Organists, more so than other musicians, are immediately in contact with others when they sit down to play their instruments. In halcyon days past, organists communicated with calcants (bellows pumpers) and assistants. And in France, beginning in the late 19th century, organ lofts were crowded places. A couch and cigar-smoking spectators would not have been out of place (or visible to the worshipping congregation). Today, things are different. Motors have replaced calcants and combination action has largely replaced human assistance at the console. American architecture and rigid puritanism among church leadership has led to the decline of lounge-furniture and tobacco (or other?) smoke near the organ console. The organist of today, however, is still very much in dialogue with the organ builder.
Though he may not be physically present, the organ builder's vision and skill have left a unique instrument on which the organist may perform. The uniqueness of each organ is at once limiting ("Dude, why is there no trumpet on the Great?") and freeing ("Wow! A thunder pedal!"). The organ builder tries to fill a space with sound. It's up to the improviser to fill a space with music.
For the improviser, each organ can either be an inspiration or a challenge. Most organists -- whatever their professed skill in improvisation -- will improvise to some degree when sitting down at an instrument for the first time.
American organ building has littered the country with a collection of organs as diverse in style as they are in quality. I can be really pretentious and drop a lot of names here (like Aeolian Skinner, Austin, Brombaugh, Berghaus, Casavant, Dobson, Fisk, Flentrop, Goulding & Wood, Holtkamp, Hope-Jones, Noack, Roosevelt, Schlicker, Schoenstein, Taylor & Boody, Wicks, Wilhelm, Wolff, ) but I'd rather not do that. Instead, I'd rather take a more post-modern approach.
Though the improviser must relate to a specific instrument with memories of all the other instruments he has known, he ultimately must work with the instrument on its own terms. More than that, the improviser must relate to the instrument as it exists in reality, not in some idealized abstract theoretical vacuum.
It is with this kind of awareness that the improviser must approach the instrument if he is to use it successfully.
Did I really write all this pompous stuff? Geez, who am I, Dupré?
Finnish language tangent: Urkujenpolkija is Finnish for calcant.
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