Organs and Organ Music

The pipe organ is the “queen of instruments.” And the name comes not just from the fact that the instruments can be temperamental and demanding of their player, as well as each having a separate personality and sound, depending on the style of the instrument, the place where it is installed, and the time when it was built. Although associated with Christian houses of worship, organs can be found in department stores and concert halls. In fact, most of the largest instruments are in department stores and concert halls. The smallest instruments can be found tucked away in corners of museums and in private homes. Playing them requires technical skill and a knowledge of history, which makes them great instruments for odd people. Especially if you don’t like to be seen performing in public (or imprinted on a certain scene in Disney’s movie of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.)

First a quick disclaimer: I’m talking about specialized organists, the ones who do concerts as well as play in church, and pipe organs. I know a lot of people who play organs and just pull stops that sound good. Some don’t necessarily read music, but learned hymns and other things by ear. I have a lot of respect for the folks who do that, don’t get me wrong. But if you really want to hear what a pipe organ can do, you need to get a little deeper into it.

Playing organ requires a foundation in keyboard music. Most people start with piano because pianos are a lot easier to find, as are piano teachers. And you can’t master four keyboards until you get used to playing one. You also need to be able to read music.

Where organs start to differ from pianos and electric keyboards is that they are wind instruments, not percussion. A piano makes noise when a hammer strikes wire strings. The sound begins when you press the key but fades away rather quickly. The harder you press the piano key, the louder the note (to a point). An organ works by a series of bellows pumping air through a pipe when you press the key. The note sounds as long as you press down the key (and longer if something sticks. We call that a cipher and per Murphy’s Law they only happen with blatty stops during quiet moments in a worship service or concert. Then you have to turn the instrument off and listen to the sound of the pipe deflating. It is very rarely not noticed.) Some larger instruments do have chimes which are struck by little hammers when you press the key, but they are still wind instruments.

Because each instrument is different, you need to learn the touch of the keyboards and pedal boards for each instrument you use. I was lucky in that I got to sample a number of organs when I was in college, some very crisp Baroque-style instruments and others were mushy modern monsters (huge organs, lots of stops, upper keyboard a stretch for a shrimp like me to reach). Which leads to the next thing you learn, while you are training your hands and feet to go different directions at the same time – registration.

Organ registration has nothing to do with the Department of Musical Excess and everything to do with the instrument and the place and time the music comes from. Throughout history, different countries and times have favored different sounds for their music. Spanish Renaissance organ music, for example, does not include pedal notes, and leans heavily on bright sounds, more brassy and trumpet-like, with lots of reeds. German Baroque instruments (Silbermann was one of the most famous organ builders who also worked with J.S. Bach) are richer with full sets of pedal stops, vocal stops, but also horns and reeds (blatty sounds). By the mid-1800s Romantic instruments had huge numbers of softer flutes, Vox Humana stops, violin stops, and sound darker and mellower than earlier instruments. Today organs are built in certain styles, so I got to play on a 1975 instrument that sounds as if it dates from the time of Bach, for example.

When you look at a pipe organ, you notice the keyboards. On either side, or above the keyboards, and above the pedalboard on some instruments, are (usually pale) round things on sticks with letters and numbers on them. Those are the switches for the stops. When you set the keyboards to make a given sound by pulling out different stops, that is called registration. What the piece is determines the registration. You may have to substitute, or on occasion toss tradition out the window, register it based on the instrument, and duck the slings and arrows of outraged purists. For example, let’s say I’m doing a Büxtehude setting of a German chorale that is labeled as a “cantus firmus im bass.” That means the pedals play the melody, among other things. So I am going to use some prominent stops in the pedal, possibly a 16′ trumpet backed by a 16′ flute (the larger the pipe, the deeper the note). If it is a quiet chorale, I’ll probably use more flutes for the upper parts. Otherwise I might add a reed to the pedal and lighter reeds above if I want a bright, cutting sound. The parts need to balance so I don’t lose the melody.

There’s a reason why going full bore is called “pulling out all the stops.” I’ve played Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” on full organ, swell box wide open, everything but the little bird-twitter stop pulled out. It shook the building. But that’s not what the piece is really supposed to sound like (even though a bunch of us do it). What’s the swell? The swell box makes the music swell by adding more air to more stops. It’s how you do a crescendo – decrescendo, since pounding on the keys doesn’t make the sound any louder.

Old School (the opening credits are a little slow, I know):


(FWIW, I like the first version better. The second is a bit too Romantic an interpretation for my taste.)

How do we know what works? That’s a lot of what you learn when you take pipe-organ lessons. And we end up with books of registrations, books of sheet music where half the pages are about proper registrations, and stacks of CDs of great organs being played, so we can listen and try to sort out how to get that sound on “our” instrument. We download registration lists, stop lists, and listen to lectures about organ restoration and why so-and-so redid the instrument this way.

If this sounds a lot more complicated than it needs to be, you might be right. There’s a reason why my organ instructor in college practically tackled me with joy when a ventured to voice a slight interest in the instrument. And like other musicians, churches (the main employer of organists) don’t want to/can’t pay organists much $$. If you don’t have a vocation or don’t want to do church music, you are pretty much stuck in the States. Europe is a little different, but even there the numbers of organ students are dwindling. Which is a shame, because a good organ, played by a trained and sensitive organist, is a thing of beauty, fire, and joy.


3 thoughts on “Organs and Organ Music

  1. I played piano for a number of years. Reading this is fascinating! My aunt and uncle had a little electric organ, the type found in old movie theaters. I had some fun with it, but didn’t really know what I was doing.

  2. I took two years (mandatory) of piano in music school and two years of organ for the fun of it. Organ was by far easier for me, even though I’d played piano for seven years as a child. (I suspect it has something to do with the kind of music we did.) My friends who were good enough to play in Churches generally made enough to pay a third of a three bedroom apartment, which isn’t shabby for a college job, but not enough for a career.
    Unfortunately, we only have a little electric organ with half-keyboards, our Church hasn’t got one, and I can’t really play any more. I still have my shoes, though, so if I ever get organ access again I can pick it back up.

    • You might ask around among the organists in your area. I know organists around here who are usually willing to swap practice time for someone subbing when they are on vacation/sick. There’s one exception, but she’s the custodian of an instrument so special that people send audition tapes to be allowed to play on it, so she’s a little bit picky.

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