Polyphony and counterpoint have been associated with the pipe organ from its early years in the church to the present day. The organ has a particular ability to render polyphony, and many works for the instrument incorporate polyphony in some form or another. Some of the greatest polyphony was composed for the organ, and both organists and organbuilders consider it to be a vital part of its heritage.
Though polyphony was less important in the 19th century than it had been before (and has had a renaissance in the 20th), the organ literature continued to employ variant forms of polyphony in spite of major changes in the instrument and periods of total homophonic compositional style. Even during the organ's most horizontal (8', 8', 8') tonal period in the early 20th century, a few great organists were performing the polyphonic masterpieces of earlier times.
As polyphonic music for the organ continued to be written, even in the face of hostile environments and lack of interest, a rethinking of the instrument and its music laid the groundwork for a modern return to a high level of appreciation for this style. That return occurred through the pioneering efforts of organists and builders to reform the instrument and recapture its ability for precise, fully differentiated polyphonic lines. These efforts extended over many years of the 20th century and have not yet ended.
There are several ways in which the pipe organ is successful in polyphony, and many organists and builders have struggled with the attendant design problems. I suggest that polyphony and how to provide for its successful musical realization were at the heart of the organ reform movement. The problem was in understanding the many ways in which polyphony exists and the instrumental requirements to play it.
As a first challenge to the organ reform movement, the polyphonic organ needed to be precise, articulate, prompt, responsive, clear, and clean. Such attributes had not been a part of the organ for many decades, and the technical and artistic values of such requirements had long been forgotten and ignored. Builders simply needed time to acquire the lost knowledge and techniques for the reborn concepts. As early as the 1930s, differing concerns about polyphony had already produced quite divergent designs for pipe organs. This diversity continues to the present day.
A second challenge was bringing the performers and builders into the new era. Becoming accustomed to new styles of playing and new organ sounds and capabilities took time and thought. Some years ago I saw a video of the famous pianist Glenn Gould. Along with conveying his playing technique and musical taste, the program showed his post recording "directing" of the audio engineer in the mixing of various microphone levels to create a finished tape that would have the maximum separation and identification of each of the lines in the polyphonic work he had just performed. The production of all this was of the most unusual and complex nature- musically, technically, and electronically sophisticated. Gould's goal appeared to be a finished recording that presented no masking or covering of any individual line or note. Every note and line had to be absolutely heard as a distinct and separate entity. The elaborate recording and editing procedure, rather than a live performance, was the only way he found to achieve that goal. His procedures were unique, highly idiosyncratic, and controversial.
The pipe organ presents a similar challenge. In a large reverberant church, polyphony is difficult to project. This did not deter the great composers or performers of the past. Perhaps the complete separation of voices is not the essence of some works. About Bach's Wenn wir in hochsten Nöten sein, Schweitzer wrote, "In each of the fughettas... the voices flow so naturally that after the second line the listener no longer notices the art involved, but falls completely under the sway of the spirit pervading these tones."
Since polyphony appears in a wide range of musical styles and periods. the organ should be able to encompass them. A trio sonata, a chorale prelude, and a fugue come to mind. Within each form there are enough variations and contrasting requirements to give us pause. In the early years of the 20th century, trio sonatas were rarely performed on the organ. The instruments were not suitable, and organists did not study them. Those who could perform them were rare. But some chorale preludes and larger polyphonic works were played. Eventually, organs appeared that could perform a broad range of polyphonic music.
Within an organ's design, the builder can emphasize or ignore various capabilities. In the early organ reform years, mixtures were a new and challenging part of design. Unused for decades, they were now thought to be the essence of polyphony. Builders and organists experimented with them until a new expertise appeared. Charles Fisk once remarked that "mixtures obscured the polyphonic line." In France it is common to hear larger polyphonic works played on the reeds alone. Such is the range in outlook that we should no longer make grand statements about how polyphony should be registered. The best modern pipe organs provide an embarrassment of riches for the performance of many types of polyphony.
As always, taste and ability will tell.
The organ reform movement must be given maximum credit for the revival of polyphonic organ music. The effort was important and continues as one of the foundations of modern pipe organ design. What we now take for granted in the organ's ability to perform the great classic polyphonic literature has been achieved only after many years of effort and a great deal of thought and dedication. The organ lost its polyphonic ability in the early 20th century. It continues to evolve and refine these refound polyphonic abilities: a rebirth of the King of Instruments.
In the early years of the organ reform movement, the goals of organ design produced instruments with a mild but very uniform volume of tone from each rank. In this manner it was possible to use almost any combination of stops and achieve polyphonic delineation without one voice covering another. With everything of equal loudness, but differing in pitch, polyphony was clear and clean. Unfortunately, the tone was not adequate for leading a robust singing congregation, and this concept was superseded.
The current level of high polyphonic ability and full, strong voicing is a result of daring arid innovative moves by the ever restless organ community. We have many to thank for the ongoing renewal of our favorite musical instrument. The reappearance of the ability to play polyphony is the signal event of the organ's development in the late 20th century.