Do organists get dementia?

It may seem a strange question to ask – and a strange time to do so.

The whole Choir is in the midst of final preparations for an arduous and difficult concert, and this man goes on about organists and dementia.  What is he talking about?  Has he a touch of dementia himself?

Bear with me.

Yes, we should indeed be focusing on the music for the concert at this stage.  One week to go and just the orchestral rehearsal and the general rehearsal, and then we are on stage with a single opportunity to get everything right first time.  It’s a bit nerve-wracking.

Well, I was doing some practice yesterday, in between a few other things, but it seemed to me that some practice was top priority.  So the other things got left for the moment (who needs to insure and register a car, claim a refund on faulty mailed goods, do their tax return, weed the garden?) and the concert took over.

First Pergolesi.  There are some wonderful renditions on YouTube.  The one I chose had lots of gradual crescendos and diminuendos – very effective.  And great to sing along with, noting all Carlos’ markings, of course.

Then Vivaldi – the version I used was delightful with rich, sonorous soloists and a very responsive choir and orchestra.  Again, great for singing along with and re-winding every so often when what they did and what I did had not quite matched.

Then Bach.  I found a very ponderous version of “Wir setzen uns” sung by a Swedish choir.  Very slow, and ideal for singing along with.  Plenty of time to check the tuning of each note before moving on to the next one.  Perfect.

Job done.  And then – you know how YouTube suggests things it figures you might like to watch?  It did – a recording from Antwerp Cathedral of the same chorus but – played on a magnificent organ in a setting for organ by Widor.  Click here to watch it.

I’ll leave you to judge what you think of it, and perhaps more importantly what Bach may have thought if it.  Personally I think it does not quite fit the reflective mood of the original, which comes at a tragic moment in a complex narrative.

But what struck me most was the visuals.  There were some great shots of the organist.  What wonderful hand-eye – and foot – co-ordination!  There was no break, each hand continuously playing on one of the four manuals and moving seamlessly from one manual to another, the hands often crossing over each other; the feet working full-time to play the flowing bass line on the pedals; occasional snatches with one hand or the other to change the registration; and he still manages to find the time to turn the pages himself!  .

They say that hand-eye co-ordination activities – dancing, learning new sports and so-on are key to keeping the brain alert in old age.  Surely playing the organ is another such skill.

After seeing this, I reckon organists have a head start in the aging game.