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Tonal Architecture VIII: Postlude

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 2000 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

This series on Tonal Architecture (begun in September 1999) cannot be complete- the topic is endless.  In a surprise and apparent oversight, no stoplist has been included, and few specific ranks have been mentioned.  How can we possibly discuss tonal architecture without describing actual voices and analyzing stoplists? The purpose was to avoid those traps, and focus on an overview of where tonal design comes from and what its aims are.  The assumption (perhaps invalid) is that it is possible to discuss tonal design in the broad view, and gain an understanding of pipe organ sounds.

Every organist who registers a piece of music, pulls out drawknobs or pushes stoptabs, is a tonal architect in the sense that the sounds for the performance have been chosen by the performer.  No matter how carefully an organbuilder has created the tonal edifice, it may all be for naught if the organist is totally unaware of what it is all about, and simply pulls out a bunch of stops, or pushes a piston.  Many builders have agonized during a recital over inappropriate registrations.  The same builders have also been pleasantly surprised when a creative performer uses unexpected voices to generate wonderful new sounds.  

The history of tonal architecture is filled with puzzles.  Some might eventually be solved; others will remain enigmatic.  I have always been intrigued by the little known bit of information that one of Bach's favorite instruments was at St.  Catherine's in Hamburg.  No other instrument received as much praise from him as this one.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), it is long gone and we can only wonder at how it spoke so memorably to Bach.  The builder is unknown, but probably neither Schnitger nor Silberman.  No modern "Bach" organ remotely duplicates its stoplist, and I doubt that any modern organist performs the way Bach would have used its Hauptwerk division with four 16' stops and unusual mixtures.  We have missed much in our search of the past, and misinterpreted even that which has been found.  

If Bach seems distant to us, and his favorite instrument(s) unavailable or re-worked beyond recognition, we are hardly more at home in more recent times.  It is still possible to realize a nominally successful performance of many French Romantic composers on the justly lauded organs they knew.  But here again we stumble because of a basic and unrecognized error in our assumptions.  Is it possible for us to hear what the original composer heard, even on a recording or with an old mechanical player device reproducing the composer's performance? The assumption is that we can eliminate from our minds the sounds of music performed and heard since then.  

Can I hear original Bach if I have since heard Busoni, Landowska, the Swingle Singers, Wendy Carlos, or Stokowski transcriptions? These sounds are in the mind, consciously or unconsciously altering our impressions.  Our analysis of any sound is mitigated by the sum total of our aural experiences.  

I once heard a performance on a splendid American instrument containing a division that sounded to me exactly like the 17th century original it copied.  The startling effect of hearing such a near copy got me to thinking.  Was I hearing the sound of the 17th century in a 20th century American organ, or had I heard how a 17th century instrument sounds today, and the American copy of that? I had to conclude that both were 20th century sounds- my knowledge of what happens to pipe metal and the effects of air friction in organ pipes were enough to convince me that 17th century sounds are long gone, and what we now hear is unlike what those pipes sounded like when new.  

Our minds have heard much newer music, and countless contrasting performances of early music by modern performers.  And no early instrument sounds today the way it sounded originally (even if never played, old organ pipes change in ways we cannot retrieve).  

Our tonal design of today proceeds from an imperfect knowledge of the great masters of the past.  Still, the wonder of our time is the thrill of great pipe organs played by great organists in great acoustical situations.  It requires a deft mental attitude to hear afresh.  We can never escape the nagging comparisons that crowd our thoughts, and we easily convince ourselves of what we hear. 

This series on Tonal Architecture has ranged widely but avoided specifics.  The generalities can be dismissed, but they do point to the hard-to-define manner in which pipe organ sound is thought of and created by the builder, and used by the organist.  The purpose was to prompt a further study and understanding of this complex topic. 



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