For some reason, Matt Domino writes an essay about the pipe organ.
Editor's Note: My latest tilt at windmills has led me to pitch and write pieces to publish in the "Letter of Recommendation" column in the New York Times Magazine. As I fail, I'll post the efforts here.
The realization that you’ve been thinking about pipe organs for most of your life sinks in slowly. It took me 31 years to realize it. But, yet, it happened to me this past Christmas as I was sitting at midnight mass with my family. We were in the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island where I spent many Sundays as a kid, yawning, mumbling through the Nicene Creed, pretending to sing along with hymns, and looking around for girls from my school. At the front of the church, next to the altar, beside the choir, the organist sat earnestly playing “O’ Come All Ye Faithful.”
As the choir and the church constituents sang, my mind, as always, focused on the sound of the organ. Its notes pitched through the open church air, hanging like ice from the side of an exposed stone in a hillside. Sitting in the church, listening to the pipe organ, the well-trod song gained resonance. It felt like it meant something, even if, based on lyrics and historical and religious meaning alone, it didn’t ring true to me at all.
I’m a bad Catholic and have always been one. But the church pipe organ is in my blood. I love its overpowering sound, how it instills whatever musical phrase played on its keys with a newfound poignancy. And I love its sheer shape and size—the seemingly hundreds of keys, those tall, towering silver and gold pipes. As a child, when I’d visit different Long Island churches for various family holidays, I’d always look for the pipe organ at the front (or back) of the church.
The origins of the pipe organ can be traced back to the 3rd century B.C. Its earliest form was known as the hyrdaulis. Widely credited as the invention of Ctesbius of Alexandria, a Greek physicist, the hydraulis was a water organ where air was forced through pipes via the weight of water. The hydraulis was used at outdoor events at the time and known for its “loud and penetrating” sound. By the 2nd century A.D., the water system was modified to include a series of flexible bags, very often made of leather, known as “bellows,” and the bellows organ became the model for the continued innovation of the instrument.
By the Baroque period, organs had become works of art in themselves. Organ builders such as Arp Schnitger of Germany, crafted, ornate complex organs—the pipes draped with gold and framed in wood. Schnitger was also known for his acute and economical business sense. Through cost-efficiency, he was able to replicate his designs so that they could be purchased and installed in smaller towns and villages throughout Germany, further spreading the pipe organ’s presence.
Decades later, in the Romantic period, Mozart proclaimed the organ “the king of instruments.” The average person’s idea of the pipe organ—likely tied in some way to an image of the Phantom of the Opera strewn across its massive keyboard, its pipes extended upward from the subterranean belly of an opera house—more often than not stems from the pipe organs of this period.
Today, the largest pipe organ in the world is located at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Built by the Midmer-Losh Organ company the organ was largely inoperational after damage in the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane. However, after the initial stages of a restoration project by the Historic Organ Restoration Committee, the organ is now estimated to be 10 to 15 percent operational. By 2023, the HORC hopes the landmark organ will be once again fully operational.
The pipe organ provided some of the musical “hits” of my childhood. Songs like “Take and Eat” or “This is the Day the Lord Has Made” were stamped in my mind at a young age, before I gained an appreciation for any kind of popular music. Because of that familiarity, and their association with church, I never thought about them in the way I did any other kind of music.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found those songs, specifically when played on pipe organ, are nothing short of well-crafted melodies. There are times when I am sitting in church at Easter or Christmas—yes, I’m one of those Catholics—and I’ll hear in the hymns strains of The Band, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, or Carole King. This shouldn’t be surprising as gospel music factored heavily into much of the early rock and pop canon. And mammoth acts of the peak rock era like Led Zeppelin (on “Your Time is Gonna Come”) and Prince (on “Let’s Go Crazy”) used both the Hammond organ and synthesizers to mimic both the sound and feel of the pipe organ playing in spacious church or cathedral.
After all these years, for me, the appeal of the pipe organ is obvious: when simple melodies are played on a pipe organ, there is a bluntness, a direct expression of sound filling open space, that brings those links into full focus, at least to my primitive mind. And it serves as a reminder that a good melody can matter more than genre, setting, or spiritual belief. Even if you don’t believe in God, Jesus Christ, or transubstantiation, the pipe organ can make you feel clean and holy—make you feel the way the devoted say faith is supposed to make you feel.
As I sat with my family at midnight mass, listening to “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the organ droned and my eyes fell on a man in the pew in front of us. He was middle-aged, wore a brown tweed coat, and alone. His salt and pepper hair was frayed and moppish. On his face, he wore a grim expression. And I wondered what his pain was, what besides the holiday had brought him to church that night. Where was his family? Where were the people who loved him? In this man, I saw one possible fate for myself—to be middle-aged and alone. Things would have to go horribly wrong for me to end up that way, I thought. But as Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “life is strange and ever changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that barely scuffles the willow.” In other words: anything could happen.
And so at that moment, it didn’t matter that “O Come All Ye Faithful” was playing—all that mattered was the sound of the organ, the hanging sound of a simple melody, and the sight of a fragile, solitary, human being.