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Exactly What Is an Organ…and How Does it Work?

[Before Tuesday, August 18th’s organ concert, we offer a repeat of organist Bruce Barber’s excellent “behind the scenes” tour of the organ. If you’re attending Tuesday’s concert, don’t miss the live tour immediately following the concert! – Julie Hutchison, Managing Director]

Organists are often asked these two simple questions . . . the answer, however, is both simple and complicated! I offer you my best shot at answering clearly and simply!

What is an organ? The very first organs were winded through the use of moving water and were popular in Greek civilization to provide a “drone” (like the drones of the bagpipe) as background for entertainment instruments and singing. In settings more closely associated with organs (i.e. churches), the instrument is thought to have made its first appearance as early as the 6th century. By that time, it had grown from its humble, water-winded system into a much larger instrument (still small by today’s standards) which was raucous in nature and whose function was principally to play during formal processions and, to a lesser extent, to accompany singing.

Towards the 13th century, the organ took on a much greater liturgical (sacred) role – offering support for chant and presenting specific music written for it (albeit geared towards the Mass). Because of the increasing importance being placed upon it, the organ also grew in size! It was winded by multiple bellows (often worked by multiple individuals); its palette of stops (collections of pipes of varying timbre and pitches) increased; and it became an increasingly important work of art in the life of both church and community.

By the 15th century in Germany, organs were being built with separate stops and keys for the feet – the pedalboard was born. The organ continued to develop into styles that reflected the national identity of the builder: e.g. Dutch organs sounded different from English organs, which sounded different from American organs, etc. These nationalistic styles were also heavily informed by composers for the organ as they pressed builders to create new and innovative sounds for the organ. Additionally, the organ began to appear in town halls, orchestra halls, and opera houses as composers included parts for it in their works: think of the heroic Symphony No. 3 of Camille Saint-Saëns or the stunning Concerto for Organ by Francis Poulenc, to name but a few.

How does it work? Well, first of all, an organ is basically a collection of very expensive whistles (pipes) of varying tonal colors that speak (make sound) when air blows through them. How the pipes are controlled from the keyboards (console) varies from builder to builder, but there are basically two ways for that “connection” to be made. Some organs are called “tracker organs” as they have an actual physical connection through levers, cables, and joints — all making up the tracker mechanism — which runs from each key to the base of each pipe, while other organs are called “electro-pneumatic organs” because that key to pipe connection is made NOT with trackers, but rather through electronic signal transmitted through a wiring system (and in some cases, involving a computer!)

For example, in Chicago, the organ in the balcony at Holy Name Cathedral is a tracker organ built by a Dutch builder (Flentrop), while the St. James’ organ is an electro-pneumatic organ built by American builders (Austin and E.M. Skinner — and a few others!) St. James has had an organ since the church was first built in 1837; over the years, it has been rebuilt and enlarged many times and currently consists of 99 ranks (collections of pipes) and over 5800 individual speaking pipes. Most notably, it incorporates the historic 1929 E.M. Skinner Organ originally built and installed in Chicago’s Lyric Opera House.

- Bruce J. Barber II
Director of Cathedral Music, St. James Cathedral

Bruce Barber on the “Little Green Organ”

The organ being played on Tuesday by David Schrader is from the Netherlands. It was “built” by the Flentrop Organ Company – I say “built” in quotation marks because it as actually assembled by a long-time parishioner of St. James Cathedral some twenty or so years ago as it made its way to this country in the form of a kit. Much like the popular Zuckerman Harpsichord kits, Flentrop manufactured small organs (of up to 3-4 stops and usually without pedal) in kit form for “musical tinkerers” to assemble for their own pleasure! This organ is such an instrument.

little-green-organ.jpgThis Flentrop organ as one keyboard and 3 stops: an 8′ Gedekt (flute), a 4′ Flute and a 2′ Principal (there are NO pedals on this instrument). Each stop has to draw knobs, one each on the right and left sides of the organ case (one must literally “hug” the organ to bring them on!), which cause each of the 3 stops to speak on the upper (right knob) and lower (left knob) halves of the keyboard. This is known as a divided keyboard – out-moded later in organ building by the addition of more keyboards.

This type of organ is a “remnant” of the Baroque Period in musical history and would surely have been known by organists and composers of the 16th century onward. Today, one sees this type of instrument used in performances of Buxtehude, Handel, Bach and even Mozart, both as a solo instrument and as a continuo / ensemble instrument.

Often times, the pipes are not located above the keyboard, rather they can be found underneath the keyboard thus making the instrument much more portable and easy to see over (this version is known as a portativ). Such small portativs can pack a partlcularly powerful punch and are as “at home” on the stage of Symphony Center as they are in much more intimate settings.

Please feel free to come up to the instrument to take a closer look following Tuesday’s concert!