The Secret of the PIPES

The Secret of the PIPES

Found in churches, concert halls, and theaters, pipe organs can be quite a sight and sound to behold. They have multiple keyboards (manuals), numerous stops (drawbars that set the timbre), bass pedals, and huge arrays of pipes (the length of which determines pitch).


The world of music has many mediums blends to satisfy a multitude of musical tastes. While music in any form is centuries old the means by which it is executed is extensively filled with an unending history. As the old cliché says "Music soothes the wild beast." In this respect we search for that one medium that soothes the wild beast in each of us. Music is so seated into human culture that it is inevitable that most of us eventually come around to wondering about its origins. Most instruments it seems have a tradition of seeking out one certain form of music. The organ is no exception to this rule. To see how the instrument has developed into many forms and uses it acquires a search into its beginnings. The pipe organ presents a different picture. The instrument itself is a composite machine, and to be considered an "organ" it must have four basic components:

  • pipes that produce sound
  • are placed on a chamber that stores wind
  • under pressure that has been mechanically generated, and access of wind to pipes controlled by a keyboard

The History

The concept of the organ appears to have been created in 246 BCE by Ctesibius of Alexandria. He invented a mechanical flute-playing instrument with wind pressure regulated by means of water pressure, called a hydraulis.

The first reference to hydraulis-playing, in the form of a "delphic inscription" was in 90 BCE. The instrument was introduced to Rome where Cicero, Lucretius, and Petronius wrote of its powers.

The hydraulis appears to have been at first a curiosity, but it became an instrument used in the competitions that characterized both Greek and Roman cultural life. Its use as an instrument for solo performance, as well as for providing accompaniments to other games and even combat is well documented. As the largest, most highly developed - - even the most complicated musical instrument in use, the hydraulis held a position in the ancient world that the organ would maintain in modern times even to the end of the twentieth century. The hydraulis spread throughout the Mediterranean region and is recorded as having been played at banquets, games and circuses. This is a very different vision of the organ than most Americans have today, who often link organs to more serious occasions

The hydraulis, as indicated above, was very much a part of the musical life of ancient Rome. It is well known that the culture of the Roman Empire was the start of many of todayís appreciation of the arts. . One particular development in the organ did take place during the Roman period: replacement of the pumps and water regulator of the hydraulis with a bellows. By the second century AD descriptions of the bellows organ begin to appear. The bellows replaced two parts of the hydraulis:

  • It provided the source of wind to the organ, replacing the pumps of the hydraulis.
  • It provided a means of controlling the wind pressure, replacing the water regulator that defines the hydraulis.

In the 1950's, the remains of an organ of the third century AD were uncovered at Aquincum, Hungary, buried under the rubble when a disaster struck the Roman community there centuries ago. Perishable parts of the organ (including leather and wood) were of course lost, but metal parts had survived and were complete enough to permit some reliable surmises as to the form of the instrument. It appears to have been a hydraulis, not a bellows organ, even though the bellows organ is described in earlier sources. Apparently, the bellows organ did not replace the hydraulis entirely in the Roman Empire, at least not immediately.

The bellows organ, then, is a later development in the history of the instrument, appearing first in the Roman Empire some four centuries after the invention of the hydraulis. Although there is evidence that the bellows organ did not replace the hydraulis, this technical change actually defined the instrument, as it was to exist from that time forward. From the late Roman Empire until the late twentieth century, the history of the organ is the history of the bellows organ and its descendants.





Coming out of the Circus into the Churches
The organ began making its way into churches around 900 CE. Exactly how and why remains an enigma, but it appears that the organ was first used for ceremonial purposes. By the 1400s, the use of organs was well established in monastic churches and cathedrals throughout Europe. Large and small organs were in use on festival occasions and in alternation with church choirs for liturgical purposes. While most Americans may link the organ to the church, the instrument was around for more than 1100 years before it made its way into a church setting.


Interesting Facts

Until about 1500, organs could only make one sound, regardless of how many pipes they had per note. Mechanisms were developed so that separate sets of pipes could be "stopped off." This meant they could be played alone, providing some variation in dynamics (degrees of loud and soft) and color. Today, we routinely associate the organ with the ability to generate an array of sounds -- as well as the power to make a splash by "pulling out all the stops."

Between 1510 and 1520 a type of organ appeared in the upper Rhineland that incorporated virtually all features to be found in present-day organs. The "modern" organ, with all of its new stops and effects, was described in a work entitled Mirror of the Organbuilder by Arnolt Schlick of Heidelberg (1511).


In 1759 Thomas Johnston, a native of Boston, built an organ for Old North Church where Paul Revere was the sexton. The church was soon to become famous as a result of Revere's ride. The organ was enlarged many times and recently a new organ was build by David Moore, of Vermont, and the beautiful Johnston case restored.

