Pipe Organs as a Niche Market

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The American Organist Magazine delights us each month as it serves the several thousands of us who, I am told, have to be content with inhabiting a “niche market.” After having paid respects to the pipe-organ and organist niche in the paragraphs ahead, I want to explore the place of “niches” in American religion. The concern is inspired by curiosity about what matters when we talk, as we do in Sightings, about “public religion.”

The son and brother of three teachers who played the organ in worship as part of their call and calling, and someone who haunts sanctuaries when organists are noisily practicing in the quiet of a Saturday afternoon, I have a (literally) life-long passion for the instrument. Twice the American Guild of Organists has indulged that passion by letting me pretend I knew enough about the subject to speak at plenary sessions of their annual conventions. (This year the convention is in Boston, June 23-24)

Now: The writers of the Organist know that their constituency is aging and dwindling — as am I — but still the magazine is always full of signs of vitality. In the February issue, advertisements of organ recitalists include portraits of, on various pages, 24, 36, 12, and nine ready-to-go artists. Needless to say, there are also many pages advertising organ-builders, with examples of their art pictured.

Two times a week we hear programs of organ music on satellite radio, an aural “niche” within a niche. Across the street and down and up the block (again, “literally”) we Martys can hear great organs, and each week we leave our own house of worship with a postlude, which propels us to face the days ahead. So much for organs. My thesis?

Used as we are talking about millions and billions, Super Bowl this and Olympic-sized that, we can be tempted to speak of “religion” as one big thing, and thus something easy to dismiss if any part of it fails us or to fasten on “mega-” this or that, and to miss much of value.

Jews heard that they were an “elect” people, who in their elect status were to sally forth as a “light to the nations.” Christianity was a niche phenomenon within Judaism, and even now, (nominally) two-billion strong, it serves if not best then at least exemplarily, in hospital and hospice rooms, pre-school religious classrooms, local parishes, ventures by collegians in service projects, inner-city agencies among the poor and, yes, at organ recitals where the religious affirmation of beauty gets realized.

That paragraph can be read wrong, which may mean that I did a bad job of elaborating on my thesis-of-the-week. It is not a celebration of smallness for its own sake or elitism of the elect or snobbery about those who do not share a particular niche. Instead, it recognizes, as we historians of religion often note, that value, beauty and service can find expression away from the crowd. At the same time, it uses the niche of the pipe-organ world to show regard for industry and artistry in one of the niches.

So I think of the thousands of hours that go into the building and care of organs, the teaching of students, the practice-times, which seem never to stop. Somewhere else children’s choirs are learning their part in their niche, as they hope to serve people outside it. In the best theological seminary settings, teachers of homiletics keep trying to train new generations of preachers who might become bearers of prophetic words.

All of which brings me back to the organ. If I have faith and I find it weak, I am likely to let the sound of organs, which is not necessarily the choice for everyone, speak and remind me that there are other niches, other voices, and we need each other.

Resources and Additional Reading:

The American Organist Magazine, the official magazine of the American Guild of Organists.

Thistlethwaite, Nicholas and Geoffrey Webber, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Organ. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Blanton, Joseph Edwin. The Organ in Church Design. New York: Venture Press, 1957.

Image: The University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel by Chris Smith / flickr (creative commons).

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at [email protected]