Taming the Pipe Organ II
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
A Sacred Instrument
In my previous article “Taming the Organ I” (February 2021, Cross Currents) we took a brief tour of the pipe organ – its parts and how they function, the organist’s “controls,” playing technique, and finally my personal observations. In “Taming the Pipe Organ II,” I want to look at the organ again but from a different angle – highlighting its long history, when, where, and how it developed, as well as how organs from different countries differed. Follow- ing a brief side-trip to consider how the sound of organ pipes relates to their size and shape, we will look at the music written for the organ – it’s origins, how it was used, how it changed over time and from country to country, and the most elusive topic of all, how the organ came to be accepted in the worship service as the “sacred instrument.” Unlike my first article, this one required some research on my part and lead to the recognition that I could only “scratch the surface” of what is a truly vast topic. I hope that I did not over-simplify or leave anything essential out as I struggled to tell the story in a way that was interesting and not overly long. I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about a subject that has intrigued me for a long time, and value the extra motivation I take from you, hoping (expecting?) that you will read and enjoy my efforts. I have included a list of references at the end. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PIPE ORGAN: When was the organ invented? The earliest known organ was invented in about 250 B.C., well before the beginning of the Christian church, by an engineer in Alexandria Greece, at that time a center for engineering and art. Known as the hydraulis or “water organ” it was a complicated machine that required a high degree of technical skill to build. A popular subject for writers, there are many drawings and numerous descriptions of the hydraulis, with its pipes, keys, and water tank. Water tank, you ask? Tell me more. Given its name, you might imagine water shooting out of the pipes as the instrument was being played, but that’s not how it worked. Rather the water was there to equalize the air pressure produced by the bellows in a manner similar to the spring-loaded air reservoirs of later (and modern) organs. Although an amazing feat of engineering, there is little or no information concerning what possible uses were made of such an instrument and references to it cease by the end of the 4th century A.D.
Continued from page 5: What came after the hydraulis? A type of organ operating without water appeared around the 4th century, ap- parently first in the Byzantine Empire and among the Arabs, and later in Europe. These organs, affectionately known as the “medieval monster organs,” gradually increased in size, requiring several men to work the bellows that supplied the air. There was however little in the way of technical improvements. In fact the keys of the earler hydraulis were replaced by a system of sliders so that instead of depressing a key, the player had to push in a thin Hsliver of wood to get the pipes to speak. And speak they did – all at the same time. This was cruder and more cum- bersome than the older key mechanism, and a single player could manage only one note at a time. Maybe they played a lot of duets. How did these large organs sound? What information we have comes from some astonishing descriptions given by contemporaries, but in a word, they were LOUD! St. Hieronymous, who died in A.D. 420 tells of an organ in Je- rusalem that could be heard at the Mt. of Olives, nearly a mile away. This account describes another organ as hav- ing “twelve brazen pipes” and a “grand sound of thunder.” Regarding an organ erected in the 10th century at Win- chester in England, we are told that there were 26 bellows which were worked by 70 strong men “laboring with their arms, covered with perspiration, each inciting his companions to drive the wind up with all its strength that the full-bosomed box may speak with its 400 pipes.” This organ required two organists to play it and the effect was such that “everyone stops with his hands his gaping ears, being in no wise able to draw near and bear the sound.” Other accounts referring to the thunderous quality of the instrument ask, “to what purpose pray, is that awful roar of the bellows, which is more like the rumble of a thunderstorm than the sweetness of the voice?” Good question. As I say, these organs were LOUD! What they were good for, other than for “bragging rights” is another question. Were the kings or emperors who received them competing for the prize of having the largest (and loudest)? How little things have changed! When did the organ get “pared down” to a usable size? After about 1300 A.D., and at the same time as the mon- ster organs were getting larger, three smaller versions of the organ, the “the portative,” “the positive,” and the “regal organ” came into being. The Portative was a small portable organ used for processions and favored, accord- ing to contemporary writings, by a number of outstanding musicians at the time. It could be played by one person, with the left hand working the bellows and the right hand playing the keyboard – an early accordion? Since the portative could play only one note at a time it was not used as a solo instrument, but rather was played in ensem- bles with wind and string instruments – perhaps as a part of Christian worship, perhaps not, although painters do frequently show it in the hands of angels. The Positive was a somewhat larger instrument, stationary and often placed on a table when in use. The keyboard was on one side, the bellows on the other, and it took two people to play it – one to press the keys, the other to power the bellows. Finally there was the Regal the smallest of the three and primarily designed for use in the home. One type of regal organ called the Bible regal could be folded together like a book. Are any of these smaller organs used today? Not really, although one of them, the Positive, served as an im- portant bridge to modern organs when, in the 15th century its features were combined with those of the large monster organs to produce a composite of the two, with a separate keyboard controlling each of the two parts. What discovery propelled the organ forward toward modernity? You will remember that a major drawback of the large medieval organs was that they were always LOUD. Combining two organs of course did not really fix this problem. One part of the instrument was still overpowering. There needed to be a way to shut off some of the pipes to keep them from playing while still allowing others to sound. Fortunately, a mechanism that did just that was devised around 1500 – a momentous day in the history of the organ, for now the tone colors of the individual pipes could be heard. This mechanism was, and still is, called a “stop” because it stopped some of the pipes from speaking. The monster had been tamed! NOTE: The term “stop” now refers to the labeled draw knobs on the con- sole that allow the organist to choose what pipes he wants to use.
