The Organ, Organ Playing And Organ Music

In the book of Genesis it is written : “Jubal, he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” It is not to be understood that the word organ in this passage meant an instrument anything like that heard in our churches at the present day. In fact, as St. Augustine tells us, there was a time when all musical instruments were called organs.

The Germ of the Organ.—The invention of the organ is veiled in deepest darkness. Its development from its earliest forms to its present state has occupied a period of almost two thousand years. Doubtless, the first idea of a wind instrument was suggested by the breeze blowing across the open ends of broken reeds, the discovery naturally following that reeds of different lengths gave forth sounds of varying pitch. In course of time, reeds or pipes, differing in length, began to be joined together, conveniently arranged so as to produce a succession of musical sounds, the players blowing them with the mouth. These instruments were called Pan’s Pipes, the Syrinx of the ancient Greeks.

The First Stage of Development.—As the number of pipes was increased, the moving of the head back and forth in order to blow them became difficult. The pipes were then placed in a sort of box or wind chest, a tube being added through which the player could blow, the pipes not in-tended to sound being closed by the fingers. Furthermore, as the pipes were increased in number and in size, it became necessary to employ various mechanical accessories to furnish adequate wind supply, and to open and close the pipes at will, the breath and fingers of the player proving insufficient. A device was invented in the form of a slide, rule or tongue of wood, which was placed beneath the aperture of the pipe, and perforated so as to shut off or admit wind to the pipe as it was drawn back or forth. The earliest form of bellows might be suggested by the leathern bag of the bagpipe. In this the wind pressure was unsteady and the tone necessarily disconnected.

The Hydraulic Organ.—The first attempts to secure regular or steady wind pressure were made by Ctesibus, who lived at Alexandria, about 180 B. C. To him is ascribed the invention of the so-called “Hydraulic Organ.” This term seems somewhat of a misnomer, since the water was used merely to give the necessary pressure to the bellows, and to regulate the wind supply. This method was never developed, since the device did not seem applicable to instruments of any considerable size. The trend was rather toward a wind supply from a bellows operated on the same principle as that of the blacksmith’s. In the Hydraulic Organ the water was thus applied : An inverted air receiver, into which the wind was forced by a bellows, was immersed in a tank of water, the pressure of the water around and above the receiver forcing the air through an aperture at the top into the pipes, the pressure being regulated by the volume of water in the tank. The hydraulic organ continued more or less in use up to the early part of the 14th century.

The Earliest Organs.—The organ developed little as to size or mechanical improvements during the first ten centuries of the Christian Era, and it is difficult to trace the progressive stages in point of time, place or mechanical invention. The first organ known to the people of Western Europe was a present from the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, to Pepin the Short, Major-Domo of the Frankish Kingdom, in 742. It had brass pipes and the “keys” were struck by hands and feet. Eastern organs also came into France in the time of Charlemagne, son of Pepin. The first organ used in Germany was made in 812, modelled after the one just mentioned. In 88o, the Pope ordered an organ and an organ builder from Germany, which seems to indicate that the art had found support there at an early date. Although not considered absolutely indispensable, the organ from that time on seems to have been generally adopted for use in churches. Its many imperfections gave ground for criticism, yet today it is considered, par excellence, the ecclesiastical instrument.

Increase in the Size of Organs.—The organ builders of these early days were mostly monks, Pope Sylvester II (1003) being eminent, under the name of Gerbert, prior to his election to the papacy. They built small organs called “Portative,” and large organs called “Positive.” The old hydraulic organ, owing to its excessive weight, was called “Positive” to distinguish it from the “Portative” or portable organ, and these terms have been perpetuated to the present time. An organ built for the Cathedral at Winchester, England, had ten keys, four hundred pipes and twenty-six bellows, which were operated by seventy men, “in the sweat of their brows.” Since forty pipes were attached to a single key, it may be readily understood why its tone was compared to thunder. The keys were very large, having a deep fall, and required the whole force of the hand to press down a single one.

