Bells, Smells and Organ Swells

Each of the 6 children in our family learned the piano and each of us, with differing degrees of success, spent some time as or in support of the Parish Organist. Prior to the Second Vatican Council ( mid 1960’s ) music at Mass was not the usual thing. It was only after changes to the Liturgy as a result of Vatican II, and the arrival of the Living Parish Hymnal that community hymn singing took on the pedestrian format of singing every time someone walked. Entrance procession – stand up and sing. Offertory procession, sit down and sing. Communion queues, dawdle to the altar and sing. End of Mass, stand up and sing.

Prior to Vatican II, community singing was not such a big thing. The Mass was in Latin with little involvement from the congregation. Father stood with his back to the congregation, there were “fences” (communion rails) that marked the beginning of the sanctuary and some of them had gates! The only time English was heard was when the notices were read or during the sermon. Occasionally the solemnity of the feast would require a “High Mass” during which Mass Parts would be sung. This would bring the choir into action. At Christmas time, Holy Week, Easter, Ordinations, Funerals of priests and religious the singing would be done by the well rehearsed choir – usually in Gregorian Chant.

Generally, there would be music at weddings more often than not by a soloist and usually in Latin – Ave Maria (Schubert version preferred to Gounod’s because of something in his translation which cast aspersions on Mary ever Virgin. No reference at all to his stealing of Bach’s Prelude in C major), Panis Angelicus, O Perfect Love. Not even a hint of anything secular!

However, twice a week in the parish I grew up in grew up in, we attended Benediction. It was held on Thursday and Sunday evenings and it was where new organists in the family were broken in! There was a set playlist – it never varied.  O Salutaris Hostia, Tatum Ergo, “O Sacrament most Holy” and Adoremus in aeternum. (I’m not sure about the Latin spelling. Apologies to anyone who is offended!) We had the Benediction Manuscript at home which contained a hand written copy of each of the above. It was a good gig to be broken in on because it was usually attended by less that 50 people so making a mistake was not widely broadcast – much!

The organ was not an organ, it was a harmonium, much less ornate than the one pictured above but with the added 20th century technology of an electric motor.It was housed in the “choir gallery” which was located at the very back of the church. Access to the gallery was via three steps – hardly constituting a Choir Loft! There were a few pews for singers who might turn up for benediction and the “Choir” who were installed for the special occasions!

The “organ” was a beast to be tamed. The electric organ was very noisy and had to be turned off between “numbers”.When it was turned on again it made a sort of swishing noise like an industrial vacuum cleaner. A correct combination of stops was written somewhere in the Bendiction Manuscript and the volume was sort of controlled by the swells. In the picture above, these are the two timber things sticking out at sort of knee level below the keyboard.The organ stool sloped forward for reasons I could never fathom as a 9 year old. It meant that if you had difficulty with the swells as you tried to separate them with your knees and bring them back in, there was a strong risk you could overbalance, backwards or forwards and end up on your bum on the floorboards.

The most challenging requirement was the “solo” at the elevation of the  monstrance. The monstrance was a beautiful receptacle into which was place the consecrated Host. The Body of Christ no less. At the high point of the ceremony, the priest, clothed in a most beautiful cape, and wrapped in an extra glorious giant kind of stole – the name of which I have forgotten – lifted up the monstrance, turned to face the congregation and blessed those present. Meanwhile, the big gig for the organist was happening.

Prior to the mounting of the stairs to the altar by the priest, the organ would be switched off and all stops pushed in and one new one pulled out. I wish I could remember its name but I can’t. The poor organist would then begin to pump the bellows – those big flat things at the bottom of the  picture above. Air would swoosh swoosh in in time to the organists feet.The use of the swells was necessary but fraught with lethal possibility! Imagine if you can, pumping your legs like a bat out of hell, while spreading your knees on a highly polished wooden stool that sloped forward!

The other thing that had to be remembered was to play the entire “O SacramentMost Holy”one octave lower than it was written on the music having pulled out the correct stop which transposed the music up two octaves and added a sort of heavenly choirs of angels tremolo special effect! This stop did not work below middle C. In fact, should you happen to cross over middle C it had the reverse effect and every note played should as if it was lower than the ninth gate of hell shattering the special effect of the ethereal sounds as the monstrance was raised! I only did it once! That was more than enough!

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