A passion for pipes
71-year-old J. Gordon Christensen touts the sacred power of music
November 5, 2013
J. Gordon Christensen said that only a pipe organ has the power to “proclaim the great victory of the risen Christ.”
Musical notes echo off the walls of the empty sanctuary, crescendoing to fill the cavernous room as late-afternoon sunlight filters softly through the stained glass windows of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Carroll.
A quick trip to the church balcony reveals the organist, 71-year-old J. Gordon Christensen of Council Bluffs. He is practicing his repertoire for a workshop he will lead in Carroll the following day.
Short in stature, his posture is stiff and formal as his hands move across the two rows of keys. A red-and-blue bow tie perches atop a crisp white shirt, his light gray suit jacket tossed aside and forgotten. Behind circular gold-rimmed spectacles, his eyes focus on the sheet music, expression stern in concentration.
Finishing the piece with a flourish, his silver-white mustache quirks up as a wide grin splits his face, transforming his rigid features. He raises twinkling eyes to glance across the top of the instrument in greeting.
A native of Nebraska, Christensen grew up in the heart of "cattle country" in the late 1940s. He pursued a love of music, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in piano performance from Hastings College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, respectively. In the course of his studies, he was required to take organ classes.
He found himself impressed with the instrument's potential to elicit emotion, particularly in worship. He fell in love with its range of expression, exuded through a multitude of volumes and tones. It was a love his professors shared.
"We were told, rather emphatically, that if we ever came across a pipe organ that was at risk of being discarded or not used anymore, to demonstrate the value of the organ," Christensen said.
In the mid-1960s, he arrived in Imperial, Neb., to become an elementary music teacher, a position through which he shared his fervor for 41 years.
In the small town, population roughly 1,500, he also discovered a small Lutheran church on the verge of throwing out its pipe organ. He asked members of the congregation if he could be their organist for four consecutive Sundays, after which they could do what they wished with the instrument.
His first Sunday as organist at the Zion Lutheran Church was Sept. 29, 1968.
His last day as organist was May 27, 2009.
"It's something that I'm just passionate about, is pipe organ music," Christensen said, adding that he eventually completed his doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with an organ emphasis.
In 1979-80, the church built a new facility and included a 27-rank, three-manual pipe organ, the largest between Lincoln, Neb., and the front range of the Rocky Mountains. In addition to playing Lutheran liturgies, or services, Christensen played for more than 400 weddings, sometimes for three generations of southwestern Nebraska families.
When school was out in the summer, the world became his stage. He conducted seminars and performed organ recitals across the Midwestern United States and Eastern Europe.
He moved to Council Bluffs in 2009, becoming the organist at St. Paul Lutheran Church there. Shortly after he began, his pastor, Nathan Sherrill, informed him that he would accompany Sherrill to Audubon each week for the Iowa District West Lutheran Confessions Study, where Christensen met about 30 Lutheran pastors, including Brian Licht of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Carroll. Licht asked Christensen to play for the Iowa District West Pastors Conference, held in Carroll in June.
THE CARROLL WORKSHOP
As awareness of the needs and potential of organists rose, the idea to hold a workshop was born. It was supported by Iowa District West President Paul Sieveking, who helped promote the event, as well as Thrivent Financial, a Lutheran insurance and investment company. The goal to have 14 attendees was surpassed when 21 organists registered, traveling from as far as the Minnesota border to attend the day-long seminar in mid-October.
"The importance of education is a strong conviction of mine, particularly for organists in smaller parishes, smaller churches, smaller communities," Christensen said.
Such musicians often lack the resources to shop for music and have minimal practice time. Also, volunteer organists are frequently not recognized or appreciated, he added.
To address these needs, Christensen brought a representative from Dietze Music of Nebraska, giving attendees the chance to browse its entire organ repertoire. The registration also included a 90-minute organ lesson for each registrant on the organ in his or her home church.
An underlying goal of Christensen's work is to "beat the bushes" to find young people willing to take organ lessons and carry on the tradition.
