The Pipe vs. Electric/Digital Church Organ Debate: Which Musically Wins? (Part 1/2)
Step into a beautiful, big church with a style reminiscent of old ones of Europe. You are going to a Sunday service of your suited denomination, be it a High Mass at your Romanesque-revival Catholic parish or a Gothic-style Episcopal church. Somewhere inside the sanctuary, you will find a pipe organ with either pipes gleaming in the chained lanterns' lights or with ones painted in beautiful colors.
In some parishes or non-Catholic churches, the service starts with a warm, welcoming prelude that sets the mood of the upcoming service. Then, the organ thunders into the processional hymn (mostly a traditional one, like "We Gather Together"), with the choir in the loft singing in harmony.
Now go to a more modern church (think mega-church parish) and chances are that you'll sing hymns to an electric (or digital) organ, sometimes accompanied or supplanted by a praise band with guitars, drums, and other electronic keyboards. (Sometimes, an acoustic piano is either part of the ensemble or a leader in congregational singing.)
The musical war between churches who favor either pipe or electric/digital church organ prototypes rage on. Usually the traditionalists prefer entirely pipe ones while the more modern ones lean toward the completely plugged-in (as in electric) ones. But why do the churches around the world quarrel over the two sacred music accompanists?
Let's take a look at their histories.
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I highly recommend that you watch this documentary - it provides you some interesting facts about the organ in four parts as well as some wit from the presenter!
When the Pipe Organ Started Singing In Chruch
The role of organs in churches started in the pipe organ's history. In the Middle Ages, leather bags replaced the water pumps and other devices in the old hydraulis, and hand-operated bellows were introduced in the middle of the tenth century. Around that time, all (primarily) Catholic church service music was acappella, which was problematic when bigger churches were erected all over Europe. That type of music made congregations hard to manage in terms of singing.
Someone introduced the organ into a chapel of a monastery to aid them in its brothers' singing. It was loud and wheezy, and its keys of its manual (keyboard) were very large for human fingers. The concept of having a stentorian instrument that helped them stay together worked, thus the wheezy keyboard instrument made its way into churches.
The First Commercial Pipeless Church Organs Came Into Smaller Sanctuaries
During the western expansion in the United States in the 19th century, the churches (regardless of denomination) started out small. Then came the dilemma of musical accompaniment - pipe organs proved to be too costly or too big for their liking. If they opted for pianos, chances are that they would arrive broken because they were too bulky.
Thus, the reed organs that were introduced in America from France came into their sanctuaries to lead the small congregations. As with its predecessor the regal, bellows blow air into select reeds dependent on depressed keys of a manual. They were cheaper and were temperature-tolerant, making them suitable for churches in tropical areas overseas.
In the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers rolled out various types of reed organs. One of them was the folding harmonium. They looked like large suitcases when folded, but when unfolded they were one-manual, foot pumped instruments with little to no stops. Army chaplains and traveling priests, to name but a few, lead congregational singing with the instrument. This practice (as well as other uses of reed organs) ended as the Second World War ended.
The First Electric Organs Came to Church
Inspired by the Tellharmonium, which manually piped muzak into telephones, Laurens Hammond created something economical to help churches find ways to accompany congregations and choirs in the 1930s. In his creation, tonewheels produce electric signals to have sounds in varying frequencies come out of amplifiers by exciting transducers. His keyboard concoction, the Hammond organ, used a lone expression pedal to alter dynamics.
One of the primary goals of the Hammond organs was to sell to concert halls and churches as portable, affordable alternatives to pipe organs. For the latter, many denominational parishes purchased them to lead their congregations in song.
The first true electronic church organ came about in 1939, with Jerome Markowitz of the Allen Organ Company as the inventor. He also enhanced smaller pipe organs with electric pedal tones, thus creating the first hybrid organ.
When the The Organ Controversy Began: The Digitals and Praise Bands
In 1971, the Allen Organ Company rolled out its Allen Digital Computer Organ, which became among the first electronic organs to closely imitate their wind-driven, pipe counterparts. The invention excited some congregations seeking to find an alternative to a costly and space-taking pipe organ that sounded close enough to sounding like one.
But as the digital organ's popularity increased, controversy flowered as early as the 80's. Women, who comprised a bulk of organists, worked more in other jobs, thus decreasing their numbers. Also, less people took formal organ lessons as the times changed. The decline of organists increased not only the popularity of electric and digital organs but the popularity of praise bands (folk or rock-based) since the 1960s.
That worried many parishes, denominations, and organ focus groups like the American Guild of Organists. Another factor, some denominations (especially Catholic parishes) argue, is the changing style of congregational music. They placed the blames towards the pipe organ's decline on hymn-writers of the change of musical pace such as Marty Haugen, David Haas, and the St. Louis Jesuits. The rise of more portable synthesizers (including electronic keyboards) contributed to the controversy.
Throughout the course of history with the organ playing the role as leader in hymn-singing, denominations debate on which types of the instruments suit their services. Some of them say that the pipe organ historically leads the singing parishioners whereas some others say that the digital or electric counterpart does so likewise at an affordable price. But the question remains: which instrument is rightfully germane for church service music?
The series continues on Part 2.