MR. PATRICK O'SULLIVAN was roughly the age of (and stature of) God, and he lived in a bizarre Greek Revival house in Tennessee and decided, for reasons fathomless, to teach me to play the pipe organ.
He was himself the organist of a Roman Catholic church and his taste in music was naturally somewhat on the romantic side. His own work was mainly with the piano, which he pronounced in an odd German way, and he used to say the great thing in life was Vork (work). He ate virtually nothing, and looked more like Don Quixote than any man I ever saw. He had lived for a time in Berlin and in Paris and his favorite authors were Goethe and Byron, who accounted for his tone poems such as "The Bride of Abydos."
His old house with Greek columns seemed to him to be modeled on an Egyptian temple, and once he got things in his head there was no point dredging up mere facts. Right next door was St. Agnes Academy, a convent housed in an equally amazing building of 1870 that looked somewhat Venetian and somewhat like a rich burgher's affront to the world in Antwerp.
They had a small pipe organ there, dating from about 1885, I would say, and no master in this world could make it sound like anything. How curious that pipe organs reflect the tone of the time in which they are built. That one was all greenery-yallery, if you follow me, and God himself would have trouble making it do anything except low like a cow.
You could not make it go BREEP and you could not make it roar. It was ideal for Victorian muddling about.
At an advanced age Mr. O'Sullivan was gathered to Abraham's bosom and I was dumped on Dr. Steuterman. Dr. Steuterman had the best pipe organ in town, an Aeolian Skinner of 110 ranks. It had a number of mixtures; that is, stops in which when you press a note on the keyboard, several pipes sound, all voiced to give a brilliant effect.
Dr. Steuterman, being a man of sense and judgment, liked good workmanlike, sturdy, careful musicianship and did not care much for gaudiness. His taste in painting would have been for Cezanne rather than for Tintoretto.
Once he came in when I was practicing, and I was embarrassed since I was playing a simple Bach chorale with virtually all of the 110 ranks of pipes sounding. The only stops I didn't use were the ones that you couldn't hear anyway in the general uproar. The entire great and swell organs were coupled with all the mixtures, needless to say, were bleating loudly, along with every flute stop (the organ, like all good ones, was extremely rich in these) and a tuba mirabilis which groaned in a tremendous 32-foot ache. It was not, of course, a tasteful or even decent sound for the Bach, which should have been played with three or four good flute stops and not a lot of gunk, just as you would take a good fresh sole and broil it and let it go at that, not seeing how many truffles and other trash you could pile on it.
The pipe organ, I instantly discovered, is by no means able to do what all the instruments can do. No pipe organ on earth can reproduce the enchanting effect of, say, a trio of violin, flute and harp. Nor can any organ lay everybody flat, absolutely flat, like the French horn. Any cello can outdo any pipe organ in the unearthly woo of those strings.
But what the organ and the organ alone can do is roar like a railroad train or a tornado sweetly in tune. The pipe organ is, as far as I am concerned, essentially a huge family of flutes, only they are flutes of such size and grandeur as never were known before.
If I remember right, there was a late-medieval pipe organ at Winchester that merely bellowed through huge pipes, to make a deafening noise of no particular pitch, and not in any way susceptible to following a scale of individual notes. You just got the guys working the bellows and in due time a noise like a railroad train came out, and against this the choirs sang. Often, listening to church choirs since, I have regretted they are not heard against this corrective background.
There are string stops on an organ that are supposed to sound like everything from a viola d'amore to a bass viol, and they add much to the richness of the racket, but the glory of any pipe organ is the character of its sound that goes BREEP instead of WOOOOO and which produces a noise combining both the lion and the bell.
I dislike those soft muted organ works that sound as if 14 sparrows are playing fiddles at the bottom of a pond. A certain growling, a certain brilliance just this side of sharp dissonance, is the essential voice of the instrument.
Organists require variety, of course, and understandably they need to show the difficult techniques they have mastered. If water is the standard drink, so to speak, they of course like to try milk and honey and wine and bourbon as well; so I never hold it against a musician if he ventures into byways that expand the usual strengths of his instrument.
But for me, at least, the big Bach prelude and fugue in F Major is what the organ was built to do, and I would guess that anybody who hears this from a skilled organist using the full organ, and who does not die on the spot, as it were, or get born again two or three times, probably will never like the pipe organ and really should settle for the banjo or the guitar or any of those inconsequential nice little inventions to while away time.
The pipe organ, on the other hand, was dreamed up for angels and archangels. It is not very domestic. It is imperial. It knows virtually nothing about the current price of radishes, as you might say, or the little daily rebuffs and triumphs of the American office worker. It was concocted on a more tremendous scale, to express more stupendous pains and joys than we are used to. I have often thought that Heaven was redesigned a better and more ample way, once God heard His first great baroque pipe organ. Unless, as some say, He invented it to announce to mortal ears (for our range of hearing falls in a quite limited range of sounds) the world's first morning.