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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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Pipe Organs in Europe



There are more than 10,000 historical pipe organs in Europe, and some were built more than 500 years ago. From the late 1600s on, pipe organs in Spain were built with divided stops so that the left hand could play in one stop and the right hand in another. One of the most important collections of musical organs is found in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa in Spain. Of these, special consideration is given to the Spanish Baroque organ of Ataun, built by Lorenzo de Arrazola in 1761, as well as a collection of French romantic organs led by Aristide Cavaille-Coll, who installed instruments of all kinds and sizes in the Gipuzkoa province between 1861 and 1898. A beautiful pipe organ by German builder Walcker was installed in the province in 1914. A number of organs by makers of Basque origin were created toward the end of the 19th century. Because many of these organs have been maintained in their original state, Gipuzkoa has become a center of international interest for organists and record companies. Also of importance are the pipe organs located in the Segovia (Spain) Cathedral. One of the organs was built in 1702 by Jose Echevarria and his son Pedro. It was joined in 1772 by an identically-cased Gospel organ on the opposite side. Echevarria introduced his pioneering idea of horizontal trumpets in 1674-75 at Alcala de Henares. He also placed the mounted Cornet, which was introduced by the Flemish, in an echo chest to create a piano-forte effect. Up to the end of the 17th century, most instruments were either newly built or rebuilt in order to include the Batalla Trumpets. The instruments were enclosed in large decorated cases, which often cost as much as the organs themselves. The small organ in the church of Palacios Rubios in the Salamanca province is a good example of such organs. It was built in 1803 by Nicolas Gil. The “golden” era of organ-building in Spain lasted until about 1832, when the monastic orders were disbanded and the Church lost its riches (Grenzing).
Barcelona Cathedral organ
The 1538 Pere Flamech organ at the Barcelona Cathedral in Spain

The Barcelona Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, features the 1538 Pere Flamech organ (IV/58), with casework by Antoni Carbonel. The organ has been significantly modified over the years (Huth 20). At Santa Maria del Mar, the current “small organ,” a 17th-century instrument by an unknown builder from the convent in Vic, has two manuals, a large 14-stop “Orgue Major (11),” and a six-stop “Cadireta (I).” The 51-stop, four-manual galler pipe organ at Cathedral de Santa Maria, Castello d’Empuries (Scherer circa 1600/Grenzing 2004) combines Spanish and classical French characteristics with an expanded 16’ Pedal and stops of Spanish and continental nomenclature.


Two historic pipe organs of importance in Stockholm, Sweden, are the organ in Gamla Stan (Old Town) and the organ in Kungsholmen. Organ builder Olof Schwan’s 1790 organ for the Finnish church in Gamla Stan was a one-manual instrument of 14 stops. He built organs in a number of Stockholm’s churches, including a 56-stop organ in the Storkyrkan. In 1945, a new two-manual 24-stop pneumatic action organ was installed behind the 1790 instrument where its bellows had been. In the early 1990s, Akerman and Lund restored the Schwan to its original specification, remaking the foot-powered bellows, mechanism, and registers. The Kungsholmen kyrka, dating from 1688, first had second-hand organs, but a new Green & Strale organ of 10 stops was dedicated at Pentecost in 1753. The organ was rebuilt by Akerman & Lund in 1898, including conversion to pneumatic action and a tendency toward more 16’ and 8’ stops (Disley 32).


Among the major pipe organs in Lower Saxony, Germany, the organ in St. Nicolai Church in Altenbruch is important both nationally and internationally. The 500-year-old instrument is the oldest in Germany and consists mostly of original preserved material. Thuringian-Saxon art from Dresden-born Hans Fritzsche Christopher decorated the organ’s Hauptwerk. Later changes reveal influences from the Southeast European-Hapsburg tradition. In the early 18th century, Johann Friedrich Klapmeyer created an architectural and aural synthesis without altering the peculiarities of the 8’ Principal and older pipes and created a harmonious three-manual instrument. The pipe organ in Ansbach, Germany is a reconstruction of the Baroque Wiegleb organ in St. Gumbertus, the court chapel of the Ansbach line of the “Markgraften” of Ansbach/Bayreuth. It has over 3,000 pipes. The village of Cappel in Northern Germany is home to the best-preserved of Schnitger organs, and in Rysum, a resilient Renaissance instrument still exists. The Ladegast organ in Schwerin is representative of the best Romantic-era sonorities in the Hamburg region ( “The Klapmeyer-Organ (1730), Altenbruch Germany”).
Xaver Varnus plays Franz Liszt's Consolation No. 4 on the Ladegast organ in at the Schwerin Cathedral

