There was a time, especially in the Victorian era, when many organ pipes were fakes, put up to look pretty but incapable of making a single sound. Nowadays, however, organ building has returned to many of the basic principles that operated when the "king of instruments" was coming into its first great glory. Today, those 16-foot pipes in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall are the real things. So are those that surround the chancel area in National City Christian Church, the ones that fill the carved organ ease in Washington Cathedral, and all those in the Shrime of the Ismaculate Conception where you have to turn around and look a long ways up to see them.
But there has never been any fakery when it came to playing great music on these huge instruments whose pipes are sometimes hundreds of feet distant from the person doing the playing.
Paul Callaway, the organist emeritus of Washington Cathedral where he has played the great organ since 1939, talked the other day about this basic challenge to organists.
"The problem with organ recitals is that all the instruments are different," he began. "Because almost every organ is different in design, in layout, and in the way it sounds in the building, a good organist has to learn to play the building. Many are so fascinated with the gimcrackery of the instrument, all the pistons and all the stops, that they don't listen to themselves play." (The stops, usually white knobs, govern each individual set of pipes in an organ, and a large instrument will have over 100. The pistons are white buttons underneath each manual, and in rows over the pedals, that bring into play pre-set combinations of stops.)
Callaway should know. He has been one of the top recitalists of the organ world for over 40 years. In that time he has mastered the challenges of what is unquestionably the most complex task facing any performing musician. He has also conducted hundreds of performances of operas covering the entire repertoire from Monteverdi to world permieres by Gian Carol Menotti, Lee Hoiby, David Amram and others, as well as a broad orchestral repertoire, and can compare the problems in conducting opera and orchestra with those involved in playing the organ.
One of the differences is that, where the conductor has his baton, his hands and arms and eyes and his gestures to control the largest musical works, the organist must be the master of a huge machine and controlled from a console.
That console, in a modern pipe organ, like that of some of its famous 18th-and 19th-century forerunners, may have as many as three or four manuals, those five-octave keyboards that look like shortened versions of a piano keyboard. (Some organs even have five, six or seven.) The organist also has to master another keyboard, two and a half octaves long, running from low C up to the G, 5 feet away-down there under his feet.
"What is difficult physically about the pedals," Callaway said, "is when you have to use both feet either at the very uppermost part of the pedalboard or the very lowest part, because of the position of the body. You use the seat of your pants as a swivel."
Those pedals include white and black keys in precisely the same sequence as the keys played by the fingers. Organists have to get their heels and toes onto them just as fast and accurately as their fingers must land on the manuals. Composers from Bach to Samuel Barber have decided there was nothing unusual in asking organists to play fast scales, wide leaps, and even chords with their feet, shoes and all.
As a result, some organists with naturally wide feet keep a pair of the narrowest shoes they can wear under the organ bench, a habit that prompts their narrower-footed colleagues to label them "shoe organists." Some play in their stocking feet, while Marie Madeleine Durufle, the organist-wife of Parisian organist-composer Maurice Durufle, has been seen playing some of the most dazzling technical pedal passages wearing stiletto heels.
The pedals must be conquered, but Callaways says: "If there are people who have a good piano technique but who cannot manage the kind of coordination it takes to put the hands and feet together, I don't know of them. What it takes is long, tedious hours of practice-slow, slow practice.
"Basic piano technique is absolutely essential before you start playing the organ, because the technical problems in playing on the manuals are quite similar to those in playing the piano: dexterity of fingers, fingering properly and so on. Unless one has that basic piano technique you are hopelessly lost when you try to put the feet with the hands.
"I had a man come in to see me. He's a doctor out a NIH. He wanted to take some organ lessons. I asked him if he had any piano technique. He said he had studied piano when he was 6 years old, for three years and had not touched it since.
"I said that what he ought to do was go to a music store and buy the Hanon and Clementi exercised and get some piano technique and then come and talk again."
As far how much piano study is needed before starting on the organ, Callaway added, "It depends entirely on how much time they devote to practice. I started the piano when I was 6 and organ lessons when I was 12. Part of it of course, when you start that young, is whether you are able to reach the pedals with your feet."
The organ is often cited as the most impersonal, inexpressive of instruments with its miles of wiring, and its indifference to the amount of force behind the touch. How are these barriers overcome? "Part of the answer," according to Callaway, "is the touch one uses, and part of it is the swell boxes.
