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Cycles

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1993 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.


More than 700 years ago the pipe organ emerged as a useful musical device in the medieval church.  From a small one-manual instrument it grew in complexity and competence over the centuries.  The development now seems obvious; gaining in size and perfecting the tone of its individual and collective pipes, designs progressed.  For hundreds of years the organ spoke on relatively low wind pressure and tracker action, and exposed pipes centered on polyphony.  The changes were slow, but in character, even though the instrument eventually reached immense size and musical flexibility. 

In the 19th century, the organ passed into a new style featuring higher pressure, homophonic design, non-tracker action, enclosed pipes, and a highly expressive character.  By the early 20th century, the organ had disappeared into chambers- totally enclosed, hardly polyphonic, and with a horizontal tonal design. 

In 700 years the organ had gone through a complete cycle from totally exposed to totally enclosed, from low pressure to high pressure, from polyphony to homophony, from tracker to electric action, from small to large, from simple to complex.  By 1930, it reached a point from where it could not become any more enclosed, expressive, nonpolyphonic, or subjective.  Where could the organ go from here?

The answer was already waiting in the wings.  In mid-20th century, several builders and organists were investigating ancient organs with the intent of reviving polyphonic instruments.  Within a few years, credible pipe organs with modern interpretations of 17th-century instruments were being built.  The restless organ world had skipped back over centuries of development and started over.  A second cycle had begun. 

What could have been predicted, but was not, was that this new cycle would proceed forward just as the first cycle had, and pick up ideas from later periods.  By the 1980s, the 18th century had been passed through and designs were moving into a revival of the 19th-century symphonic organ.  In short order, even the 19th century was passed through while picking up a few Romantic ideas.  By the 1990s, the second cycle reached completion when a few new instruments were built with design ideas from the 1920s.  We have thus gone through two complete cycles of organ design.  Roughly 700 years, up through 1930, completes the first cycle, and then in less than 70 years, from 1930 to 1993, the second cycle- a somewhat abbreviated repeat of the details of the first cycle. 

The rapidity of the second cycle is breath-taking, particularly the jump through the period 1850-1930.  Not everything from this period has been repeated, and the best of it may have been neglected or only partly revived.  This is also true of the other revival styles, and there are many gaps in the second cycle. 

Where does organ design go from here? Are we to return to some other period of yesteryear and start a third cycle, or will a completely new period begin? The answer seems to be that we are now in a time of simultaneity of revivals, going back and forth over the entirety of organ history picking up forgotten strands, and perfecting a more specific focus on certain significant styles.  Everything from the past is fair game and all styles exist together. 

Though we revel in our own supposed competence in these matters, it must be said that the second revival cycle was much less significant than the first.  I would be surprised if any future organbuilders attempt to revive our revivals- rather pale compared to the originals.  The future will continue to be inspired by the genuine, original instruments from each age- the pinnacles of achievement by the great builders.  What future builders may look back for in our own time may be the truly innovative designs, not the interpretations of earlier achievements.  Just exactly where the mainstream will lead and where the dead ends lie cannot be determined. 

The above analysis is open to revision as a more accurate account emerges of our own time from the vantage point of history.  That organ design has gone through cycles and changes is not in dispute, but exactly what each period was all about and what the important landmarks really were will certainly change.  Some of this is fad and fashion, and our era is as full of short-lived and trendy nonsense as previous times.  We cannot envision what will be trendy, much less important and necessary in the future. 

I am reminded of the transient nature of artistic importance by a music encyclopedia in my library.  From the 1930s, it contains an article, eight pages long totaling 135 column inches, on the composer, Charles Martin Loeffler.  The same volume contains an article on Charles Ives, less than one page long totaling ten column inches, with the statement "Some of his music is...almost impossible to perform." It is a sure bet that our view of the history of the organ and what we think is currently important will change as much as the musical values represented in that encyclopedia. 

It is, of course, simplistic to dump all organ history into two cycles.  The implication is that we simply repeat ourselves and this is not true.  It is not possible to be authentic in recreating any previous era and our "second cycle" is not an absolute repeat of the previous one.  What I imply in this second cycle is not a competent recycling of the past, but a moving focus on succeeding previous eras with attempts to revive certain aspects of some of them.  It is a construct to help us understand the present. 

Some have said that Hope-Jones and E.M.  Skinner were the last inventive geniuses on the pipe organ scene.  This may be so, and it is certainly true that they brought innovations to the instrument.  It is also true that there is no such thing as the course of history; history merely happens but has no agenda to be revised by significant events or people.  Hope-Jones and Skinner were creators of new styles at the end of a long line of powerful influences which changed the organ step by step over the centuries.  Many of the innovations of Skinner and Hope-Jones were dead ends while others live on.  What seems interesting is that they, together, brought the first organ design cycle to a close with extremes of design and the antithesis of most that had preceded them.  It was a reaction against Hope-Jones and Skinner which started the second cycle, and a somewhat abbreviated revival of Skinner which closed it.  Perhaps we are now awaiting a new genius to break us out of the present period.  Innovators do come along.  It may also be that the innovation is already with us, or even has come and gone before anyone could recognize it.  Such is our fate, but recognizing our inadequacies is the first step to revitalizing our creativity and moving the pipe organ yet further ahead in its restless changes. 

   

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