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Tonal Architecture Organ Evolution

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

For over 500 years the pipe organ has gone through continuous evolution and revolution.  The changes have been large and small, dramatic and subtle- an unending rethinking and redesigning of the instrument at the hands of countless builders.

Most instruments evolve through increments of improvement, reach a plateau of development, and then remain nearly unchanged at some peak of accomplishment.  The pipe organ has had times of narrow refinements, as well as times spent in wrenching revolution when new ideas swept away the old.  Our current situation is one of those times of sweeping change. 

Each instrument has its own history, e.g., the piano.  Evolving from its predecessors, the harpsichord and clavichord, in the 18th century, the piano developed as a one manual instrument occupying a few cubic feet of space and having from one to five strings per note.  It never had five manuals, never was 60 feet tall, never weighed many tons, and never ranged widely in tone, power, and size.  The organ did range over such extremes from one manual with one rank up to many manuals and very many ranks.  Beyond the mere changes in size, the organ never settled into a tonal norm.  No two large organs were exactly alike.  The differences were purposeful, designed, sought after, with no other musical instrument having such variability in character and scale. 

Do these wide ranging differences in the pipe organ stem from an unsettled idea of what the organ is, or do they represent vitality and creative prowess around a central theme? Or is the organ by its very nature a movable feast of unending variety? I suggest that it is all of these and more.  I see no end to this evolution of revisions, new ideas, and wholesale reworkings of the idea of the pipe organ- a continuation of the changes that have occurred throughout its long history.  No other musical instrument has changed so much, so often, for so long.  The end is not in sight. 

These changes place a considerable weight upon the player and the builder.  How is one to know the complete history as well as keep track of every modern trend and development? There is a bewildering array of organbuilding styles, and an imprecise method of using each instrument to its fullest and musically valid extent.  We are always a bit out of sync with the exact purpose and musical goal of any given instrument, and that is part of the challenge and the reward.  Interpretation must be at the heart of both design and performance, and the best players will produce a wide range of musical results from each
unique pipe organ. 

The amazing part of this story is that with no two large instruments alike, many thousands of organists manage to perform each week in an effective and musically satisfying manner.  The pipe organ is truly malleable and yet understandable in its bewildering array of realizations. 

There have been times of "stagnation" in organ design.  Certain years of the French Classic period were governed by strict rules for use, and therefore of design.  This could not last, and soon the organ broke out of its confinements, and proceeded to change.  But it is these periods of stagnation that helped the organ world to develop guidelines for modern performance of old works, and the "rules" for organ design.  It is the stagnant periods that are easiest to understand, since there are many instruments and musical examples narrowly confined in style.  The maverick designs seem out of character and difficult to understand.  These tend, unfortunately, to be ignored. 

Though the piano, violin, and other instruments remain in very narrow design limits, the organ will continue to evolve in unexpected ways.  Predicting the pipe organ is a waste of time, and we must be prepared for what will come.


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