Early History Of The Pipe Organ Essay

, Research Paper

Early History of the Pipe Organ

The ?king of instruments? has a long history, one which can arguably be traced

to the concept of a collection of ?fixed-pitched pipes blown by a single player

(such as the panpipes)? (Randel 583). The first examples of pipe organs with

the basic features of today can be traced to the third century B.C.E. in the

Greco-Roman arena; it is said to have been invented by Ktesibios of Alexander

and contained ?a mechanism to supply air under pressure, a wind-chest to store

and distribute it, keys and valves to admit wind to the pipes, and one or more

graded sets of fixed-pitch pipes.? (Randel 583) These early organs used water

as a means to supply air-pressure, hence the use of the terms hydraulic and


Hydraulic organs were in use for several hundred years before the concept of

bellows, similar in concept and style to those of a blacksmith, came into use

with the organ. Numerous bellows were used to supply air to the wind-chest,

often being pumped in pairs by men. The disadvantages of this method of air

supply include the lack of consistent pressure, which leads to inconsistent

pitch and tuning; also, many people were required to operate the bellows since

there were upwards of twenty-four bellows per organ (Hopkins & Rimbault 35).

Also, with organs of this size, the bellows took up large amounts of space, thus

forcing the organ to be located in a fixed place, such as a church.

Up until the eleventh century (approximately), pitch and range of organs were

extremely limited, mainly in part to the lack of a any style of keyboard. Keys

of a sort were introduced around this time, though not in the manner we are

accustomed to. ?The earliest keyboards were sets of levers played by the hands

rather than the fingers.? (Randel 428) They looked similar to large rectangles ?

an ell long and three inches wide? (Hopkins & Rimbault 33) and were played by

pushing on them with a hand, although some were large enough that one might need

to step on them. While allowing no real technical dexterity, they were

sufficient to play plain-song and chant melodies, particularly with the use of

more than one player. As time progressed, the keys became smaller and more

numerous until they began to resemble the modern keyboard (except for range) in

appearance ca. 1400.

While these large early organs were used in limited fashion in churches, many of

the organs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were known as portatives or

regals. Portatives were small enough to be carried and played by a single

person, one hand playing the keys and the other operating a single bellow. Due

to the size limitations of portative organs, their range did not usually exceed

two octaves; their use was to play plain-song and chant melodies, usually in

processions. Similar to a portative, but larger, was the positive organ. ?

Positives were larger, standing on a table or the floor. They were played with

both hands, had a larger compass, and required a second person to operate the

bellows, of which there were usually two.? (Randel 485) The positive was

sometimes added to a larger, stationary organ and joined to the larger’s

keyboard (two manuals), with the positive being located in front of the larger

organ with the organist located between them. (Hopkins & Rimbault 42-3)

Up until this time, organs did not possess pedals. The pedal is generally

attributed to a German named Bernard, organist to the Doge of Venice. It is

thought that while he did not actually create the pedal board, he improved upon

it to the point of being able to assign its creation to him, making it similar

in concept to modern pedal boards only with a smaller range. (Hopkins & Rimbault


With the addition of the positive to the large organ, one began to have two sets

of pipes associated with an organ. These two sets of pipes allowed there to be

two distinct tones, similar to stops, to be produced from one organ, though they

could not be played simultaneously. German organ builders in the early

sixteenth century made possible the addition of ranks other than the principle,

each new rank being called a stop. By ?adding? a stop to a manual, one could

then play, in unison, two or more sets of ranks simultaneously. These stops

included new types of pipes created by the Germans which provided varying sounds,

including those that mimicked the viol family, reed stops (trumpet, posaune,

shalm, vox-humana, etc.), closed pipes adding a much softer and deeper sound and

smaller pipes which produced more penetrating sounds. There was also the

mixture stop, which originated (we think) in the twelfth century when one or two

pipes were added to a key, usually tuned to a fifth and octave or third and

tenth; it is also speculated that this practice helped spark harmony in music

composition. (Hopkins & Rimbault 36-8) During this time the pedal began

receiving its own set of stops separate from those of the other manuals.

