Sunday, May 15, 2016

Project 366 - The King of Instruments

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


As we showed on a graphic in the previous installment, not all instruments are created equal, and not all instruments are showcased equally in solo repertoire. Keyboard instruments like the piano have a bigger share of that repertoire because they provide a greater range of tones.

Physics explains how instruments produce sounds – it’s all about creating waves, and amplifying them. Sound waves are generated through the transfer of a mechanical wave, that is to say, how a string, or a surface can be made to vibrate either through the action of striking it, or plucking it, or blowing in it.

More Power

To get from Point A to Point B, people choose many mode of transportation, one that suits their needs. A bicycle is very economical to ride, doesn’t require much space, and provided that you are (physically) up to it can get you anywhere through any road.

But who doesn’t like a train? There’s something awe-inspiring about a powerful locomotive, how it makes the ground shake and the air move… All this to say that it’s in our collective DNA – we always look for things that can be made to be more powerful, more awe-inspiring. It’s true of music and of musical instruments.

Size matters! Physics also dictates that the size of the physical source of a sound wave (a string’s length or thickness, the size of a reed, the thickness of the skin on a drum) dictates vibration frequency, which explains why a violin has four strings and a long fret. It stands to reason that a large keyboard instrument can house many strings, thus support a larger breadth of tones.

Keyboard instruments, the piano in particular, are the results of innovations and evolution. The harpsichord, which is really the grandfather of the piano, was designed to “pluck” strings, and as such was limited in “dynamic range” – it doesn’t matter how “hard” or how “softly” you hit the keyboard, the resulting sound is the same.

By “hammering” on strings rather than plucking them, the fortepiano provided this added dimension of “dynamics”. Like the name suggests, this keyboard instrument has the ability to play notes hard (forte) or softly (piano). The last innovation is the ability to further enhance the dynamics by “dampening” the vibration of the string – this action, which is achieved by raising or lowering the instruments’ bottom surface through a pedal, takes us to the instrument we know recognize as the “modern acoustic piano”.

Let’s think outside the box for a minute; simple wind instruments – like a flute –create distinct notes through standing acoustic waves. A standing wave results in this case from acoustic waves bouncing off the ends of a pipe several thousand times a second “beating” into each other until we get a unique “signature” wave. The resulting note is dictated by that signature wave that is unique to the pipe (whose characteristics change when a flautist changes how he blows in the flute, or plugs holes with his fingers and instrument keys).

What if you engineered an instrument with several pipes, tuned to specific pitches, and came up with a way to pick the pipes you want to create the notes you want… That’s precisely what an organ does – it produces sound by driving pressurized air through pipes selected using a keyboard. The organ's continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as the corresponding keys are depressed, unlike the piano whose sound begins to decay soon after a key is hit.

The potential for an organ to achieve epic scales is, well, huge!


The smallest portable pipe organs may have only one or two dozen pipes and one keyboard (or manual); the largest may have over 20,000 pipes and several manuals. They are installed in churches, synagogues, concert halls, schools, and other public buildings primarily because they are so large, require so much space and care that they are not practical anywhere else. 

From Ancient Greece to Gothic Churches

The origins of the pipe organ can be traced back to the Hydraulis, literally "water (driven) pipe (instrument)." It is attributed to Ctesibius of Alexandria, an engineer of the 3rd century BC. The hydraulis was the world's first keyboard instrument and was, in fact, the predecessor of the modern organ. 



Technical Diagram of Ctesibius; Hydraulis

The Hydraulis of Dion, Dion Archaeological Museum

Unlike the instrument of the Renaissance period, the ancient hydraulis was played by hand, the keys were balanced and could be played with a light touch, as is clear from the reference in a Latin poem by Claudian, who uses this very phrase (magna levi detrudens murmura tactu . . . intonet, “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”).