One such individual attending the workshop was 14-year-old Tim Schreiber of Plattsmouth, Neb. Dressed as impeccably as his teacher, Schreiber even sported his own bow tie, pink with blue dots.
Schreiber had grown up in a church with an organ and didn't realize the full value of it until it was gone. His family moved to Nebraska from Ohio, and his new church employed an electric keyboard instead.
"After a while it kind of hit me in the face that it wasn't the same," he said.
He began researching organ music via YouTube videos. Familiar with reading music from his work with the French horn in school band, Schreiber started to teach himself how to play the piano on his sister's keyboard. A few months ago, he began taking organ lessons from Christensen.
"There's such a diverse range of things you can play," he said of his interest in the instrument. "You can play something soft and smooth, or something hard and glorious and bold."
A POWERFUL INSTRUMENT
Nicknamed the "king of instruments," the organ, with its wide range of pitch and dynamics, is capable of "pulling and drawing out of the human spirit" a variety of responses, said Christensen.
"Only a pipe organ has the power as a single instrument to proclaim the great victory of the risen Christ," he said. "It has the potential for bringing the spirit of Christ into the human emotion and spiritual well-being in a very humbling way."
An organ almost always has two or three manuals, or keyboards, Christensen explained. Each note is played by an individual pipe. An organ is described by its number of ranks, or sets of pipes. If an organ has five ranks, then each key can play five sounds, or five pipes, depending on which stops are engaged. The stops are controlled by a row of oblong levers that run parallel to the keyboards. When a stop is registered, the wind chest beneath the set of pipes is opened, enabling the air to blow through it to make a sound.
Pipes can range in length from 6 inches to 64 feet; the longer the pipe, the lower the pitch. Christensen estimates that the organ at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Carroll has roughly 1,200 total pipes. The pipes are located behind a levered screen, which opens when the swell pedal is pushed down, increasing the volume. Most organs have 32 pedals.
Pipes are one of two types: flue or reed. Flue pipes operate like a police whistle, while reed pipes operate like a clarinet mouthpiece. In a flue pipe, the air flows through the space to create sound; in a reed pipe, the air strikes a piece of metal that vibrates to create sound.
These pipes encompass four families of sound. Reed pipes are denoted as the brass or woodwind orchestral instruments, such as trumpets or oboes. Flue pipes include the principal stop, the sound found only in a pipe organ; the flutes, with strong fundamental overtones that lend a "plaintive or pleading" sound; and the strings, generally soft and carrying best at low pitch levels. The organ also contains a set of celeste pipes, deliberately sharpened out of tune.
It is this range of musical opportunity that makes the pipe organ unique, Christensen explained.
Stops can build to become louder and more powerful, challenging and encouraging the congregation to sing louder as well. Or it can be quiet and meditative, the celeste keys creating a "heavenly" sound that "can bring the most haughty of worshippers right to their knees," he said.
ROOTS IN RELIGION
According to Christensen, the organ has a "historical identity" as a piece of Christendom.
The instrument first emerged in Christian music in the eighth century and has been a "key factor" in "virtually every Christian denomination" including Catholicism, Lutheranism and the Episcopal or Anglican churches, he said.
The instruments first appeared in the United States in early colonial days, arriving on the East Coast via ships from England. Companies quickly emerged, particularly in Massachusetts, and built organs well into the early 20th century.
As settlers pushed west, they carried organs with them, pieces housed in covered wagons.
Christensen, who is writing a book on the history of pipe organs in Nebraska, has discovered church records in Omaha detailing how an organ was transported across the Missouri River, the pipes and console rolled up the riverbank atop logs that served as wheels. In York, Neb., there stands an organ built in Massachusetts in 1888 that is still played regularly today.
In the course of his research, he has visited 16 churches, one in a town of only 240 people, all of which had some sort of pipe organ.
CLASH WITH COMMUNISM
These close ties with religious practice left many organs standing silent and neglected as churches were closed under communism in Eastern Europe in the latter part of the 20th century. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Christensen was one of the first people in, traveling to Slovakia to help restore a school building that had been operated by a Lutheran church.
