Thursday, July 31, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
Dr. Simmons’ organ music not for sissies
This is the time of year when I run small electric fans to cool me while leading worship in the Kirk. I am a hot-natured person and like to have the church cool. However, I know that if it is cool enough for me, the ladies of the congregation are freezing. So I make use of the fans. I even have a nice antique fan that blends right in with the historic architecture of our old church. My mother purchased it when she went to summer school at the University of Wisconsin and found they had no air-conditioning or even fans in the dormitory, as “it really did not get hot up there.” Mama says it was over 100 degrees every day of that summer session!
When I lived in Chicago, I learned for myself about the northern propensity to think “it really does not get hot up there.” Our church, which prided itself on superiority to all things it fancied as “Southern,” was not air-conditioned. Well, actually the side chapel was, and that’s where we had the evening service in the summer, and as most people’s apartments and homes were not air-conditioned either, the air-conditioning in the chapel was a boon to summer attendance. But in the mornings we soldiered on in the old stone sanctuary which had only the tiniest openings in the stained glass windows and could be hotter than an oven.
Now our organist Dr. Simmons believed that the humidity of August affected the works of the pipe organ so that it emitted its richest sounds at that season. He was so convinced of this that he delayed his vacation so as to play on those hot Sundays. Dr. Simmons, although a very dignified and restrained musician, was given to a certain “theatrical” quality in playing, as he modulated from the prelude to the Doxology which traditionally opened the service. He would improvise and build until a great crescendo was reached, usually with the trumpet stop at the rear of the church blaring full-force across the great congregation. It was thrilling, especially for small town boys like me who had never heard such music before in church. It was, after all (and still is) the largest pipe organ in the Mid-West.
My friend Roger was from that part of the world, and regularly attended the symphony and the opera, and was thoroughly unimpressed. We argued regularly about the propriety of beginning the service with such “ruffles and flourishes.”
On the particular Sunday I remember, it was unusually warm, and Walter, the ever-thoughtful church custodian, had placed not one, but two large box fans in the area where the ministers sat, and he had helpfully turned them on “high.” Dr. Simmons, seated a full ten feet above and behind us was playing with full force, completely absorbed in his artistic devotion, with his back to us and the congregation. The selection was Frank Bridge’s Adagio in E Flat Major. Call WKNO on Request Day and ask to hear it, and you will see what I mean. It is not music for sissies.
I was sitting in the chancel and Roger was in the second row of the congregation. As usual Roger was nonplussed by the music, and as usual I was just happy to be there, small town boy from Mississippi that I was and am. I could tell, however, that Roger was exercising his full rights as a Presbyterian to disagree heartily with what the worship leaders were up to.
Musing upon this reality I fell into deep theological contemplation but was aroused from my reverie by my minister-colleague Mr. Donovan, who was seated beside me, gently tapping me on my sleeve.
“Don’t you think this is a bit too much?” he asked.
I was shocked! Roger and Mr. Donovan too! The blood rushed to my face to defend good Dr. Simmons, who was at just that moment reaching the great crashing climax of the prelude. In just a moment he would bring the congregation to its feet singing the Doxology with spine-tingling fervor!
I tentatively pointed up and behind toward the organ bench and weakly whispered, “You mean Dr. Simmons?”
And Mr. Donovan, completely unaware of the disparaging looks Roger and I had been exchanging from the second pew said, “No. I mean those fans!” They were roaring, and in fact, once I paid attention, they seemed as if they were ready to take off!
So each of us quickly reached over and clicked the dial down to a lower level, and the service began with that aura of high dignity with which folks in that congregation believed that God was to be praised.
I often think of those roaring fans and the soaring organ and the magnificent adagio that Frank Bridge composed. They remind me of all the different levels of attention and concern — the holy and the lowly — that are mixed in our lives and in our worship. God must know how complicated our concerns and frailties are, and also smile at our pretensions.
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