Masonic Music - a UK perception.

Freemasonry was of great appeal at the turn of the 20th century when the religious revival of the later Victorian era led to the building of dozens of church and chapels in every town. Where I live fourteen were built between 1860 and 1900 some lavishly funded by the newly enriched industrialists and ship owners. Certainly even the most modest chapel had a pipe organ and every parlour had a piano and it was quite the norm in those days for people to gather round singing as a family. Consequently plenty of children learnt to play the piano and some, like me, were drawn into the church at an early age to learn to play the organ. Although in my case I am now talking of the 1950s!
As freemasonry flourished each masonic centre had an organ and a regular supply of initiates who could play the piano, and thus the organ. The music used in lodges in those days, was taken directly from Hymns Ancient and Modern and other worthy tomes with several hundred tunes. Sometimes the words came directly from the the hymn books, particularly those that were not trinitarian or directly christian, craft masonry not being a christian order. For other Odes, as we call them, the words were written by the more erudite brethren.
Quite a number of lodges in early days used Anglican Chants, a most awkward way of setting words to music, but the chants were sufficiently well know to appeal to those who joined the Craft. As other Orders spread, Holy Royal Arch, Mark Masonry, Royal Ark Mariner, Knights Templar, and Rose Croix, the membership and particularly the leaders had come from the established traditions of the Craft and were steeped in the knowledge of Victorian church music. Even today in the 21st Century there are RAM lodges and Rose Croix Chapters that use anglican chants. And nearly all lodge music today has its origins in the Anglican church traditions of the 19th century. The snag is, adherence to and practice of these faiths has dwindled as has the supply of experienced church organists.
Gradually during the 20th century the organ building trade has declined; there are scores of redundant pipe organs in churches that have closed and any attempt to move these to new locations has proved very expensive indeed, particularly as the skills of experts who can work in wood and leather has withered. Meanwhile the electronic organ was invented and became affordable in the late 1930s. These did not hit masonic temples until the 1950s by which time there were some bargains to be had in the second hand market. There is nothing a lodge secretary and treasurer likes more than a bargain. When a member's family is bereaved and an electric organ from the lounge has no further family use, and when it is discovered there is no second hand market even if the walnut veneer seems perfect, then it makes an ideal bequest to the local Masonic Hall.
The consequence of this is that we have far more electric organs than pipe organs, and of course an ever diminishing band of worthy volunteers who can entice the right sort of sounds from among the vibratos, tremulants and waw-waw knee jerks that are all too often heard to emanate from these instruments in our lodges. The early electric organs from the post war period were pretty abysmal. By by the end of the 20th century new developments in audio technology has spawned some excellent digital organs.