Mechanical Improvements.—The pipes in the early organs were made of copper, lead, tin, silver, glass, ivory and various woods, but experiments finally showed tin or wood to be best suited for the purpose. The earliest organs had about twelve pipes, and the larger instruments three octaves, but without the chromatic intervals. The pipes were arranged according to the sequence of tones in the old Church modes, the octave containing but three semitones: between E-F, A-B flat and B-C. The chromatic tones were added gradually, the breadth of the keys being correspondingly reduced as the increased number of keys occupied the same space as before. Heretofore, the wind had usually been forced from the bellows by the weight of men standing upon them, but in the loth century use began to be made of a lever, the bellows presumably being weighted.

The Keyboard is Adopted.—In the 11th century, the key-board appeared, supplanting the levers and slides, previously in use. The first organ containing this marked improvement was made for the Cathedral at Magdeburg, Germany. It had sixteen keys. In 1350, a monk at Thorn built an organ with twenty-two keys, and in 1361 an organ was built for the Cathedral at Halberstadt with fourteen diatonic and eight chromatic tones in a compass extending from B, second line, bass staff, to A, second space, treble. This organ had three keyboards, now termed manuals.

The Pedals.—The invention of pedals is variously ascribed to Albert Van Os (about 1120), to Van Valbeke, of Brabant, and to a German named Bernhard (1470), an organist of Venice. The latter probably improved, but did not invent the pedals. The pedals at first did not exceed the compass of an octave, and were used only for sustaining prolonged tones. They were fastened to the broad manual keys by stout cords, thus enabling the performer to draw down the desired key with the foot. About the year 1418 the pedals began to be attached to independent pedal-pipes, thus imparting to the organ a certain dignity and sonority, still a chief characteristic of the instrument. After 1475, all important organs were built with pedal keyboard.

The Introduction of Stops.—Up to the ].14th century, the different registers (set of pipes with uniform tone quality) could not be sounded separately, that is to say : all the pipes belonging to any one key sounded when that key was depressed. At the close of the 14th century it was found possible to add valves to the pipes in such a manner as to cause the wind to pass through or be cut off from any series of pipes at will. The opening and closing was managed through a spring. The next improvement was to introduce a slide to open or close the passage of wind into the pipes. With these improvements it became possible for builders to set themselves to the improvement of the various “stops” or registers.

Improvements in Stops.—In the 15th century, pipes of sixteen and thirty-two feet in length began to be used, necessitating a greatly enlarged bellows. Pipes were closed at the top, thereby lowering the pitch an octave. They were given smaller diameters, producing a softer tone quality. The shapes of the pipes were varied, giving additional variety in tone quality.

Thus began the broad classifications of “Open” and “Stopped” pipes in all their varieties. The “Reeds” (pipes containing a vibrator or tongue to set the column of air in motion) were familiar to the earliest performers, but were not introduced into the organ until as late as the 14th century. Further improvements were macle in the bellows at the beginning of the 16th century.

St. Mary’s, Luebeck.—In 1561, a three-manual organ was in use in St. Mary’s, Lübeck, Germany. To this organ all the important improvements were successively added at various intervals until it had, at the beginning of the 18th century, in the three manuals, respectively, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen stops, and in the pedal, fifteen stops. It was to hear the famous Buxtehude play upon this organ that Sebastian Bach walked fifty miles in 1705.

Design of Improvements.—Great improvements have been made in organ building since the time of Bach, all designed to give the player greater resources, and increased facility in the handling and control of the resources, which in the present day are simply enormous.

The Organ in the American Colonies.—Although the first organs heard in America were probably introduced by the Spaniards, of these there are no authentic records. Ac-cording to reliable historic data, the famous old “Brattle” organ was “the first organ that ever pealed to the glory of God in this country.” It was imported from London, in 1713, by Mr. Thomas Brattle, who bequeathed it to the Brattle Street Church, Boston, directing that the parish “procure a sober person that can play skilfully thereon with a loud noise.” This organ became the property of King’s Chapel, Boston, and was used until 1756.