What other improvements were made to the organ? The development of stops that allowed single pipes to be heard encouraged organ builders to experiment with pipes of different shapes and materials, as highly characteristic and varied sounds were added to the organ’s Hbasic mixture of tones. At the same time the pedal was developed as a more or less complete keyboard, with the result that, by the 16th century, an organ quite similar to our modern instruments had emerged, having three divisions and three keyboards. You can probably guess their names – the Great Organ from the 8th century medi- eval monsters, the Positive Organ from the smaller positive organs of the 12th century, and the Pedal Organ, a keyboard for the feet, newly added in the 15h century. Thus was born the Baroque Organ, an instrument similar to the ones that Bach played, and with a few updates, not unlike our modern organs. The golden age of the or- gan and its music had begun. How did Baroque Organs from different countries differ? In terms of size, Germany took the lead and reached its peak of organ building with organs that had up to three manuals and a full set of pedals. Organs that devel- oped in France at the same time were smaller, typically having only two manuals and a small pedal division, but were famed for their distinctive solo sounds. In Italy and England, the organs were even smaller, patterned after the 15th century positive with its single keyboard and few or no pedals. Italian organs were known for their light, delicately voiced stops. Unfortunately English organs suffered a setback in the 17th century when Puritans took control of the government and with it the Church, dismissing the paid musicians and removing or destroying many organs. The history of the organ in America begins in the 18th century when organs were imported into the colonies from England. As you might expect given their history, this only happened in the Episcopal churches and not in “dissenting” or Puritan churches. The Puritans held strict views about the introduction of anything “popish” into the ritual, and organs fell fully into this classification. What happened to the organ after the death of J.S. Bach? Even at his death in 1750, Bach and his favorite in- strument were already considered to be “old-fashioned” and not in step with modern times. Composers and performers turned instead to the newly-invented piano, complaining that the organ just could not express the emotions required by “modern” music. Originally called the “pianoforte” because of its seemingly miraculous ability to play both soft (piano) and loud (forte) depending on how forcefully a key was struck, the piano allowed the performer to make both subtle and dramatic changes in volume through the keyboard alone, a capacity completely foreign to the organ. The symphonic orchestra magnified these expressive musical possibilities, putting them even farther out of reach for the organ. An exciting new style of music was developing, and as pub- lic orchestra concerts and piano recitals became popular, the organ was largely forgotten. Even more important, the Christian church, long an ally was losing its central place in the society, hastening the organ’s demise. Would the organ survive at all? Did the organ survive? The answer is obviously, yes! In the 19th century, organ builders tried to address the per- ceived weaknesses of the organ first by adding a fourth division, the Swell Organ with its pipes enclosed in a box that could be opened and closed to control (swell) the volume of sound, and also by adding a variety of pipes that imitated (up to a point) the instruments of the orchestra. The new Symphonic Organ was born and took its place in the competition. How do modern organs differ from these 19th century instruments? Not by very much. A few “bells and whis- tles” have been added – electric air pumps replaced the choir boys operating the bellows, and electric connec- tions between the keys and pipes replaced mechanical ones – but modern pipe organs are basically the same instrument as their 19th century predecessors. In the 20th and 21st centuries, organ builders, including American companies, sought to incorporate the best features from each of the European organs so as to produce an in- strument able to play most of the organ repertoire regardless of its national origin. Our Schantz organ is such an instrument. Look for the completion of this article by Charlotte Cook in November’s Cross Currents