"The swell box is a division of the organ that is enclosed but that has sort of Venetian blind shutters that open and close so that one can get a crescendo and dimimuendo. They provide dynamic and expressive variations too. Some of the older instruments did not have swell boxes in the baroque era."
With the word "baroque," Callaway introduced a note of controversy: "There are two poles of thought with organists. Many of them, especially recently, have gone in for the baroque style of playing and are partial to baroque instruments. I belong to the school that appreciates those instruments, but I prefer to have a modern instrument that is capable of playing the entire repertoire."
Callaway says there are two ways of creating personal, expressive playing; the use of swell boxes is one, and the other is touch. "Basically, on the organ, there are only two kinds of touch. One is staccato and the other is lagato. However , there are various ways of playing staccato: You can make the notes detached, or very, very short, or something in between. There are kinds of legato, too." With his wry smile, he went on: "There is a messy gummy legato, and then what I call a clear legato. There are quite a few variations in kinds of touch. Of course, the amount of force or attack on a note has nothing to do with touch. No matter how much force you put into depression a manual note or a pedal, the sound is the same."
Asked if some organists don't make a practice of attacking notes with greater or less force for some kind of effect, the Callaway smile widened to a broad grin as he answered. "Yes, I've seen that. I think they do it for dramatic reasons. Someone was telling me about a noted organist, whose name is a household word, who has thought up a new trick. He plays "The Star Spangled Banner' with his feet alone, using three-note chords, and waving two American flags, one in each hand!"
According to Callaway, "the most important thing in playing the organ is the independence of the hands and feet, so that contrapuntal lines can be played with hand and with the feet.
"I've always found that the best way is to learn the manual parts on the piano-why waste electricity? This can easily be done by transposing the right hand up an octave and the left hand down an octave. Then when you go to the organ, learn the pedal part, marking the fingering for the manuals and the pedaling for the pedals (you have to mark left heel and toe, right heel and toe, for each pedal note) and get that so that it's very independent and secure. As a rule the left hand and the pedals are the hardest to coordinate. The hand wants to do what the bass line does. So I've found that practicing the left hand and the pedal alone is the best way to attack the problem; then the right hand and the pedal alone and finally everything together. It's a laborious, tedious process, but it pays off."
Callaways's description of so detailed a working method was a reminder of a remark about him that has been ascribed to his famous teacher, the late T. Tertius Noble, with whom Callaway studied at St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Noble, according to legend, said that from the time of Callaway's first lesson with him, he never had to tell him a thing about technique. Callaway's comment today is, "I don't recall that he said that. But playing the organ involves a lot of hard work."
If you ask him what is hardest to play, he is likely to say "the Bach Trio Sonatas. They are so transparent, so exposed. There are three lines-one for each hand, and one for the feet. Each has its own individuality; they are very difficult to begin with, and once you make a slip, it's so obvious. They are also for that reason the most valuable pieces for practice. Every student who wants to develop technique ought to learn all six of them."
But then, turning from Bach, Callaway opened to a page of "A Quaker Diary" by Ned Rorem and said, "This is probably the hardest page I have ever played." As he played through its fiendish cross rhythms at a rapid rate, he added, "Ned has marked it to go twice this fast."
There is a tradition, especially in the Anglican church, which is observed in some sections of this country more than in others, of combining the roles of organist and choirmaster. This cremates some unusual technical demands and cricks in necks now and then.
"The business of conducting from the console is a study in itself," Callaway said. "I've had classes in it.It's a special kind of technique. Sometimes you can play with only one hand and the pedals and conduct with the other hand. But when both hands and feet are involved, the organist has to conduct with his head. Of course, basic conducting patterns can be followed with the head: down and up for two in a bar; down right and up for three in a bar, and so on. That takes practice, too, especially with the head. I mean real practice on what the head is doing, if the organ part is hard."
As for composers who have added significantly to organ techniques and repertoire in recent years, Callaway singled out Messiaen, Barber, Poulenc and the younger William Albright. He added, with great emphasis: "Of course the man who contributed more to the literature of the organ than any other American was Leo Sowerby."
It was suggested to Callaway that organists tend to live nice, long lives, as do conductors-and that conductors often attribute their longevity to getting so much exercise on the job.
"Organists do too," Callaway said with a grin.