October 9, 2022 Essay: The N.P. Mander Organ at 30

Oct 3, 2022

The second verse in the Bible says that the Spirit of God moved over the waters. Several verses later, God breathes into clay, giving life and breath to Adam. Throughout scripture, the Spirit of God manifests not as an otherworldly, incomprehensible phenomenon, but in a form recognizable by any human: fire; a dove; a still, small voice; a breath. It is the breath—a mere movement of air—that is the most subtle of these forms.

In the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew scripture, the tetragrammaton YHWH appears repeatedly, and it is consensus among biblical scholars that YHWH is a derivative of the verb “to be”, or any number of variations such as “that which becomes” or “that which calls into existence”. If God can be said to have a name, this is it. And if it is to be pronounced, it sounds like the cycle of inhalation and exhalation. A breath. To pursue the metaphor a bit further, one could say that with every breath, each living creature speaks the name of God.

What does this have to do with our beloved Mander pipe organ?

What is sound, but the audible movement of air, manifesting endless variations of pitch, timbre, and rhythm? With the pipe organ—as with every wind instrument—it is a literal movement of air that initiates the sound, and I can’t help but think that in our hearing of this phenomenon, our subconscious begins to perceive those aspects of being that elude our senses and rational mind. Some people call this the Spirit of God; others choose not to name it. To me, that is a semantic exercise. The point is that we had an experience that brought us into contact with something profound, subtle, quiet, and constant.

Profound, subtle, constant…these are apt descriptors for any exquisitely crafted pipe organ. As for “quiet”, a great pipe organ has enormous dynamic range, from thundering majesty to the still, small, voice. For three decades, our Mander organ has—if you will permit the metaphor—spoken the Name of God to us, with us, and on our behalf. Sometimes the Name takes on a joyful, exuberant hue, such as at weddings and our highest celebrations of the church year. At other times, we seek comfort in the midst of great sadness and uncertainty, and it is then that the Name speaks of a tender and constant grace. The Mander has been a steady companion on our collective spiritual journey—sometimes leading boldly, sometimes lending gentle support.

This year we mark not just the Mander’s 30th birthday, but the birthdays of two composers whose work has profoundly impacted church music and how we worship. Wednesday, October 12th, is the 150th birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who didn’t write a lot of organ music but left us many choral works that have become beloved staples of the repertoire. Legendary British organist David Briggs brings his extraordinary gifts to us on that very night at 7 PM, as he performs his own transcription of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony.

A few days later, on Wednesday and Thursday, October 26th and 27th, the great American virtuoso Scott Dettra will play the complete major works of César Franck (1822-1890) in two recitals, both beginning at 7 PM. Franck, whose 200th birthday is on December 10th, was born in Belgium and spent the bulk of his career in France, exercising lasting influence over the arts of organ building, playing, composition, and improvisation.

Even if you’ve never considered yourself a fan of the pipe organ, I heartily encourage you to join us for these celebrations. These sounds, this speaking of the Name, will move you and might even change your life.

Tickets are available at ignatius.nyc/concerts. I hope to see you there!

— K. Scott Warren, Director of Music Ministries