When it reopened, he returned, traveling with four other teachers and 15 American teenagers who studied with the Lithuanian students in a four-week long English-immersion program. During one of these trips, Christensen played an organ recital in the small Slovakian village.
The community of 4,000 people had only two churches, one Catholic and one Lutheran. When he started practicing on the Lutheran organ, the first time the instrument had been used in decades, the leathers of the bellows ripped. A physical-education teacher fixed the splits in the bellows with medical tape so they could once again supply air to the pipe work.
Crisis avoided, Christensen continued practicing. About an hour from the start of the recital, the on-off switch failed. The church was already filled with nearly 500 people, he recalled. The pastor, who spoke no English, tapped Christensen, who spoke no Slovakian, and produced the equivalent of a penny, which he wedged into the switch to connect the wiring.
"The dear man had to sit there holding this all the time because if you let go, the organ would turn off," Christensen explained. "This pastor stood beside the console holding that penny in place for about two hours so that recital would happen."
On another trip, Christensen traveled on a three-week tour conducting workshops and performing concerts in three Russian cities, including a recital at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the Russian equivalent of the Juilliard School in the U.S. It was organized by one of his former grade-school students who had become the head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod missions in Europe and Asia. The recitals were conducted not in churches but in concert halls.
"(My translator and I) were warned that we were both at risk of being arrested because we were the first Christians in about 70 years to appear on a public stage taking quotes from the Holy Scriptures and playing sacred music," he said.
In Europe, it is customary for audience members to give male performers flowers. Christensen was unaware of the tradition, but at the end of the first section, a very poor Russian woman walked onstage and approached him.
"Her hair was absolutely ratty, she had no teeth and was wearing a heavy kind of wool coat that was dirty, ragged and tatty, and she handed me a sway of evergreens that were obviously from a very poorly maintained bush, tied with an overly used strip of ribbon, but it was the best she had to offer," he said. "I still have that ribbon."
SWING IN POPULARITY
Despite its power, Christensen has seen the use of the pipe organ decrease dramatically throughout the United States. He attributes much of this decline to cultural influence he deems "theologically misleading."
"With it has come flimsy texts that are exceedingly repetitive and even secular, but not scripturally based," he said.
While mainstream music has its place in pop culture, Christensen said, he "seriously questions" its use in worship, particularly in relation to communion.
"It's not spiritually challenging, nor edifying," he said.
However, Christensen believes the pendulum is swinging "back to traditional worship patterns."
He cites the $90,000 restoration of a pipe organ in the small rural community of Adair, as well as the installation of the first North American-built organ in a chapel at the University of Oxford in England by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, as one piece of evidence of this swing. A second piece of evidence came from a contact at Paraclete Press who told him that composers are offering a greater volume and quality of sacred organ and sacred choir music, so much so that the Massachusetts publishing house can no longer print them all.
Finally, he referenced an increasing amount of activity in the American Guild of Organists, which has chapters in Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., and Des Moines, as well as a waning chapter in Storm Lake that Christensen hopes to revitalize.
The repertoire he prepared for the Carroll workshop focused on prelude and offering pieces. Based on hymns, the works add accompaniment to distinguish the music from the simple melody that is played to accompany congregational singing. He also included a series of concert works, written not for church but for the instrument, because they were "just plain fun."
"God created humor and laughter, and I sometimes think that worship becomes very pondersome and introspective," he said. "We miss the opportunity to express the joy and delight of the gift of salvation, and what better way than music to expedite?"
The shadows in the sanctuary sharpen as Christensen shares his stories, the reds, yellows and blues of the stained-glass windows glowing steadily in the light of the sinking sun.
Pausing periodically to demonstrate the organ's potential, the movement of his hands reveals black-and-white keyboard cuff links at his wrists as he plays through page after page of sheet music. The last note fades slowly, lingering a moment in the still silence of the church.
Christensen shares that not all pastors appreciate his suggestion that music is more powerful and pleasing to God than sermons. His joy in his work evident, he leans forward conspiratorially.
"If there is anything an organist can remind a pastor of," he says, a soft smile playing at his lips, "it's that the only thing the Scriptures say begins on earth, and continues into heaven, is singing."