Retiring city organist: It was a labour of love

2013-11-27 00:00

SOME might associate churches with silence or prayers, but for Marianne de Jager her experience of church has been sitting behind the organ creating beautiful music for the congregation.

At 70, she has decided it’s time to retire. For this Pietermaritzburg organist, her love affair with this complicated instrument began almost by accident when she was thrust in front of the organ and asked to stand in for the regular organist at the NG Kerk in Velddrift, a small Cape town.

De Jager recalled that church was having a crisis as the organist was also the telephone exchange operator in the days when all calls were placed manually. The church was celebrating the annual Pentecost celebration and needed a stand-in organist.

De Jager, who played the piano, was recommended as a substitute. She was given no lessons and told to do her best. It was this baptism of fire that introduced her to the complicated workings of the organ, which is a very particular instrument.

De Jager says that although it is compared to the piano because of the keyboard, it is actually more like a giant box of flutes as the keys open and close the valves below the pipes, allowing air produced by the bellows to enter the pipes, each pipe making a distinctive sound.

“The pipes are of different lengths and that is what makes the pitch different. I learnt the organ as I did mathematics by working out the structure of the instrument and working out how the sounds are emitted by the relative lengths of the pipes.”

De Jager’s sister was getting married and that was also an incentive for her to learn the organ as her sister wanted her to play the organ at the wedding. Over the years, De Jager has embraced this instrument and has learned many hymns and church music and her return to Pietermaritzburg, where she was born, saw her learning more English hymns.

For many years she has been playing for two Anglican churches in Pietermaritzburg — St George’s and the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, where the services were staggered to allow her to play. It has been a labour of love and she has also been directing choirs regularly.

But she wants to retire while she can still play well. “It is quite taxing playing an organ; it’s hands, feet and the brain is always thinking ahead.”

Her passion for working with choirs is similar to the days when she taught her pupils mathematics when she was a teacher. Her standards are high.

“I think it’s important to teach children classical choral music and hymns because they never go out of fashion, and they are the best we have.”

De Jager has served as chairperson of the Royal School of Church Music in KwaZulu-Natal for eight years.

In 2011, she was awarded the Order of the Holy Nativity by the Anglican Church for her work in church music, and in June 2012 she was made an associate of the worldwide Royal School of Church Music at a special service at Exeter Cathedral in England.

De Jager describes herself as an amateur. She looks forward to having more free time in the new year and to helping her young choristers continue with their studies in choral singing.

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