Playing music is hard. Whatever instrument one sets out to master there is a very long learning curve, and only the most preserving become musicians. Playing guitar, piano, or drums involves hard work and invested time, not always with the desired outcome. Frustration and termination are common. An instrument that demands even more dedication and exactitude is the pipe organ, one of the most ancient of musical instruments, and, arguably, among the most difficult.
Most instruments involve hitting the correct key, playing with the correct rhythm, and adding the appropriate expression. The pipe organ requires so much more. There is more than one keyboard, there are several stops that interact with them, and multiple pedals to direct just the right amount of air to the pipe that creates the correct note. Amazing in its complexity, the pipe organ is a marvel of musical artistry.
Pipe organs are, of course, handcrafted, and they must be precisely made. Each pipe must be constructed to the proper dimension to allow the right note and pitch. Some pipes are made of bronze, others tin. Each one must be exactly right from the beginning because you can’t tune pipes like you do strings on a guitar. Pipe organs are a true piece of craftsmanship.
Saint Patrick’s has an organ that is older than the church. Made in San Francisco in 1897 by an individual named “Mr. Fisher,” the organ was thirty years old when the church was constructed. Father Daley somehow caught wind of the fact that the organ was to be replaced in its original installation, and he purchased it and had it shipped to San Diego to be installed in our church, piece by piece. It’s the marvel of ascending pipes we see in the choir loft whenever we look up as we exit the church.
Music, praying and worshiping go together. The word psalm comes from the word for song, and many can be traced to the time of King David, three thousand years ago. The Gospels tell us of the apostles singing psalms. Saint Ambrose, the mentor of Saint Augustine, wrote several beautiful hymns. St. Augustine remarked that only those who love can sing.
Like human culture, music goes through phases and development. The oldest Catholic music is Gregorian Chant, named for Pope Gregory the First, who was pope from the year 590 to 604. Gregory didn’t write any music, but he was responsible for the creation of a standard Catholic liturgy, and the chant in his name uses only the words of the Mass and Benediction. Through the centuries Gregorian Chant was developed and made incredibly beautiful with harmonies and musicianship, and it became a staple of Catholic liturgy. It lost favor in recent years, but it persists. Whether we know it or not, we all sing Gregorian Chant sometimes at Mass. The priest begins it, usually at the beginning of the Offertory, and we all answer, somewhat harmoniously.
Through the years other types of music joined Gregorian Chant at liturgical celebrations. Latin hymns like Panis angelicus and Tantum ergo sacramentum, English hymns like Holy God We Praise thy Name and Come Holy Ghost, were all accompanied by the pipe organ. Since the 1960s church music has incorporated several instruments, but the melodies and lyrics still inspire devotion, meditation, and joy, just like the early psalms.
St. Patrick’s major organists had a very long tenure. Edna Keays (my mother) was the first, then Roma Frey. John Nelson began in 1968. Each lasted over 50 years. Edna was born in San Diego and first played at St. Anne’s church in Logan Heights (now Barrio Logan) at age twelve. Roma was born in rural Nevada in 1904 and was an early parishioner at St. Patrick’s. Edna and Roma were close friends and neighbors, and each played piano in the ragtime and swing style at dances and other venues. John attended St. John of the Cross church in Spring Valley where he was taught piano by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. He attended St. Augustine High School and began playing the organ at age 17. He still plays at the 11:30 Mass. All were excellent musicians and dedicated to providing the most reverent of liturgical accompaniment. Those who followed them to help us celebrate our worship are just as dedicated and talented. St. Patrick’s has been truly blessed to have had, and continue to have, such remarkable people.