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The Pipe Organ: Its History and an Overview of Examples Around the World
(Released December 2011)

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  by Sandie Schwenker  


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The pipe organ has existed, in various forms, for many centuries. The term “organ” comes from the Greek word “organon,” which basically means “tool” or “instrument.” From this word came the Latin word “organum.” By the Middle Ages, the term “organ” was used to refer to the pipe organ. Ctesibius of Alexandria, Egypt, a musician and engineer who lived around 200 B.C., is generally credited with building the first pipe organ, the hydraulic. He employed an ingenious system using water pressure to regulate the pressure that may have been pumped by a windmill (Henry).
Reconstructed hyrdaulis
A reconstruction of a water organ or hydraulis

The first pipe organs had only one manual, with few keys and only a few pipes. In the late Middle Ages, the church organ in Europe developed into its current form - particularly in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The Great organ was fixed to the wall and another organ, called the “Positive or Choir” organ, sat between the player’s back and the “balustrade” of the gallery. Early organs consisted of two divisions, each of which was worked by its own keyboard or manual. Each division had several stops (sometimes called voices), sets of pipes of different sizes that could produce different timbres. The Positive included pipes connected with the first manual. In a typical two-manual organ with Great and Positive, the “mechanical tracker action” and “waveboards” connect the keys of the manuals to the valves of the windchests, on which the pipes are arranged in rows. While some pipes are visible, most are hidden behind the façade. The keys of the manuals are linked with the pipes/ranks via the key action. With the simple mechanical or tracker action of the early pipe organs, the pressing of a key was transformed into a pushing motion that opened a valve in the chest so that air could move into the pipe and make it resound. In the mid-18th century, organ builder Joseph Gabler arranged the different divisions of the organ around the windows of the Weingarten Basilica and placed the console in the middle of the room, accomplishing a technical masterpiece (“Organs – Some Technical Explanations”). To achieve this, he had to connect the console with 6,631 pipes in several divisions through the floor and up the pedal towers using thousands of tiny wooden traction rods.

The transmission from the manual’s keys and pedalboard to the pipes is just one part of the organ’s “action.” The other is the turning on and off of the different ranks. The design is that of a two-dimensional matrix. In one direction is the key action; in the other is the stop action. Depending on their size, pipe organs offer some aids for playing, such as the crescendo pedal, couplers, and swellers. In early organ design, the air needed for the pipes to speak was produced by people treading huge bellows in a side chamber of the organ. Today, a blower worked by an electric motor is used, but the principle is the same. Aside from the sweller, another aid that makes the pipe organ sound less static is the tremulant.
A typical organ range
The musical range of a typical modern organ with 61-key manuals and 32-key pedalboard

During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the pipe organ became an instrument that was capable of creating numerous tonal colors, both unique and imitative. Through the developments of French organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll, the Romantic organ inspired generations of composers, beginning with Cesar Franck and continuing through the 20th century. A major revolution in pipe organ design occurred in the late 19th century, when the development of pneumatic, electric, and electro-pneumatic key actions made it technically possible to locate the console independently of the pipes.

Go To Types of Pipe Organs

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