Church Organist (at Lake Wobegon Lutheran)

For a little “Friday fun” for once in a long time, I share a snippet from Garrison Keillor’s Life Among the Lutherans, a collection of his Lake Wobegon stories involving the Lutherans of his fictional (but often realistic) town. I have been reading a chapter an evening at end of day for a little lighter end to my day.

This part is taken from the chapter “Church Organist” and involves an incident where the Lutheran Church had to find a substitute organist for a Sunday while their regular one tended to his dying father. In typical Keillor style, he injects both humor and serious jabs at some parts of American church life. See if you can catch both in these paragraphs:

Tibby Marklund [Lake Wobegon Lutheran’s regular organist] is an ideal organist. She’s a violinist by training, had a little piano, taught herself to play the organ, can’t play very well and is aware of it. That’s the best organist you could hope for. A one-handed organist would be good, too. A one-handed legless organist even better. The organ is the enemy of worship, as most Christians know. Scripture says, “Be still and know that I am God.” This is not the organist’s philosophy. Organists despise stillness. They’re sitting there with the organ equivalent of a 300 hp Ferrari and they want to put the pedal to the metal and make that baby fly. This dude [the substitute organist] came up from the Cities early Sunday morning – he’d sent up an anthem and a motet for the offertory, sent them up for the choir to rehearse Tuesday night, and they couldn’t make head or tail of it – the motet was in French, for crying out loud, and the anthem was piece of fifteenth-century plainsong with odd little square notes – so instead they practiced “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” for the anthem and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” for the offertory.

He arrived Sunday morning, this pale, thin man with colorless hair and no chin and wire-rimmed glasses, got out of his big boat of a car with an armload of music, came trudging into church, looked at the organ with barely disguised contempt, and heaved a big sigh and settled in to endure the humiliation of subjecting his vast talent to this throng of Philistines. He warmed up for half an hour, with five or six incredibly virtuosic pieces, all of which he knew by heart – it was like the artillery barrage before the invasion, to stun them into submission. For the prelude he chose a big heroic French piece that showed off his footwork. People arriving in church thinking they were coming to meet God found themselves at an organ concert, and the music was not about contrition or humility. It was about triumph.

…The opening hymn was a sort of musical hair shirt, something in  a minor key with weird intervals, and it sounded like there should have been bagpipes, and …it was basically unsingable, so the first verse was the most pitiful sound that can come out of a congregation. It sounded like a fishing village keening for its dead. There were eight verses. He meant the choir to sing all of them. A sort of torture. And he played louder and louder, evidently thinking this would inspire them, but it had the opposite effect. Like most organ playing, it made you lose your interest in music; it made you sit up resolute and brave and try to think back to a happy time in your life and meditate on that, as you do in the dentist’s chair. During the sixth verse, Cindy Hedlund in the alto section leaned over and said to Marilyn Hedlund, “He’s not the organist; he’s the Enforcer.”

Published in: on December 20, 2019 at 10:15 PM  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love it. I am not a fancy organist and had very few lesson’s but love playing for congregational singing and inspiring them to sing out the words of the Psalm to the Glory of God. The organ is to be used as a mighty sound and also to put the congregation in a worshipful mood. In all this our God must be praised.
    Clare kuiper


    • Thanks, Clare, glad you didn’t take offense at this little poke at church organists. We appreciate our organists very much and know that they understand their purpose, whether it be the prelude/postlude or leading the singing. It can be a thankless position, but we hope you know we are blessed by what you do. Soli Deo gloria!


  2. That is hilarious!!

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10



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