Solemnity meets humour

Church organist pulls out all the stops to have fun. Photo by Fotolumina
Church organist pulls out all the stops to have fun. Photo by Fotolumina
Published June 6, 2013

They play the mightiest of instruments in the most solemn ofsettings, but they’re not above having a little fun. Listen carefullyand you may discern a bar or two of a nursery song or sea shanty in thehymns played by your church organist.

According to David Drinkell, master of the music at the AnglicanCathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, Nfld., organists havelong been known to sneak secular fare into the hymnal lineup.

“Not many people know that ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ fits almostexactly as a descant over ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save.’ And not manyhave noticed that the second half of the tune of ‘Nativity’ isidentical to that of ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,'” says British-bornDrinkell.

“Organists sometimes succumb to the temptation to weave secularmelodies into their performances. In this, they are following hallowedprecedent,” he adds. Renaissance composers often used such melodies asthe basis of mass settings. The English folksong “O Westron Wynde” waspopular as a mass template and so was the French song “L’homme armé.”

Stephen Mallinger, organist and choirmaster at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Sault Ste. Marie,Ont., admits that he has occasionally slipped the melody of “OldMacDonald Had a Farm” into an accommodating hymn-to the notice ofvirtually no one!

But larger interpolations can bring trouble. One of Drinkell’spredecessors at Belfast Cathedral was sacked from his previous post at aRoman Catholic church for playing the Orangeman’s song “The BoyneWater” during Sunday mass.

Drinkell himself was once persuaded by the organist of the RCcathedral in Armagh to play the Orangeman ballad “The Sash My FatherWore” on the carillon. “I atoned for it a few days later by playing’Immaculate Mary, Thy Glories We Sing’ as they brought up the colours atan Orange service in Carrickfergus Parish Church.”

Drinkell says organists can use their discretion to their ownadvantage. One man auditioning for a job with a Presbyterian church wasasked to improvise something while the collection was being brought upto the front. “The minister had just made a plea for funds to repair thechurch roof and asked that all those who would pledge $50 stand. Theorganist played ‘O Canada.’ He got the job!”

Weddings and funerals stand out in many an organist’s mind. “Somecouples ask for unusual music. Last year, one bride and groom who weresci-fi enthusiasts were played out to the ‘Widor Toccata’ on top and themain theme from Star Wars on the pedals,” says Drinkell. And one bridemarched up the aisle to the theme song from Chariots of Fire.

Once, at the funeral of a Belfast city dignitary, Drinkell obliged the widow but surprised the guests by playing two popular songs from the couple’s long-ago courting days: “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

And organists often go their own route. According to a recent onlinesurvey by Christian Research, a U.K. Christian-resources consultinggroup (, more than 50 per cent of respondentsreported noticing “tune smuggling” by a church organist.

One master of the pipes, playing at the funeral of a man known tohave been a big drinker, reportedly got the sack for sneaking in hisrendition of “The Beer Barrel Polka.” And one organist inScotland who had bad relations with some of the church elders wreakedhis revenge as they processed by playing “Send in the Clowns.”

The poll also reported numerous instances of irreverent organists whosmuggled in tunes ranging from “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” on awet-weather day to Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” during the offertory.

Dr. Giles Bryant, former choirmaster at the Cathedral Church of St.James in Toronto and now director of music at All Saints’ inPeterborough, Ont., recalls nipping out during the sermon for a pint atthe adjoining pub when he sang in the choir at St. James, Spanish Place,in London.

He also recalls moments “when a cold black hand gripped your heart,”such as when, at an overcrowded service at St. James’, the processingchoir boys who had been told to follow the crucifer to their assignedposts at all costs, followed him out the door.

And at weddings where the bride was fashionably late, Bryant recallsplaying a version of “Adeste Fideles” that is usually accompanied by thewords: “Why are we waiting?”

During the communion he has occasionally “improvised on ‘HappyBirthday to You,’ cleaned up for church use, if you know what I mean.”Once at St. James’ he was rewarded with a beatific smile from a monk inhis 70s whose birthday it was.

And while he has never used his organist’s prerogative to get back atmembers of the clergy, he has come in hard and fast toward the end oflong homilies. “I’ve never cut a priest off, but at the end of aparticularly lengthy and boring sermon there’s a way you can come inwith the next hymn that tells the whole congregation, ‘Thank God that’sit’s over.’ ”

Bryant doesn’t recall getting any requests for pop songs at weddings,but funerals are a different matter. “The worst case was a funeralwhere the family wanted the body to be taken from the church to theorgan playing ‘I Did It My Way.’ ” With due respect to Frank Sinatra, Bryant politely refused and told them to get a tape.



  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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