John Nagy | January 8, 2017
The great organs in the great churches of the world live forever.
As of January 20, when Professor Craig Cramer performs a dedication recital on the Murdy Family Organ in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame will have both: An instrument for the ages that will accompany prayer and lead congregational singing inside a historic and acoustically brilliant house of worship.
In their infancy, the best mechanical-action pipe organs need a twinkling of time to adapt to life outside the workshop, to find their voices and become what they were made to be. Once in a few centuries they might require restoration — the oldest playable organs in Europe are more than half a millennium old — but they never die.
Over the course of their boundless lives they become teachers and spiritual directors. “The sound of the organ brings joy to the sorrowful soul, evokes the happiness of the heavenly city, rouses the lazy, refreshes the watchful, induces love in the just, and brings the sinner to repentance,” wrote the 17th century liturgist Giovanni Cardinal Bona — 20 years before Bach, the greatest of sacred composers, was even born.
Masters of spiritual movement and mystery, they are equally masters of music. In this role, they become geniuses of their own schools, attracting musicians skillful enough to play them yet humble enough to learn. “Fine organists, without exception, consider the organ the teacher,” says the Murdy’s designer, Paul Fritts, a scholar of the golden age of organ building in the 17th and 18th centuries who has made a career out of reclaiming and advancing the traditions of his art. “The organ comes first.”
The collaboration that ensues between artist and medium creates music that may be majestic or meek but is always transcendent and ever new. We who listen may simply be grateful to it for holding us aloft, content to leave thoughts about how to the same corner of our souls occupied by stained-glass windows, gothic arches and incense.