Secular or Sacred: Selected Popular Elements in Organ Music

Part I: The American Organist. 45/6 (2012): 56


After a primarily secular beginning in Greek and Roman Antiquity, “the organ came to be almost exclusively a church instrument from about 900 to about 1200” 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,” “demanding a learned clergy” and emphasising “the dignity of priesthood.”

Complaints (or recommendations) from the clergy, nobles and musicians about (in)appropriate music performed on the organ proves 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. About 150 years later, Bouillod de Mermet complained that “the organ presents us with battle and hunting pieces, sonatas, theatre 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.” 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.”

Three points emerge from these examples:

  1. these critiques focus on the secular character of the music (and the resulting inappropriate sound of the instrument);
  2. the secular is related to the popular (vulgar, rustic, popular instruments, songs…);
  3. the similar nature of the complaints/recommendations in the course of 250 years proofs both the continuous efforts to eliminate popular elements from music in church, as well as the organists’ refusal to oblige to 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?

Part I: The American Organist. 45/6 (2012): 56-59.
Part II: The American Organist. 46/7 (2012): 50-53.