I was reminded of this story from Knoxville by my buddy Barry. It has always appealed to the music lover in me. 🙂
We’ve all heard of that crazed musician and would-be lover, the Phantom of the Opera, but he had a sort of cousin in a Knoxville church. The story was collected in Knox County by Charles Edwin Price in his 1995 book HAUNTED TENNESSEE.
Price does not give particulars that would identify the church, save to say that A) it is in Knox County (some fifty miles up the road from my little hometown) and B) it houses a truly magnificent pipe organ built sometime in the early twentieth century. From time to time this organ is heard to play in the wee hours of the morning, with no one at the console.
It was apparently in the nineteen-teens or twenties that the church vestry realized that their previous organ was about to wheeze its last. It no longer kept tune very well and was more likely to give out a blat than an actual musical note in the upper registers. So they voted to allocate funds to have a new one built, and hired an elderly organ builder from out of state to do the work.
The old man had, when he was hired to build this organ, already decided that this would be his last, and he was determined it would be the best he had ever built, the crowning achievement of his lifetime. He was quite a good organist himself, and would frequently slip into the church in the early morning hours and play. His favorite composer was Johann Sebastian Bach, and his favorite Bach work was the cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death”) in E minor. He was later to say that he constructed his organ around this cantata.
The construction, despite the consternation of the vestry, took five years, but it was worth it. It is said even now to have a richness and purity of tone that no other organ in Tennessee can match. Of course, no mere church organist could be allowed to play at the new organ’s dedication. The vestry hired a nationally famous one to come play it for the first time. When the man visited the church, the day before the dedication, he declared it the finest instrument he had ever played in his career. Unfortunately, he and the builder all but came to blows because the organist refused to play the piece around which the old man had built his mighty organ. He had played it so many times in his career that he flat out hated it, and walked out of the church when the old man tried to press the issue.
As fate would have it, the old organbuilder died that night of a massive stroke.
The next morning was a Sunday, however, and the congregation gathered to hear the organ played by a master at the dedication ceremony. He didn’t disappoint them; he played pieces by a number of composers, including Bach—but none of them was “Christ lag in Todensbanden.”
Quite possibly the most famous piece written for organ is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and the organist chose that as his finale. In our time, this piece has become a sort of generic background for anything spooky or even laughable; it’s been used at screenings of the silent film THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and was at one time used by Keith Olbermann as background music for his Worst Person in the World segment. In a concert setting, by a master of the console, though, it’s awesome still; it’s a mighty rumble of sound, and a true workout for both virtuoso and listeners.
The great organist flexed his fingers and was just about to play that unmistakable duhduhduh—duh duh duh duh, duhduhduh—when he jumped back from the instrument as if it had burned him, because IT WAS PLAYING BY ITSELF. IT WAS PLAYING “CHRIST LAG IN TODENSBANDEN.”
Shrieking, “It’s the old guy! HE’S IN THE ORGAN!” the organist led a stampede out of the church.
About one AM a huge thunderstorm broke overhead—entirely appropriate accompaniment for the wild, eerie music still playing inside the empty church. It was not for another few hours that some of the congregation got up the nerve to sneak in the back door. The moment they entered the sanctuary the organ stopped playing. They took a look at the console first—nobody there—and then searched the whole church. Nobody hiding in a dark corner; nobody in the closet with the choir robes; nobody in the bathrooms, the Sunday school rooms, the minister’s office. Nobody in the building but them. A bit shamefacedly they left, locking the door behind them—only to run for cover when the sound of an old man’s crazed laughter rang through the church. As they fled, they could hear the organ begin playing “Christ lag in Todensbanden”. It didn’t stop until sunrise.
And, to this day, there are occasional reports of the strains of that Bach cantata coming from the empty church in the wee hours of stormy mornings, to the astonishment and consternation of neighbors and police alike—for when they check, the church is always dark and empty as a tomb.