At this point in the organ’s history, development was fairly uniform throughout

Europe due mainly to the unrestricted travel of organ builders and musicians

whose input would influence foreign builders. The uniformity of the Catholic

church also helped perpetuate the use of similar organs throughout Europe. This

trend of consistent organ building began to decline during the Reformation and

Counter-Reformation, both leading toward more political and national boundaries

being enforced, which increased the difficulty of unrestricted travel. Now we

begin to see trends and different regional styles of construction, some more

lasting and effective than others. (Randel 585)

The first area to look at are the Flemish countries of France, Spain, Italy,

Austria and England. These areas contained many organs of similar designs until

the Calvinist Reformation in 1560, the northern portion (Holland) becoming

Protestant and its organs being used mainly for church services, and the

southern portion (Belgium) remaining Catholic, whose influence resulted in the

organ becoming a strong liturgical instrument of great influence to the later

French organs. Secular organ playing developed in Holland; while the organs

were housed in churches, many of them were also played as concert instruments

for market days and special occasions. (Randel 585)

North German builders were the real masters of organ building, creating

instruments known for their size and complexity. Building upon their knowledge

from the Middle Ages, sixteenth century builders added numerous stops, some

ranging in size from 32? to 1?, including ?foundations, mixtures, mutations,

flutes and reeds? and a complete pedal division. These large, multi-faceted

organs would be the precursors to the influential Baroque organs of J.S. Bach,

Buxtehude, Scheidemann and others; these organs also influenced builders in

northern Holland. (Randel 585-586)

While initially Flemish in design and influence, a new school of organ design

and playing began to develop in France during the sixteenth century. While

these organs usually were not as grand in scale compared with the north German

organs, they are known particularly for their ornate casework and later

influence on typical French-style registration and compositional techniques.

The organs of the Alsace region of France, which were influence by the German

builders, would become the inspiration for composers such as Widor, Franck,

Guilmant and Saint-Sa?ns. (Randel 586)

English organs of this time period suffered greatly. While in proliferation in

many churches throughout the country, the Commonwealth period led to the

destruction of most organs. Those which were left were small in scale and

similar to the French organs in technical design, having only two manuals and

often incomplete or nonexistent pedal boards. These small organs were used by

composers such as Byrd, Redford, Tomkins, Lugge and Gibbons. (Randel 586)

Italian organs were even more limited in design, having only one manual (two

were rare) and limited ranks of pipes, although some contained inventive

mixtures of pipes in 1/2? and 1/3? sizes. Reed stops were generally not used,

and when they were, they were of limited size and number. Spanish and

Portuguese organs where similar in design and limitations, though the number of

stops were generally larger, and a Flemish influence remained fairly strong even

after the regional Iberian style took grasp. These Spanish organs were also

imported to the Americas in the early seventeenth century, thus beginning the

American tradition of organ building which would commence much later and be of a

more unique style. (Randel 587)

While many do not consider the organ to have had such a colorful history, its

history has been one of constant change and refinement. Beginning with the

hydraulic organs of the ancient realm, through the portative and positive organs,

continuing to evolve into large instruments effected as much my the church needs

as those of composers, the organ has survived every attempt to thwart its

development and demise into that of something relegated to old churches. The

organ will continue to survive through the ages and retain its colorfulness and



Hopkins, E. J. And E. F. Rimbault L.L.D., The Organ, Its History and

Construction. 3rd ed. London: Robert Cocks & Co., 1887.

Grout, Donald Jay and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 5th ed.

New York, London: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Fesperman, John T. and Barbara Owen. ?Organ.? In The New Harvard Dictionary of

Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel: 578?89. Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press

of Harvard University

Schott, Howard. ?Keyboard.? In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don

Michael Randel: 427?8. Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard



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