History and development
Modern replica of the Aquincum hydraulis from 228 AD
The organ is one of the oldest instruments still used in European classical music that has commonly been credited as having derived from Greece. Its earliest predecessors were built in Ancient Greece in the 3rd century BC. The word organ is derived from the Greek όργανον (organon), a generic term for an instrument or a tool, via the Latin organum, an instrument similar to a portative organ used in ancient Roman circus games.
The Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria is credited with inventing the organ in the 3rd century BC. He devised an instrument called the hydraulis, which delivered a wind supply maintained through water pressure to a set of pipes. The hydraulis was played in the arenas of the Roman Empire. The pumps and water regulators of the hydraulis were replaced by an inflated leather bag in the 2nd century AD, and true bellows began to appear in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th or 7th century AD. Some 400 pieces of a hydraulis from the year 228 AD have been revealed during the 1931 archaeological excavations in
the former Roman town Aquincum, province of Pannonia (present day Budapest), which was used as a music instrument by the Aquincum fire dormitory; a modern replica produces an enjoyable sound.
The 9th century Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911), in his lexicographical discussion of instruments, cited the urghun (organ) as one of the typical instruments of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was often used in the Hippodrome in the imperial capital of Constantinople. The first Western pipe organ with "great leaden pipes" was sent from Constantinople to the West by the Byzantine emperor Constantine V as a gift to Pepin the Short King of the Franks in 757. Pepin's son Charlemagne requested a similar organ for his chapel in Aachen in 812, beginning its establishment in Western church music.
A painting of Saint Cecilia
playing a portative. Her left hand can be seen operating the bellows.
Portable organs (the portative and the positive organ) were invented in the Middle Ages. Towards the middle of the 13th century, the portatives represented in the miniatures of illuminated manuscripts appear to have real keyboards with balanced keys, as in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Its portability made the portative useful for the accompaniment of both sacred and secular music in a variety of settings.
In the 11th century, the monk Theophilus described in his treatise, known as Schedula diversarum artium ("List of various arts") or De diversis artibus ("On various arts"), all of the steps required for the construction of a church organ. The instrument described by Theophilus was operated by a system of knobs and drones. Air pressure was maintained by stepping on air-filled hoses positioned at the player's feet.
Large organs such as the one installed in 1361 in Halberstadt, Germany, the first documented permanent organ installation, likely prompted Guillaume de Machaut to describe the organ as "the king of instruments", a characterization still frequently applied. The Halberstadt organ was the first instrument to use a chromatic key layout across its three manuals and pedalboard, although the keys were wider than on modern instruments. It had twenty bellows operated by ten men, and the wind pressure was so high that the player had to use the full strength of his arm to hold down a key.
Until the mid-15th century, organs had no stop controls. Each manual controlled ranks at multiple pitches, known as the Blockwerk. Around 1450, controls were designed that allowed the ranks of the Blockwerk to be played individually. These devices were the forerunners of modern stop actions. The higher-pitched ranks of the Blockwerk remained grouped together under a single stop control; these stops developed into mixtures.
Renaissance and Baroque periods
During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the organ's tonal colors became more varied. Organ builders fashioned stops that imitated various instruments, such as the krummhorn and the viola da gamba. The Baroque period is often thought of as organ building's "golden age", as virtually every important refinement was brought to a culminating art. Builders such as Arp Schnitger, Jasper Johannsen, Zacharias Hildebrandt and Gottfried Silbermann constructed instruments that were in themselves artistic masterpieces, displaying both exquisite craftsmanship and beautiful sound. These organs featured well-balanced mechanical key actions, giving the organist precise control over the pipe speech. Schnitger's organs featured particularly distinctive reed timbres and large Pedal and Rückpositiv divisions.
Different national styles of organ building began to develop, often due to changing political climates. In the Netherlands, the organ became a large instrument with several divisions, doubled ranks, and mounted cornets. The organs of northern Germany also had more divisions, and independent pedal divisions became increasingly common. The divisions of the organ became visibly discernible from the case design. Twentieth-century musicologists labelled this the Werkprinzip.
In France, as in Italy, Spain and Portugal, organs were primarily designed to play alternatim verses rather than accompany congregational singing. The French Classical Organ, became remarkably consistent throughout France over the course of the Baroque era, more so than any other style of organ building in history, and standardized registrations developed. It was elaborately described by Dom Bédos de Celles in his treatise L'art du facteur d'orgues (The Art of Organ Building).
For example, in France, the organ at Notre-Dame's (St. Etienne, Loire) was built by Joseph and Claude-Ignace Callinet in 1837, at a time when their career was at its apex.
In England, many pipe organs were taken out of churches during the English Reformation of the 16th century and the Commonwealth period. Often these were relocated to private homes. At the Restoration, organ builders such as Renatus Harris and "Father" Bernard Smith brought new organ-building ideas from continental Europe. English organs evolved from small one- or two-manual instruments into three or more divisions disposed in the French manner with grander reeds and mixtures. The Echo division began to be enclosed in the early 18th century, and in 1712 Abraham Jordan claimed his "swelling organ" at St Magnus-the-Martyr to be a new invention. The swell box and the independent pedal division appeared in English organs beginning in the 18th century.
During the Romantic period, the organ became more symphonic, capable of creating a gradual crescendo. New technologies and the work of organ builders such as Eberhard Friedrich Walcker, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and Henry Willis made it possible to build larger organs with more stops, more variation in sound and timbre, and more divisions. Enclosed divisions became common, and registration aids were developed to make it easier for the organist to manage the great number of stops. The desire for louder, grander organs required that the stops be voiced on a higher wind pressure than before. As a result, a greater force was required to overcome the wind pressure and depress the keys. To solve this problem, Cavaillé-Coll configured the English "Barker lever" to assist in operating the key action.
Organ builders began to lean towards specifications with fewer mixtures and high-pitched stops. They preferred to use more 8′ and 16′ stops in their specifications and wider pipe scales. These practices created a warmer, richer sound than was common in the 18th century. Organs began to be built in concert halls (such as the organ at the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris), and composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Gustav Mahler used the organ in their orchestral works.
The development of pneumatic and electro-pneumatic key actions in the late 19th century made it possible to locate the console independently of the pipes, greatly expanding the possibilities in organ design. Electric stop actions were also developed, which allowed sophisticated combination actions to be created.
In the mid-20th century, organ builders began to build historically inspired instruments modelled on Baroque organs. They returned to building mechanical key actions, voicing with lower wind pressures and thinner pipe scales, and designing specifications with more mixture stops. This became known as the Organ reform movement.
In the late 20th century, organ builders began to incorporate digital components into their key, stop, and combination actions. Besides making these mechanisms simpler and more reliable, this also makes it possible to record and play back an organist's performance via the MIDI protocol. In addition, some organ builders have incorporated digital (electronic) stops into their pipe organs.
The electronic organ developed throughout the 20th century. Some pipe organs were replaced by digital organs because of their lower purchase price, smaller physical size, and minimal maintenance requirements. In the early 1970s, Rodgers Instruments pioneered the hybrid organ, an electronic instrument that incorporates real pipes; other builders such as Allen Organs and Johannus Orgelbouw have since built hybrid organs.