Mozart and Beethoven were both court organists. Mozart's appointment came in 1779 to the court of Salzburg and Beethoven's in 1784 to the court of Elector Max Franz. While we often associate J.S. Bach closely with the organ, many today do not think of Mozart and Beethoven as court organists. These positions were ones of importance to the composers, the courts and the people of western Europe. Other famous composers who were organists: Handel, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck, Dvorak, Bruckner, Fauré, Ives, and Messiaen.

Organs from several countries were featured in the 1851 Great Exhibition in London's Crystal Palace. In 1855 Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, England introduced a steam-powered organ called the calliope. The Worcester City Council banned him from playing it within the city limits because it was so loud. In 1896 Robert Hope-Jones built an organ with electric action embodying some radical tonal ideas for the Worcester (MA) Cathedral. In 1934 Laurens Hammond patented an electronic keyboard instrument called the "Hammond Organ".

One of the liveliest chapters in American organ history began in 1934 when Laurens Hammond (owner of a clock manufacturing company) patented an electronic keyboard instrument called the "Hammond Organ". Hammond claimed that the instrument could equal a pipe organ in its range of harmonics and could produce the tone colors necessary for proper rendition of the great works of organ literature. Organ builders in organ periodicals made counter-claims. Complaints were filed with the Federal Trade Commission in 1935 and hearings were held in Chicago, Atlantic City and Washington, D.C. The outcome: In 1938, the FTC ordered the Hammond company to cease its claims that the instrument could equal a pipe organ.


Joseph Ridges built the first organ in the Mormon Tabernacle, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1869. The same year witnessed the first Peace Jubilee held in Boston with an orchestra

of 800, a chorus of 10,000, and a large organ made by the Hook & Hastings Organ Co. While 17th-century audiences consisted mostly of the aristocracy, music lovers from various economic and social strata began attending concerts during the 19th- and 20th-centuries which witnessed an increase in the size of performing ensembles, concert halls and organs.

Many great industrialists of the 19th century became patrons of the arts. For example, Andrew Carnegie began giving away organs in 1873 and organs made possible by gifts from Carnegie were installed in 8,812 churches, schools and civic institutions.

In 1910 the Wurlitzer company began building organs with special sound effects designed for use in movie theatres to accompany silent films. Large and spectacular organs could be found in beautifully crafted art deco movie theaters across America. Many a mighty Wurlitzer was switched off and many an organist out of a job when "talkies" successfully integrated sound on film.

Pipe organs became big business in America. In just one year, 1927, 2,400 pipe organs were made (compared to 1,200 in 1909). In the early 20th century organs reached an unprecedented popularity as instruments for concerts, entertainment and education. Organs were built in concert halls, municipal buildings, universities, homes and even public schools. Marcel Dupré, the great French organist and composer, played 110 recitals in 1923-24 and French virtuoso Louis Vierne's tour of America included audiences of up to 30,000 per concert.

John Wanamaker, the owner of the largest department in the United States, and a patron of the arts and lover of music, built an organ in the center of his Philadelphia store. According to internationally known organist Louis Vierne, who journeyed from France to perform in America in 1927, the organ was the largest in the world at the time. Vierne recounts his experiences with the instrument: "In the evening the center of the store is transformed into an immense concert hall capable of holding more than ten thousand persons. I played before the audience with an emotion which I shall remember all my life."


The first concert broadcast of organ music was made in 1922 in New York.

Famed organist Edwin Lemare was appointed city organist in Chattanooga, TN in 1925.

Some 5,000 people were on hand in 1928 when organist Pietro Yon dedicated the new Kilgen organ in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

In 1939 Rockefeller Center completed its theater organ. It proved to be the last large theater organ built in the United States.

Beginning in 1941, organ building in the U.S. and Europe came to a virtual standstill for five years. In Europe, times were even harder for organs. Many historic European organs, some of them centuries old, were destroyed by bombing, fires and vandalism.

E. Power Biggs was the first American organist to make commercial recordings of historic northern European organs in 1954.

In 1961 Charles Fisk built an organ for a church in Baltimore, Maryland, the first of many organs inspired by historical European models to be built by his firm. Today many American organ building firms, located in every region of the country, emulate historical methods and techniques and create instruments which are a unique American blend of the old and the new.

In 1986 famed organ builder John Brombaugh built two historically-inspired organs for Southern College, in Chattanooga, TN. The large instrument, with 4,860 pipes, is the largest mechanical-action organ ever built in the United States.

With todayís technology the organ has become an electronic computerized wonder that even the average homeowner can easily learn to play. As you can see by the photos the first model has all the bells and whistles. Even those who are not musically inclined can learn to play a song on these models the first day. From the least to the largest there is noting these instruments canít simulate. But even though they are so wonderfully appointed with so many great possibilities there will never be any organs that can stand up to the beautiful and ornate art work of the pipe organ. The sounds it produces can never be reproduced digitally.