We can trace the origins of the organ to the Ancient Greeks, however advances in engineering over centuries culminate with the first documented permanent organ installation, in Halberstadt, Germany in 1361. The Halberstadt organ was the first instrument to use a chromatic key layout across its three manuals and pedalboard, 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.
Now that’s power!

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 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.

Overview of the Repertoire

As for the repertoire for the organ it is quite varied: concert music, sacred music, secular music, popular music… In the early 20th century, pipe organs were installed in theaters to accompany films during the silent movie era!

Because organs have been used constantly over the centuries, there are significant works for the pipe organ throughout the ages. However, in my opinion, we can narrow things down to two distinct periods – the Baroque and the period after 1865, with an emphasis on generation or two of French artists that dominated the landscape at the turn of the 20th century.

Although most countries whose music falls into the Western tradition have contributed to the organ repertoire, France and Germany in particular have produced exceptionally large amounts of organ music.

German sacred organ music is dominated by the chorale, hymnal music of the Lutheran faith. Composers such as Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann wrote chorale preludes, chorale fantasias, and chorale motets. Towards the end of the Baroque era, the chorale prelude and the partita (or suite) became mixed, forming the chorale partita. This genre was developed by Georg Böhm, Johann Pachelbel, and Dieterich Buxtehude. The primary type of free-form piece in this period was the praeludium, as exemplified in the works of Matthias Weckmann, Nicolaus Bruhns, Böhm, and Buxtehude. 

Johann Sebastian Bach composed extensively for the organ (as well as the keyboard), and his works are both secular (large-scale preludes and fugues) and sacred (chorale-based works), dedicated to the organ or featuring the organ in one of his many cantatas.

In France, very little secular organ music was composed during the Baroque period; the written repertoire is almost exclusively intended for liturgical use. The important names there were Jean Titelouze, François Couperin, and Nicolas de Grigny.

Organ music was seldom written in the Classical era, as composers preferred the piano with its ability to create dynamics. In Germany, the six sonatas op. 65 of Felix Mendelssohn (published 1845) marked the beginning of a renewed interest in composing for the organ. Inspired by the work of renowned French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the French organist-composers César Franck, Alexandre Guilmant and Charles-Marie Widor led organ music into the symphonic realm. Guilmant and Widor were not only great organists and composers, they were also great teachers, and among their students and apprentices we count Louis Vierne and Marcel Dupré who, in turn, instructed Olivier Messiaen, and the brother and sister tandem of Jehan Alain and Marie-Claire Alain. Many of these organists were closely associated with the many great church organs in France, from Notre-Dame-de-Paris to Saint Sulpice.


The Great Organ at Saint Sulpice (Paris), reconstructed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862

The development of symphonic organ music continued with Vierne and Charles Tournemire. Widor and Vierne wrote large-scale, multi-movement works called organ symphonies that exploited the full possibilities of the symphonic organ.

Exploring the organ repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #7 - "Norddeutsche Orgelschule": A selection of works from the North-German organ school performed by Dutch organist Piet Kee: Sweelinck, Buxtehude ad J. S. Bach.  (ITYWLTMT Montage #217 - 11 March 2016)


Listener Guide #8 - "J.S. Bach - Ton Koopman‎ - Organ Works": Dutch organist Ton Koopman performs some Toccatas and Fugues by J. S. Bach, including his well-known Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (Vinyl's Revenge #7 - 10 March 2015)


Listener Guide #9 - "French Organ Masterworks": A collection of French organ works from Late Romantic and Early Contemporary French organ composers: Franck, Dupre, Messiaen, Widor and Vierne. (Once Upon the Internet #25 - 18 March 2014)


Listener Guide #10 - "Marie-Claire Alain (1926-2013)": The late great Marie-Claire Alain performs a collection of French organ works from Baroque and Early Contemporary French organ composers: Jehan Alain, Leon Boellmann, Louis Couperin and Louis-Nicholas Clerambault. (ITYWLTMT Montage #221 - 13 May 2016)