Fine Arts Column: Spooks in the choir loft


Seeing as this edition appears in print on All Hallows’ Eve, I have leapt upon the opportunity to write about organ music. What can I say; it is what organists do.

Early in my college career, when I was still youthful and full of hope, I started work as a clerk in the campus mail center. Though I have since left the position, I think back on this time with fondness.

Those of us who worked the front window had the custom of listening to music while we did so. On one occasion, I was listening to some piece of organ music (as music majors are wont to do) when our student supervisor, who had the habit of facetiously threatening to fire people, told me she would make me leave the mail center if I didn’t turn the music off. Her reason for disliking it was that she found it creepy.

So it is that I find myself pondering the “creepiness” factor of organ music as we approach this holiday so closely associated in the secular world with the macabre and the frightening. (I want you to pause for a moment and pull up a recording of the prelude from Josef Rheinberger’s “Organ Sonata No. 1 in C minor.” Done? Okay, keep reading.) One wonders how the organ specifically came to be associated with eeriness, haunted houses, vampires and such.

Perhaps it is not so great a leap, after all, from the organ to its association with Gothic architecture, and from there to the Gothic revival, Romanticism and the goosebump-inducing likes of Edgar Allan Poe.

The aforementioned Rheinberger piece seems appropriately dark and intimidating for such a scene, not only because of its force but also for the dissonances of its harmony and its minor tonality. Dismiss the organ’s spookiness if you will but consider how many instruments are even capable of conveying such a mood all on their own. (Lest you believe the organ can only be spooky, look up the “Noël X” by Louis Claude Daquin too, which is delightfully joyful. But don’t listen to it again until Christmas because that’s where it belongs.)

A second theory I would propose: the organ is also associated with other aspects of the Church’s musical tradition, such as Gregorian chant. After all, what Gregorian chant is more infamous than the Dies Irae, that text from the Requiem Mass depicting God’s judgment upon the dead and imploring God’s mercy?

This is a fitting season to consider the motif of death our society has preserved in Halloween and in its proper theological context of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. This season, as we approach our celebration of Advent and the arrival of the Christ, is a fitting time to remember those gone before us to their eternal rest, to pray for them and to ask the saints to pray for us as we follow after them.

So let us embrace this brief time of year where all of humanity’s spookier works of art take center stage, and let us be mindful of the Church Suffering in purgatory and the Church Triumphant in heaven, with whom we are yet united in prayer and in the liturgy.

And if your supervisor comes in and asks about your “creepy” taste in music, just look them in the eye and tell them you’re meditating on how each of us is dust and to dust we shall return.