The Organ In The Chapel

For the two years that I attended boarding school, I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required. The bell calling us to service would ring out, loud and clear and persistent; we would make our way to the chapel and file in obediently, taking our pre-assigned positions–arranged by grades. We were led through a service by one of our masters; we sang hymns, said the Lord’s Prayer; we knelt down, we stood up; we listened to the occasional ‘sermon.’ And then, as the service came to a close, and as the gathered congregation stood in silence, waiting to file out, we were treated to a short organ recital that served as epilogue.

I knew little of the organ and the music it produced; I knew even less about the many pieces I heard. Still, my body and my aural senses knew what they liked, and there was little doubt that the organ recital was the highlight of the service. I knew the master who played, up above in the loft that held the choir, was a short and stocky man, with hands like little cudgels. (Rumor had it Mr. Paul had been a boxer in his school days, and was still capable of landing a fearsome slap or box to the ears of the insolent.) I could imagine him bent over the keys, his fingers busy at work, the ‘pipes’ towering over him, his feet working the pedals, sending out those notes, sonorous, commanding, filling the spaces of the chapel and my imagination.

My musical tastes, as I indicated, were not too sophisticated. Still, I acquired an early favorite: Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (I had first heard it on the soundtrack of Rollerball; when I first heard it in the chapel, I was curious and excited enough to find out more about this melody that had so intrigued me.) Mr. Paul, our organist, only played it occasionally, and every one of those occasions made the proverbial hairs stand on end, my skin prickling.

I was not a religious person then; indeed, I had lost whatever little religious belief I had in the years following my father’s death. I participated in the chapel service because I was required to; I was used to being subjected to school discipline, so mouthing the hymns and prayers and going through the motions of rising and kneeling in unison came easily to me. It was all a bit of a performance, and I was well aware of it. We were in chapel for no longer than fifteen minutes at most, and though I chafed occasionally at the service’s constraints, I put up with it, much like I did with all the disciplinary codes of this highly structured home away home.

But that little organ recital did not fail to induce an emotional response in me; it made me look forward to the service, if only its end. (Of course, the organ accompanied our hymns too, and thus, in them as well, I found much stirring within me.)

Mr. Paul often practiced in the evenings; on some those occasions, I, along with a friend or two, would sneak down to the chapel and treat ourselves to a free concert, standing outside the back wall. These were short, for our days were tightly scheduled. But they were memorable; I could see the Himalayas towering ahead, the well-groomed gardens of the campus laid about. And through the walls, I could hear that mighty instrument, an accompaniment to the sacral, but also capable of uplifting the profane.

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