Mark Masons' Hall

When these use files recorded from the great cathedral organs the sounds can be very impressive. Currently the best of these is at Mark Masons' Hall in St James's, London where the English maker Prelude were commissioned to built a bespoke organ with a full English cathedral sound overlaid with reeds suitable for the fanfares required in Mark and other Orders.
The auditorium, or lodge room was especially difficult acoustically. It is a long low temple with carpeting; far removed from the bright reflective surfaces of a lofty stone cathedral or large church. There are large chambers behind the grills that cover the west wall and these housed much of the electronics. A decision was made at the design stage that we would use 12 channels (most digital organs have two: left and right). They were dedicated to the specific needs of the sections. The reeds needed high powered speakers, almost tweeters, to handle the upper brass registers. Other channels were dedicated to quieter string sounds, the flues, diapason ranks, the pedal department and several other purposes. Just like a pipe organ, each note from the principal diapason scale was delivered from the north or south side alternately, so that the sound of a chord is heard to emanate from the centre rather from a particular side. The twelve channels allowed the power of each section to be adjusted in volume during the voicing, although some degree of override remains in the hands of the organist. Reverberation was essential as a low ceiling, acres of carpets and 375 men in suits, undoubtedly needed additional resonance.
A further consideration was to provide an instrument that sounded right even when the apse, which seats almost 80, is curtained off for smaller ceremonies. This is achieved by having the customary speakers in the organ console itself, but instead of it facing into the organists knees, the speakers face up to the ceiling. This works well, even when philistines place files, papers, gloves, regalia and trays with tumblers of water on the top. Most of the speakers are in the west end and there is a control to share the sound between the console and the banks of large speakers in the west. If the organist is known to be a bit heavy handed, the trick is to deliver more sound to console so that he hears himself well and doesn't deafen those at rest in the west end. A snag is that there are very many organist from the numerous lodges that use this Grand Temple, and there is a tendency to adjust the ideal settings of reverb, volume and shared speaker output too often.
There is provision for a dozen or more organists to set their own registration, but due to the haste and pressure to get going, few set up their own; they simply use someone else's and forget to put back what they changed. Nevertheless the organ is very rewarding to play and we should be grateful to the brethren and lodges who funded the entire project during the 2011. That enabled us to commission and build it on time and within budget. Carlo Curley gave the inaugural recital and declared it to be the finest new digital organ in central London at that date.
The Grand Temple Freemasons' Hall
Just after that Freemasons Hall in Covent Garden commissioned Harrison and Harrison to refurbish and substantially extend the 1933 Willis organ in the Grand Temple, which now is a stunning instrument of great delight to the organists and hopefully to those who hear it in full flood.
In recent decades there has been a steady movement away from maintaining masonic pipe organs, and instead to acquire digital organs, some of quite doubtful provenance. It is hard enough persuade the faint-hearted to take up playing for a lodge without confronting them with small organs that have enough buttons and red lights to make them look as intimidating as the flight deck of a jumbo jet cockpit. Sambas and rumbas may have been de rigour in the previous life of an electronic organ when it was in a pub or someones home, but they send Directors of Ceremonies into a state of apoplexy if used for the procession of high ranking freemasons.
There are some good pipe organs. Leicester has one that comes to mind and Cardiff have recently restored a 1906 organ which is now a showpiece and used by the University for tuition. By copying FMH's policy of encouraging students to come in the morning to practice and to give recitals for the public, they hope to show off their enthusiasm for the Craft and may win a few new recruits.

The reluctant organist

Whilst there is a small supply of organists finishing their formal tuition every year, it is proving impossible for Freemasonry to recruit skilled organists. Instead we recruit from within and do this rather badly. The best plan is to ask a potential candidate at their very first meeting with a lodge committee if they can play a keyboard. By this means we might identify those who could become our organists. Once they are initiated and see a old chap sitting at the organ they will be too timid to raise their head above the parapet and offer to take over. So we are often left with the unschooled reluctant organist who can so easily be put off by comments from those who believe they know better, but who never touch a note.

I'm no good as a teacher as I've never taught music. But to the person who has picked up the rudiments elsewhere I can explain a bit about playing local organs. First I ask them to try the various 8' sounds and decide which are to be avoided and which will be useful. These will then need a 4' and 2' from the same rank, plus a small reed, such as an oboe.

Be quick to work out whether a vibrato or tremulant is on, which make for a theatre organ sound. I abhor these for masonic ceremonies but it seems many of my colleagues have used these last time the organ was switched on. I get rid of them and aim for a churchy sort of sound. The volume can be varied by use of the swell pedal and if I'm talking to a newcomer sitting at a pipe organ I explain that this should be left open afterwards so that the air can circulate freely in the swell box.

Beyond this, it is a matter of taste. If the reluctant organist can set up a loud combination on one manual and a quiet selection on another, they are ready for anything! Processional music needs to be bold and loud, and background music quieter to set a contemplative atmosphere.

We so desperately need our reluctant organists that the main thrust of what is said should be encouraging and complimentary.


Knowing when to stop: that can be the pitfall of many an organist. There is nothing more unmusical than a procession that stops and the music does likewise instantly and without drawing to a musical conclusion. This is rather more difficult to achieve for those who don't have a natural facility for extemporisation. One solution may be to have learnt some two bar phrases that end with a dominant and then tonic chord in the player's favourite keys. Hopefully these can be be used as the procession ends to sooth the anxieties of the DC and others.

