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The Taming Of The Organ III

By Organist and Music Director Charlotte Cook

Are church organs the same as theater organs? No. The American theater organs of the 1920’s are a very different instrument. Developed exclusively to provide music and sound effects for silent films, they lived for about 20 years before becoming victims of —“talkies” (talking pictures). Often massive, sometimes with five or six keyboards, they included the usual varieties of pipes, but also allowed the organist to “play” from the console all manner of bells, toots, whistles and shrieks, as well as a wide array of percussion instruments such as drums, cymbals, and even including a piano – a real one. Whole rooms had to be set aside to accommodate them. My first experience hearing one of these giants was during a screening of the 1927 silent film, “Napoleon” with pipe organ accompaniment. I remember marveling at the sound of the 32-foot pipes (yes, some organs really have pipes that long, although most do not), an organ being one of the few non-electronic sources of sound that low. I felt them more than heard them, but missed them when occasionally an orchestra was employed as a substitute for the organ (I assume to give the organist a rest, as the movie was a good 4-5 hours long). Although most of the theater organs in American cinemas were destroyed by the 1940’s, there is currently interest in renovating some of those that have survived. David Peckham at the Clemens Center, comes to mind, but that is another, very different story.

What kinds of pipes are found in a modern church organ? Organ pipes fall into one of four broad sound categories: flute, principal, string, and reed, each with a distinctive voice based on its shape and the mate- rial from which it is made. Flute pipes are wide relative to their height and produce a soft, gentle, often bubbly sound. They can be made of either metal or wood. The principal pipes are narrower and are usually made of metal. They are louder, less mellow than the flutes, and produce the typical full organ sound. String pipes are also made of metal, but because of their narrower diameter, their sound is softer, smooth and silvery, emulating the sound of strings in an orchestra. Finally, there are the reed pipes. These pipes make the unique often nasal or “snarly” sounds that imitate (more or less) brass or reed instruments. They are always made of metal and have a metal reed or tongue that vibrates to produce the sound, as in a harmonica. The great variety of sounds available on an organ are created by combining these four different kinds of pipes at different pitch levels, similar to a composer orchestrating a piece of symphonic music.

How do the pipes relate to the keys on the organ? As an example, let’s consider one kind of pipe – say an 8-foot flute. We have covered the “flute” part of this question, but what about the “8-foot” part? Just what is an 8-foot flute? It is not, of course, a huge flute eight feet in length. That would be awkward and quite impossible to play! I do have a cartoon that illustrates such an instrument being used as a clothesline, how- ever. But, back to the real world. An 8-foot flute is, instead, a set of 61 similar pipes, known as a rank in “organ speak,” each one having a slightly different length. And not by accident, there are also 61 keys on each of the manual keyboards! Interesting. Each of the keys must play one of the flute pipes, you reason. Right? Right. That is exactly how it works. But what pipe goes with which key? Since we already know that large instruments make low sounds and smaller instruments, higher sounds, we can now guess that the lowest key on the keyboard must play the largest flute pipe and the highest key, the smallest, and that the remaining 59 pipes are arranged in between according to their size. Right again. And what is the length of the largest flute pipe in our rank? The answer, as you have probably already figured out, is about 8 feet. So to an expert like yourself, an 8-foot flute is a group of 61 flute-type pipes, the largest of which is 8 feet long. Mystery solved.


After this brief outline of organ history, we are ready to march onward to our goal of determining what mu- sic the organ actually played in worship and how it came to be considered a “sacred instrument.” We are on much less certain ground here, for while detailed and often fanciful descriptions of early organs were common, few historical accounts exist of how, when, where, or why they were used in churches. Further cues had to be found elsewhere by looking at the music itself. We begin with the mass, the Catholic Church being the only game in town until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

What was the first Christian music? The earliest known Christian music was the tradition of sung prayer known as chant that was used to sing the text of the mass as well as of the psalms and canticles. Chants were in free-form, having neither a time signature nor a regular meter, with the rhythm completely depend- ent on the text being sung (usually Latin). For centuries, chants were monophonic, with a single melody sung in unison by a soloist (cantor) or choir. There were only the voices, the “living strings,” as any other instruments were considered impure, worldly, and therefore inappropriate for Christian worship. As musical styles changed during the Middle Ages, polyphony (music with more than one voice) was introduced into worship around the 9th century. The earliest form, parallel organum, added a second voice to the original chant, with the two voices singing the same melody in unison but at an interval.

