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The Resources of the Modern Organ.--I

[We take pleasure in bringing to the attention of the readers of The Etude the following selections from an article contributed to La Revue Musicale, of Paris, by Mons. Eugen de Bricqueville, a well-known composer, and a musician who has made the study of instruments a specialty, particularly from the standpoint of their historical development. The sections that follow were translated from the French for The Etude.]
 
The last years of the nineteenth century have witnessed a most happy abandonment of erroneous theories which have long retarded the progress of the art of music. Such, for example, was the idea that the organ belonged to the church and that it was consecrated to the service of religion. It has been only in recent years that the clergy have released the organist from a menial condition, a condition determined by a decree passed in 1809 regulating the administration of parish property. Article 33 reads: "The engagement and dismissal of organists, bell- ringers, beadles, janitors, and other servants of the church belong to the duties of church wardens." What could you expect of a musician put on a social or official par with a beadle, a verger, a bell-ringer, whose artistic claims were to be passed upon by church wardens?
 
It is true that the requirement of the organist's work allowed persons to fill organists' positions whose fingers could not execute passages demanded by piano music. Even the Conservatoire sanctioned the error and prolonged the misapprehension by exempting the members of the organ class from the ordinary tests of virtuosity and of sight reading which the pupils of the different classes in instrumental execution must pass.
 
What happened later, after the influence of a number of organists of great skill and high character had made itself felt, when the older ideals were being swept away? The church, wishing to monopolize the organ, was not willing to change in respect to its claims as to the province of the organ and organ music, but sought to meet the demand for increased pomp in wedding and funeral ceremonies by drawing on the orchestra for additional instruments, even the piano being pressed into service. Many of the opera composers also recognized the capabilities of the organ and introduced it into their scores. From that moment the idea of the instrument as reserved to the church suffered a serious attack. This change in the situation did not occur, however, without a radical modification of the means of expression. The theater, using the organ to represent scenically a religious episode, was content with effects which accorded with its original limits, it even exaggerated them; but it was easy to foresee that, once away from the church, the organ would not again be restricted to the role of auxiliary in religious scenes. It was bound to figure in concerts, to make its powerful voice heard in the orchestral mass, even to take a solo part. On the other hand two or three organists of high rank, impatient to see the instrument employ all its resources, tried their skill in a style of music very different from that which would correspond with the ideal of a church warden of 1809. We observe that the organ has been modernized; not that it calls forth a style of modern music, but that the aspirations of modern music demand the transformation.
 
To reach this end it was useless to dream of modifying the sonorous qualities of the instrument. If we except the so-called mutation stops which once held a very considerable place, we remark that the ancient organ had very nearly the same elements as the modern. Its sonorous character has not been destroyed by the addition of one or two free reed stops of a possible doubtful value; it is the mechanical side, formerly so defective, that has received the attention of the makers. Two inventions, the pneumatic lever and the swell-box, have revolutionized the making and playing of the organ. By the first the response of the keys has become perfect no matter what be the number of stops drawn or of couplers in use. By the second we are able to make use of nuance in organ music, by which is understood the commonly used term "expression."
 
In the older organs the attack could not be modified at the will of the player, and it was possible to make the playing expressive only by drawing additional stops, or by throwing off some, or by changing from one manual to another; these were the sole resources of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. The air chamber supplied the wind chests equally with a pressure that could not be modified without destroying justness of intonation. How was the organ then to be made "expressive"? Simply enough. The pipes composing the different stops of the upper manual, called Swell, have been inclosed in a great box of which the front part is composed of slats which are movable upon a vertical pivot and open or close gradually according to the pressure of the foot upon a pedal or lever. The ecclesiastical authorities were not all pleased with this invention which some considered dangerous, restrictive, and irreligious. But the first expression-pedal had no means of stopping at will. It was operated by a spring so sensitive that a light motion of the foot was sufficient to open the shutters abruptly. This defective pedal was followed by a foot-pedal placed in the middle of the combination levers; a spring was no longer used, the pedal being balanced on an axis which could be regulated to the fraction of an inch.
 
As to the pneumatic lever of Barker, of which we cannot here introduce a description, it has the advantage of neutralizing the resistance, sometimes considerable, imposed on the manual by the number of valves to be opened. It makes the touch, trills, arpeggios, and the repetition of notes more rapid. Then another change began to be indicated. The organist, having at his disposal a keyboard still lighter than that of the piano, would he not completely modify the rôle of the instrument which was considered sacerdotal? Since the leg muscles admit of a racing speed shall man not use the latter? Why interdict velocity in organ playing? As they say in common parlance, whoever can do the great can do the less; and is it not an admirable instrument, this modern organ, which allows one to execute in turn the solemn "Prelude in C Minor," by Bach, and the sparkling "Sinfonia" of the twenty-ninth cantata, or the impressive "Absolution" of Thomas, and the overture to the "Magic Flute," so ingeniously transcribed by Best?
 
In the church, filling its liturgic rôle, the organ takes on a compact style, successions of imposing chords, and no orchestra, numerous and powerful as it may be, can supply its place; at the concert it offers to the most exacting virtuosity all the elements desired.
 
And now a question presents itself: Is the organ an orchestra? Many contemporary organists think it is, and there are some who are masters of the art of orchestrating their improvisations. At first thought the idea appears correct, but reflection shows that the coincidence is not possible. The orchestra is a union of different timbres with varying places in the harmonic scale, while the sonorous qualities of the organ, identical in production, show a uniform timbre. It is a misfortune that the first makers gave to their combinations of pipes names which  presented ground for the idea of identity between organ and orchestra. The words flute, trumpet, oboe, violin, gamba, etc., indicate nothing which imitates other than remotely the orchestral instruments of the same name. The stops of the organ divide into several groups, but the method of applying the air does not vary, and the apparent diversity of timbre arises from the material shape of the pipes which are governed by the same acoustic laws. In the orchestra there is an amalgamation of timbres; in the organ there is a complete fusion, and no one stop in a mass can predominate as in an orchestra in which even the ordinarily trained ear can distinguish the violin, the flute, the clarionet, 'cello, etc.; in the organ ensemble it is with the greatest difficulty that one perceives the distinction between flute and reed stops; and all the art of harmonists consists in obtaining a fusion of timbre.
 
Leave to the organ its proper qualities. As it exists in our day it has attained to perfection, its mechanical side leaves nothing to be desired. It is for the acoustician to find new timbres in couplers, in the forms and disposition of the pipes. It is for the artist to study attentively the resources of the organ with a view to realizing the effects of sonorous qualities in keeping with the distinctive and well- defined character of the instrument.—Eugen de Bricqueville.

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