Pipe Organ

What is a Pipe Organ?


Edited with permission from Nina De Sole’s © website What is a pipe organ?”

The organ is a wind instrument                                   with different parts:







The pipes





The wind chests where air is kept under pressure

The bellows and blower which create the air pressure

The action which sends the air through the pipes which can be mechanical, tubular, electropneumatic, electric, or electro/digital





                                                                         Manual keyboard

The keyboards






 The place where the organist plays is called a console.




The person that constructs organs is called                            an organ builder.




The place containing the pipes, is called an organ case.






The Genesis of the Organ

The Organ originated in ancient Greece, invented by an engineer named Ctesibios.  It was called the Hydraulus. The purpose of this instrument was to entertain in the games. 


The instrument rested on top of a water cylinder, which had two valves that produced compressed air from the movement of the water.                                                                                                    


Pipes that looked like a pan flute rested on the water cylinder and, as the air passed through them, they sounded.  Thus the king of instruments was born!!!




Of course the instrument evolved through the ages, and so did its use.

They added more pipes, and sliders to stop the pipes from sounding all together... thus, the word stop to define a particular organ sound.

Then, a "keyboard" was added, and people realized that they could make music that was not a random sound of the pipes, but composed music!
The mechanical action originated from there.

The water cylinder was replaced by bellows because the water made the cylinder rust, and, it was also impossible to expand the instrument, because the air pressure was not enough for the increasing number of pipes...

The organ became so big that, in one account it was said that to sound the biggest organ, two organists were needed and 70 bellow operators!!!

At that time, the keys were directly connected under each pipe.  To solve that problem the instrument was modified and a new system was invented so that, no matter the number of pipes, the mechanism is reduced to the size of a keyboard, through a series of wooden rods, enabling one person to play.


There was a very popular small organ called the portative, it was used to accompany the gladiators in the circus, and later on the church processions, it was also widely used at home. One hand worked the bellows, and the other one played the melody...


As people wanted to play with both hands, the portative gave way to a bigger brother called the positive, which was on a table.  The organist played with both hands while another person worked the bellows.



Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco: Saint Cecilia and an Angel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery, Washington, D.C., early 17th cent.

This, by the way, is the kind of instrument Saint Cecilia would have played on her tragic wedding day.


In churches, usually, there was the great organ up in the loft with bigger and louder stops but there was also a positive organ which was usually at the side or at the back of the organist. It was used to accompany the choir or the Gregorian chant, thus the name of the choir keyboard.

The poor organist got tired of constantly changing instruments, so, another great change was made...
The keyboard of the choir organ or positive was installed under the keyboard of the great organ and all its mechanism was passed under the organist's bench using a false floor and connecting it to the pipes of the positive or choir organ which is located on the edge of the loft.
This innovation called for the invention of the couplers, allowing the organist to play on two keyboards simultaneously or separately from the great organ by either pushing one keyboard underneath the other (method specially used in the baroque period) or by pulling a stop situated besides the keyboards with the hands, or by depressing a lever situated over the pedalboard with the feet.
On tracker actions, a special feature of coupled keyboards is that the keys from the keyboard that is not played by the organist, come down by themselves, as if a phantom was playing.


As time passed and music evolved, there was a style of music where some notes had to be held for long periods, thus keeping one finger from playing different notes. What was done is that the lower keys had an extension rod connected to a series of wooden pieces placed at the feet of the organist, and that is how the pedalboard originated.


The pedalboard had different forms, and evolved to a keyboard 30 to 32 long wooden keys arranged so the organist could play with both their feet with the same dexterity as if they were playing with the hands.

Blooming of the organ


After all those evolutions, the organ became one of the main instruments of the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods.
Considerable music was composed for it and mainly five styles were dominant: The French, German, Italian, Spanish and English.
It was mainly these five countries that made the organ bloom to the grand instrument it is.

Each country had its baroque organ and one can tell by the style of the music for which kind of organ it was written.



The Italian organ was quite simple in the baroque period.  Usually it was placed at the side of the church in a loft and was composed of a keyboard with no pedalboard or just some bass wooden pedals so the lowest keys could stay down
on a piece that requires a long sustained bass.
A particularity that organ had was "split stops" that would allow the organist to play with one stop on the bottom half of the keyboard and another one on the top half.

The music is very lyric and sober. Frescobaldi, the Gabriellis, and Muffat were among the main composers for the Italian organ at that time.



The Spanish organ was quite similar to the Italian organ, but it also had its differences.  The Spanish organ had one or two keyboards, sometimes three, no pedalboard or just some bass pull-down keys attached to the bass keys of the manuals and "split stops".
What really sets the Spanish organ apart, are the horizontal trumpet stops or "en chamade trumpets" which gave the organ a lot of power and, of course, the music style was very regal and energetic while remaining austere.



Also the placement of the Spanish organs is different. They would be located in the front of the church on both sides of the altar, two organs of similar proportions, each organ with its own console and horizontal trumpets facing each other.  The two organists would then play "batallas" (battles) which were very popular in baroque Spain.  The main Spanish composers were Cabanilles, Cabezón, Padre Soler, Correa de Arauxo, and Aguilera.