No Art in Early Organ Playing.-The organs of the early Christian period were of such a character that playing, in the sense in which we now understand the word, was out of the question. For some time the span of the hand possible to players did not exceed the distance of a fifth. If an octave was to be struck, a second player was necessary. Only with the narrowing of the keys did artistic playing become possible. In fact, organ playing has in-variably reflected the style and development of contemporary musical art.

Early Organists.—The credit of being “father of organists” is given to Francesco Landino, of Florence (1325-1390), and after him to Bernhard, mentioned as the inventor of the organ pedals. The oldest organ compositions are some works by Konrad Paumann (1410-1473), who was born blind, yet, like many others since, became a thoroughly trained musician in spite of his affliction. He also played other instruments and was a fine contrapuntist. An-other of the early organists is Benedictus Ducis (or Hertoghs), born at Bruges, about 1480. He was a pupil of Josquin des Pres. From Ducis, representing the second Flemish school, as founded by Okeghem, there is a chain almost of master and pupil, between the early masters of organ playing and polyphonic writing and Bach, who in these arts became the master of all. Paumann’s pieces show the style of composing for the instrument that was considered appropriate. They are essentially transcribed, but elaborated, vocal works. The compositions of the next organists of fame, Willaert, of Venice (1490-1562), and Cyprian di Rore (1516-1565), pupil of the former, have distinct names. Ricercari, Intonationi, Contrapunti, Toccati, Praeambula, and Canzoni, but the character remains the same, vocal pieces, elaborated and freely embellished with runs and other passage work. Later the term Ricercari came to mean a sort of fantasia in fugal form, often on a popular air; Toccata became a free fantasia with brilliantly figurated passages, and a Praeambulo a prelude to a larger piece. Other famous organists of this period were Bernhard Schmidt (1520-?), German; Claudio Merulo (1532-1604), organist at Venice, and his successors, the two Gabrieli’s.

Frescobaldi and His Successors.—The greatest of all the organists of the earlier days, to whom the title of “Father of true organ playing” has been given, was Girolamo Frescobaldi, born in 1583 at Ferrara, in Italy, educated in Flanders, and from 16o8 to his death in 1644 organist at St. Peter’s, Rome. His fame was so great that the spacious cathedral was often filled when he gave an organ recital. His compositions, many of which have been preserved, have a very decided contrapuntal character, whence some have called him the inventor of the organ fugue. Two prominent German organists, whose compositions were studied by Bach, were Caspar Kerl (1627-1693), and Jacob Froberger (-1667), both of whom lived in Vienna. The most eminent organist of the 17th century was Johann Peter Sweelinck 0562-1620, pupil of Zarlino, the famous Italian theorist, and of Andreas Gabrieli, organist of Venice. Sweelinck occupied the position of organist at the Cathedral in Amsterdam, and gave much attention to the development of the fugal style of composition. His compositions are of the highest importance historically, since they exhibit the first known examples of the independent use of the pedals in a real fugal part. He was the most eminent organist of his time (being called the organist maker), and was the teacher of the following noted players: Jacob Praetorius (died at Hamburg in 1651) ; Heinrich Scheidemann (1596-1663), also located at Hamburg; Jan Adams Reinken (1623-1722), from 1663 organist and successor to Scheidemann at the Catherine Church, Hamburg (Bach came to Hamburg several times to hear Reinken play and to learn his style) ; Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), organist at Halle. Some of their compositions are accessible.

Other famous organists of this period were Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) , located at Nuremberg (Bach studied his works as a lad) ; Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), organist at Lübeck for thirty-nine years. One of the most important names of this period of development is that of Johann Joseph Fux (166o-1741). His “Gradus ad Parnassum,” published in 1725, a treatise on counterpoint based on the practice of the great masters, played an important part in the training of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

English Organists.—In the history of English organ playing, the first great name to engage our attention is that of Thomas Tallys, born about 152o. He is called the “Father of English church music.” He served under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as organist of the Chapel Royal. English organists of distinction contemporary with and succeeding Tallys were John Merbecke, Richard Farrant, William Byrd, John Bull, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons (a contemporary of Frescobaldi) , Matthew Locke, John Blow and Henry Purcell. The last mentioned, born in 1658, became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1680. The name of Purcell is one of the strongest in the history of English music. It was his ambition to found a distinctive school of English composition. Although not successful in this, he made a lasting impression on English church music and produced many charming secular works. It is on record that he stood high in the estimation of his European contemporaries.

