Discovery Guides Areas


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

podcast link 
  by Sandie Schwenker  


Key Citations




Types of Pipe Organs


While pipe organs are generally associated with places of worship, they also have been built for theaters and private homes. The house organ dates back to Greek and Roman times. When these civilizations collapsed, the pipe organ could be heard in the homes of wealthy Arabs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pipe organ was common in the homes of royalty and aristocrats. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the installation of house organs became more widespread. One of the most impressive home organs is the Henry Willis organ in Blenheim Palace. The Aeolian Company of America installed the largest number of residence organs in the UK.
theater organ
The console of the 3/13 Barton Theatre Pipe Organ at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre

Theater pipe organs have elaborate mechanisms, and the sounds they produce were created to be played during silent films and other performances. The organ built for the Fisher Theatre, which debuted November 11, 1928, has four keyboards, hundreds of pipes ranging in size from a pencil to a flagpole, a glockenspiel, a xylophone, a police siren, a four-foot Chinese gong, sleigh bells, a harp, and a Wurlitzer grand piano. Theater organs were only made for about 20 years. They have no electrical parts; everything is done with air and wire. The Fisher organ has over 300 stop tabs on its console. About a dozen foot pedals help control the volume. According to organist Lance Luce, the theater organ is like a one-man band (Aguilar).

The mortuary pipe organ was a uniquely American product, and its mechanical features and tonal characteristics were markedly different from the conventional church organ. In 1916, the Austin Company introduced the “Ideal Small Pipe Organ,” the Chorophone, a low-cost pipe organ that required little space. With the mortuary pipe organ, as few as two ranks could be unified and duplexed into as many as 18 speaking stops over two manuals and pedal. By combining the stopped flute (Bourdon) rank and the Salicional rank at different pitches, synthetic stops were produced, which added to the tonal palate. The Wicks Company, founded in 1906, was the preeminent pipe organ builder in the mortuary market when measured by the number of instruments produced and the geographical scope of organ installations.

Not all pipe organs feature a large console and vertical pipes; some are strangely designed. The “Singing Ringing Tree” constructed by architects Tonkin Liu Ltd. is a wind organ sculpture that sings (or moans) with the wind. The organ sculpture sits in the Pennine Mountain Range just above Burley, Lancashire, England. It was built as part of Panopticons, an arts and regeneration project of the East Lancashire Environmental Arts Network managed by Mid Pennine Arts. The Great Stalacpipe Organ, the world’s largest musical instrument, is found in the Luray Caverns in Virginia and is played by striking huge stalactites all around the cavern with felt hammers. The Bamboo Organ, located in the Philippines, is the only known pipe organ whose pipes are made of bamboo. Spanish missionary Fray Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen (1762-1834) is credited with adapting the European pipe organ to the climate in the Philippines using the bamboo pipes. The total number of pipes is 1,031; of these, 902 are bamboo and the rest are made of metal. The organ was constructed over an eight-year period—from 1816 to 1824.
Singing Ringing Tree
Tonkin Liu's "Singing Ringing Tree," YouTube

 The loudest musical instrument ever constructed is the pipe organ in the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Built in 1932, the organ has about 33,000 pipes, four manuals, and a full list of stops. One of the most spectacular historic organs is the organ of Aquincum, found in 1931 at Colonia Aquincum, which is now Budapest, Hungary. The organ is from the 3rd century A.D. and was mostly destroyed in a fire in the second half of that century. Thanks to the bronze parts, the size, form, and construction were able to be calculated by restorers: the organ had four rows, and each row had 13 pipes. It is unclear whether the organ was originally hydraulic. One of the most unusual pipe organs in existence (not historic) is the small organ made entirely of marble by Ivan Larrea in Novelda, Alicante, Spain. The organ comprises a single 49-note manual and a single four-foot rank of stopped pipes. The stone pipes are built in exactly the same way as wooden organ pipes. Scaling and voicing considerations also are equal, with the exception that Larrea’s stone pipes have a cleaner sound.   

Go To Pipe Organs in Europe

© 2010, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.