How was the organ first used in worship? The organ began making its way into the church around 900 A.D., perhaps for ceremonial purposes, although exactly how or why remains a mystery. The only reference I found concerning this question suggested that the organ was used as a non-musical addition to the service, an accent, a clang, or a bell, which makes a lot of sense if we are talking about those overpoweringly loud monster organs.

When did the organ become an essential part of the mass? Occurring around the 10th century, more voices were added to the chant, each with its own melody, rhythm, (and amazingly, sometimes even its own language) – early multiculturalism!? Remarkably, the lyrics of love poems that were anything but “reverent” might be sung above the sacred texts. The original chant melody in the tenor voice was retained, but be- came enormously stretched out with the addition of the extra voices that typically assigned several words to each syllable of the chant. It seems likely that an organ would have been useful to assist the tenors in particular as they struggled to sustain the longer and longer notes. It is hard to imagine that those thundering monster organs could have been used in this way, but a smaller more civilized instrument such as the positive could have been.

What is the first sacred music written specifically for the organ? Once involved in the worship, the organ likely expanded its use by doubling not just the tenor voice of the chant, but the other voices as well. Originally improvised on the spot, these first organ pieces left no historical trace until some of them were written down, perhaps to assist organists who were not as skilled at improvisation. Based on vocal models, these very earliest examples of organ music all came from Italian manuscripts, most dating from the early 15th century.

Do you have any of this early music? Yes, I have several books of Italian organ masses from the 17th century in my library. One of the most famous, “Fiori musicali” (Musical Flowers) dated 1635, is a collection of short pieces known as versets, all in the same key. Of more importance to me, each of the pieces was labeled ac- cording to when in the mass they were used and for what purpose. (Whoopee! Finally some concrete information on the subject!) From this emerges a clear picture of the so-called alternatim practice in which organ solo pieces alternated with vocal chants, similar to the way that verses of a hymn or psalm were sung alternately by a soloist and the choir in the early Christian church.

How did the organist’s duties change as a result of the Reformation? Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a Lutheran organist moved from performing the liturgy in alternation with the choir to playing preludes and accompanying the singing. Preludes to the hymns gave starting pitches to the congregation or choir and indicated the melody of the hymn as well as its general character, whether celebratory or penitent. Hymn accompaniments kept the singers together and on pitch, and hopefully directed their minds and hearts to- ward God. Organ preludes preceding cantatas or other chamber works gave the performers time to tune their instruments, and according to one source should be played using a full organ sound! (How very peculiar!) When organists were criticized it was usually for preludes that were considered to be too long or too loud. Hymn accompaniments, mostly written out or improvised in four voices, were sometimes faulted (even including those of Bach) for trying to show off with strange harmonies or overly-complex arrangements that obscured the tune.

Is all of Bach’s organ music suitable for use in worship? Suitable, yes if judged according to its quality, but practical, probably not. Many of the pieces are just too long and demanding of both the performer and the listener for regular use within a usual worship service. This likely applies to some of the longer chorale- based works, but even more to the large free works such as the preludes and fugues or toccatas, some of which are more than ten minutes in length. I have tried to determine from my reading if any of the free works were actually used in the German worship service but did not find an answer. There were hints that they were not, and because of the emphasis placed on hearing and understanding the text in worship, I suspect that this was the case. In addition, there would have been ample opportunities to hear these works at the many public concerts or recitals presented by touring organists (including Bach).

Why is the 18th century known as the Golden Age of the organ? By the 18th century the organ had become the most popular of all the instruments and many famous composers wanted to write music for it. In addition, a whole new repertoire of Lutheran hymn tunes was now available for use, with the result that the number of organ works multiplied. Germany in particular was home to an exceptional number of talented musicians including Bach, who represents the culmination of music for the organ, his fugues in particular having no rival – ever!