Culmination in Bach and Handel. — The Polyphonic Period culminated in Bach and Handel, both born in 1685. These two, who never met, and who worked upon dissimilar lines, were the most famous organists of their day, in addition to their greatness in composition.

The Organ and Polyphonic Music.—Bach must be regarded as the source of modern organ composition and playing. In him polyphonic composition attained its highest perfection and the organ stands as the centre of the Polyphonic school. The development of the Opera and its influence towards a freer style in vocal and instrumental composition and the tendency of instrumental music to develop along harmonic lines had the effect of relegating polyphonic music to the Church with the organ as its chief vehicle. It is only of comparatively recent years that the organ has become a concert instrument. Bach’s treatment of the instrument serves as a model for the composers of all time and the study of his works is indispensable to the development of technical command of the organ and the cultivation of the true organ style. Handel’s permanent contribution to organ literature consists of sets of Concertos. These concertos, a number of which are still played and admired, excited the enthusiasm of Sir John Hawkins, who gives a glowing account of them in his history. Bach was appointed Cantor at the St. Thomas Schule, Leipzig, in 1723, and it was here that much of his greatest work was accomplished. In addition to his duties at the school, he directed the music in the Churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. As to the relative superiority of Bach and Handel as organists, contemporary opinion seems to have differed widely. Each undoubtedly had a style of his own as shown in his published compositions. Each excelled in improvisation.

The Chorale in Protestant Organ Music.—In addition to his incomparable preludes and fugues, toccatas, fantasias and pieces in the larger forms, Bach made the polyphonic treatment of the chorale an art peculiarly his own. In fact, the German style of organ playing may be said to have developed from the chorale and from the music of the Reformation. This furnished a fresher and very different source of inspiration from the Gregorian chant which had been handled so effectively by Frescobaldi and his Italian successors.

Marchand.—One of the most renowned of early French organists was Louis Marchand (1671-1732). In 1717, while living under banishment in Dresden, he was to have entered into a trial of skill with Bach, but lost courage and de-parted on the morning of the appointed day. A certain triviality has at times characterized the French school of organ music, undoubtedly a reflection of the prevailing style and taste in other branches of musical composition. Of later years, however, a more serious and exalted style has developed.

The German School.—To return to the German organists. A name familiar to all students of the organ is that of Rinck. Johann C. H. Rinck (1770-1846) was a pupil of Kittel, who in turn was a pupil of J. S. Bach. Rinckvs reputation is based largely on his “Practical Organ School,” a work still in use. Another name of importance is that of Johann Gottlob Schneider (1789-1864). He has had the reputation of being one of the greatest German organists since the time of Bach. Of the great composers since Bach, Mendelssohn stands conspicuous as an organist and composer of organ music. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, although occasionally using the organ in their scores, did not compose for the instrument. Mendelssohn developed a decided fondness for the organ, which he played admirably. His six sonatas and three preludes and fugues are masterpieces. Among the representative German organists and composers should be mentioned : Adolph Hesse (1809-1863), author of the “Practical Organist” and a prolific composer ; Karl August Haupt (’8′o-’891), a celebrated teacher, numbering among his many pupils from all countries such prominent American organists as Eugene Thayer, Clarence Eddy and J. K. Paine; Carl Ludwig Thiele (1816-1848) composer of some of the most difficult known works for the organ; Gustav Merkel (1827-1885), a prolific composer, whose sonatas are numbered among the standard works for the instrument; J. G. Rheinberger (1837-1901), one of the finest organists and best teachers of his time and a composer of great ability, whose twenty sonatas form a permanent addition to the best organ literature. A number of American organists were among his pupils.

