A Brief History of the Pipe Organ and Church, by Jesse Ratcliff
The most attention-grabbing object in the church, aside from stained glass windows is the pipe organ. With its commanding appearance and rapturous tone, it’s difficult to ignore. In worship, its primary job is to lead hymns and accompany the choir. The prelude, on the other hand, though not integral to the service, is sometimes the most overlooked role of the organ.
The history of the prelude is extensive, but has always held an important role in regards to worship. In the Baroque era, (1600-1750) Bach utilized the prelude as a means of conveying a chorale/hymn melody to the congregation. He utilized numerous compositional tools to enhance the chorale text.
In England, during the same time period, the organist would provide improvised music, known as “Voluntaries” during the liturgy. Voluntaries were utilized to signal the beginning of worship, provide moments of reflection during the Eucharist, and carry the vitality of the Gospel forward. These pieces were later written down and published.
Late nineteenth and early twentieth century composers used the prelude as a means to convey mystical themes, The Mystery of the Sacrament, or Priere (French for “Prayer”) or painting biblical themes, The Shepherd and His Flock or The Upper Room. Later twentieth century and post-modern composers used the prelude in manner of breaking compositional forms in a parallel to social revolutions.
Regardless of the musical idea or period, the prelude is the organist’s means of conveying the spirit of that particular liturgy. Trained organists dedicate hours each week of not only practicing the prelude, but ensuring the piece of organ literature is appropriate. The organ at Saint James’ is capable of playing multiple styles of organ literature as well as successfully accompanying hymns and choral anthems. I hope that this instrument as well as the literature chosen for each liturgy opens your heart and mind for worship.