We shall speak here only of the GRAND ORGAN considered as an instrument.
This mode of expression may seem strange to those who are ignorant that its study may be considered from another point of view : I owe them an explanation. The use of the Great Organ in the Roman Catholic Church demands an organist of three complete and distinct kinds of knowledge : that of the instrument itself and its management ; that of improvisation; and that of the liturgy; and very frequently it is this combination of attainments that is understood by the study of the organ; studies of the Roman Catholic Organist would be better.
The Roman liturgy has no place in this book ; of improvisation, we shall have a few words to say later when speaking of composition ; only the study of the practice of the instrument considered by itself can find a place in the present chapter.
This having been explained, let us begin by establishing the great difference between the study of the organ and that of all other instruments, for the reason that there do not exist two organs that are exactly alike. When we know how to play one piano, we know how to play all pianos ; a violin may be good or bad, but it resembles all other violins ; while what is called an organ varies infinitely according to circumstances, among which are : 1st, the sum of money spent in building it ; 2d: the place that is to be given to it ; 3d: the dimensions and the acoustic qualities of the building which it is called upon to fill with its waves of sound ; 4th: the kind of service that is required of it (the simple accompaniment of singing or the execution of organ pieces) ; 5th: the skilfulness or simply the fancy of the manufacturer; 6th:, etc.,etc. From all of which it may result that the instrument represents the volume of a large upright piano, or attain the importance of a house of four stories. An organ may have a single stop and a single row of pipes, and it is already an organ ; it may have two stops, ten stops, twenty, thirty, a hundred or two hundred stops ; it may have one, two, three, four or five manuals ; it may have pedals or not, and it is still an organ. Its stops may be distributed in a thousand different ways among its various manuals and be controlled or not by combination pedals or other mechanism ; it may have been made for many centuries or according to the modern principles of modern construction, it may be of the most naïve simplicity or of an inextricable complication, and worked by electricity from a distance; and it is neither more nor less than an organ. The master-maker of organs, or organ-maker, who is himself a great artist, and should possess a great knowledge, in acoustics as well as mechanics, never makes two instruments exactly alike. The most colossal organ in the world, to my knowledge, is that of the Town Hall in Sydney, Australia, made by the house of W. Hill & Son, of London, which contains 127 stops, 162 registers, 9,966 pipes, governed by five manuals, a pedal board and 28 combination pedals, and cost the trifling sum of $90,000 (450,000 francs). So the question here is not to learn to play any determined instrument, but to learn how to make use of any organ whatsoever, whether we are taken unawares, or have several days to become acquainted with it. This last condition naturally is so much the more strongly imposed the more important and complicated an organ is, and no organist, how-ever learned and experienced he may be, would be capable of obtaining, without preliminary practice, exactly all the desired effects of sonority from the organ at Riga (Russia), which has 124 stops, or that of Notre Dame at Paris, which has 110, or that of St. Sulpice, which numbers 118. But, let us say also, such instruments are rare and splendid exceptions, and only artists of the first order can be called upon to put them into play. On the other hand, every organist should know how to familiarize himself quickly with an organ of ordinary dimensions, with 30 or 40 stops distributed among two or three manuals, such as are found pretty nearly everywhere.
To acquire this faculty, to become capable of making a convenient use of any instrument whatever (which we assume, be it understood, to be in good condition), two things are necessary : first, we must study in books the construction of the organ, ancient as well as modern, so as to understand the use and function of each of its parts; and frequent the shops of the manufacturers of the Grand Organ so that we may see them close at hand and attentively examine the instruments that are being constructed or re-paired, taken to pieces bit by bit, as also try them and make their divers combinations work when they have been reconstructed. Organ builders are always very obliging and helpful to young organists who express a desire to inform themselves in matters of manufacture, knowing well that it is the most certain way for them to become skilful in the management of so complicated and so varied an instrument.
The second thing, when once the function of each piece of machinery is learned, is to frequent the society of organists, and obtain permission from them to listen close beside them, so as to watch them play and examine the way in which they make use of the resources of their instrument, to which they are accustomed and the qualities and defects of which they consequently know. As far as possible, we must not limit ourselves to the study of a single organist in this way, but extend this study to several, in order to make comparisons between them and their methods as well as between their various instruments.
It is not until we feel well equipped with all these observations and are conscious that we know what a Grand Organ really is, that it is time to take lessons and place our hands upon the keyboard.
Those who proceed differently will find their progress retarded, because they do not fully comprehend what they are doing and what they are made to do.
This necessity of knowing and comprehending the construction of the instrument, upon which I insist, must not be regarded as isolated and peculiar to the organ. Every instrumentalist understands the function of his instrument without having to make a special study of it : the violinist has no need to have any-one explain that the rubbing of the bow produces the tones, and that the intonation is changed by shortening the vibrating portion of the strings by means of the fingers of his left hand, all this happens under his eyes ; the flutist is not long in grasping the mechanism of his flute, the utility of the keys, and the stops that he manages with his fingers ; but it is otherwise with the organist, who is called upon to make intelligent use of an extraordinarily complicated mechanism, all of which is hidden and shut up from him, with the exception of the controlling parts, the keys of the manuals and the stops of the registers. In order that he may know his instrument in all its complexity, as the others know theirs in their simplicity, he must make a little preliminary study which is not required from them,that is the only difference.
Two conditions only are indispensable for undertaking the study of an organ: being sufficiently tall to be able to work the pedals easily, while seated easily on the bench and without having to stand up even for the most distant pedals, and being able to play the piano perfectly.
