257bIt was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.

Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead.  It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.

It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.

It shook the air.

It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.

It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.

It was sublime.

Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang solo for decades at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland (with the talented hands and feet of Newton Pashley on its impressive keys and pedals),  the instrument had never before caught my imagination. I have thought its tones hard and timbre flat, absent the subtle, ethereal qualities I hear in the human voice and in wind and string instruments.

Other instruments, electronically amplified, may be loud.  But no bass vile, no bass guitar nor any other musical instrument made by man can cause the air to quiver like a great pipe organ did that Sunday, make the air carry its music until the room is full and there is no space left over.

There is a virtue to hearing a great pipe organ in person, to feel it in its own space. The sound system in my home certainly doesn’t do it justice. That being said, I recommend to you a performance of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BMV565). You can find it on both iTunes and YouTube. It is musician Sean Jackson playing the organ of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut.

Yes, the music of a great pipe organ under a masterful hand, especially when the bass registers are in full throat, surely qualifies for placement in the annals of the sublime.

Turn up the volume (higher, higher) to simulate being there in that great room.  Listen here, and watch the video.  See if you agree.



  • Thelma and I have a blind musician friend that just loves playing these big pipe organs. Thanks for sharing this piece. It is amazing.

    • John, good to hear from you! And thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll share with your friend not only the music (which I’m sure he–or she–will be familiar with) but my thoughts about it as well. I’d also be very interested to know which compositions (or other human achievements) he or she thinks sublime. Do you and Thelma have nominations you’d like to submit?

  • Yaah, real pipe organs are unbelievable. When a Young lad, I sang in the Trinity Cathedral choir in Cleveland Ohio “boy soprano”……. head of the choir and Organist, Mr. Kraft, was known as the Prince of Organists …. 1940-41 ………. It was a huge church and had a very LARGE pipe organ. When he hit some of those low chords, the whole building would vibrate.
    If you ever saw the movie “Rollerball”, the introduction has the Organ playing the Toccata & Fugue ……. I don’t know who the organ player is but music for the movie was produced/directed by Andre Previn and the London Orchestra!

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Alan. I’m glad you had the opportunity to experience such primordial beauty and sensation. I didn’t know the piece was in Rollerball, and don’t know whether to say it raises my opinion of the movie, or to once again bemoan the use of great beauty to serve the banal.

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