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By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1984 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

Our ability to catalog historic instruments and national periods has been helpful for our understanding of the pipe organ. The codification which developed this century has provided a convenient and reasonably accurate generalization of the many earlier styles of organ design and construction. Such cataloging is best for describing trends rather than dealing with instruments outside the norm of a given era. Armed with descriptions of periods and national traits, the last thirty years of organbuilding have produced an ever widening variety of styles of construction and tonal design. Scarcely any historic period of organbuilding has been left out of our current desire to bring back the concepts of earlier designs. I doubt that any other period has produced such a wide variety of instruments.

Given these statements, it is odd that neither Bach's favorite instrument in Hamburg, nor Franck's organ at Ste-Clotilde has been reproduced. Modern versions of the codified stylistic characteristics of earlier ages have frequently been built, and most academic institutions and some churches possess examples of recently built organs which replicate some historic style, even though it is impossible to be totally faithful to the past.

The greatest organbuilders of the past were progressive, paving the way with new ideas rather than reproducing earlier styles. Such a level of creativity is found among very few in a generation, and the vast majority of our current instruments will only reflect the style (or lack of style) of our time.

Apparently, the style of our time is to build as many different styles as possible. Some instruments may be based on a particular historic model, while others encompass the whole of organ history in a single instrument. There is a use for these approaches, but having such a smörgåsbord to choose from complicates the decisions of both the organ committee and the organbuilder. How can we decide which periods to emphasize, which to ignore, and how can we focus the instrument (even a broadly based one) so that it will be an entity with a good musical result? Every organbuilder has a different approach, and the virtue, if there is one, of the current scene Is that a purchaser will be able to find a builder somewhere who is capable of realizing a particular outlook, no matter how unusual. If this is eclecticism run rampant for some, and specialization to a fault for others, then perhaps that is what has developed from our diversity of taste and knowledge of the past.

We are, apparently, building all styles at once Baroque revival (even though there are no Baroque organs in the U.S.), American Classic, French, German, Italian and others-all are represented and available from a wide variety of builders. Only time will be able to place on our work a terse phrase or word descriptive of our era, or enumerate the important builders and organs. I think we might be justified in claiming greater diversity than any previous era, but whether that is a credit or a debit has yet to be decided. The lively and still changing world of the pipe organ is fascinating, but it may be confusing to some. We have yet to see the end of the current divergence into ever more specialized organbuilding styles, and there are still developments in both eclectic and non-eclectic organ designs ahead of us.


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