Pipe Organ and the Church

Saint Louis Abbey Church - Hradetzky Organ — Hradetzky 50! Gallery

The pipe organ can transport the listener beyond everyday indifference into the realm of sacred space. Such a mystical experience has the power to inspire the listener to pray and worship God.

The Second Vatican Council confirmed the privileged place that the organ holds in the Roman Catholic Church:

"In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument and one that adds a wonderful splendour to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to heavenly things" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n 120)

It is important to point out that the organ is connected to the liturgy not only as a musical instrument, but also as an important element of sacred architecture. Indeed, some organ cases belong to a category of masterpieces of the visual decorative arts. The question arises if the pipe organ can be regarded as a sacred instrument. This is a part of even a broader issue whether any musical instrument can be sacred, and, if so, what makes such? Some people would oppose the idea of the sacrality of the pipe organ saying that judging its merits is a subjective matter. A few might even consider the organ just as a historical curiosity that is out of sync with the experience of the typical modern man. The fact is that the sounds of the organ acquired meaning though centuries of very close association with worship. The organ was introduced to the Church around the 10th century and remained the only musical instrument allowed to participate in the liturgy for many hundreds of years. For all that time the organ was used, almost exclusively, in sacred spaces. It cannot, thus, be denied that the organ, through its history, has been organically connected with the sacred liturgy and that such a connection has made the organ distinctive from other instruments. This is why the pipe organ has become one of the icons of the Church's culture.

Would it be possible for any other instrument to acquire the same associations with liturgy as the pipe organ? It is possible, but it would not be enough, for the instrument in question would have to lose their connections with music in the secular world (theatre, saloons, bars, cocktail lounges, etc.), as the very definition of "sacred" is set apart for worship. Also the view that signs and symbols that originated a long time ago cannot be relevant today because they are not "up-to-date," does not stand on solid ground. Although we all live, very much so, in a modern world, the liturgy takes us well beyond our everyday experience, especially with music that has the power of transcendence, a capacity to build a bridge connecting us with heaven.

Finally, the most important document of the US Conference of Bishops states that

"... pipe organs also play an important evangelical role in the Church’s 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 onset in the planning process for the building or renovation of churches."

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Saint Louis Abbey Church
500 S Mason Rd
Creve Coeur
MO 63141