Francis Hopkinson 1737-1791, Founding Father, Organ Critic

Francis Hopkinson

(September 21, 1737 – May 9, 1791), delegate to the Continental Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also a writer of poetry, satirical works, and music. First Graduate of the College of Philadelphia, he had great experience as a writer in law offices and in all matters political--especially as they related to the Colonies' relationship with England. He was appointed as a federal judge by George Washington in 1790, subsequent to serving as a Judge of the Admiralty.  He also served as organist of Christ Church for an unknown tenure.

Something not as commonly known about Francis Hopkinson, and perhaps of interest to organists, was his interest in the comportment of the church organist and how the organ should be appropriately used in the church worship service (of the Colonial Episcopal church, at least). In his "A LETTER TO THE REV. DOCTOR WHITE, RECTOR OF CHRIST CHURCH AND ST. PETER'S ON THE CONDUCT OF A CHURCH ORGAN", Hopkinson delves into the appropriate use of the organ by making six rules, covering everything from the prelude to the postlude and the hymns in between.  Interestingly, however, the majority of his comments seem to be directed toward the organist and how he uses the instrument.

Click to go to Frances Hopkinson's complete letter.

Based upon his thesis that there is a distinct purpose for the organ in church--that of supporting singing and setting the appropriate mood for worship--he warns of the importance of keeping this purpose in mind lest the organ become a detraction to worship. Hopkinson wrote: "UNLESS the real design for which an organ is placed in a church be constantly kept in view, nothing is more likely to happen than an abuse of this noble instrument, so as to render it rather an obstruction to, than an assistant in, the good purpose for which the hearers have assembled."

Not much is known about the actual pipe organ in place when the letter was written, other than from historical documents suggesting it was the second organ in the building.  Originally installed in 1766, it had grown to about 1607 pipes (c. 28 ranks, assuming 56-note ranks common at the time).

The organ in Christ Church, Philadelphia. Photo from Zuspan Adventures Blog

Interestingly, the real focus of his letter seems more directed toward the conduct of the organist, rather than the organ.  Nearly all of his rules deal with the actual player or playing.

Rev. Dr. William White 1748-1836

Before we go further, a note about the Reverend Doctor White. The Most Reverend William White, D.D. (April 4, 1748 – July 17, 1836) is notable for his roles as the Chaplain of the Continental Congress, as Chaplain of the United States Senate, and as Rector of Christ Church and St. Peter's for some 57 years. White also served as first and fourth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in the United States.

So, what did one of the Founding Fathers have to say about pipe organs to one of the "founding clergymen?" A great deal, it turns out. One can only imagine what the good Reverend thought when he read Francis Hopkinson's preamble:

"GIVE me leave, sir, to suggest a few rules for the conduct of an organ in a place of worship, according to my ideas of propriety."

(every organist reading this just had an involuntary twitch, based upon past experiences with parishioners/music committees/pastors/.)

1. The role of the organist is to use the organ in the worship service as an enhancement and support to worship and not as an opportunity to play difficult or showy pieces of music. Here, Hopkinson suggested worship is not the appropriate venue for a display of the organist's skills:

1st. The organist should always keep in mind, that neither the time or place is suitable for exhibiting all his powers of execution; and that the congregation have not assembled to be entertained with his performance. The excellence of an organist consists in his making the instrument subservient and conducive to the purposes of devotion. None but a master can do this. An ordinary performer may play surprising tricks, and shew great dexterity in running through difficult passages, which he hath subdued by dint of previous labour and practice. But he must have judgement and taste who can call forth the powers of the instrument, and apply them with propriety and effect to the seriousness of the occasion.

2. The organist should use the prelude or voluntary to set the mood for worship. He can certainly use the opportunity to play difficult pieces, but should avoid extremes in volume and content. People have gathered to worship and Hopkinson believed that the organist should assist in that endeavor with appropriate music:

2nd. The voluntary, previous to reading the lessons, was probably designed to fill up a solemn pause in the service; during which, the clergyman takes a few minutes respite, in a duty too lengthy, perhaps, to be continued without fatigue, unless some intermission be allowed: there, the organ hath its part alone, and the organist an opportunity of shewing his power over the instrument. This, however, should be done with great discretion and dignity, avoiding every thing light and trivial; but rather endeavouring to compose the minds of the audience, and strengthen the tendency of the heart in those devout exercises, in which, it should be presumed, the congregation are now engaged. All sudden jirks, strong contrasts of piano and forte, rapid execution, and expressions of tumult, should be avoided. The voluntary should proceed with great chastity and decorum; the organist keeping in mind, that his hearers are now in the midst of divine service. The full organ should seldom be used on this occasion, nor should the voluntary last more than five minutes of time. Some relaxation, however, of this rule may be allowed, on festivals and grand occasions.

Click to go to Frances Hopkinson's complete letter.

3. With respect to the singing of liturgy, Hopkinson felt it was important that the organ support with solid harmony the chanted melodies, perhaps with a number of 8' and 4' stops.

3d. The chants form a pleasing and animating part of the service; but it should be considered, that they are not songs or tunes, but a species of recitative, which is no more than speaking musically. Therefore, as melody or song is out of the question, it is necessary that the harmony should be complete, otherwise chanting, with all the voices in unison, is too light and thin for the solemnity of the occasion. There should at least be half a dozen voices in the organ gallery to fill the harmony with bass and treble parts, and give a dignity to the performance. Melody may be frivolous; harmony, never.

