Pipe organs have been part of the fabric of church buildings for centuries. The early pre-Civil War organs of the UK were modest in comparison to today’s instruments but contemporary accounts reveal how moved congregations were at these sustained sounds ringing through the church building. What is it that produces such a feel of awe and presence when listening to the sound of a pipe organ?
Recently, science has suggested that lower frequency sound, produced by larger pipes, actually affects and stimulates human feelings of sorrow, awe, spiritual sensation and even shivers down the spine. As John Milton experienced in Il Penseroso, written as early as 1645
"There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voiced quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear
As may, with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes"
Perhaps it is the capacity for restraint that moves us most; the timorous sounding Vox Humana that hardly moves the air, but penetrates an entire building. Could it be the soft sparkle of an organ stop on the Choir manual, the cutting quality of a clarion or trumpet or the sound of a massive pedal pipe measuring almost ten metres in length that blasts a building to the core?
We know how often God’s presence is represented in terms of breath, wind and sound: His creative force across the waters, the still small voice, the breath of life and the spirit (or ruach :Heb.) of God. We feel, in the sound of the organ, the reverberation of air moved by great forces and it cannot fail to raise a sense of awe; a power at times restrained and then unleashed.
Ken George, Director of Music Ministry