Church music: an unlikely global social network

Photo Credit: Hans-Jörg Gemeinholzer

During my recent time in Northern Europe, I had the opportunity to see dozens of wonderful sacred spaces.  Towers protruding from the landscape, these buildings are often imposing on the outside, and remarkably beautiful on the inside.   As a Christian, sitting in these amazing buildings is both awe-inspiring and uplifting.  As an organist-nerd, I am often transfixed at the amazing instruments (plural in many cases!) that are in these churches.  Take the gilded “old” organ in the German Church in Stockholm (pictured) – I challenge any organist to not get itchy fingers looking at this marvellous instrument!

Given the complexity, fragility and dedicated craftsmanship of these impressive instruments, it comes as little surprise that it is difficult to gain access to their consoles.  In fact, many of the churches I visited offered tours, tower climbs and even organ recitals – but never the opportunity to see the organ up close.  At some places (including the German Church above) I asked a church delegate whether it would be possible to view the console.  The usual response was either “no”, or “I don’t know what our organist would say about that”.

I was to be based in Copenhagen for six weeks whilst studying, and I realised before my trip that I should try to find a church in which to practise while I was away.  I emailed three church organists at large churches close to my residence, asking them whether it would be possible to either have lessons with them whilst overseas, or at least to have some practise time at their church.  I received responses from all three, and offers for both lessons and practise time from two of them.  I accepted the offer from the first respondent, and arranged a time to meet for coffee once I’d arrived.

Babett was organist at Grundtvigs Kirke in Copenhagen (pictured), a church about the same size as the city’s cathedral, and with a stunning four manual Marcussen and Son organ.  Not only did Babett make herself available for lessons, but she also gave me my own key to the organ loft so I could come and go as I pleased! She also made sure I was up to speed with the organ recitals that were happening around town while I was there.  She accompanied me to a recital at the cathedral, and insisted that we join the recitalist upstairs for a glass of wine after the concert.  She introduced me to the recitalist (director of music at another city church), the cathedral’s director of music, and to the console of the cathedral organ.

A couple of weeks later, Brisbane’s own Christopher Wrench gave a recital in one of the city churches.  I met up with Christopher after the concert, and he introduced me to the church’s organist, who was only too pleased to show us around the church, including its Carillon.  We then shared a lovely meal at a local restaurant and traded musical war stories.

It’s suffice to say from the experiences above that I felt well and truly immersed in the church music culture of Copenhagen.  As someone living in a foreign city with only the few friends I’d met at university, it was amazing to feel so “at home” in the church music community so far from Australia.    The act of sharing an art form transcends countries, generations and church hierarchies.  It would seem that “what the organist does say” is quite different from what the church curators imply.  Behind the ornate organ cases and locked organ consoles are organists who are friendly, engaging and willing to welcome you into their church music community – all you have to do is reach out to them, and common interests takes care of the rest.

Adam Hoey is the Chairman of the Queensland Branch of the Royal School of Church Music.