Paul R. Schilf, Ph.D.

The Music and History of the Organ

The invention of the organ (Hydraulis) dates back to early Greek antiquity and the time of Christ. As early as the 3rd century after Christ the water pressure of the hydraulis was replaced by pneumatic pressure provided by bellows. In the 7th and 8th centuries the construction of organs flourished at Constantinople, and several Byzantine emperors sent elaborate organs to the court of the Frankish kings (Pippin, Charlemagne) where they were highly admired and deemed the most appropriate instrument for singing. In the 15th century, keys replaced the pedals as well as the heavy “slides” of the earlier instruments. This inventive change made the instrument, considered by most in the church, the only appropriate instrument for leading liturgical song.

The organ has played a significant role in Lutheran worship since Reformation times, even though various aspects of its role have changed since that time. In its unique way the organ, as mentioned numerous times by Luther and Bach, is the “living voice of the Gospel” and its use in Lutheran worship has demonstrated this.

The Role Of The Lutheran Church Organist

The Lutheran organist is a liturgical organist. This means that the movement and requirements of the liturgical action determine the organists’ functions in the service. It is not the function of the organist to entertain, to provide meaningless meanderings at the keyboard, or to fill every quiet moment with music. It is the function of the liturgical organist to lead the congregation in the singing of the hymns and chorales, to accompany, as appropriate, other portions of the liturgy sung by the congregation or choir, and to present other liturgical and attendant music alone or in ensemble.

The most important role of the organist is that of introducing and leading the congregational singing of the hymns and the liturgy. The practice of using the organ to accompany congregational singing was relatively new at Luther’s time, for the chorales were sung unaccompanied and in unison. But today the common practice is for the organist to accompany most, if not all, the stanzas of the hymns. Effective leadership here can do much to make worship the exciting adventure at its best. Through the use of effective introductions, careful choice of tempos, rhythmic playing, appropriate registration, judicious use of varied accompaniments, the occasional singing of a hymn stanza without the organ, and especially through the use of alternation between the congregation, organ, and choir, the organist sets the spirit and carries the momentum of hymn singing from the introduction through to the final stanza. When the organ accompanies other portions of the liturgy sung by the congregation it should do so with a forthrightness and vigor appropriate to the circumstances. In all situations, because of the nature of the instrument the organ leads the congregational singing; it does not merely provide a bland accompaniment.

It is customary in many places that the organ play at the beginning of worship, during the gathering of the gifts, and as the congregation disperses at the close of worship. It is most helpful and meaningful if the organ music at these times is based on the hymns or chorales sung in the service. At the least such music should clearly reflect the spirit of the particular celebration.

In general, when the organist does play it should be liturgically, functionally, and practically to the point. When it has no particular liturgical function it should remain silent. While the liturgical organist seeks to avoid flamboyance and pretension in his/her playing, at the same time (s)he uses all his/her skills in highlighting the inherent drama of the liturgical celebration. Only in this way will the organ’s role as a liturgical instrument be more readily apparent.

Apel, W and Daniel R.T. (Eds.) (1960). The Harvard brief dictionary of music. New York, NY: MJF Books and Creative Media.
Buszin, W.E. (1958). Luther on music. New York, NY: Lutheran Society For Worship, Music, and the Arts, by permission of G. Schirmer Inc.
Schalk, C.E. (1983). Music in Lutheran worship. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.