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Tonal Architecture II

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

That interesting book title from George Ashdown Audsley, The Temple of Tone, was chosen to focus on Tone rather than on Music, and this points us to a consideration of the pipe organ that is not much talked about: the instrument as a source of tone or sound.

The organbuilder may be thought of as a constructor of a musical instrument, but another role is that of designer of sound or tone beyond the mere fabrication of materials for the artist to perform upon.  Tone and music are separate considerations.  The great instrument makers of the past (Stradivari, Silbermann, Graf, etc.) seemed able to produce instruments whose sound transcended the mere performance of music.  The ravishing sound of their best instruments carried the listener and the performer beyond the music.  Great tone or sound elevated the music and inspired the writing of new music to take advantage of such sounds.  Great violin music can be fully performed on almost any well made, cheap violin, but a truly great violin provides satisfaction beyond performance competence. 

In organbuilding there is no more self evident case of the organ's sound giving birth to a new form of literature than Cavaillé-Coll's instruments inspiring Franck and others to compose and improvise in unexpected ways.  New sounds created new music. 

Tonal architecture in the pipe organ takes many forms and directions.  Historic considerations from centuries of highly diverse national styles, the varied backgrounds of builders, pressures from consultants, clients, organists, and teachers, and the thinking process of the creative artist-builder, all contribute to an ever-changing range of pipe organ sounds or tone.  If the builder seeks only competent performance of an identified body of organ literature, the instrument will focus on providing only the tone and architecture associated with that music's history.  If the builder marches to a different diapason, aspects of tone and stop arrangement might take forms not necessarily related to the literature. 

There have been various experiments with organ sound that were aimed so narrowly at tonal innovation that performance was limited to a few special effects.  These are, generally, short lived and forgotten.  The bizarre nature of some instruments aimed solely at interesting tonal effects gives these experiments a bad name, and discredits the attempts.  Such should not be the case, but few organists can contend with a source of tone that cannot be made to perform music. 

The tonal experiments that have succeeded in recent years are those that resurrected forgotten tonal elements from historic instruments.  The organ reform movement brought back the principal chorus to serve the demands of polyphony.  The Romantic revival brought back horizontal tonal design, heavy pressures, and smooth voicing.  The revival of early 20th-century American designs (a recent revival trend) brought back the eclectic organ and "bigger is better" thinking.  These journeys into tonal design are seeking both new sounds (tone) but also new performance capabilities.  The experimental aspects of such attempts are of the low risk variety: a new assemblage of old ideas rather than new ideas without precedent.  This "safe" tonal architecture is just advanced enough to challenge the organist to learn registrations for different historic periods, but not radical enough to give the organist a stoplist that is beyond comprehension.  Thus the majority of mainline pipe organs are not exact copies of some earlier organs stoplists, but are similar enough to recognizable elements of pipe organ design to elicit recognition and easy use by the performer. 

The same was true of architectural revivals, where buildings looked something like Gothic or Colonial or Romanesque but were far from copies of the authentic and expensive originals.  Most revival styles, whether in architecture, music, or instrument making, produce only shadows of the original, and bear superficial but not absolute faithfulness to the prototypes.  The Parthenon, Chartres, Versailles, the Statue of Liberty, the organ in the Mormon Tabernacle, Mozart's Requiem, and many other landmarks have not been successfully copied, and even attempts to reproduce lesser icons are far from perfect. 

The organbuilder is faced with the difficult task of providing both tone and musical ability.  The realization of this two pronged goal requires taste, intelligence, an understanding and supportive client, and a fair amount of sheer luck. 

Tonal experiments will continue long as creativity is allowed in organ building.  Constraints to confine organ design to certain acceptable precedents or confined rules will stifle development.  Fortunately, there are enough builders who are restless, imaginative, entranced by sheer beauty of tone an great music, and anxious to move the organ world ahead.  Clients will still range widely in need, finances, and taste.  This provides for a variety in organbuilding that is beyond belief in diversity.  Never before in the history of the pipe organ have so many different types of instruments, with so many different sounds and musical capabilities been available.  Lucky the builder who is given an intelligent organ committee that supports creativity, desires the builder's best effort, and is willing to give the builder the freedom to design and build a great instrument.  Much too frequently an organbuilder is not allowed to be creative; instead, building some one else's design to put bread on the table.  These are relieved by the moments when a great builder is told to use all the resources available to build the best possible instrument.  This is when tone and music combine to make a great instrument.  With both the Temple of Tone and the Temple of Music sight, the organbuilder is one of the luckiest of instrument makers.  Ravishing sound and thrilling music can be the result.



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