The greatest secret of freemasonry is how and when are we all promoted. One trick is to play the organ. The odds are you'll left alone in the corner for several years until someone notices your contemporaries are through the chair and may then ask if you wish to progress. It took me 30 years to get through the Chair in Craft. However, having established a reputation for playing the organ, when I became more senior in several other Orders and Degrees, I gently floated to the top and became Grand Organist in Mark, KT England, KT France and others. This coincided with retirement as there is a definite need not merely to play the right tunes, but to be willing and able to travel widely. I have now played in well over 100 Masonic centres, so many in fact that I can seldom remember what the organ is like if I'm invited back a second time.

If you get into a different car, it doesn't take too long to work out where the wipers are or where the 4 way flasher button is that has to be pressed in an emergency. Most cars are mostly the same in the layout of controls. Being a peripatetic organist one encounters far greater variations. Firstly, I get there in good time and ask the secretary or some important looking person what tune is used for the opening ode? Invariably the answer is “Oh! The usual one”. As I know several I play the two most common and see if light appears behind the eyes of the listener. I do so wish the secretary would carry a copy of the music, not just words, for the benefit of whoever is asked to play at short notice. When you've sorted out the opening ode there is then the question of the closing, and whether other things are sung, like 'Fidelity, fidelity . . ' But our reluctant organist should confine himself to one lodge and get to know that well before being drawn into helping others.

The future

For the past ten or more years I've been aware of CD players and computer discs that have suitable music prerecorded for our ceremonies. These too, have their problems; the first being that the man who had promoted the use of recorded music and who had brought in the kit and hooked up amplifiers and speakers is not immortal. These people grow old like organists, or their loyalty to a temple or lodge dwindles and it seems just as hard to find a willing successor. In any case, the real skill is in knowing the ritual thoroughly so that the recording can begin at the right moment. To ensure it ends at the right moment is far harder than at first it would seem. As has been said above, bringing processional music to a graceful conclusion is almost impossible at the click of a switch. But we can't get enough organists, so let's refine the skills of the 'roadies' and 'disc-jockeys' by inviting them to lodges of instruction to make everyone aware of the options available. Meanwhile the faithful old organists do this on auto-pilot and no one notices these skills are necessary until they are not there.

There is a case for explaining all this to senior DCs. For the big showcase events like a Provincial Grand Lodge, the GDC is so busy worrying about protocol, who should stand where in the line-up prior to processing and making sure the Sword and Banner are deposited in a place of safety that even they can forget to help the organist by coordinating the movements to the music. How often have you heard the DC call 'To Order Brethren' from the west door, then there is a gap when the organist has begun to play and the escort are still wondering whether to step off with the left foot or not. The opposite can occur too. Often the organist has no line of sight to the west doors and suddenly finds a body of men marching towards him while he awaits that crucial cue of 'To Order Brethren'.

There are very few temples where the organist is ideally placed. The usual criteria is how close is the 13 amp power socket rather than whether the organist can see and hear what's going on.

One of the best is Sindlesham near Reading where the organist is raised high above the JW's desk. Probably the worst is the Grand Temple in Freemasons' Hall London, where the organist is deliberately place in a hollow so that he cannot be seen to be higher than the Grand Master. This has been so since 1933 and was not improved during the major rebuild in 2014. To overcome this a single camera was placed on the east wall facing the large bronze doors of the west, so that the organist can see the incoming procession as on his B+W screen. This too was upgraded when Holy Royal Arch funded the refurbishment of the organ. We now have colour TV and three cameras: one on the processional way to the south of the temple, one on the Grand Masters' throne and one pointing as before to the west door. The only snag is that the camera on the east wall is too low, and when the GDC calls: 'Brethren Upstanding' all the organist can see is the haircut of the fellow in the back row. Most cathedrals have a hard-wired control for the organist to switch easily between cameras and alter the camera lens to provide the right detail. At FMH it depends upon a stranger in morning dress sitting at a sound console and he is 200 yards away from the organist and is unaware of the problem.

Another local variation is the DC or bodyguard's idea of marching. I assume it must be in places where organists are scare that the escort parties set up their own marching on the spot, very rhythmically, and then moving forward. The visiting organist has to copy the pace and make his march music fit the predestined pace of the moving column.

Organists are only human. They want music to add to the splendour of the occasion but often feel they have to fight an uphill battle to achieve this.

Naunton Liles 24 July 2017