Tuesday, 19 May 2009

And the Flood hath spoken

16th May marked the Kent County Organists' Association's 2009 Organ Festival.

Quite naturally, I think, that it would be an event almost unheard of.

Some argue that it is events like this, these gatherings almost unnoticed by everyone that they resemble the covertness of certain pagan ceremonies, that has unfortunately enforced the age-old stereotype that organist is a cliquey profession.

Or do we know any better? One of the most prominent 'Out-reach' courses with an intention of spreading interest in the instrument, the Oundle Organ Festival and all its connected summer schools, seems to be deliberately unaware of its cliquey undertones.

Take there application form of this year's summer school programme as an example. Questions are asked about prizes or scholarships won on organ, positions or scholarships held as an organist, and so on and so forth: Application form

The form for bursary even hints ever so slightly as to whether you are a member of the RCO (Royal College of Organists) or not: Bursary form

Is it true then, that organists are cliquey beings that judge amongst themselves?

I don't think so. The generation of tweedy organists is fading clearly: Most of them are human being on the brink of falling apart now. (Not that I have any grudge on their ability at all.)

The fact is, the upcoming new generation of organists is more inclined towards the word 'eccentric'.

But before delving into the newest generation, I'll talk about the currently prominent class of organists: the quasi-middle-aged ones.

What is undeniable is that they are, whilst not insufferably tweedy, predominantly middle-class. But rather particularly in this profession, ever so self-consciously and self-mockingly.

The 'honour' of a clerical profession has long lost its sparkle and is now widely regarded as some imagined reverend joke. Is God Dead? Have we killed him? Nietzsche thought so.

But it's undeniable that a clerical career is falling out of fashion: monasteries are even giving out Weekend Taster courses for prospective monks.

But being an organists is slightly different from other clerical careers. Again this could be seen in the whimsical self-awareness of the current generation of organists. The Organist's Dictionary of Real Meanings as written by the (dubious, possibly a pseudonym) Horatio Netherwallop demonstrates this. The definition for 'Clergy' is given as 'Those who wish to serve the church but are not clever enough to play the organ.'

So today's organists are fully aware of the 'decline' of the importance of religion, and consequently the declining interest in organ music. This is perhaps due to the still quite church-oriented approach towards the instrument. In other countries we see an ever growing tendencies in moving the instrument into the concert halls and venues. In the UK, however, the dominant venue for the pipe organ remains in churches - and even more stereotypically, Anglican churches with their boy choristers, dressed in robes with a flowery ruff.

But organists seem to have an inclination to simply laugh things off. Dr David Flood, who was the adjudicator at the said Organ Festival, was quite easily amused by the turn-up of seven young organists over an entire county.

Some fellow organists have expressed their view on this on the ABRSM organ forum that this is what makes the job of an organist special, that you need that immense enthusiasm for music making and choral directing in order to survive in this seemingly underappreciated career. This enthusiasm, in turn, marks excellence in the music.

Or is it just a feeble (although quite effective) attempt of organists trying to maintain their profession as a 'honourable' one? Is it nothing but self-deceit?

May be it is, but organists are generally so good at making fun of themselves that their stereotypes remained, or are even reinforced.

It's true that statistics show that the predominant group of people who enjoys organ music is demonstrated by the dreaded phrase 'White Male'.

In a sense, however, this stereotype of 'honour' and religiousness is in fact quite contradictory to the very nature of the survival of an organist.

A starking truth is that organists are perhaps one of the most loosly-bound clery-type jobs on the Earth. By loosly-bound I mean religious-affiliation. One doesn't have to look far: The current Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, Robert Quinney, served as Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, and before that, Acting Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey. All of these happened in 4 years. There is no other clerical job on the world that allows you to change faiths from Protestanism to Catholicism and back to Protestanism so efficiently.

So what's the point here? Do organists indulge themselves by advertising an 'honourable' image and laugh at how religion has declined (even with the threat of their declining pay)? Not so. Most organists, dare I say, are simply too enthusiastic about their music (as the mentioned fellow on the forums) that they simply don't give a toss about the divisions of religion, which they deem as trivial matters under the majesty and beauty of the music their instruments make. There's an ever effective in-joke amongst organists, after all, that the sole purpose of Deans is to mercilessly change the selected hymns on a cold Sunday morning so that organists can practise their sight-reading.

Or may be I'm hypothesising too far.

Next time I shall comment on the new generation of organists - and I promise it'll be an even more 'eccentric' journey.

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