Over time, the St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Passau, Germany has acquired the largest pipe organ outside the United States, which also has the distinction of being the largest cathedral organ in the world. The organ has 17,774 pipes and 233 registers, all of which can be played with the five-manual general console in the gallery. Portions of the organ have their mechanical-action or electric-action consoles, for a total of six consoles.


In France, historic pipe organs can be found in many great monasteries and churches along ancient pilgrim and trade routes. At the Basilica of SS Nazarius and Celsus in the walled city of Carcassonne, a 1522 organ case encloses a 1679 organ by Jean de Joyeuse, with renovations and an eight-stop Recit added by Jean-Pierre Cavaille in 1775. The organ is a great example of the late French classic style, with cornets on every manual. At L’église Sainte Marie de Cintegabelle there is a 1683 Delauney (IV/51) instrument restored by Joseph Cavaille and JB Micot in 1783, and Grenzing in 1983. The pipe organ at Sainte-Croix Abbey in Bordeaux, a Dom Bedos de Celles masterpiece, features an 18th-century verdigris case with golden filigree and a 16’ Monte. At the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre in Poitiers is a pipe organ designed by Francois-Henri Clicquot and son Claude-Francois, a 16’ “Grande Orgue” of four manuals, 44 stops, and 28-note Pedale, with its original temperament including four perfect thirds. In the Loire valley, the Cathedrale Saint-Maurice in Anjou features a carved neo-Gothic staircase to the gallery that matches the spired towers of the 1879 Cavaille-Coll organ, which contains earlier pipework, including a 1742 Positive. In the city of Versailles, a 1710 Etienne Enocq/Robert Clicquot pipe organ is housed in the musicians’ gallery of the Chapelle Royale. The organ was rebuilt in 1936. The 1847 Cavaille-Coll organ at the church of La Madeleine in Paris features the organ builder’s first Voix Celeste and first reverse console.


In Italy, the use of ancient Italian pipe organs in the liturgy played a decisive role in the subsequent evolution of the instruments. This was due to a strong sense of tradition among the builders and their reluctance to introduce changes to a practice that was considered successful. In post-Renaissance times, all Italian churches had at least one organ and often one or two Positivo instruments in addition to the main organ. A major evolution took place as a result of the greater demands by the repertoire of the Romantic period. A great number of new stops were introduced: reeds of various types, more flutes, strings, even percussion. The occupation of Bergamo by the troops of Napoleon (1796-1813) and subsequently by the Austrians (1814-1859) influenced organ building practices by introducing new musical models and, as a consequence, contributing to the development of new devices and new sounds that would improve the performance of the music inspired by the teaching of Simon Mayr (1763-1845), by his pupil Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and by composer Gioacchino Rossini. The organ built by Lorenzo de Prato, built in the 1470s for the basilica of San Petronio, Bologna, is the oldest organ in existence in Italy and one of the oldest in the world. The tonal core of the pipe organ is an element of continuity in Italian organ building throughout the centuries. Its main component is the Ripieno. The term defines a series of individual Principal scaled ranks of pipes at various pitches, creating a system of sounds at harmonic intervals, normally beginning with 8´ pitch as the foundation of the manual.