But, some one will object, the organ is much older than the piano ! then how did they learn to play the organ before the piano was invented? This objection is very just ; however, it would not be formulated by one who had examined, as we have advised above, the organs of different periods, particularly those anterior to the invention of the piano, that is to say, those that have now been in existence for more than two centuries. In those days, the keys of the organ were almost as hard to manipulate, to manoeuvre would be more correct, as the Carillons in Holland, where it is necessary to strike the keys with a blow of the fist. A great expenditure of force was required, and the most skilful virtuosi could never have dreamed of the rapidity and velocity which are to-day as easy on the organ as on the piano. The progress of its manufacture has advantageously modified the instrument from beginning to end. It is absolutely certain that the illustrious John Sebastian Bach, as well as his contemporaries, Buxtehude and Couperin, both celebrated organists of the Seventeenth Century, the one in Denmark and the other in France, had to execute his fugues and his toccata, perhaps some-times with regret, in a movement infinitely slower than is possible to the ordinary organists of to-day, who, let us say in passing, sometimes abuse the suppleness of the modern instrument’s emission of tone and pervert the spirit of the Old Masters of the organ by depriving it of a part of its nobility and grandeur. A fugue or any piece whatsoever of the time of Bach and Handel always gains by being executed sedately, broadly, and at a speed possible to the organs of their period, and this is the only way in which its character is preserved. But this is a parenthesis. Before the piano existed, there were the Clavecin, the Spinet and the Virginals, and it was upon these ancestors of the piano that the knowledge of the keyboard was acquired. All organists were then skilful clavecinists also.It must also be remembered that at that time, when the practice of music was far from being so common as it is today, there were infinitely fewer musicians than there are at present, that the amateur was nothing but a simple listener more or less enlightened and initiated in its technique or aesthetics, but he never practiced the art himself, and that the organs as well as the organists and Maîtres de Chapelle might be counted. When a musician embraced this career, he consecrated his entire life to it; and from that time it mattered little if the novitiate was long and arduous. Now, things have greatly changed ; the smallest chapel has its organ, so it must have its organist ; and many amateurs are ready to assume this office temporarily without any idea of making a career of it, having simply in view the very real and elevated pleasure that every musician experiences at the mere contact of the organ manual. So this is the reply to the above objection : Fewer learned ; they learned at the expenditure of more time and labour; they obtained smaller results.
The great and celebrated organists of the past centuries would probably be astounded if they could hear their immortal works executed today on one of our perfected instruments by our Guilmants, Widors or Saint-Saëns with a virtuosity, an ease, a variety of timbre and a suppleness of expression, which must have been their desideratum, but of which they never could have dreamed, owing to the condition of the organ manufacture in their time.
It is not only necessary that the apprentice of the organ should be able to play the piano very well, but he should devote himself especially on this instrument to the study of the legato style and pieces that have several parts under the hand, such as the études of Cramer, Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, the Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier by John Sebastian Bach, and the fugues of Handel and Mendelssohn, which constitute an excellent apprenticeship for the practice of the organ. In devoting ourselves to this preparatory study, it is important to take scrupulous care_ in preserving for each note, and for each voice, its integral value, and in not lifting the finger too soon or too late, even for the fraction of a second, using for this purpose what is called substituted fingering, which alone is favourable to conscientious execution, while thoroughly realizing that those infinitesimal defects of precision, that are even imperceptible upon the piano, become monstrous on the organ, where they produce either gaps or discords that are equally painful and intolerable. We can see by this that to play perfectly on thé piano is not sufficient, but that it is necessary to play with a conscientiousness and a clearness which very few pianists, even the most skilful, take the trouble to do. And for this, it is not necessary for them to neglect the other special pianistic qualities, for everything that makes them adroit and agile upon the piano will also be found useful for the organ.
Another kind of agility of quite a special nature, for no other instrument demands it, will have to be acquired, namely, that of the feet and legs; for the working of the pedals is nothing else than a real key-board whose keys are very much larger than any others ; and embraces, moreover, in modern organs, a compass of about two octaves and a half. To facilitate this special study, many piano manufacturers make a kind of pedal with strings and hammers that can be placed underneath the piano, thus permitting one to work at home. This is an economy of time and a very great convenience ; if one cannot be procured, it is very necessary to work on an organ.
We have only spoken as yet of preparatory studies ; the others imperatively demanded the intervention of a teacher. The question is to apply to the touch of the organ what we have already learned on the piano, and bringing it to still greater perfection ; to become initiated into the management of the registers and their multiple combinations, resulting in infinite varieties of timbres and sonorous effects of incalculable number ; to acquire the particularly pure and elevated style that befits the King of Instruments, and finally to become worthy of the title of organist, which may be considered as a title of nobility for every musician.
I fear I may insult the reader by adding here that if a knowledge of the laws of harmony is indispensable to the pianist, it is ten times more so to the organist, who would do well, moreover, to add a few notions of counterpoint if he wishes to penetrate deeply into the spirit of the most authoritative works of his repertory.
At every period of life, if a man has remained agile and adroit in the use of his hands and feet, if one is a good pianist and harmonist, and if to these acquired qualities is added the natural one of having rather large hands, there is nothing to prevent him from becoming a good organist. The amount of daily work need scarcely exceed three or four hours; more would be useless and fatiguing.
A certain maturity of mind is expedient for this great and beautiful study, which, nevertheless, may be commenced at the age of fifteen or sixteen years, if the required conditions are fulfilled.
It goes without saying that if the end sought is merely the accompanying of hymns upon a very simple organ, the studies can be greatly curtailed.
If, on the contrary, it is a question of playing the Grand Organ in a Catholic church, the studies of Fugue, Composition, Improvisation, Plain-Song and Liturgy must be added, as we have said above, and it then becomes a very complex science.