How did organ use change in the 19th century? In 1776, Charles Burney wrote in his history of music, “Music is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing.” Less than a hundred years before it had been called a “gift of God, to be used only in his honor.” The contrast between these two statements illustrates the change in thought that had taken place resulting in a decline in the amount and quality of organ music available for use in worship. The following quotation from a French periodical makes this clear, “For the service it is the general practice for the organist to play, alternately with the chants of the choir, some short pieces called versets. But because up until now only a few works containing pieces of the genre have been published in our country, organists often have nothing other than mundane airs, waltzes, contre-dances, or other pieces equally inappropriate to the holiness of the place.” Lutheran organists, with their supply of organ chorales perhaps fared better.

What is the status of the organ in worship today? I have to admit that it is struggling. Major works for the organ are still being written, but primarily for the concert hall. Although Vatican II reform encouraged participation by the congregation, it also restricted the use of the organ, as did the rise in the popularity of praise bands. Consider also that pianos and guitars are relatively cheap, require less maintenance than an organ, and that money is always tight. Why not replace the pipe organ with an electronic substitute or even a piano? Besides, there are fewer students studying organ each year, predictable since there are not many living wage jobs available to them. As a result, I worry about the future of organs in the church – will they continue to have a place in worship? And will there be any organists to play them?

I do not have an answer except to say THANK YOU to members of The Park Church for challenging the status quo once again by encouraging quality music and continuing to support their wonderful instrument. It is beyond priceless.


Once a question primarily for philosophers, church musicians would have taken the answer for granted. “Of course the organ is a sacred instrument; of course every church should have one.” But things have changed. Pianos, guitars, and all manner of other instruments are now used in worship, which brings us to the question of where does sacredness lie? Historically, Christianity defined music as either sacred or secular, allow- ing the first in worship, but excluding the second on the basis of its text, origins, or style. For example, Christmas carols were originally banned from worship because of their boisterous character and their association with secular dances. Martin Luther however, did not object to drinking songs being used as hymn melodies, observing that “the devil shouldn’t have all the good tunes,” and modern composers are currently writing church music in a variety of styles from folk to rock and roll. In a recent conversation with Reverend Brinn, he suggested that secular music could be used in worship unless it had a text known to the worshippers that was less that “worshipful.” I agree, but feel there is more than just the words involved. Try to imagine the “lord’s Prayer” set to “Dixie.” Beyond the fact that the words would not match, the two just do not belong together! There is something intrinsic to the music itself that does not fit.

We turn at last to the organ. Is it the organ itself that is sacred, and if so why? I would argue that the organ is considered a sacred instrument primarily because it has been associated with worship, exclusively, for ten centuries, and for this reason the sound of a pipe organ instantly brings to mind the images and sensations of sacred space. How often do Hollywood movies use an organ to say “now you’re in church.” Nothing else is required; the association is already there. More importantly, ask yourself why you come to church, what are you looking for? Is it just to take part in another meeting of like-minded friends? I would suggest that at least some of the time you come seeking a way to transcend everyday experience, to stretch beyond your- self, to sense that “foretaste of the world to come.” Organ music – intangible, invisible, creating its own flow of time – can assist in this, and as an (admittedly biased) organist, I know of no instrument other than the organ with its long history in the church, its wide repertoire, and its capacity to fill a room with sound, that is so well-suited to the task.


1. The Organ Works of Bach – Hermann Keller, 1967, C.F. Peters Corporation 2. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism – Joseph Herl, 2004, Oxford University Press 3. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, H. Wiley Hitchcock, 1969, Prentice-Hall, Inc. 4. The Organ Masses of Claudio Merulo – Robert Judd, 1981 (unpublished thesis, Rice University) 5. Use of Plainchant in French Liturgical Music – Charlotte Cook, 1983, (unpublished paper, Musicology) 6. The Story of Our Hymns – Charlotte Cook, 2005 (unpublished Sunday school class) 7.Organs and Organ Music – Charlotte Cook, 2007 & 2009 (unpublished Sunday school class) 8. Numerous articles online


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