“The Organ Portfolio”

Along with the electronic organ I have in my basement came a file box packed with organ music.  The previous owner of this organ, an accompanist for at least forty years at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church, had been a subscriber to Lorenz’s The Organ Portfolio since 1963.  This bi-monthly magazine contains about a dozen organ arrangements for prelude, offertory, and postlude in each issue.  Needless to say, I probably have enough organ music to last me well into my old age.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten a bit more familiar with the contents of this magazine.  Besides the musical entries, each issue usually includes an article on some aspect of organ playing—from technique to humor.  Especially in the earlier volumes, there are so many helpful tips and tidbits that I could probably find an entire college course in organ performance between its pages.

Since Lorenz is by no means a Reformed music company, the selection of The Organ Portfolio is sometimes weak when it comes to the psalms.  However, our organist made painstaking notes on the front pages of many of the arrangements, in which she marked instances of Psalter Hymnal tunes and included directions for adapting the music to our worship services, along with the dates on which she had played each piece.  On one page I found this formidable assortment (click to enlarge):

As you can plainly see, this is quite an extensive set of notes—and I didn’t even include the pencil marks within the score!  I’m so grateful to have not only this valuable set of organ music, but also the heritage and expertise of a seasoned organist at my disposal.  I’m sure it will not go to waste.

“So,” you might ask, “are you recommending that we all purchase subscriptions to The Organ Portfolio now?”  Perhaps not, but I’d still like to at least mention this resource.

After a bit of research on Lorenz’s website, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that the quality of their music has generally waned over the past few decades.  From a glance at the 2011 Organ Portfolio index, one can notice that the publication’s selection of hymn tunes is limited and predictable—“Fairest Lord Jesus,” “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” &c.—while the magazine’s editors are fond of including myriads of virtually unknown pieces from modern organ composers.  (I consider this kind of music undesirable for reasons I explained in a previous post, “The Significance of Service Music.”)

On the other hand, if you’re willing to sort through the reams of music The Organ Portfolio entails, it’s entirely likely you’ll find some gems for preludes, offertories, and postludes.  For instance, you could repurpose “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” as “Jehovah Reigns in Majesty” (Psalm 99) and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” as “Within Thy Temple, Lord” (Psalm 48).  Some of the Bach chorales based on psalms or hymns could serve as exquisite “special occasion” service music.  And regardless of their suitability for corporate worship, all of the selections are excellent practice pieces.

My recommendation, then, is simply this: Check your organ bench or the music storage area at your church for back issues of The Organ Portfolio or some of its sibling publications, The Organist and The Sacred Organ Journal.  If you can find a few, you’ll probably be able to mine some valuable treasure from their depths—especially if they’re older issues.  I close with an excerpt from an essay by L. N. Porter in the April, 1965 issue of The Organ Portfolio, entitled “Feeling Versus Technique.”

Music that the members like and understand may be the right kind, but what feelings does it stir up?  If it is aspiration, exaltation, contemplation, or other such notable attitudes that lend themselves to worship, well and good.  If on the other hand, it is earthly sentiment, physical ease, associations with nonreligious experience, then the music is not fulfilling its function as an inspirer of worship.  Yes, this is a very difficult line to define; no wonder that some of our austere denominations frown on any music with ‘feeling’!…

Technique does have its place, and an important one it is!  If our fingers and feet are not well enough trained in organ technique to play correctly service music such as hymns, anthem accompaniments, and organ solos, we shall make mistakes, we shall fumble, and what will be the result?  We shall make the congregation conscious of the music as an end in itself instead of as a means of leading people to worship.  One might go so far as to say that the best church music is that which the congregation never hears, for it has served to elevate their thoughts to heights above our present level, beyond our senses.  Poor technique, with its inevitable mistakes and slovenly style, will keep the congregation earth-bound.

So, I still urge you to work to improve your technique, for it is when these routines are mastered that we can best fulfill our function as a church organist—the all-important function of leading the congregation to worship.

–MRK

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