Let’s face it, about the only place you’ll hear organ music played these days is in one of the more traditional churches. So, just what is it about the organ that makes us hang onto it?
Though it’s now traditional (and some might even say “old fashioned”), using the organ in worship is actually a relatively recent thing – in church years that is! In ancient times, though the Bible mentions various musical instruments, they fell into two categories: melodic but quiet, or loud but monotone. Plucked stringed instruments like the lyre and harp (and later the lute, which is the precursor of the guitar) fell into the first category, along with simple “whistle” type instruments like the shepherd’s pipe and flute. These instruments could play melodies, but lacked the volume to lead singing for larger groups. Trumpets were plenty loud, but prior to the invention of valves, could only produce a few notes. A leather-lunged cantor leading simple melodies was usually the best choice for congregational music.
So it would be natural to assume that when the pipe organ was invented, which could play a lot of notes loudly, it would become a big hit for leading worship. Not so. A hydraulically powered multi-pipe organ was invented in the third century BC and became popular enough that the Roman emperor Nero was known to play one (maybe this was what he was ‘fiddling with’ when Rome burned, since the violin wasn’t yet invented). Though the device gradually evolved into something resembling a modern pipe organ, and though it was used for popular entertainment such as circuses, it seems to have been spurned for use in worship until around 900 AD. So even though we today associate the organ with religious music, it was around for about 1100 years before it became accepted! Why? No one really knows, but probably it ran contrary to people’s expectations of what real church music should sound like! (Ah, the power of tradition!)
Anyway, the organ eventually proved to be an instrument that could fill the huge echoing space of a medieval cathedral, and things really took off in the 1700s when organs reached a high level of sophistication and many gifted composers wrote complex pieces of sacred music for the instrument. Most notably, Germany was a center of organ innovation and J.S. Bach (a Lutheran) composed some of the great masterpieces of organ and choral music. Other German and Scandinavian Lutherans have also been prolific composers of music for the organ.
So it’s really not surprising that Lutheran churches have a particularly strong connection to this kind of music. Lutheran campuses (such as St. Olaf College in Minnesota) are still famed for their choirs and organ programs, and many will tell you that you just haven’t lived until you’ve had the experience of joining with a few hundred Lutherans and a thundering pipe organ in enthusiastically singing Martin Luther’s trademark hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God” !
However, as Lutheranism in the U.S. has spread beyond its Northern European roots, embracing other cultures, and as technologies and tastes have evolved, we have also embraced other kinds of music. The choice of musical styles is certainly not something we consider essential to our worship of Christ – there’s nothing intrinsically more “sacred” about organ music compared to electric guitars, keyboards, and drums for example. In the end, all that really matters is that it is done to the glory of God and for the nurture of His children. Of course, we also don’t want to throw away the legacy of our rich Lutheran musical heritage while we also embrace other alternatives. It’s a balancing act!
OK, so this is not “A Mighty Fortress” but it is a church-full of Lutherans accompanied by a thundering pipe organ and a brass choir at the May 2016 baccalaureate service of Concordia University Nebraska held at St. John Lutheran Church, Seward, NE.