September 15, 2003: Organs
Ask me anything you'd like to know about organs. Anything.
I totally understand them now, after a lecture from the master organ
player at the St. Michael's church in Jena. First we listened to
a half-hour concert and then we got a tour of the instrument itself.
Do you know where the expression "Pull out all the stops"
comes from? Each key on an organ keyboard plays a different pipe
depending on which "stop" you pull. If you pull two stops,
then the key plays two pipes -- if you pull them all you do is hit
one key, but it plays some huge number of pipes and suddenly you
have VERY LOUD ORGAN MUSIC. And thus pulling out all the stops is
to go over the top.
St. Michael's organ
I know this now. And besides just the fact that organs
are kind of cool (I mean, if you're inclined to believe anyway,
and you're sitting there in the church and there is VERY LOUD ORGAN
MUSIC coming at you, you can understand why someone would believe
that G-d exists.) I now have a much better understanding of whole
chapters of Cryptonomicon -- a book with which I'm obsessed
-- since the hero had kind of a thing for organs.
But more than that, continuing with the "interesting
cultural differences" theme of my trip -- the delegations from
China and India had neither seen nor heard of an organ before. This
seems fairly trivial when I write it down, there are plenty of instruments
I'm sure I've never seen before, too -- it's just that, wow, an
organ. It's not one of those things I would have ever thought to
list as uniquely western. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about
organs, mind you, but they are enough a part of my backdrop that
I wouldn't have considered whether they were the kind of thing worth
saying to someone who was visiting my country: "Hey, have you
seen this cool thing called an organ?" Luckily, our hosts here
The flurry of questions from the non-organ-conversant
prompted one of the German professors, Joachim, to tell us stories
of how he used to pump the bellows on the organ as a child. (See,
more things I know about organs! The air to blow the pipes are now
run by an electric engine, but in the past someone actually had
to man the bellows.) Apparently he could jump up and down on the
bellows for awhile and get it nice and full of air, and then he
could take a break before having to pump it up again. But as a ten-year-old
he naturally got bored of bellow duty, and he'd forget to go back.
The organ would be merrily PLAYING VERY LOUDLY and then suddenly
it would just go "wheee" like the air rushing out of a
balloon, everything would become silent, and Joachim would remember
to rush back to start pumping the bellows again.
Apse of St. Michael's
St. Michael's itself, of course, is wonderfully old. Eight-hundred
years old with a history that includes having had Martin Luther
preach there for 30 years, a host of families who lived in the tower
whose job it was to keep an eye on people attacking the town, a
bombed tower during World War II, and a not-so-safe haven to practice
Christianity during the Communist era -- the defiant community that
kept going to church was small, and always watched.
The organ, on the other hand, is a mere 40 years old, added during
the reconstruction of the building after the war. Nonetheless you
would never think of it as a late addition -- it holds its own settled
in with the ribbed vaulting and the worn, stone stairs and the effigy
of Luther. After all, it plays very loudly -- and it can pull out
all the stops.