MUSIC: The Great Mighty Ocean Tone by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Great Mighty Ocean Tone by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I was re-reading the Yale lectures on preaching that were delivered by Henry Ward Beecher (1871, 1872, and 1873) when I discovered an extraordinary meditation about pipe organs.  These were the first lectures in a series that had been permanently endowed to honor Henry’s father, Lyman Beecher.  The lectures cover many topics other than preaching.  They are about prayer meetings and the placement of new ministers, and they offer extensive reflections on church music, including congregational singing and organs.  Henry Ward Beecher is rhapsodic about the pipe organ:

I look upon the history and the development of the organ for Christian uses as a sublime instance of the guiding hand of God’s providence.  It is the most complex of all instruments, it is the most harmonious of all, it is the grandest of all.  Beginning far back, growing as things grow which have great and final uses, growing little by little, it has come now to stand, I think, immeasurably, transcendently, above every other instrument, and not only that, but above every combination of instruments.  You can combine instruments in such a way as to do some things which the organ cannot do, yet the finest orchestra that ever stood on Earth, compared on the whole with the organ, is manifestly its inferior.  No orchestra that ever existed had the breadth, the majesty, the grandeur, that belong to this prince of instruments.

I am not sure our orchestral colleagues would agree with Beecher.  But Beecher is being polemical.  He is trying to make the strongest possible case for the organ to people who have in the past either lacked music altogether or had minimal musical resources available.

Later in the same volume of lectures, Beecher employs a metaphor that expresses for him the spiritual and pastoral function of the organ in worship:

I am accustomed to think of a congregation with an organ as of a fleet of boats in the harbor, or on the waters.  The organ is the floor, and the people are the boats; and they are buoyed up and carried along upon its current as boats are borne upon the depths of the sea.  So, aside from mere musical reasons, there is this power that comes upon people, that encircles them, that fills them, this great, mighty ocean-tone; and that helps them to sing.

I find this metaphor filled with both theological and musical insight.  It evokes the gospel stories about fishing, boats, and storms.  Given that Beecher was one of the preeminent preachers of the nineteenth century, it would not surprise me if those stories – consciously or unconsciously – helped to shape the metaphor in Beecher’s mind.

But even more striking to me is his description of the organ’s sound as the “flood” that brings “power” to the people, “encircles” and “fills” them, and “helps them to sing” through its “great, mighty ocean-tone.”  His language reveals someone who understands the physical impact upon a congregation of the organ’s sound as it fills the space of the room and calls forth from people the song that is in them.  Through this sonic experience the people are “buoyed up and carried along upon its current as boats are borne upon the depths of the sea.”  If you have ever pushed a boat off a sand bar or a beach and felt the force of buoyancy, you will understand how precise Beecher’s metaphor is.  Buoyancy gives material expression to the spiritual dimensions of the organ lifting us into song.

Here, then, is a way to appreciate anew the importance of what musicians are doing when they play the organ for a congregation: the listeners are boats run aground, stuck on shorelines and sand bars far from their true destination.  They need the tide – the tide of grace, the tide of the Spirit, the tide of faith – to flow in and make them buoyant once again.  The organist provides the “great, mighty ocean-tone” that lifts them up and sets them free.

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