The Heart and Other Organs | Nancy Jorgensen
Every Sunday, the same dance. You laced your leather Organmaster shoes, hopped on the bench, and folded back the keyboard’s roll top. Your hands hovered above the keys, shoulder blades forming miniature mountains under your shirt. I joined you on the bench, skimming the scent of your razored jaw. Your hip radiated warm against mine each time I reached for the corner of a page, turning as your hands and feet played the processional.
The pipe organ is a complicated, 2,000-year-old instrument. Some say that until the telephone, it was the world’s most complex invention. But the cords of love and friendship weave a more intricate tangle.
We landed at the same church, you the director, me the accompanist. It was the 1970’s. You taught me the organ—its console, stops, pedals, flue pipes, reed pipes, action, wind box. A litany of information you unrolled like a scroll.
Melodies scampered from your fingertips to the chamber where ranks of pipes huddled in groups: clusters of similar shape, tendency, inclination, and habit. You and I were not in the same rank: me in college, living with my parents, you in a rented flat on the east side, close to bars and baths, village streets, and trendy neighborhoods. You, a single pipe, played only one note and yours was David, or John, or Ernest. Never Jennifer, or Katie, or me.
One day, you led me to a shadowy corner of the narthex where tilty circular stairs mounted the air. We tiptoed the steps, like a series of half-tones, to the pipes in the loft. There, we studied the swirling configurations, each row taller and wider—the petals of a musical rose. Air clogged my throat, a blossom of myrrh, oak-wood polish, and you. Some pipes were spruce, others an alloy of lead and tin. And I wondered why people couldn’t be alloys too. Fast like brass and soft like copper. One thing and another besides.
The measure of air pushed through a pipe determines volume and timbre. Too much, and the tone is destroyed. Too little, and the sound is lost. It takes restraint to accept the organ as itself, allow the pipes to speak, and refrain from unreasonable demands.
Visible pipes are often a façade—behind the decoration lies the authentic instrument. Listeners believe the pipes are stacked straight and sure when in fact they form an elaborate maze.
The case that holds the pipes can be as large as a room. As large as a heart.
Each Sunday morning, the nave became a ship, rows of shoulders hunched in brown wool coats, dry lips twitching in prayer, watery eyes searching for safe harbor. Every few minutes, towering oak doors revolved on brass hinges, and an icy draft slithered up the walls. At eight o’clock, you opened the organ’s shutters and sank your fingers into a triad. The sound became a river as it oozed from the loft, streamed down the statues, and spilled over the altars. The treble a waterfall. The bass a gorge. Your tenor voice washed the microphone with a hymn that flooded high to the spires and wide to the walls of stained glass.
A pipe organ is delicate and temperamental. It swells in July’s ninety-degree humidity. It shrinks and shivers during Midnight Mass when temperatures drop and snow drifts the windowsills. Caring for it requires imagination.
An organ’s metal pipes last for centuries. But leather parts wear out and must be replaced to restore the instrument’s health. If only that were possible for human parts. For men with Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma, AIDS.
A new organ may cost hundreds of thousands for a medium-sized church. Or several million for a cathedral or concert hall. The value of the organist is immeasurable.
So many preludes, fugues, chansons, nocturnes, intermezzos, cantatas, marches, interludes, meditations. We filled every crevice with the sound of sopranos and altos, trumpets, tambourines, and flutes. But when your lungs collapsed and your skin turned thin, the pipes stood silent, the air stood still.
From the street, all appeared unchanged: twelve-foot oak doors under a lofty stained-glass rose window and soaring steeple. But inside, melodies hung suspended.
At your funeral, a lone musician played a requiem, somber fingers traveling in minor. I sensed you in the room, hovering near the console, phantom arms searching for a chord.
About the Author:
Nancy Jorgensen is a Wisconsin writer, educator, and musician. Her most recent book, a middle-grade/young adult sports biography, was released in 2022: “Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete.” She is also an essayist writing about music, equality, family, aging, and education. Her work appears in Ruminate, River Teeth, Wisconsin Public Radio, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Find out more at NancyJorgensen.weebly.com