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Reform Magazine | December 13, 2017

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Jumble sales of the apocalypse: The devil’s bagpipes

Jumble sales of the apocalypse: The devil’s bagpipes

Simon Jenkins ponders the wonders and weirdness of the devil’s bagpipes

Do you ever wonder what it must have been like back in baroque times to be at the church where JS Bach was the organist? Me neither. But come to think of it, I can just imagine the first time old JS performed his newly-composed Toccata in F Major. It’s a flabbergasting tsunami of sound more suited to the great and dreadful Day of Judgment than a quiet Sunday morning in church. Afterwards, standing at the door, as the congregation reeled out in shock, the minister might well have put on a Michael Caine voice to tell Bach: ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.’

It’s no surprise that a church member of the time said that if Bach carried on like that, either the organ would fall to bits or the congregation would go deaf. I know something of what they meant, as I grew up on an enriched diet of JS Bach myself. Our church’s organist was my dad, and he held a passion for the great composer – just like the character Organ Morgan in the Dylan Thomas play, Under Milk Wood. When Organ Morgan’s wife asks him over supper which of two of their neighbours he likes best, he rouses himself from a musical reverie to say: ‘Oh, Bach without any doubt. Bach every time for me.’

When he was just 14, my dad took over organ duties at his Welsh village church, because the regular organist went off to fight Hitler. Growing up, I was bewitched by the way his hands leapfrogged between the three manuals of our church organ – choir, swell and great – and how his feet tap danced on the pedals.

When I sat at the controls myself, I discovered what it was like to tangle with a contraption that requires all four of your limbs to move in different directions at once. The experience is like being half an octopus. And I was intoxicated by the power of being in sole charge of a 16-foot pipe which rumbles like an earthquake and throbs so deeply it could take down the walls of Jericho by verse two of ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’.

The leaders of the Protestant Reformation weren’t very nice about the church organ. It would be refreshing to report that they mildly observed that organs ‘aren’t such a great idea’, or, ‘maybe we should try guitars instead’. But no. As in everything, John Calvin and others thundered that organs were the devil’s bagpipes and should be smashed to bits with axes and sledgehammers – which people who were understandably sick of bagpipes were only too happy to do.

Just to make matters worse, some Catholic theologians agreed, saying that organs were novel, noisy, theatrical, and even lascivious. Yet, despite all the hostility, the organ prevailed, mainly because Protestant worship had vast amounts of psalm and hymn singing, and the instrument proved brilliant at getting people to sing the notes in the right order.

What the Protestant reformers overlooked was how hair-raisingly holy the organ can be in the right hands. Played with quiet intimacy, it echoes the still, small voice heard by Elijah. Played with bright confidence, it’s the very soul of Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’. And with all the stops out, it whips up a musical thunderstorm as potent as the fiery, cloudy pillar leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, or Moses descending Mount Sinai, his face glowing like the luminous green dial of an alarm clock.

But sometimes, of course, the merry and mighty organ falls into the wrong hands, and that’s where holiness gives way to hilarity. This happened in a Glasgow kirk one Sunday, where the organ had never before been fired in anger. That morning, as the elders solemnly processed up the aisle, the organist, who had recently quarrelled with them, struck up ‘Send in the Clowns’. A similar case of organ spamming afflicted a funeral mass at St Frances de Chantal in Brooklyn, New York. The deceased had been a heavy drinker, and the organist discreetly saluted him with ‘Roll Out the Barrel’.

In churches, abbeys and cathedrals, the theme tunes of The Magic Roundabout, The Simpsons and Blackadder, as well as the works of Kylie Minogue and others, have issued from the pipes of church organs, slowed down and tarted up by their intrepid players to sound like sacred songs and solos. You can’t help feeling that Bach would admire their virtuosity. But at the same time, Calvin must be feeling highly smug that he was right all along about the devil’s bagpipes.

Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com. His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse, is out on 16 March published by SPCK at £9.99. Reform readers can get a 15% discount by using the code ‘jsreform’ at bit.ly/spckjs

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This article was published in the April 2017 edition of  Reform.

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