Last updated
A cathedral organist in Lausanne Cathedral Organist at Lausanne Cathedral.jpg
A cathedral organist in Lausanne Cathedral

An organist is a musician who plays any type of organ. An organist may play solo organ works, play with an ensemble or orchestra, or accompany one or more singers or instrumental soloists. In addition, an organist may accompany congregational hymn-singing and play liturgical music.


Classical and church organists

The majority of organists, amateur and professional, are principally involved in church music, playing in churches and cathedrals. The pipe organ still plays a large part in the leading of traditional western Christian worship, with roles including the accompaniment of hymns, choral anthems and other parts of the worship. The degree to which the organ is involved varies depending on the church and denomination. It also may depend on the standard of the organist. In more provincial settings, organists may be more accurately described as pianists obliged to play the organ for worship services; nevertheless, some churches are fortunate to have trained organists capable of more elaborate "voluntaries" (the solo music before, during and after the service) and improvisation. As most churches can afford to employ only one musician, the organist is usually also responsible for directing and rehearsing the choir(s). In the twentieth-century, many pipe organs were replaced by pipe-less electronic and digital organs, often as a low-cost alternative to rebuilding older pipe organs.

In the English cathedral tradition the organist is now generally called "Director of Music", although their function is mainly in the training and direction of music rather than actual playing; there will generally be one or more assistant or sub-organists who play for most services and some recitals. Sometimes the organist will be assisted by an organ scholar. The post of organist at most of the great cathedrals includes recital work and choral training. Another function of an organist is often as teacher to future players. Few organists hold historically special positions such as Raùl Prieto Ramitez who is the Civic Organist of San Diego, the last true Civic Organist position still active in the US. [1]

The concert organist Frederik Magle in Koncerthuset, Copenhagen Frederik Magle playing organ 2011 (III).jpg
The concert organist Frederik Magle in Koncerthuset, Copenhagen

Since the strengths and weaknesses of the organ are difficult to understand without a good deal of playing experience, most music composed for organ has been written by organists. Since the majority of pre-twentieth-century organs were installed in churches, classical organ literature was almost exclusively written for liturgical use.

Many composers, therefore, are equally known for their performance talents, some historical examples being Johann Sebastian Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé, as well as improvisers such as Charles Tournemire, Pierre Cochereau, Pierre Pincemaille or Thierry Escaich. In Europe, the historical importance of churches as employers of musicians meant that many composers who now are very seldom remembered for their association with the organ were, nevertheless, engaged as professional organists: for example, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Edward Elgar.

Ancient titles still in current use

In English churches, chapels and cathedrals the Organist may also be known as Master of the Choristers , Choirmaster or Director of Music; however, there are some ancient titles still in current usage:

Theatre organists

An organist playing the organ of the El Capitan, Los Angeles LA El Capitan organist 1.jpg
An organist playing the organ of the El Capitan, Los Angeles

The theatre organ has a separate repertoire and playing style, and in its heyday (during the first third of the twentieth century) there were considerable numbers of organists employed, many of whom played on Wurlitzer organs. A few carry on the tradition today.

There are many organists employed in the production of popular and jazz music. In the United States most of them play the Hammond organ, and many are classically trained, often in piano rather than organ. In England and Japan, one of the most popular series of instruments is the Yamaha Electone; while Electones of recent decades are more properly characterized as digital synthesizers rather than as organs, the player interface, and the skills and coordination required to play, mean that it may be effectively regarded by some, as an organ in these respects.


The Royal College of Organists (RCO) in the United Kingdom is the oldest institutions and professional body that regulates organ studies. From that sprang the American Guild of Organists (AGO), the Gesellschaft der Orgelfreunde  [ de ] (GdO) in Germany, and the Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO). The Incorporated Association of Organists is an international society that fulfills an educational interest in the organ and is the holding company for regional Organist Associations, which regulate organ activities at the local level. [2] All these institutions are oriented toward the organist involved in classical music rather than popular music, but have recently shown an interest in expanding their interests. There is also the American Theatre Organ Society.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ripon Cathedral</span> Cathedral in Ripon, North Yorkshire, England

The Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Wilfrid, commonly known as Ripon Cathedral, and until 1836 known as Ripon Minster, is a cathedral in Ripon, North Yorkshire, England. Founded as a monastery by monks of the Irish tradition in the 660s, it was refounded as a Benedictine monastery by St Wilfrid in 672. The church became collegiate in the tenth century, and acted as a mother church within the large Diocese of York for the remainder of the Middle Ages. The present church is the fourth, and was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. In 1836 the church became the cathedral for the Diocese of Ripon. In 2014 the Diocese was incorporated into the new Diocese of Leeds, and the church became one of three co-equal cathedrals of the Bishop of Leeds.

Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow was an English organist and composer in the Anglican church music tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Scott Whiteley</span> English organist and composer

John Scott Whiteley is an English organist and composer. He has performed extensively around the world and since 1985 has undertaken an annual tour of the US. He has performed in most major UK cathedrals and concert halls, and was Assistant Organist and later Organist and Director of the Girls' Choir at York Minster between 1976 and 2010. He is currently Organist Emeritus of York Minster.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chelmsford Cathedral</span> Church in Essex, England

Chelmsford Cathedral in the city of Chelmsford, Essex, England, is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, St Peter and St Cedd. It became a cathedral when the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford was created in 1914 and is the seat of the Bishop of Chelmsford.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Francis Jackson (composer)</span> British organist and composer (1917–2022)

Francis Alan Jackson was a British organist and composer who served as Director of Music at York Minster for 36 years, from 1946 to 1982.

Ian Graham Tracey DL is an English organist and choirmaster who has served as Organist of Liverpool Cathedral since 1980.

Ronald Edward Perrin was a British cathedral organist.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle</span>

The Choir of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle exists to sing services in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leeds Minster</span> Church in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England

Leeds Minster, or the Minster and Parish Church of Saint Peter-at-Leeds is the minster church of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. It stands on the site of the oldest church in the city and is of architectural and liturgical significance. A church is recorded on the site as early as the 7th century, although the present structure is a Gothic Revival one, designed by Robert Dennis Chantrell and completed in 1841. It is dedicated to Saint Peter and was the Parish Church of Leeds before receiving the honorific title of "Minster" in 2012. It has been designated a Grade I listed building by Historic England.

Philip John Moore is an English composer and organist.

Andrew Cantrill FRSA is a British-born organist and choral director. He has held cathedral positions in New Zealand and the United States, and was organist of the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk until September 2018. He is a Fellow, prize-winner and former Trustee Council member of the Royal College of Organists, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is a tutor for the RCO Academy Organ School, an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, an active recitalist, and a sought-after broadcaster, writer and presenter.

The Choir of Leeds Minster is the choir of Leeds Minster, Leeds, England, which became a Minster in September 2012. The choir was founded by vicar, Richard Fawcett probably as early as 1815, and was certainly in existence by 1818. The church's choir - boys and men - was, from its origins, a charge on the church rate; and, in what was then a largely non-conformist town, a none-too-popular one. By the 1830s, the choir's resourcing had been taken over by a list of voluntary subscribers. On arrival as Vicar of Leeds in 1837, Walter Farquhar Hook said he found "the surplices in rags and the books in tatters". Additional to its extensive commitment in the provision of choral services, the choir is known to a wide public through many recitals, recordings and broadcasts and by its regular choir tours - the first tour was held in July 1968 and the 40th anniversary tour, from 22 to 27 July 2008, included singing in Ely Cathedral, King's College, Cambridge, the National Musicians' Church St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London, All Saints Pastoral Centre London Colney and the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

James Bennett Lancelot was master of the Choristers, and cathedral organist at Durham Cathedral from 1985. He retired in 2017 and was appointed canon organist emeritus by the bishop of Durham.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sarah MacDonald (musician)</span> Canadian-born organist and conductor

Sarah Elizabeth Arwen MacDonald is a Canadian-born organist, conductor, and composer, living in the United Kingdom, and currently holds the positions of Fellow and Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of the girl choristers at Ely Cathedral. She has been at Selwyn since 1999, and is the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge Chapel. In 2018 MacDonald was given the honorary award of Associate of the Royal School of Church Music (ARSCM).

Gordon Brodie Stewart is a British organist, conductor, and teacher.

Patrick Russill is an English choral conductor, organist and music conservatoire teacher.

Charles Harrison has been Organist and Master of the Choristers of Chichester Cathedral since September 2014, succeeding Sarah Baldock. He has also held musical posts at Southwell Minster, Carlisle and Lincoln Cathedral.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steven Grahl</span> Musical artist

Steven Grahl is the Director of Music and Organist at Christ Church, Oxford. He is also conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. He is a past president of the Incorporated Association of Organists, and previously conducted both the Peterborough Choral Society and the Stamford Chamber Orchestra.

William Fox is an English organist, currently Sub-Organist of St Paul's Cathedral.

Peter Holder is an English organist. He is the Sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey.


  1. Jennifer Medina, "Year That Began Like a Dirge for San Diego's Organist Ends in Joy," New York Times 26 December 2011
  2. "The Incorporated Association of Organists (IAO)". IAO. Retrieved 6 October 2018.

Further reading