This article continues the series on the divisions of the organ which began in February 1985. After discussing the Great, Pedal and Swell, I now present some thoughts on the Positive division.
The Positive (Rückpositiv, Positif, Positiv, Chair, Organo Piccolo, etc.) is a very ancient division and has its roots in the portative and positive organs of medieval times. Along with the Blockwerk and Pedal, it formed the original concept of the earliest multi-manual and pedal instruments. It was at the heart of the design of early pipe organs, and in some examples it was larger and more versatile than the Great (Blockwerk), which had no stop action.
The Ruckpositiv was an integral part of European organ design for centuries: even late Romantic organs had this division in name but in a tonal form much altered from early times. American pipe organs did not have positive divisions until the 20th century; their design, however, was often at variance with historic models. Even now,. it is rare to find an American Positive division which is tonally complete, and its proper usage is not widely understood.
In the 16th century, the Positive evolved into a large and tonally complete division. Its position was usually behind the organist on the gallery rail. Sometimes it had its own keyboard and stop action. In other instruments, it was located in the main organ case and might be called an Oberwerk, or some other name indicating its location or function.
As other divisions of the organ came to prominence (Swell, Choir, Solo, etc.), the Positive declined in both importance and size until it disappeared from organ designs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The organ reform movement resurrected it from oblivion, and the Positive now has regained a place of importance after a century of neglect.
The tonal design of the Positive has ranged widely over time and national boundaries. A pre-Bach Positive might contain stops pitched at 8-8-4-4-2-11/3-III-IV-8-8, and by the time Bach was middle-aged. there were monumental and perhaps oversized Rückpositives of 16-8-8-8-4-4-22/3-2-2-II-VI-VI-8-8. In southern Europe, the Positive or Rückpositiv was rare and not so large as in the north. In Spain and Portugal, the majority of instruments had one manual, and when there was a second manual division, its tonal design was unpredictable both in size and concept.
In England, the name Rückpositiv was not used. The "Chair" organ was a form of Rückpositiv, which eventually developed into the Choir division and became relocated in the organ, along with substantial tonal changes and function. As a third manual division, the Choir came to be an important and widely used device in English and American organs, but its connection to the original Rückpositiv is tenuous at best. Its tonal vitality disappeared and it became an accompanimental division of flutes and mutations.
As a tonal concept, the Positive has had many different interpretations. Its most important historic role was as a second Great. In this tonal plan, the Positive is on a near-equal footing with the Great, and only slightly reduced in power and breadth. A full principal chorus is implied from 8' through mixture(s), and a variety of flutes, mutations and reeds complete the division up to about as many stops as the Great would have on the same organ. Such tonal luxury would soon give way to the desire for a more expressive and varied organ design, a role which the Positive did not supply as subjectively as did the enclosed Swell or Choir.
Latter-day reincarnations of the Positive produced a wide variety of styles. A cornet décomposé of flutes might be the only stops. Some were built without reeds, some were built with only one principal rank, and others might even be enclosed behind shutters. All of these approaches indicated the wide diversity of thinking about how a second or third manual division was to be designed and used in the contemporary organ.
With the return of 16' stops, multiple mixtures and reeds, and a full principal chorus, the Positive division is again regaining its place as a full and important part of the pipe organ. The mystery surrounding its use should disappear as more organists discover its beauties, and more builders gain the confidence to use its possibilities in bold new ways.