Organist on Tour

Written by Aidan Kelly

First year Seminarian of the Diocese of Motherwell

April 27, 2023

The Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is the only Gothic church in Rome and situated just round the corner from the Pantheon in the ancient district of Campus Martius. Its colourful rose windows shine on infamous Medici Popes entombed in imposing marble reliefs, the body of St Catherine of Siena lying enclosed in the altar and impressive renaissance chapels. Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer finished in 1521 is located to the left of the main altar. It is a cultural feast for the eye with its endless art and architecture.

Look upwards and then, tucked away in the heights of the north transept is something else utterly magnificent. Below the arched vaulting painted blue as the night sky with golden stars sits the pipe organ. Actually, there are two. Two separate instruments are positioned directly across from one another in elaborate gilded baroque cases, however only one is still in use. Constructed in the early 17th century, these two organs once engaged in an epic battle of antiphonal dialogue across the church, filling the Dominican Basilica with celestial harmonies.

Not so long ago, I ended up there.

It was to my surprise that I found myself seated at the controls of this powerful instrument only several weeks after I arrived in Rome. To get up to the loft I climbed winding stairs, opened time-worn doors, and trekked through a mini maze of medieval libraries. When I finally arrived, the height from ground level was dizzying and the size of the railings even more unsettling. I could hear the murmuring of the air rushing through the ancient pipes above me and the clicking sound of the mechanical trackers as I pushed down on the keys.

It was an unforgettable experience.

The organ of the Pontifical Scots College is more of a humble sort of pipe organ – complete with thirteen stops, two manuals and pedal – is nonetheless a formidable instrument. Assembled almost sixty years ago, the actual pipes are not visible at first glance, but can be seen by peering through slits on the wall on both sides of the main doors of the chapel.

It is a special privilege to have such an instrument in the place where you live, with more opportunity for practice, and it certainly provides for me an oasis of calm and refreshment from the busyness of daily life in Rome. It also serves a peaceful reminder of home and the wonder of Scottish parish life where I grew up.

Among my duties as organist at the College are to accompany Sunday Mass and Solemn Vespers, and also the midweek evening Mass. Some of the highlights for me this year as the organist have been St Andrew’s Day where I was able to accompany the magnificent choir of the Scots College, and then at the end of Mass the feeling of goosebumps as a packed church belted out the famous hymn to St Andrew When Christ our Lord to Andrew cried. Another high point was the Easter Vigil, which although involving much preparation and practice, was a great joy to accompany.

However, it occurred to me recently, these magnificent pipes have their own phenomenal stories to tell. They are the swirling psalms of thousands of celebrations of the Divine Office to the triumphal hymns of great festal Masses ever since the college was opened in 1964. They tell story of endless visitors: from those who came to the canonization of St John Ogilvie in 1976 to sainted Popes Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 1984. And countless students gone home to become priests for Scotland.

Mozart once titled the organ “King of the Instruments”, yet it is so much more.

Albert Schweitzer once said of accompanying the liturgy: “It is a greater honour than if you were to play a concert on the finest organ in the world…thank God each time when you are privileged to sit before the organ console and assist in the worship of the Almighty.”