- The Vicarage
- Church Street
- CB22 7NP
Playing the Organ
[Alastair Oatey is the organist at Harston Parish Church, where he fills the space with glorious, uplifting sound. Here, following an interview with Radio Cambridgeshire, Alastair writes about what drew him to this wonderful instrument, the power of organ music in worship and on other occasions, and how we need to cherish and value it for the future.]
A news story sparked up last month when a report was published about the diminishing number of organists in churches, and the involuntary trend towards using backing CDs to accompany hymn singing. Although we have been here before (when were you last accompanied by the gallery band of Hardy’s days?) it’s a shame to think of the king of instruments lying quiet and still.
The organ is part of the archetypal image of a traditional church; what documentary or film scene would be complete without an organist practising or accompanying whatever time of day or night? But, like all archetypes, it speaks to a truth and the organ in traditional church worship is a key element that brings together sight and sound, part of an immersion experience that gathers people together into an experience of all the senses. There is a hymn, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” which I like to think of as “O worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty”. An organist helps sets the scene as people arrive and make the transition from the busy world into a space of reflection and timelessness. An organist leads the hymn singing, judging the pace of hymns according to the season, the building’s acoustics, the strength of the singers and the intention of the hymn. And finally the organist sums up service music at the end; a final act of prayer and the transition back into daily life.
Church going is declining and so it is no surprise that children are not getting the opportunity to be bitten by the bug in the way I was. I wanted to play the organ for as far back as I can remember; my parents enjoyed listening to organ music and so I must have heard it in the womb and then as a church-going family that majestic sound was part of my weekly experience and I wanted to be part of it. And so the patient wait began. You have to wait until you have grown legs long enough to reach the pedals but also you need to have a good enough grasp of piano playing to be able to cope with the extra complexities of playing the organ. But it was worth the wait. Nothing quite compares to the experience of control and power at your fingertips (especially the self-control of playing the quietest music on the biggest instruments!) and the endless combination of sounds and moods is a constant exploration.
We are lucky in our three villages of Harston, Hauxton and Newton that we have three musicians regularly accompanying our services on the organ. In addition, Harston born-and-bred Luke Fitzgerald is an organ scholar at Gonville and Caius and so the baton passes to another generation. We might be a dying breed but enjoy us whilst you can and do, please, ask us to play for your special occasions (weddings, baptisms, funerals) because we love what we do and always want to share that with others.