The French School: Prominent among organists of the French school in the 19th century may be mentioned : L. J. A. Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869) and Antoine Eduard Batiste (182o-’876). The works of both these organists are still widely played and have won much popularity. Wely has been called the “Auber of the organ.” His works display fertility of melodic invention and a piquancy of harmonic treatment, but are entirely lacking in the poly-phonic element. Much the same may be said of Batiste, who was a fine player and teacher, and who equalled Wely in tunefulness but not in musicianship. Nicholas Jacques Lemmens (1823-81), a great player (especially of Bach) and author of the celebrated “Ecole d’Orgue” may be said to have laid the foundation of the modern French school. Conspicuous among his successors have been : Camille Saint-Saens (1835- ), a most versatile musician and a noted organist; Theodore Dubois (1837-), Theodore Salomé (1834- ) and Felix Alexandre Guilmant (1837- ). Guilmant, one of the most noted organists and composers of the present day, was a favorite pupil of Lemmens. He has been one of the most prolific composers since the time of Bach, is a master of all the resources of the modern organ, and has a fertility of invention and a fluent command of contrapuntal resources. Another eminent French organist is C. M. Widor (1845- ), also a composer of distinction. A powerful influence was exerted on modern organ music, as well as general composition, by the eminent organist and composer, Cesar Franck (1822-1890), who was, for a number of years, in charge of the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire.

The Italian School. — Among recent Italian organists Filippo Capocci (1840-1898) and Enrico Bossi (1861- ) are worthy of mention. Both are splendid organists and prolific composers. They are leaders in the revival of good organ playing in Italy, where a determined effort is being made to restore the art to its former supremacy.

The English School.—England has furnished a long line of 19th century organists of ability, prominent among whom are : Sir John Goss (1800-1880) , Henry Smart (1813-1879), E. J. Hopkins (1818-1901) , S. S. Wesley (1810-1876), Dr. Wm. Spark (1825-1897). Foremost among English organists stands the name of Wm. T. Best (1826-1897). He was one of the most famous concert organists of his time, but is. best known to organ students by his “Arrangements from the Scores of the Great Masters,” in which he demonstrated that the organ is in itself capable of reproducing certain orchestral effects without transcending its proper functions or descending to trickery. “The Organ,” by Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), is one of the most widely used elementary works for instruction in organ playing. Dr. Stainer was the successor of Sir John Goss, at St. Paul’s, London, and was appointed Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1889. Frederic Archer (1838-1901) has been considered one of the greatest of organ players. After a successful career in England, he came to America it 1880. He did much towards popularizing and elevating the art of organ playing in this country. Prominent among contemporary English organists stands Edwin H. Lemare (1865- ), who succeeded Frederic Archer as organist of Carnegie Hall, Pittsburg, in 1902. He is a skilful virtuoso, a composer of originality, and a leading representative of the modern English school.

Modern Organ Music.—Organ playing and composition have kept pace with the mechanical and artistic evolution of the instrument, and the lines between the various schools are becoming less closely drawn. The tendency of builders to imitate orchestral tone and effects has had influence on composers and players alike. This tendency is less noticeable in the works of the German school, where a modified polyphony still flourishes, based on the principle of the classic treatment of the chorale and growing omit of the music of the Lutheran Church. The organ compositions of the modern French school are characterized by grace, refinement and originality, coupled with a certain dignity and elegance. They combine free harmonic treatment and modern polyphony, together with certain ornate characteristics, growing out of the elaborate ceremonial music of the Latin Church, and bringing into play all the resources of tone color and expressive treatment of the modern instrument. Much the same may be said of thé modern English school, which nevertheless still shows traces of the early English style, based on the dignity and purity of cathedral use and tradition. The orchestral tendency, both in composition for the organ and in the transcription of orchestral works for the instrument, shows itself more or less in all schools, and the organ, in addition to its position in the church, is becoming more and more a concert instrument. The compositions of the American organists reflect, in a measure, the characteristics of the schools in which they have been trained, and in particular show traces of the styles of the masters with whom they have chiefly studied.’


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Articles on the Organ, and Organists mentioned in this lesson.

Williams.—Story of the Organ.

Lahee.—The Organ and its Masters.

Matthews.—Handbook of the Organ.

Pirro.—J. S. Bach : The Organist and His Works.

Audsley, G. A.—The Art of Organ Building, 2 vols.