4. What Hopkinson referred to in Rule 4 as a "prelude which the organ plays immediately after the Psalm is given out" I shall refer to as what today would be the "introduction." Here, he felt that the organist should focus on ensuring the clear presentation of the melody to be sung. He lamented a "famous organist" who, through his improvisations, obscured the melody so that it was unrecognizable until the cantor would sing through the first line.

4th. The prelude which the organ plays immediately after the psalm is given out, was intended to advertise the congregation of the psalm tune which is going to be sung; but some famous organist, in order to shew how much he could make of a little, has introduced the custom of running so many divisions upon the simple melody of a psalm tune, that the original purpose of this prelude is now totally defeated, and the tune so disguised by the fantastical flourishes of the dexterous performer, that not an individual in the congregation can possibly guess the tune intended, until the clerk has sung through the first line of the psalm. And it is constantly observable, that the full congregation never join in the psalm before the second or third line, for want of that information which the organ should have given. The tune should be distinctly given out by the instrument, with only a few chaste and expressive decorations, such as none but a master can give.

5. In his most detailed rule, Hopkinson took on the issue of interludes between verses. He felt that the interlude should be in the spirit of the hymn or psalm in terms of both character and key. He cites the verses of Psalm 33 and laments the fact that despite it being a joyful text, he has heard an organist play an interlude on quiet ranks, and even in a minor key.  The interlude should be equal in character to the text.

5th. The interludes between the verses of the psalm were designed to give the singers a little pause, not only to take breath, but also an opportunity for a short retrospect of the words they have sung, in which the organ ought to assist their reflections. For this purpose the organist should be previously informed by the clerk of the verses to be sung, that he may modulate his interludes according to the subject.
TO place this in a strong point of view, no stronger, however, than what I have too frequently observed to happen; suppose the congregation to have sung the first verse of the 33rd psalm.
"Let all the just to God with joy
Their chearful voices raise;
For well the righteous it becomes
To sing glad songs of praise."
How dissonant would it be for the organist to play a pathetic interlude in a flat third, with the slender and distant tones of the echo organ, or the deep and smothered sounds of a single diapason stop?
Or suppose again, that the words sung have been the 6th verse of the 6th psalm.
"Quite tired with pain, with groaning faint,
No hope of ease I see,
The night, that quiets common griefs
Is spent in tears by me"—
How monstrously absurd would it be to hear these words of distress succeeded by an interlude selected from the fag end of some thundering figure on a full organ, and spun out to a most unreasonable length? Or, what is still worse, by some trivial melody with a rhythm so strongly marked, as to set all the congregation to beating time with their feet or heads? Even those who may be impressed with the feelings such words should occasion, or in the least disposed for melancholy, must be shocked at so gross in impropriety.
THE interludes should not be continued above 16 bars in triple, or ten or twelve bars in common time, and should always be adapted to the verse sung: and herein the organist hath a fine opportunity of shewing his sensibility, and displaying his taste and skill.

6.  As we conclude Hopkinson's narrative on the use of the organ in the colonial Episcopal church service, it is perhaps no surprise that his final rule references the "voluntary after service" or what we might modernly call the postlude.  Here, he feels that it is important to insure that the postlude is in keeping with the spirit of the sermon, and not exceptionally contrasting in character such as a playing a spirited D major toccata following a Maundy Thursday service.  It is important that the final voluntary does not distract the worshiper from thinking on the topic of the sermon and lessons.

6th. The voluntary after service was never intended to eradicate every serious idea which the sermon may have inculcated. It should rather be expressive of that chearful satisfaction which a good heart feels under the sense of a duty performed. It should bear, if possible, some analogy with the discourse delivered from the pulpit; at least, it should not be totally dissonant from it. If the preacher has had for his subject, penitence for sin, the frailty and uncertainty of human life, or the evils incident to mortality, the voluntary may be somewhat more chearful than the tenor of such a sermon might in strictness suggest; but by no means so full and free as a discourse on praise, thanksgiving, and joy, would authorize.

Click to go to Frances Hopkinson's complete letter.


What can the modern organist take away from this unique historical perspective?  I believe there are three overarching points to consider:

1.  The organist must always be aware of his or her congregation, being sensitive to the congregation's need for accessibility in the music they hear.  The worship experience is enhanced greatly by the music component.  Remember that even St. Augustine was conflicted over enjoying the music more than the sermon during Mass.  With that in mind, while the 

Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité

of Messiaen may have sounded fantastic on your senior organ recital, it may be a bit much for the typical church-goer.  This is not to say that we "dumb down" the musical selections, but rather to remain aware that now and then we need to remember who fills the offering plates.

2.  Practice to become an excellent hymn and service music player.  Not a hymn improviser, but rather, an organist who solidly supports hymn singing in both playing and registration.  Sometimes the hymns are the last thing the organist practices, if he or she even practices them at all.  Spend the necessary time to be confident.  Many experienced, pro organists will agree that the hymntunes Lasst Uns Erfreuen, and Union Seminary can throw a curve in the middle of the service.

3.  Finally, the organist should be sensitive to the immediate needs of the service in which he or she is playing.  Wherever possible, try to program music choices that compliment the service, sermon topic, liturgical calendar, and so forth.  

Click to go to Frances Hopkinson's complete letter.