The highest pitch in the entire Ripieno is in most cases the note C at 1/8´. Beyond this limit a ritornello or break begins with pipes double the length, or one full octave lower in pitch. The instrument at the church of San Nicolo L'Arena in Catania, by Donato del Piano (1698-1785), has a total of five keyboards divided between three consoles attached to the case (1 manual - 3 manuals - 1 manual), with the larger console in the center and one pedalboard for the center console, plus a separate small automatic pipe instrument activated by a rotating drum. This organ, now in a poor state of disrepair, includes pipework of extremely unusual shape. The great organ at the Church of the Cavalieri di S. Stefano in Pisa, built between 1733 and 1738 by Azzolino Bernardino della Ciaia (1671-1755) with the help of other organbuilders from different parts of Italy, has four manuals plus a fifth manual activating a harpsichord. This organ was later converted into a pneumatic instrument and subsequently electrified. Only a portion of the original pipework survives. Traditional stops forming the original core of the Italian organ include: (1) Flauto in Ottave (4’), normally tapered or cylindrical, sometimes stopped; (2) Flauto in Decimaquinta (2’) in the earlier instruments; (3) Flauto in Duodecima (2 2/3”); and (4) the Terzino, or Tierce flute (1 3/5’) was later added and, in the nineteenth century, the Flauto Traverso or Flute (8’, normally in the treble only).

The largest instrument built by the Serassi family, the ''Organum maximum'' with three keyboards and over three thousand pipes, was built in the romantic style as late as in 1882. This instrument was restored by Fratelli Ruffatti between 1983 and 1985.

organ at Southwark Cathedral
The Lewis & Co. organ at Southwark Cathedral

The 1777 Robert Gray instrument at Naughton is a notable example of historic pipe organs in England. Thomas Casson, a banker from Denbigh who retired early to build organs, produced a range of ‘Positive’ organs which incorporated various devices to produce melodic and bass effects from single manual instruments with only a few ranks of pipes. Up to twenty of these organs were supplied to Suffolk churches, including an unusual two-manual instrument at Redgrave. The organ at Adlington Hall is England's most important surviving instrument from the late 17th century. Although the organ is unsigned and undated, the instrument is surmounted by a coat of arms celebrating the marriage of John Legh (1668-1739) to "Lady" Isabella Robartes in 1693. The Adlington organ has two manuals and fourteen speaking stops. The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie in Southwark, England, possesses what is widely considered to be one of, if not the finest, cathedral organs in the country. The organ was built by Messrs. Lewis & Company. The company’s instruments combined styles synonymous with both Schulze and of Cavaille-Coll. Lewis’ emphasis on the importance of harmonics created organs “characterized by brilliant harmonic development” (Dean 14). Going against the trends of the time of high wind pressures and thick tone, Lewis’ instruments were characterized by low pressures, ample winding, and generous scales and reeds, harmonic flutes, gambas, and celestas that were French in style. At the time of its installation, the organ at Southwark featured 3,236 pipes and 60 stops across four manuals. The organ’s case was designed by nave architect Sir Arthur Blomfield. The organ console was installed below the organ and was positioned so that the organist faced the choir. This was rearranged for hearing purposes, and the organist then sat with his back to the choir. The console featured stops in horizontal rather than vertical rows, which was exceptional for that time period in England. The Father Willis organ at St. Peter’s College in Oxford was built in 1875, around the same time as the organs were built for the Royal Albert Hall and the Alexandra Palace. Although the organ has only two manuals and 18 stops, it has the orchestral qualities required for the Romantic repertoire, such as that by Edward Elgar, and the Anglican choral tradition (Rogers 34). The organ was slightly enlarged in two renovations by Martin of Oxford in 1882 and 1889, the most significant addition being an open metal rank to the pedal.


In Glasgow, Scotland, a small 18th-century church building – St Andrews-by-the-Green – was the first church in Scotland to have an organ for use in worship. The organ was built in 1748 by German organbuilder John Snetzler and was installed in 1775. The first organist, John Fergus, was paid 20 pounds per year, and the organ-blower received the sum of 2 pounds per year. In 1812, the organ was sold to the Unitarian Church in Union Street. It was moved again in 1856 when the Unitarian Church re-established itself in a new church building. In recent years, the Snetzler organ was transferred to the Concert Hall of Glasgow University, where it was restored to its 1778 specification by organbuilder James Mackenzie. Beginning in 1868, there was a boom in organ-building in Glasgow. Scottish organbuilders whose work came to Glasgow included Miller of Dundee, Lawton of Aberdeen, and Ingram and Bruce of Edinburgh (Power).

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