A frequent item of discussion in the organ world is the poor attendance at organ recitals. It seems to me, however, that more people hear live organ music than that of almost any other solo instrument. Every weekend, tens of millions of people bring themselves to houses of worship, where a single musician, an organist, performs real time, live organ music. Granted this is not a recital, but, for the frequent worshiper, a large portion of the organ literature might be heard over a period of time. Indeed, you would have to be an avid recital-goer to hear more organ music than you hear by being a frequent church goer.
Any musician might he jealous of such a performance record. Every week, an organist must prepare a complete music program that entails a wide variety of musical tasks. Every week, people gather and hear that music. It is true that many do not come for the organ music, but some do, and it is far from a captive audience. Organ music is a vital and powerful part of the worship experience. Often, services are more moving and exciting than recitals. In only a year, an organist will "perform" for thousands; in a large church 50,000 or more. Few musicians have such an audience week after week with repeated exposure, acceptance and dedication from the listeners.
Of course, there are organ recitals played by a famous performer on a prominent instrument that do attract record crowds. For some churches, a dedicatory recital on a new instrument will attract a larger crowd than any service.
Could you imagine any other musical instrument or musical organization responsible for the rather surprising statistic that on the great occasions of Easter and Christmas, organists and organs perform for perhaps 100 million people in North America. They come for the great music and the thrill that they know awaits them in this unique experience of worshiping with the organ and those who perform upon it.
There are those who discount this entire situation as lacking in musical validity, academically weak, and demeaning to the performer. I consider it an unparalleled success and an opportunity of the sort that many other musicians would envy.
There is an unusual aspect of the pipe organ that makes it a very special instrument. The pipe organ is considered to be a church instrument. Aside from carillons and handbells, it is the only instrument so completely identified with the church and at the very heart of corporate worship. The pipe organ certainly exists in concert halls and homes, but the percentage of non-church organs must be very small. The general public hears the organ frequently in its "normal" church setting and our disappointment with the attendance at most recitals is an overreaction. We must face the fact that an organ recital by a performer who is not a household name is for a very special audience: friends or relatives of the performer, the academic world, and those who are fascinated with the instrument and its music. We demand much if we expect an audience that hears organ music live every week to attend separate recitals as well. Some may claim that the audience for worship is different from the recital audience. This may be true in some situations, but not all.
For the church audience, the organ performs a regular and satisfying musical job. Though many take it for granted. this is something of a triumph: a musical instrument and performer accepted as being normal, self-evident, expected, and natural. Centuries of mutual acceptance have given the organ and organist a very special role. Perhaps only in the prelude and postlude would we find "recital grade" music, but this represents 100 pieces, hopefully different, in a year, and more than most recitalists would perform in that period of time. The church has provided a venue for the organist that is far more valuable than the recital hall- a greater audience, a broader audience, and a weekly performance schedule.
I suppose SRO crowds would be wonderful for recitals (except for the acoustics), but I am not overly concerned that this secondary role is not as well attended as we wish. I think we must always be concerned that the organ's prime role as a worship instrument is as successful as it can be; that the worship experience generated by the organ and organist is as vital and satisfying as possible; and that we don't lose sight of the tens of millions who come to hear the organ every weekend who are not there for a recital but who, nonetheless, hear the instrument, respond to the organist's abilities, and carry with them a need to return week after week for such music.
Expecting large crowds for recitals after tens of millions have just attended services with mini or quasi-recital performances is missing the point- somewhat like being dismayed at an ugly tree in a magnificent forest. The people who worship with the organ are an audience of great importance. If we forget this, we will soon have only recitals to attend if we wish to hear organ music.