What is a pipe organ?

The organ is a wind instrument, it has different parts to it:
--The pipes

--The wind chests
--The blower and bellows
--The action (mechanical,tubular, electroneumatic, electric,electro/digital)
--The keyboards.

The place where the organist plays is called a console
The person that constructs organs is called an organ builder
The place containing the pipes, is called an organ case
Blooming of the organ
The Italian organ
The spanish organ
The english organ
The German organ
The french organ
The Organ in the Americas
The Romantic Symphonic Organ


The Organ originated in ancient Greece. Invented by an ingeneer named Ctesibios,and it was called the Hydraulus. The goal of this instrument was to entertain in the games.

The action was quite particular because it rested on top of a water cylinder, who had two valves that produced compressed air out of the water movement.

Pipes that looked like a pan flute were on top of this cylinder and, as the air passed through, they sounded, and thus the king of instruments was born!!!

Top of page


Of course the instrument evolved through the ages, and so did it's usage.

They added more pipes, and sliders to stop the pipes from sounding all together... thus, came the name of stop to define a particular organ sound.

Then, a "keyboard" was added, and people saw that they could make music that was not a random sound of the pipes, but composed music!
The mechanical action originated from there.

The water cylinder, was replaced by bellows, because the water made the cylinder rust, and, it was also impossible to expand the instrument, because the air pressure was not enough for the increasing number of pipes...

The organ became so big that, in one account it was said that to sound the biggest organ, they needed two organists and 70 bellow operators!!!
At that time, the keys were directly connected under each pipe... Seeing this problem, the instrument was modified and, a new system was invented, so, that no matter the number of pipes, the mechanism is reduced to the size of a keyboard, through a series of wooden rods, so one person can play.

There was a very popular small organ called the portative, it was used to acompany the gladiators in the circus, and later on the church processions, it was also widely used at home. One hand actioned the bellow, and the other one played the melody...

As people were playing with both hands, the portative had a bigger brother called the positive, wich was on a table, some body else actioned the bellows and the organist played with both his/her hands.
This is by the way the kind of instrument Saint Cecil played, on her tragic wedding.

At church,usually, there was the great organ, up in the loft with bigger and louder stops, there was also a positive,who was usually at the side or at the back of the organist. It was used to accompany the choir or the gregorian chant, thus the name of the choir keyboard.

The poor organist got tired of constantly changing instruments, so, another great change was made...
The keyboard of the choir organ or positive was installed under the keyboard of the great organ and, all it's mechanism was passed under the organist's bench using a false floor and connecting it to the pipes of the positive orchoir who is located on the edge of the loft.
This innovation allowed the invention of the Couplers, allowing the organist to play on two keyboards simultaneously or separatedly from the great organ,by either pushing one keyboard underneath the other (method specially used in the baroque period) or by pulling a stop situated besides the keyboards with the hands, or by depressing a lever situated over the pedalboard with the feet.
On tracker actions, a special feature of coupled keyboards is that the keys from the keyboard that is not played by the organist, come down by themselves, as if a phantom was playing.

Time passed and music evolved, there was a style of music where some notes had to be held for long periods,thus being unable to liberate one finger for playing. What was done is that the lower keys had an extension rod connected to a series of wooden pieces placed at the feet of the organist, and that is how the pedalboard originated.

The pedalboard had different forms, and evolved to a keyboard 30 to 32 long wooden keys disposed so the organist can play with both his/her feet with the same dexterity as if he/she were playing with the hands.

Top of the page

Blooming of the organ

After all those evolutions, the organ became one of the main instruments of the medieval, renaissance,and baroque periods.
A lot of music was composed for it and mainly five styles were dominant: The french, German, Italian,Spanish and English.
It was mainly these five countries made the organ bloom to the grand instrument it is.

Each country had it's baroque organ and, you can tell by the style of the music, for what kind of organ it was written.
Top of page

The italian organ

The italian organ was quite simple in the baroque period.
Usually it was placed at the side of the church in a loft,
and,was composed of a keyboard, no pedalboard
or just some bass wooden pedals
so the lowest keys could stay down
on a piece that requires a long sustained bass.
A particularity that organ had was "splited keyboards"
that would allow the organist to play
with one stop on the bottom half of the keyboard,
and another one on the top half.
s. Maria della visitazione, in Baggiovara, Italy Domenico Traeri organbuilder

The music, is very lyric and sober. Frescobaldi,the Gabriellis, Muffat were among the main composers for the italian organ at that time.

Top of the page

The spanish organ

The spanish organ was quite similar to the italian organ, but it also had it's differences.
The spanish organ had one or two keyboards,sometimes three, no pedalboard or just some bass pulldown keys attached to the bass keys of the manuals,"splitted keyboards".
What really sets the spanish organ apart, are the horizontal trumpet stops or "en chamade trumpets" which gave the organ a lot of power and of course the music style was very regal and energic, but yet more austere...

Also the placement of the spanish organs is different, they are usually placed in the front of the church on both sides of the altar and usually there is another organ of similar proportions,each organ has it's own console and horizontal trumpets facing each other, so sometimes, two organists used to play the "batallas" (battles) who were very popular in baroque Spain.
The main spanish composers were Cabanilles, Cabezón,padre Soler, Correa de Arauxo, Aguilera and many others.

Top of the page

The english organ

The English organ has a quite sad story. They were mainly small, but fine instruments that were constructed in the renaissance period;
but in the 1600's when the restoration and Cromwell were in power, puritanism had the organs destroyed or simply condemned to be transformed in ammunition.... adding to that, the great fire in London of 1666, left England,almost organless!
as a matter of fact, few instruments were saved and thus, new organs had to be buit after the monarchy was reinstated...
Father Smith, Harris were some of the organ buiders who had the task of constructing the finest organs that can still be heard in England.
Most of the instruments were made specially for accompanying the choir rather than as a soloist, and had no pedalboard. It was the german influence that imported some pedalboards, specially when Haendel went to settle in England.It was only at the end of the XIXth century that the use of the pedalboard was well established in England.
The placement of the english organ in churches is usually in the west gallery (the farthest point of a church), or at the middle of the church as in Westminster Abbey.
Another important feature about english organs,is that it was in England that the Swell box was invented, thus creating a projection into the romantic period...
They can usually have two to three manuals.
westminster abbey

Haendel, Purcell, Clarke, Blow, were among the main composers in that period.

Top of the page

German and french organbuilding were those that perfected the organ. The other countries took them as models to make their instruments evolve.
The same building or conception techniques used by those pionneer countries, are still used today to create new instruments.

The German Organ

The german organ at the baroque period had already all of the components found in an organ such as, having several keyboards, a peadlboard that allowed for performing virtuosic music and a cases containing the pipes that are separated and allows the usage of the organ as if it was composed of several organs at the time.
We find names like " hauptwerk" (great organ,) "r?ck-positiv" (positive/choir), "Brustwerk" (a keyboard located at the height of the organist's chest and has solist stops)and "oberwerk" (a section that is located on top of the "Hauptwerk" (great organ).
Beautiful pages were written for the german organ, if one only cites: Swelinck, Bruhns, Walther, Buxtehude and of course Johann-Sebastian Bach..

jakob kirche hamburg, builder Arp Schnitger

Bach is the unquestionable master of the organ. By his music, he commanded an tecnical evolution of the instrument such as equal temperament. One has to mention also two of the greatest german organ builders, who are oustanding by their instruments: Silbermann et Arp Schnitger

Top of the page

The french organ

One word to define a french organ.... Monumental.
The french organ building tradition was well up to date with the different evolutions of the instrument, and since France was under the power of the King,the organ music had to reflect this "royal opulence", the organs were big: two, three, even four manuals, the pedalboard was present as an individual unit, but the keys were shorter, which didn't allow the organist to play as fast as german organists, but a more regal, solemn paced music, who was dictated by the Catholic liturgy and the gregorian chants.
Since most of the organists were also organists for the King os France, they also composed the most beautiful and solemn music.
The French organ, is also characterized by the powerful sound of the reed stops, mutations (who are composed stops used for solos), and different little gadgets, like birds chirping and others.
The main composers were Couperin, Clérembault, Louis Marchand, Nicholas De Grigny,Boyvin and many others.

Dom Bedos de Celles a benedictine monk wrote a treatise about the art of organbuilding.
It was named: "L'Art du Facteru d'Orgues".
This treatise is the "bible" of all organbuilders and is a must read book for all organists!!!Saint Omer

The organ was usually placed at the back of the church.

The Organ in the Americas

The history of the organ in the americas follows closely the colonisation of the americas by the french, the english, the spanish and the portugese. Nevertheless, it is only around the 1700's that one can find evidences of the existance of organs in the new continent....

In Nouvelle France (Canada)

Under the french regime, there were some small french made instruments in some important churches of the colony, specially in Québec and Montréal.
The Livre d'Orgue de Montréal, is a manuscript brought from France around 1724 by a Sulpician, Jean Girard, who was organist in Montréal and constitutes the major musical heritage of french music in Canada... (Several works are from Lebègue,but for the rest of the works,the composer is unknown). This book was only discovered at the end of the 1970's in a library...
Then,with the english conquest, english organs invaded the territory,but,they had a great problem... The english wood resisted very bad to the harsh canadian climate.... These organs were unplayable,and needed constant repairs....
With time,several organ builders repaired these instruments, and studied their craft as well. Several builders started to build genuine canadian organs, among them: Napoléon Déry, Samuel Warren and Joseph Casavant.
Around the end of the 19th century, there was a particular interest for the latest european technologies regarding organ building,and the face of the canadian organ will radically change.
Joseph Casavant, created a company which he left to his two sons Samuel and Claver Casavant. At the end of the 19th century, the Casavant Brothers went to study the new organbuilding technologies in Paris with Cavaillé-Coll, and back in the country,they built and "modernized" hundreds of organs in Canada as in the United States.
Casavant Frères still exists, as other canadian companies such as: Guilbault-Thérrien (who closed down after the death of Guy Thérrien),Letourneau,Karl Wilhelm,Hellmuth Wolff, Juget-Sinclair, among others.

In New England (Future United States)

The organ was also introduced and they were english made instruments, that most of the times were small and without pedalboard like most english organs at that time. It was around the end of the 19th century and the begining of the 20th century that bigger, even "monstruously" huge instruments were built, and now the United States has instruments of all kinds of styles and has among the biggest and modern organs in the world!!!

In South America

Organs were introduced by the spanish or the protuguese (in Brasil), but their proportions are much smaller than in Europe, and also they are less numerous than in North America.
In Chile and Argentina, in the 19th century, some instruments were built by Cavaillé-Coll from Paris and at the begining of the 20th century, Orestes Carlini, built several organs of french and italian styles. There are also some instruments made by Walcker from Germany. Unfortunately,most of these organs are poorly maintained or simply abandoned for electronic organs or guitars.....
Fortunately, the future of south american organs is not that grim since with time and thanks to the efforts made by organbuilders such as Luis González Catalán,Carlos Alberto Valdebenito, and other emerging organbuilders in Chile and Argentina and the interest from foreign organists and organ builders,the instruments have slowly regained their original glory....

The Romantic Symphonic Organ

In the romantic period a big evolution came from France mainly, and made the instrument set the norm of what was the romantic and modern instrument going to be like.

To be continued.....

Top of page


Back to choices

webmistress Ninotchka26 me fecit.