Post-Compline organ music

Flentrop Organ at St. Mark's

Program for the dedication of the Flentrop Organ, September, 1965, with Flentrop’s autograph.

Last Sunday night after the Compline Service, a young organist gave a solo recital on the “mighty Flentrop”, the big pipe organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle.  It’s not too unusual to have a guest organist, but an unusual thing happened at the end that inspired me to write about organ music this week.

Informal organ recitals have taken place immediately after Compline since 1965, when the organ, built by D. A. Flentrop in Zaandam, Holland, was installed.  The Flentrop was one of the first neo-Baroque or mechanical-action instruments installed in Seattle, and one of the largest of its kind in North America.  It made St. Mark’s almost immediately a mecca, a pilgrimage destination, for every organist in the country. Peter Hallock, organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s from 1951-1991, and founder/director of the Compline Choir, made the organ loft available to anyone who wanted to play after Compline.  A crowd of us would climb the stairs and listen while Bill Giddings, a member of the Compline Choir, would either play the organ himself or facilitate the playing of others.  I’m sure that this after-Compline event brought more people to the service itself, leading to the growth of attendees by 1967 to between 400-600 people, mostly teenagers and young adults.  Bill, now a retired chemistry professor, still takes his place at the organ most Sunday nights, and many people hike up the stairs to get a closer look and listen to the magnificent instrument.  To give you an idea of what it’s like up in the loft, here’s a video of St. Mark’s organist Mel Butler giving an organ demo after church.

Last Sunday was the night before Presidents’ Day, and we had an extra-heavy attendance of young people at Compline.  The organist, Kyle Kirschenman, was himself only a junior in high school [update 2012: now beginning organ performance studies at the University of Washington in Seattle].  He reminded me of so many young organists, who over the years have made their pilgrimage to the Flentrop.  One of those prominent in the organ “free-for-alls” back in the late 1960s was the then 16-year-old Roger Sherman, who now heads Gothic Records, a national source of organ and choral music.  In 1993 he started the radio program The Organ Loft, which in Seattle follows the Compline Service on Classic KING-FM; The Organ Loft has both organ and choral music, and it’s the next best thing (and in some ways better!) to being at St. Mark’s in person after Compline.  Another young person I remember was Bruce Neswick, who sang with the Compline Choir while in college, and is now the organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City [update 2012: he’s now associate professor of music (organ) at Indiana University] .

I have always sensed intuitively a link between music and spirituality, but could never until recently articulate the similarity between a concert and a worship experience.  I have come, mainly through being a Benedictine oblate, to see that deep listening is the same as meditation, and that the process of focusing one’s attention on music in either performance or listening is no different than a Zen monk focusing on the qualities of a moss-covered rock.  Many of the young people that come to Compline refer to it as a “concert”, and I don’t have a problem with that.  The divine office is a concert for deep listening — and afterward, organ music provides additional opportunities for mindfulness.

Taking a larger view of musical beauty, all forms of creation, whether they be meant for deep reflection, or simply for enjoyment, have that divine creative spark.  Spirituality has been defined as “a stance toward life [where] more and more everything cries out ‘God’ for us” (John Gorsuch, An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey, 1990).  Spirituality allows us to process the experience of sound as communion with the Divine, through our own individual discrimination-process (called “taste”), which takes in the qualities of the particular work, the intent of the performance, memories of past hearings, and the special circumstances of the moment.  The qualities of a piece of music can vary from those requiring deep listening to those that are simply entertaining, full of playfulness and joy.

We experienced both kinds of beauty with Kyle’s recital last Sunday.  After his program, which included an arrangement of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings“, the people gave him a round of applause. He then launched into an arrangement of “Be Our Guest”, from the 1991 Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast”.  Many of the young people in the audience knew the lyrics, and sang along — I even saw several young women dancing on the labyrinth in one corner in sheer abandon. I smiled with recognition, at my own youthful excitement during the organ “free-for-alls” of the ’60s.  But I believe that this spontaneous sing-along was a first for these after-Compline concerts!

Not being familiar enough with the lyrics (even though I bought a copy of the film for my kids when it came out) I looked up “Be Our Guest”.  The final chorus really says it all about the kind of Benedictine hospitality that we have been offering at Compline since 1956:

Be our guest! Be our guest!
Our command is your request
It’s been years since we’ve had anybody here
And we’re obsessed
With your meal, with your ease
Yes, indeed, we aim to please
While the candlelight’s still glowing
Let us help you, We’ll keep going
Course by course, one by one
‘Til you shout, “Enough! I’m done!”
Then we’ll sing you off to sleep as you digest
Tonight you’ll prop your feet up
But for now, let’s eat up
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Please, be our guest!

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  1. #1 by Roger Sherman on February 26, 2011 - 5:41 pm

    Nicely written, Ken. There were many talented young musicians that played after Compline and who have gone on to glory…with many thanks for the assistance of Bill Giddings. I can remember the first time I got to play (Hallock said “yes”! and I ran to the loft where Bill ushered me onto the keyboard). Bill’s first word of advice after watching me setup: “You actually don’t need *all* of the stops…”

  2. #2 by Gerard van Wesep on February 28, 2011 - 6:58 am

    Ken, thank you for this post and for all the posts. We’re in Shanghai at the moment, a long way from Seattle and a long way from all I love that is there. It’s good to be reminded, amidst all that is so other here, of that which endures for me in my home with my family and you and Roger and Peter and all those people I hold dear.

  3. #3 by jefe on March 2, 2011 - 4:44 pm

    A belated thanks for this entry. Deep and far ranging. There are a lot of ghosts swirling around at St. Marks. We’re up to our waists in snow at the moment, with all the attendant outages and snow blowing. I’m still sorry I wasted six decades not living in Seattle and not singing in the mighty Compline Choir.
    regards, as always, jefe
    in manus tuas, Domine commendo spiritum meum+

  4. #4 by Ken Peterson on March 30, 2011 - 2:47 pm

    Peter Hallock recently reminded me that in the early days of the Flentrop, he stayed after Compline as the official “organist wrangler”. At the time he was living just down the street in an attic apartment in Diocesan House (the Leary mansion). When he moved to Cougar Mountain, about 20 miles away from Seattle, he asked Bill Giddings to moderate, which he has been doing ever since.

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