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Families of Tone I-Introduction

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1990 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

Organ pipes are members of a large family tree, and they are all related to four basic tone groups, viz., Principals, Flutes, Strings and Reeds.  In future issues I will briefly describe the generic and special features of these four families and what the physical, musical and functional details are which both separate and connect them with each other.

This six-part series will not make the reader into a tonal designer, but will merely convey information about tone families and how the architecture of the pipe organ depends on the creative use of each member of each tone family in a variety of ways to realize an exciting and useful musical instrument.  

A large problem will be the names of each family member.  Which name goes with which family, and how can we possibly keep track of the living and the dead and their individual characteristics? As with any large family, some members are easy to recall while others are obscure and easily forgotten; some are with us for a long time and others depart early.  Each member has a history and a role from dominant to recessive.  This anthropomorphism is not as contrived as it may appear.  Builders have always named the parts of organ pipes from human anatomy.  A pipe may have a foot, toe, body, beard, mouth, lip, tongue and ears, and its speech may be nasal, slow, singing, loud, blending or even romantic.  The organ pipe family is large and very diverse.  

Just as we wonder at the names which some parents give their children, so too we wonder at the bewildering array of names which ranks of pipes have acquired.  Organbuilders have their own jargon for naming ranks, and no two builders think alike.  The organist and the organ committee are left with the difficult task of trying to guess what each name is all about.  

For musical instruments other than the pipe organ, there is a convenient eye-ear coordination between the appearance and the sound of what is being played.  We soon learn to connect a sound type with each instrument because we see it being played and hear the sound produced.  Even rather obscure orchestral instruments are recognized, with the shape and size quickly related to their tone.  The pipe organ has no such eye-ear connection even for many organists.  No matter how long one might have watched an organ being played, we never really see which pipes are playing, and when only a few pipes are visible at the front of the instrument, most listeners cannot relate a sound to however many pipes are hidden and invisible.  Small wonder that most people have no idea of what sound to expect from any given shape or size of organ pipe.  

Our four tonal families would be simple if rational rules for names and sound were used, but builders have ranged over many nationalities and musical periods in the centuries of organ history.  Even today, a single builder might use German names on one instrument, French on a second and an eclectic mix of many on a third.  That these names neither specify nor define the sounds in any precise or accepted manner is at the heart of our confusion about organ tone and the names for it.  

There are several approaches to the naming of organ pipes.  One method is to describe the shape of the pipe.  The Germans are good at this.  Thus, Spitz means pointed or tapered, Rohr means tube or chimney, etc.  Another method is to describe the sound of the pipe; Viola, Trumpet, Flute, Trombone, Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon are easy since we can relate these to known orchestral counterparts even though organpipe imitations are never completely successful.  Names such as Waldflute (forest flute) are evocative but not very specific.  For some, the power of these names tells more than the actual sound of the pipe, and psycho-acoustical phenomena do play critical roles in our hearing.  An organist once told me that the Geigen Principal in the Swell sounded better than the inferior Diapason on the Great.  I resisted pointing out that in this small unit organ they were the same rank of pipes. 

There is some trendiness in stop names as they gain or lose favor through style changes.  The small-scaled Prinzipal of the 1960s is still around, but it hardly existed in either name or sound in American organs prior to that.  It replaced the time-honored "Diapason," which is one of the oldest words in organ usage, and which was nearly extinct in the 1970s when it was thought to represent bad sound.  

In small instruments it is easy to use a uniform language for all stops.  In larger organs this becomes difficult as one runs out of names in that particular style, and some compromises result when names and sound do not match.  Eclecticism is defensible in very large stoplists.  

There is a continuous undercurrent in the changing of both the sounds and the names of sounds in the pipe organ.  Understanding how the four families of Principals, Flutes, Reeds and Strings organize sounds into categories for ease of recognition and successful musical use is basic for all who wish to appreciate the King of Instruments. 

 

 

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