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Solemnity meets humour

By Diana Swift on June, 06 2013

Church organist pulls out all the stops to have fun. Photo by Fotolumina

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

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

“Not many people know that ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ fits almost exactly as a descant over ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save.’ And not many have noticed that the second half of the tune of ‘Nativity’ is identical to that of ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,’” says British-born Drinkell.

“Organists sometimes succumb to the temptation to weave secular melodies into their performances. In this, they are following hallowed precedent,” he adds. Renaissance composers often used such melodies as the basis of mass settings. The English folksong “O Westron Wynde” was popular 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 “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” into an accommodating hymn—to the notice of virtually no one!

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

Drinkell himself was once persuaded by the organist of the RC cathedral in Armagh to play the Orangeman ballad “The Sash My Father Wore” 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 at an Orange service in Carrickfergus Parish Church.”

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

Weddings and funerals stand out in many an organist’s mind. “Some couples ask for unusual music. Last year, one bride and groom who were sci-fi enthusiasts were played out to the ‘Widor Toccata’ on top and the main theme from Star Wars on the pedals,” says Drinkell. And one bride marched 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 online survey by Christian Research, a U.K. Christian-resources consulting group (, more than 50 per cent of respondents reported noticing “tune smuggling” by a church organist.

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

The poll also reported numerous instances of irreverent organists who smuggled in tunes ranging from “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” on a wet-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’ in Peterborough, Ont., recalls nipping out during the sermon for a pint at the 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 processing choir boys who had been told to follow the crucifer to their assigned posts at all costs, followed him out the door.

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

During the communion he has occasionally “improvised on ‘Happy Birthday 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 in his 70s whose birthday it was.

And while he has never used his organist’s prerogative to get back at members of the clergy, he has come in hard and fast toward the end of long homilies. “I’ve never cut a priest off, but at the end of a particularly lengthy and boring sermon there’s a way you can come in with the next hymn that tells the whole congregation, ‘Thank God that’s it’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 funeral where the family wanted the body to be taken from the church to the organ playing ‘I Did It My Way.’ ” With due respect to Frank Sinatra, Bryant politely refused and told them to get a tape.

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By Diana Swift| June, 06 2013
Categories:  National News

About the Author

Diana Swift

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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