The English organ has a quite sad story. They were mainly small, but fine instruments that were constructed in the renaissance period
but in the 1600's when Cromwell was in power, Puritanism had the organs destroyed or simply condemned to be transformed in ammunition.  Adding to that the great fire in London of 1666 and England was left almost organless!  Few instruments were saved and thus, new organs had to be built after the monarchy was restored. 

Bernard "Father" Smith and Renatus Harris were among the organ builders who had the task of constructing the finest organs that can still be heard in England.

Most of the instruments were made specially for accompanying the choir rather than a solo instrument and had no pedalboard. It was the German influence that imported some pedalboards, especially when Handel went to settle in England.  It was only at the end of the 19th century that the use of the pedalboard was well established in England.

The placement of the English organ in churches is usually in the west gallery (over the main entrance), or at the middle of the church as in Westminster Abbey.

Another important feature about English organs is that it was in England that the Swell box was invented, thus creating a projection into the romantic period...
They can usually have two to three manuals.

Haendel, Purcell, Clarke, Blow, were among the main composers in that period.


German and French organbuilders were those that perfected the organ. Other countries took them as models to make their instruments evolve.
The same building or conception techniques used by those pioneer countries, are still used today to create new instruments.




The German Organ 

during the baroque period already had all of the components found in an organ such as several keyboards and a pedalboard that allowed for performing virtuosic music and cases containing pipes that are separated and thus allow the organ to be used as if it was composed of several organs at the same time.

We find names like " hauptwerk" (great organ,) "rück-positiv" (positive/choir), "Brustwerk" (a keyboard located at the height of the organist's chest and has solo stops)and "oberwerk" (a section that is located on top of the "Hauptwerk" (great organ).

Beautiful pieces were written for the German organ if one only cites: Sweelinck, Bruhns, Walther, Buxtehude and, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach.


 Johann Sebastian Bach is the unquestionable master of the organ. By his music, he commanded a technical evolution of the instrument such as equal temperament. One has to mention also two of the greatest German organ builders, who are outstanding in their instruments: Silbermann et Arp Schnitger.



                                                           The French organ


One word to define a French organ.... monumental.
The French organ building tradition was well up to date with the different evolutions of the instrument, and since France was under the power of the king, the organ music had to reflect this "royal opulence", the organs were big: two, three, even four manuals, the pedalboard was present as an individual unit, but the keys were shorter, which didn't allow the organist to play as fast as German organists, but a more regal, solemn paced music, who was dictated by the Catholic liturgy and the Gregorian chants.

Since most of the organists were also organists for the king of France, they also composed the most beautiful and solemn music.

The French organ is also characterized by the powerful sound of the reed stops, mutations (which are composed stops used for solos), and different little gadgets, like birds chirping and others.


French organs are located over the main entrance to the church.

The main composers are Couperin, Clérembault, Louis Marchand, Nicholas de Grigny, and Boyvin.


The Organ in the Americas

The history of the organ in the Americas follows closely the colonisation of the Americas by the French, the English, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Nevertheless, it is only around the 1700's that one can find evidences of the existence of organs in the new continent.


In New France (Canada)

Under the French regime, there were some small French made instruments in some important churches of the colony, especially in Québec and Montréal.
The Livre d'Orgue de Montréal is a manuscript brought from France around 1724 by a Sulpician, Jean Girard, who was organist in Montréal and constitutes the major musical heritage of French music in Canada... (Several works are by Lebègue but for the rest of the works the composer is unknown). This book was only discovered at the end of the 1970's in a library.
Then, with the English conquest, English organs invaded the territory but they had a great problem... The English wood responded poorly to the harsh Canadian climate.... These organs became unplayable, and needed constant repairs.
With time, several organ builders repaired these instruments, and studied their craft as well. Several builders started to build genuine Canadian organs, among them: Napoléon Déry, Samuel Warren and Joseph Casavant.
Around the end of the 19th century, there was a particular interest for the latest European technologies regarding organ building, and the face of the Canadian organ will radically change.
Joseph Casavant created a company which he left to his two sons Samuel and Claver Casavant. At the end of the 19th century, the Casavant Brothers went to study the new organbuilding technologies in Paris with Cavaillé-Coll, and back in the country, they built and "modernized" hundreds of organs in Canada and in the United States.
Casavant Frères still exists, as other Canadian companies such as: Guilbault-Thérrien, Letourneau, Karl Wilhelm, Hellmuth Wolff among others.


In New England (Future United States)

The organ was also introduced and they were English made instruments, that most of the times were small and without pedalboard like most English organs at that time. It was around the end of the 19th century and the begining of the 20th century that bigger, even "monstrously" huge instruments were built, and now the United States has instruments of all kinds of styles and has among the biggest and modern organs in the world!!!


In South America

Organs were introduced by the Spanish or the Portuguese (in Brazil), but their proportions are much smaller than in Europe, and also they are less numerous than in North America.

In Chile and Argentina, in the 19th century, some instruments were built by Cavaillé-Coll from Paris and at the beginning of the 20th century, Orestes Carlini, built several organs of French and Italian styles. There are also some instruments made by Walcker from Germany. Unfortunately, most of these organs are poorly maintained or simply abandoned for electronic organs or guitars.....

Fortunately, the future of South American organs is not that grim since with time and thanks to the efforts made by organbuilders such as Luis González Catalán, the Sernuda brothers in Chile, others in Argentina and the interest from foreign organists and organbuilders, the instruments have slowly regained their original glory.