Secular or Sacred: Selected Popular Elements in Organ Music: Part I

Article excerpt


After a primarily secular beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity,1 "the organ came to be almost exclusively a church instrument from about 900 to about 1200"2 in Europe. The perception of the organ as a predominantly sacred instrument (still prevailing in our time) has had considerable implications on the organ's position in the musical world, especially after the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Reformers in both camps insisted on "the separation between the sacred and the profane,"3 "demanding a learned clergy" and emphasising "the dignity of priesthood."4

Complaints (or recommendations) from the clergy, nobles, and musicians about (in)appropriate music performed on the organ prove that this movement influenced the arts as well, having a lasting impact on the organ's repertoire: In 1597, the Wittenberg theological faculty recommended that the organ should be played in a genuine Protestant manner and that organists should avoid secular music.5 About 150 years later, Bouillod de Mermet complained that

the organ presents us with battle and hunting pieces, sonatas, theater music. It used to be a grave and majestic instrument with a rich and varied harmony. Today it sounds either like a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy, and the organist seems to take pride in imitating the most vulgar instruments, the most rustic songs.6

And finally, in 1834, Franz Liszt lamented the "miserable organist" who was misusing the "holy father of instruments" for "Vaudeville-songs, even Gallopades" and "variations on 'di piacer mi balza il cor' or Fra Diavolo."7

Three points emerge: First, these critiques focus on the secular character of the music (and the resulting inappropriate sound of the instrument); second, the secular is related to the popular (vulgar, rustic, popular instruments, songs . . .); third, the similar nature of the complaints/recommendations in the course of 250 years prove both the continuous efforts to eliminate popular elements from music in church, as well as the organists' refusal to oblige the reformers.

Why were popular elements used in organ music? Did the performance of secular elements in church render them sacred and vice versa? Or did such usage change the perception of the instrument and its venue?

This essay cannot provide a comprehensive study of this topic, but rather it illuminates certain developments. I will focus on three popular elements in organ music - the pastorale/tempest, the noël, and the chorale - within the time frame of roughly 1750 to 1850. Major political, social, and aesthetic changes reshaped Europe's cultural landscape during this period, and popular culture became a topic for scientific research.8 The repercussions of these events are clearly detected in organ music: the tempest made its controversial entry within the frame of the pastorale, until then primarily connected with a sacred context; the noël, typically performed in the Messe de Minuit, appeared in secular settings as well; and the chorale, omnipresent in sacred organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries, started being employed outside the boundaries of the church. My study of these three elements within this period will provide a representative overview of significant developments in the usage and reception of popular elements in organ music.


Pastorale and Tempest

Compositions based on the pastoral tradition have been written for various audiences and purposes, one of them being religious. References to or values connected with shepherds are numerous in the Bible,9 justifying the usage of pastoral elements within a sacred context. Examples for the genre of the pastorale include J. S. Bach's Hirtenmusik Christmas Oratorio), G.F. Handel's Pifa [Messiah], and organ compositions by Pasquini, Rathgeber, Zipoli, and Bach [Pastorella, BWV 590).

Typical of these compositions is a vocabulary of instrumental elements (probably originating in Italy) such as Sicilian rhythm, triple time, drone accompaniments, simple harmonies (Ex. …