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Tonal Architecture I

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1999 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

The pipe organ is a variable and complex musical instrument.  It ranges in size from a small portative of a few pounds up to house size instruments of many tons.  Designing an organ is, in part, architecture.  One of the least understood aspects of organ design is tonal architecture-designing and specifying the pipes individually and in choruses and ensembles to form the sound of the instrument.  This is the first in a series of articles that will look at the tonal architecture of the pipe organ.

The great organbuilders of the past were innovative tonal architects.  The best, most creative, and forward looking pipe organs introduced new sounds, new arrangements of ranks, and new tonal results.  These tonal edifices usually preceded any music that might be played upon them, and the organ was the instigator of the musical styles that followed.  This was a sound before music situation, a concept difficult for us to understand in the late 20th century.  A pioneering organbuilder could lay the groundwork for a compositional style that would follow that tonal lead.  Bach grew up after the polyphonic organ had been developed.  Cavalllé-Coll developed the "symphonic" organ before French composers would develop the Romantic performance style now so fully associated with it.  This fundamental relationship of organ tone first and music second was characteristic of organbuilding and organ playing before the 20th century. 

The tonal edifice early builders sought was not necessarily an instrument for playing music, but perhaps more of a new sound or new arrangement of sounds just for the sake of having sound.  This is something like "art for art's sake" or pipe organ sound just for the sake of the thrill of that sound.  The creative builder would be excited just in the tone of the instrument and the effect of that tone in the church space around it.  The composer or organist would later create a musical language to fit the new sounds. 

In the late 20th century, the organbuilder has been asked to turn the classic order of things around.  The organbuilder is still an architect, but instead of new sounds the builder must now consider the bulk of organ literature that already exists, and fashion an instrument to suit some particular part or parts of it.  Music before sound.  This is an academic approach to organ design rather than a purely sonic one.  The sound of the organ is subsidiary to its musical function, and only sounds that are useful for the performance of music are acceptable in the instrument.  Sounds present simply for their beauty cannot be included if there is no musical function for them.  The organbuilder is an expediter of musical performance rather than an innovator of pure sound.  This role reversal is now so fully accepted that to suggest that the builder return to the role of tonal innovation, which was once the norm, is to fly in the face of all contemporary organ thinking. 

Not that the contemporary organ lacks innovation.  Many designs show the builder diligently working to satisfy the requests for instruments to perform the literature of various periods and national origins.  Many new instruments have tonal attributes that are revolutionary and quite different from those that served as early models.  Organbuilding does not stand still and hardly any new idea is developed before the builder envisions additional new concepts to try. 

I doubt that future pipe organ design will reverse the present role, and return the builder to being ahead of the composer.  There are enough extant musical tasks for the organ to perform without demanding constant revolution and innovation. 

In the past, the most creative and/or famous builders forged new ideas that gradually became accepted norms with widespread use.  Each generation developed its own style and range of character only to have them modified as new ideas appeared.  A continual rethinking of the values and importance of each past concept is now a part of organbuilding and organ teaching.  Perhaps our current style is to appear innovative by ever more specific references and amalgamations from the total history of tonal design.  Everything old is new again.  Eclecticism has replaced true newness until the next creative genius appears. 

It has been said that all of the important tonal concepts for the pipe organ were developed by the late Renaissance.  This is mostly true for shapes of pipes and choruses.  Does this imply that we have merely rung changes on the basics for 400 years? I think not, but neither has the fundamental concept of the pipe organ been discarded.  A continuous revitalization and reinvention of the instrument has taken place over the centuries. 

The pipe organ no longer precedes musical style, but it does provide a fundamental and important musical function for the performance of a vast history of composition and a basic sound valued for its use in the church.  Though changed, and changing, it remains instantly identifiable as the most universal musical instrument in the Western church.  For the casual listener, it is both the sound of the instrument and the music of the instrument that create this aural signature. 

Tonal architecture is the organbuilder's continuous mental exercise.  The individual sounds of single pipes, the chordal combinations on a single rank, and the incredibly complex combinations of many ranks all sound inside the builder's mind's ear.  The number of combinations of sounds is immense and no two large organs combine ranks in the same way.  Amid this embarrassment of tonal riches, the builder works to create the sounds that form the particular artistic ensemble of the instrument being designed at the moment.  The challenge and artistic demands of this process are large, but the results can be so magnificent that the builder struggles with the design to wring the maximum tonal and musical effects that are possible for each situation. 

The tonal architecture of the pipe organ will remain variable from instrument to instrument, a challenge for the organist and the builder.  I see no end to the reworkings of the basic themes of the instrument, as well as subtle changes in particular ranks and ensembles. 

The evolution of the organ continues, and its wonderful variety of sounds supports both a great heritage of composed music and new sounds and music yet to come.  In succeeding articles we will explore individual topics of tonal architecture.




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