Instruments | Organ | Keyboards

The organ is an instrument of extremes – the biggest, the loudest, the lowest, the highest, the oldest, the newest and the most complex, it is also among the smallest, the most intimate, the most modest, and the simplest.

Organ Extremes

The aptly named portative organ – much played from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries – rested comfortably on the player’s lap, while being pumped with the left hand and played by the right. Slung from the neck by a strap, it could even be played in transit, like the bagpipes.

In Atlantic City’s Convention Hall, by contrast, there is the largest organ ever built. A deaf and vibration-insensitive tenant could quite feasibly live inside it, walking the length of several city blocks each day without retracing a single step. Equipped with two giant consoles, one with seven manuals, the other with five, it has 1,225 ‘speaking’ stops and 33,000 pipes.

Between these extremes, the variation is enormous. Such extravagances were not just typically vulgar examples of the twentieth century. In the city of Winchester, England, more than 1,000 years ago an organ was raised that had 26 bellows, worked by 70 strong men ‘labouring with their arms, covered with perspiration, each inciting his companions to drive the wind up with all its strength, that the full-bosomed box might speak with its 400 pipes’. It was played by two organists on two keyboards, each with 20 ‘sliders’ (long wooden slats with holes corresponding to those at the foot of the pipes), and its effect was such that ‘everyone stops with his hands his gaping ears, being in no wise able to draw near and bear the sound’.

In 1429, more than 250 years before Bach’s birth, the organ of Amiens Cathedral in France had 2,500 pipes, the lowest of which were the sequoias of their kind, fit to make the very Earth tremble.

Ancient Instruments

Though among the most complex of instruments, the organ is also among the oldest, reaching back more than 2,000 years. The earliest-known example is the hydraulus of 250 BC, a highly refined, mechanically advanced Greek invention, in which the air column was regulated by water pressure. The first exclusively bellows-powered organ followed some 400 years later. By the eighth century, organs were being built in Europe, and by the tenth century, their association with the church had been established.

Despite its great antiquity, the underlying principles of the organ remained essentially unchanged between AD 250 and the advent of electronic instruments in the twentieth century. The usefulness of electricity has by no means put a stop to traditional methods, which are still much preferred by the majority of organists.

Organ Mechanics

Alone among instruments, the tone of the organ can be sustained indefinitely and unchangingly, merely by depressing a key and holding it down. The force or implement used to depress the key is irrelevant to the sound produced. Prior to the advent of certain electronic instruments, the organ,...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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