Skip to content
Yes, you can buy lasix medications online no prescription buy maxalt online pharmacy canada online pharmacy india coupon code buy prozac

Organ Music and Tradition at St. Gertrude the Great

by Rev. Anthony Cekada


EVEN AT AGE 13 in 1964, the Vatican II liturgical changes that were just being introduced left me a bit uneasy, in particular, the near-immediate decline of good Catholic church music. I resolved to do something about it, so at age 14, with no keyboard training at all, I began to study organ and aspired to compose good liturgical music.

Michael P. Hammond

Michael P. Hammond

To make a long story short, in a mere year or two my enthusiasm (it sure wasn’t my keyboard technique!) landed me a little scholarship at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The head of the Conservatory was Michael P. Hammond – expert in medieval polyphony, Rhodes scholar, conductor of the Civic Orchestra, assistant to the great Leopold Stokowski, later head of Rice University and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Hammond, probably somewhat amused that a high school sophomore was interested in writing imitation Renaissance polyphony, personally tutored me in counterpoint, composition and even a bit of orchestration.

For my organ professor, Mr. Hammond chose William A. Eberl, himself a former student of the great French organist, composer and Bach scholar, Marcel Dupré (1886–1971). Though Mr. Eberl was a Lutheran, he was a staunch traditionalist when it came to Catholic church music. One point he insisted on was that I learn to improvise interludes at the organ using Gregorian chants as themes, even though chant had disappeared from the new liturgy, as had the moments of silence where organists once played these improvised interludes.

Marcel Dupré

Marcel Dupré

(The new liturgy didn’t stop the great Dupré, however. His last public performance was an improvisation at St. Sulpice in Paris on a Gregorian chant for Pentecost. In the recording you can actually hear the old master start to falter a bit, but you’re inclined to give him a free pass for it when you learn that, only a few hours later, he died!)

Though opportunities to exercise this skill were thin on the ground at the Novus Ordo, several years later I found myself playing the organ for the traditional Mass, first as a seminarian and then as a priest. The compositional and improvisational techniques I’d picked up from Messrs. Hammond and Eberl really came in handy.

The press of my priestly work caused me to set aside playing the organ and improvising for several decades. Without regular practice, the keyboard skills of a late starter such as I become rusty very quickly. Through Dupré, a fellow organist once told me, I could trace my “apostolic succession” of organ teachers straight back to Bach himself. Alas, the only resemblance between me and J.S. ended up being the buckled shoes…

In 2009, however, we found ourselves without an organist here at St. Gertrude the Great, and I stepped up to the console once again. Fortunately, I was able to revive a few of the old skills at least, including improvisation and arranging motets and Masses for smaller choirs.

About this time, one of our grade school boys who had been very well trained in piano by his mother took an interest in learning the organ. Merely from listening to me improvise on chants at Sunday High Mass, he started to pick up some of my techniques himself and used them to provide organ interludes during the quiet parts of our school children’s daily High Mass.

In seventh grade at about age 12, he came up with the following improvisation on the Gregorian hymn for Vespers of the Feast of St. Michael, Te Splendor et Virtus Patris.

It’s a rather impressive piece of work, especially since the boy’s only compositional “training” at this point came from listening to me. Note also the smooth ending at precisely the right liturgical moment.

My organ professor, Mr. Eberl, and his professor, old Dupré, would have beamed at the thought that, despite the musical disasters of the liturgical reforms and despite a tenuous and highly improbable chain of events, a 12-year-old in an Ohio suburb was carrying on a tradition of improvisation stretching back to Dupré in Paris, and thence to the organists of the great cathedrals of Europe.

Since 2011, our young organist has not contented himself with merely improvising. During the past two years, he has studied with an organ professor from the Cincinnati Conservatory, and honed his skills on works by the great composers for the instrument, especially Bach.

On this video, he performs Bach’s “Gigue” Fugue in G Major as a postlude for our High Mass this past Sunday. His rendition is remarkable for a fourteen-year-old, because the tempo of this piece is absolutely relentless.

Non-organists should note the following: On the organ, the organist plays the bass melodies with his feet on pedals which are configured like the notes of a piano keyboard. When the bass lines in the “Gigue” Fugue really get going, you’ll see the organist almost dancing a little jig on the pedals.

Since I posted this article and video a few hours ago, a non-musician asked me to explain a bit more about the piece. In a fugue, a composer takes a simple theme – in this case, a little jig that someone might dance to – and develops it (almost plays with it) in a variety of ways. He announces the melody at the beginning, and moves it through the high, middle and bass voices (usually four), adding other independent melodies above it, below it and in harmony with it, taking care that these melodies, too, are attractive and beautiful.

The musical form is called a “fugue” because the simple little theme “flies” from one voice to another very quickly, and from one “key” (in effect) to another. If you listen closely to the following, you can hear the the little jig theme emerge from the music again and again in high and middle range, and of course in the pedal bass. It all builds up to very busy-sounding and technically demanding climax at the end.

We’re very blessed at St. Gertrude the Great to be able to carry on these great musical traditions. Already there is another young boy in our grade school who shows similar interest and promise, and is slogging away at his piano lessons in hopes of one day playing “the King of the Instruments.”

May these videos inspire more of our young people to honor God through sacred music!