Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Pipe Organ ‘To Be Held In High Esteem’

Published May 19, 2005

As the Second Vatican Council spoke of the value of having authentic elements in liturgy, Hamilton Smith, music director at the Cathedral of Christ the King, spoke of the value of a church having a pipe organ.

While acknowledging that some parishes are unable to have one, he said a pipe organ produces pure sounds in contrast to a digital organ that uses sound recordings.

“The ideal is to have the authentic instrument, and we believe that a small pipe organ is better, if you can afford it, than a large electronic because of the purity of the sound,” Smith said.

He believes that two churches in the archdiocese, Holy Spirit in Atlanta and St. Andrew in Roswell, have a combination digital/pipe organ and knows of five churches that now have pipe organs, including historic Sacred Heart Church downtown, which installed a new one in 2003 and also holds a community sacred music concert.

Albert Ahlstrom, Ph.D., director of music at Holy Spirit Church, explained that the organ historically has been found to be the instrument that can most effectively fill a church with a wide variety of sounds from the smallest to the largest and be played by one person.

Also, the organ has been found to be the best instrument for supporting congregational singing, by sustaining a melodic line that singers can follow, while adding variation and color to that line.

The Vatican II document on sacred liturgy states: “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lift up men’s minds to God and higher things.”

Ahlstrom, who holds a doctorate in musical arts in organ from The Juilliard School, said the sound of a large organ in a church in the ancient world was able to give an idea of the immensity and power of God’s presence in the world.

“Churches were designed to give a feeling of the divine presence, and the organ, filling these resounding spaces with a wall of continuous sound, also gave a sense of the constant presence of God. Chant also has this character, as even though it is a single line of music, it is heard when it overlaps to create chords and rich textures of sound. This sense of ‘surround sound’ is one that the great orchestras of the 19th century attempted to copy, and then in the 1960s, with the advent of electronic music, this sound became common in ‘pop’ and movie music.”

Churches with pipe organs in the archdiocese include the Cathedral, St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, Holy Family Church, Marietta, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta, and Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta.