This article is about the history of the organ. You will also find information about the different types of organs and how it has developed through the centuries to the modern day.
The organ is a keyboard instrument with one or more manuals, and usually a pedalboard. In contrast to most other keyboard instruments, the organ’s sound output is continuous and constant for as long as a key is depressed. Unlike the piano or clavichord, the volume of the sound does not depend on how hard the key is struck, though some modern instruments are touch-sensitive. The organ is one of the oldest musical instruments in the Western musical tradition, with a rich history connected with Christian liturgy and civic ceremony.
The most well-known type of organ is the pipe organ, so named because it produces its sound through pipes, although many people simply refer to it as the “organ”. Another type is the electronic organ, which does not have pipes and propagates its electronically-produced sound through one or more loudspeakers. There are many other instruments that fall under the category of “organ”; see below.
A musician who plays the organ is an organist. A person who builds or maintains organs is an organ builder. The organ repertoire encompasses a wide variety of styles and eras; the most famous composer of music for the organ is Johann Sebastian Bach.
The pipe organ is the grandest musical instrument in size and scope, and has been around in its current form since the 14th century. Along with the clock, it was considered one of the most complex man-made creations before the Industrial Revolution. Organs (the “pipe” designation is generally assumed) range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments which can have over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ typically has three or four manuals with five octaves (61 notes) each, with a two-and-a-half octave (32-note) pedalboard.
Organs vary widely in design and in sound according to geography and time. In north Germany during the Baroque era, organs were built in such a manner that each division was readily apparent from the case design. The Hauptwerk (main-work) would be in the center of the case, with the Oberwerk (over-work) above and the RÃ¼ckpositiv (back-positiv) on the balcony rail at the organist’s back. The pedal division was usually set up in towers set at either side of the main case. This design is now called the Werkprinzip. Each division would routinely house complete principal and flute choruses and at least one reed stop. Meanwhile, in France, the separate divisions of the organ would not be evident from the case. Furthermore, the placement of stops followed a system whereby each division served a single musical purpose: the Grand orgue (great organ) would contain a complete principal chorus from 16′ up through a high-pitched mixture, while the Echo division might have nothing more than a five-rank cornet stop from middle C up. And during the early twentieth century in America, organs were built to play transcriptions of orchestral literature. This required that each division be home to several stops designed to imitate orchestral instruments and that most of the divisions be enclosed in swell boxes, enabling the organ to create seamless crescendos and diminuendos.
The traditional purpose of most organs is to play in Christian church services, and an organ used for this purpose is generally called a church organ. An organ, with its sustaining tones, is ideally suited to accompany human voices, whether a congregation, a choir, or a soloist, and this is one of its key purposes. Most services also call for the playing of solo repertoire, as many traditions have a prelude and postlude during services, as well as other solo performances. The introduction of church organs is traditionally attributed to Pope Vitalian in the seventh century.
Organs, especially large ones, are also used to give concerts, called organ recitals. Generally, any instrument of a large enough size (twenty ranks or more) outside of a church is a concert organ. In the early twentieth century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the U.S. and UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces.
The theatre organ or cinema organ is designed to accompany silent movies. Like a symphonic organ, it is made to replace an orchestra. However, it includes many more gadgets, such as percussions and special effects, to provide a more complete array of options to the theatre organist. Theatre organs tend not to take nearly as much space as standard organs, relying on extension and higher wind pressures to produce a greater variety of tone and larger volume of sound from fewer pipes. This extension is called “unification”, meaning that instead of one pipe for each key at all pitches, the higher octaves of pitch (and in some cases, lower octaves) are achieved by merely adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top and/or bottom of a given division. Since there are sixty-one keys on an organ manual, a classical or concert organ will have, for diapason stops at 8′, 4′ and 2′ pitch, a total of 183 pipes (61 times 3). The same chorus of diapasons on a theater organ will have only 85 pipes, or 61 plus 12, plus 12. Some ranks, such as the Tibia Clausa, with up to 97 pipes, allow the organist to draw stops at 16′, 8′, 4′, 2′, and mutations from a single rank of pipes.
Unification gives a smaller instrument the capability of a much larger one, and works well for monophonic styles of playing (chordal, or chords with solo voice). The sound is, however, thicker and more homogenous than a classically-designed organ, and does not work very well for polyphonic music unless a larger number of reed stops and chromatic percussions are added. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one manual and the pedals.
Since the 1930s, pipeless electric instruments have been available to produce similar sounds and perform similar roles to pipe organs. Many of these have been bought both by houses of worship and other potential pipe organ customers, and also by many musicians both professional and amateur for whom a pipe organ would not be a possibility. Far smaller and cheaper to buy than a corresponding pipe instrument, and in many cases portable, they have taken organ music into private homes and into dance bands and other new environments, and have almost completely replaced the reed organ.
The Hammond organ was the first successful electric organ, released in the 1930s. It used mechanical, rotating tonewheels to produce the sound waveforms. Its system of drawbars allowed for setting volumes for specific sounds, and provided vibrato-like effects.
The Hammond organ became popular in jazz, particularly soul jazz, and in gospel music. Since these were the roots of rock and roll, the Hammond organ became a part of the rock and roll sound. It was widely used in rock and popular music during the 1960s and 1970s. Its popularity resurged in pop music around 2000, in part due to the availability of clonewheel organs that were light enough for one person to carry.
Frequency divider organs used oscillators instead of mechnical parts to make sound. These were even cheaper and more portable than the Hammond. They featured an ability to bend pitches.
In the 1940s until the 1970s, small organs were sold that simplified traditional organ stops. These instruments can be considered the predecessor to modern portable keyboards, as they included one-touch chords, rhythm and accompaniment devices, and other electronically assisted gadgets. Lowrey was the leading manufacturer of this type of organs.
In the ’60s and ’70s, a type of simple, portable electronic organ called the combo organ was popular, especially with pop and rock bands, and was a signature sound in the pop music of the period, such as The Doors and Iron Butterfly. The most popular combo organs were manufactured by Farfisa and Vox.
The development of the integrated circuit enabled another revolution in electronic keyboard instruments. Electronic organs sold since the 1980s utilize sampling to produce the sound.
Also available are hybrids, incorporating a few ranks of pipes to produce some sounds, and using digital samples for other sounds and to resolve borrowing collisions. Major manufacturers include Baldwin, Johannus, Eminent, Content, Viscount, Makin, Wyvern, Allen Organ and Rodgers.
An electrically blown reed chord organ.
The reed organ was the other main type of organ before the development of electronic organs. It generated its sounds using reeds similar to those of a piano accordion. Smaller, cheaper and more portable than the corresponding pipe instrument, these were widely used in smaller churches and in private homes, but their volume and tonal range was extremely limited, and they were generally limited to one or two manuals, pedalboards being extremely rare.
A development of the reed organ was the chord organ, which provided chord buttons for the left hand, again similar to a piano accordion in concept. A few chord organs were later built using frequency divider technology.
The organ has had a strong place in classical music throughout its history. Antonio de CabezÃ³n, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Girolamo Frescobaldi were three of the most important composers and teachers before 1650. Influenced by these composers, the North German school then rose to prominence with notable composers including Dieterich Buxtehude and especially Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many to have achieved the height of organ composition. During this time, the French Classical school also flourished.
After Bach, the organ’s prominence gradually lost ground to the piano. Felix Mendelssohn, A.P.F. BoÃ«ly, and CÃ©sar Franck led a resurgence in the mid-1800s, leading a Romantic movement that would be carried further by Max Reger, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, and others. In the 20th century, composers such as Marcel DuprÃ© and Olivier Messiaen added significant contributions to the organ repertoire. Many new organ pieces are composed today, many sponsored by the AGO and made for use in church services.
Because the organ has both manuals and pedals, most organ music is notated on three staves. The music played on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on the top two staves, and the music for the pedals is notated on the third, bottom, stave. To aid the eye in reading so many staves at once, the bar lines are broken between the lowest two staves. The larger number of staves often makes organ music published in landscape format more convenient than the more commonly used portrait format, and for this reason many publishers print organ music in landscape format.
From their creation on radio in the 1930s to the times of television in the early 1970s, soap operas were perhaps the biggest users of organ music. Day in and day out, the melodramatic serials utilized the instrument in the background of scenes and in their opening and closing theme songs. Some of the best-known soap organists included Charles Paul, John Gart, and Paul Barranco. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of more dramatic, full-blown orchestras, which in turn were replaced with more modern pop-style compositions.
The organ has occupied a significant role in jazz ever since Jimmy Smith made it popular in the 1950s. It can function as a replacement for both piano and bass in the standard jazz combo.
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