Beware the wrath of the church organist

Today’s post is repost of a humorous article in The Telegraph reporting on a survey of churchgoers that found that at least half have noticed their organist straying from the path of musical orthodoxy. Are you one of those organists??

Beware the wrath of the church organist – musical revenge is sweet
Photo: Getty Images

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By , Religious Affairs Editor

7:30AM BST 03 May 2013

They are the stalwart pillars of the community whose week-in, week-out dedication has kept the country’s choral traditions alive for generations.

But, if new research is be believed, behind the quiet exterior the humble church organist is not someone to be crossed.

While charged with providing spiritually uplifting music to worshippers, it seems many also seize the opportunity to extract subtle revenge on clerics who have displeased them or simply play pranks on congregations.

A survey of churchgoers found that at least half have noticed their organist straying from the path of musical orthodoxy at some point – slipping snippets of heavy metal classics, advertising jingles and even nursery rhymes into hymns and anthems.

In some cases it can be a means of waging musical war with clerics while in others it is simply an effort by bored organists to make the choir laugh.

Christian Research, a polling and research group asked its 2,000 strong “Resonate” panel of churchgoers for their views on church music and organists.

Of those who responded, half said they had noticed an organist slipping unexpected tunes into services.

Among examples cites was that of the organist in Scotland who had fallen out with some of the elders in the Kirk but got his own back by inserting a thinly disguised rendition of “Send in the Clowns” as they processed in for a Sunday service.

Elsewhere, a vicar sacked an organist after he played “Roll out the Barrel” at the funeral of a man known to have been fond of a drink.

In one decidedly high church congregation, an organist punctured the mood of reverence as an elaborately dressed clergyman processed back after the gospel reading – by playing the theme tune to The Simpsons.

Another congregation found themselves passing around the collection plate to the strains of “Money, Money, Money” by Abba.

The survey uncovered examples of Eucharist celebrations livened up with renditions of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”; the theme tunes from the Magic Roundabout, Blackadder and Harry Potter and even “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”.

Sung Evensong – widely regarded as the jewel in the crown of English choral music – has been spiced up such unexpected offerings as “I’m a Barbie Girl” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”

One organist who responded confessed to playing hits by Oasis, Billy Bragg and even Kylie Minogue in services but added: “Nobody notices – I do it all the time.”

But when an organist played a slowed-down version of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins, even the most tone deaf members of the congregation eventually recognised, sending them into gales of laughter.

An older bridegroom took it in good humour when the organist played “No one loves a fairy when she’s 40” at his wedding” while candidates at a confirmation service were left perplexed to hear the strains of “I’m a Little Teapot” from the organ loft.

Stephen Goddard, of Christian Research, said: “It’s an oft-repeated adage in church circles – ‘What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist? -you can negotiate with a terrorist’.

“Hidden from view, your local church organist may appear unassuming and self-deprecating, but like any true artist, he or she can be eccentric, mischievous and very opinionated.

“Mess with him at your peril – he will pull out all the stops to get his own back.”

The poll was conducted ahead of the Christian Resources Exhibition, a trade fair for all things ecclesiastical in London later this month, which will be showpiecing new organs among other things.

There’s always a bright side…even for funerals

The last thing I expected was to see my name on the program.

A week ago Monday my boss and his wife, Connie, let me know that her father had passed away that morning. The funeral was not set yet, but they were anticipating it to be held at the end of the week. I expressed my love and offered to play the organ at the funeral. “Thanks, but my brothers and sisters are planning the service and they’ll get an organist.” (Just to clarify—Mormons don’t have any paid clergy, so it’s not like I was butting in on someone else’s job or was trying to get a gig or anything.)

“Okay. That’s fine.”

I saw my boss and his wife several times during the following days, but the only thing I ever heard about the funeral was that it was set for Friday at noon at an LDS chapel about 20 minutes away from my home.

Let me restate that. On a typical day the trip can be completed in twenty minutes. But this was obviously not a typical day, because semi-trucks filled with crab meat don’t tip over at freeway off-ramps and make such a mess that the exit has to be closed for three hours on typical days.

Most of the drivers I encountered seemed unaffected by my weaving in and out and trying to find my way around the highway patrol guys. It was just the highway patrol guys who got annoyed with me. But there were no indications that the wet lane wasn’t open yet. Honest!

The church housed a beautiful Wicks pipe organ. I was late for the pre-funeral viewing, but not for the service proper. After collapsing my stressed out body in an empty pew I looked to the front of the chapel. “I wonder who gets to play that today…”  wistfully admiring the pipes and console. “Wait…it’s 11:58….where’s the prelude music? Where’s the organist?”

I spied a funeral program sitting on the music rack of the organ. I squinted. “That looks like my name at the top. Why would my name be on the program? Unless…” I get a closer look. So there! It’s not actually my name. It’s only similar to my name. The last name is different.

Connie never could get my last name right.

After a quick consultation with the presiding officer it is confirmed that I indeed am the organist for the service. No music, no shoes, no glasses. Hop on the bench. Find the ‘on’ switch. Grab a nearby hymnal. Take a deep breath and “stand up everybody” here comes the casket. It’s fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-playing like I’ve never done before!

Later that evening I recounted the story to my husband.

“So how did you do?” he asked.

“Well….I sightread the opening hymn, but the closing hymn sounded good. And you know, there is a bright side to this whole experience.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“If I had to walk into a funeral and find my name on the program, at least it was as the organist and not as the deceased.”

“Yeah….guess so….”

Songs I Don’t Want Sung at My Funeral

I played the organ for a funeral a few days ago. The service had been planned by Earl, the 92-year-old man being honored that day. His choice of congregational hymns gave me some insight into his faith and optimism. Have I Done Any Good?—a cheerful, mormon-gospel-style hymn with a sprinkling of dotted eighth notes to keep us on our toes—was the opening hymn. And for the closing Earl had requested We Are Marching On to Glory, a less familiar tune but intended to be sung with just as much enthusiasm.

Even though I generally prefer more sophisticated hymns, I was rather pleased with Earl’s selections, particularly the closing. The chorus brought to my mind a vision of a family boldly bidding farewell to their beloved, singing with an enthusiasm to match the strength of a life well lived.

We are marching, marching homeward
To that bright land afar.
We work for life eternal;
It is our guiding star.

Unfortunately, my vision was not realized. Not even close. The chapel was large. The family was small. The hymn unfamiliar. And Earl did not leave behind a posterity of outstanding vocalists. I’m not sure there was a singer in the bunch! But most of all, while Earl was eager to move on in life and see his dear wife again, the rest of the family was really sad to say goodbye to the man. Though I did my best to keep the tempo moving along, it was the dreariest march tune I have ever heard. (Think: My Favorite Things when the Von Trapp children think that Maria is gone for good.)

I came home from the service determined to do all I could to not have that kind of musical mis-match at my own funeral. Not sayin’ I’m planning on going soon. Just planning ahead…hopefully way ahead!

Assuming that my descendants will have as much vocal skill as Earl’s and hoping they are equally unenthusiastic about my departure, I have created the following list:

Hymns I Do Not Want Sung at My Funeral

Come, Rejoice

Father, This Hour Has Been One of Joy

From Homes of Saints Glad Songs Arise

Joy to the World

On This Day of Joy and Gladness

Rejoice, Ye Saints of Latter Days

The Happy Day at Last Has Come

There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today

. . .