship itself. The first thing to note, is the ridicule that was heaped upon traditional reformed worship with its prayers and petitions, classicist worshippers being labelled as sinful, needy beggars, who came to God with their hands empty. Congregations were urged to attain a higher, nobler, and more divine level of worship called "praise," which involved the emotions in "rapturous delight," and beyond to an even higher, mystical level called "adoration," in which the soul passes "into the light that surrounds His throne. These are the highest moments when the vision breaks upon the praying, waiting soul, and it adores God in His own radiant glory." The way in which a congregation could attain these transcendent levels of worship, was through aesthetics, and the central factor in aesthetics was of course music, and the primary means of obtaining music was the pipe organ. Sermons on the subject of music were usually preached at the openings of pipe organs, and by examining these, we come to the heart of the matter: the nonconformists in abandoning classical for romantic theology and worship, had taken on board German transcendentalism to the point that, simply by changing the words "Ideal" and "Infinite" to "God," a number of that philosophy's key phrases are found verbatim. At Trinity Presbyterian in Timaru in 1903 the congregation were told that good music should tend to foster the devotional feeling, to lift men's hearts up to God, to give them thoughts of the spiritual and the eternal... music has still this power to soothe and calm and elevate the soul to God... We believe that God should have the best of everything, and we are not to offer unto Him that which costs us little... We no longer look upon the [music] as a trivial interruption to more serious things. We think of it now as an important and essential part of the service of God's house. He went on to say that creeds and confessions divide, but all Christians are united in music.

If there was one person upon whose shoulders fell the responsibility for adequately conducting aesthetic worship, it was the organist. Because of the spiritualising of music, his playing was seen not only to be the means by which the congregation could attain a more spiritual level of worship, but also to be equal to the preaching of the Gospel. Again we turn to German romanticism for a model for understanding the role of the organist in aesthetic worship, and that model is provided by the concept of the "aesthetic priest." As Hegel said: If he is a genius he expresses the truest spirit of his people. The aesthetic gods of his people speak through his mouth...When his people participate in the lofty revelation of a divine vision, expressed in the art of his genius, they share with him the same weaving of aesthetic liberation; a freedom from and above mere life... when some such dedicated being, fired with blissful inspiration, contrives truly and faithfully to reproduce what his inspired vision perceives, moving us to the depths of our souls, we ought all to sink in obeisance.

A Divinely Inspired Organist?

As absurd as this may seem to us today, it was nevertheless a common belief in Protestant churches a hundred years ago that the organist was divinely inspired to lead and guide the congregation through the aesthetic worship experience into the presence of God, and that his feelings and taste were superior to those of the congregation. When the American Guild of Organists was established in 1896, their declared object was not to improve standards of playing and professional conduct, but to impress upon their members that organists had a divine function to perform.

It is as much a service rendered to God and men to thrill the soul with a sense of the mysteries that are unutterable as to instruct the soul in the truth that can be declared... Music has great power to bring to the mind a consciousness of the vastness of our need and the nearness of succour and help... Music has a unifying power beyond creed or preaching, because it expresses the profoundest experiences and sentiments of the human heart, sentiments which nothing else can express... the first truth about God which men need to know is this: that the divine heart is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and there is no vehicle so consummately capable of conveying this truth to men as religious music. The Guild's creed included the item "We believe that the office of music in Christian worship is a sacred oblation before the Most High."

In New Zealand, these ideas are also apparent: at Knox church in Parnell in 1912 it was said "just as we pray for the minister who leads the worship, so ought we to pray for the organist who leads the praise of the congregation. In different spheres, they are not otherwise than preachers both of the eternal Word of God." And at the Baptist Tabernacle in Auckland the next year "the preacher emphasised the importance of the musical service and the ministry of the organist. If a motto were needed for the organ... it might be... Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel."

Ron Newton

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised April 1998 / Copyright 1998