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The Organ, Yesterday and To-Day

By the Distinguished French Master,

[Editor’s Note.—This article, which appears here for the first time in the English language, will give organists another opportunity to wonder at the versatility of the distinguished French composer who seems to be equally gifted in organ playing, piano playing, composition, criticism, conducting, and some say in astronomy. Saint-Saëns is now seventy-six years old and the following article is one of his most recent literary efforts.]

saint-saens-portrait.jpgWhen the god Pan, half man, half horse, tied together a few reeds of uneven length to form the instrument which bears his name, he originated the organ. Only the addition of a keyboard and bellows was needed to form an instrument which the early painters placed in the hands of the creatures of their dreams, together with viols, theorboes, trumpets and cymbals, for the portable organ of those days was not by any means associated only with sacred matters. Through slow development and evolution, little by little, the organ has grown into the most noble of instruments, and with its richness of tone, increased tenfold by the resonant qualities of vaulted cathedrals, has taken upon itself a religious character.

The organ is more than an instrument; it is an orchestra in which the Pipes of Pan range from a set of pipes such as a child might use for a toy to pipes as large as the columns of a temple. Yet each set of pipes constitutes what is known as an organ “stop,” and the number of these stops is unlimited.


The Romans manufactured organs which were certainly very crude from a musical point of view, but sufficiently complicated in structure to employ hydraulic pressure. This employment of water in a wind instrument has greatly puzzled various commentators, but Cavaillé-Coll, having studied the matter, has solved the problem, and shown that hydraulic means were employed to compress the air. The system was ingenious but impracticable, as the instruments were of a very primitive kind. The keys, he tells us, must have been very stiff, and would respond only to a blow of the fist.

But let us leave history for art—the crude instrument for the perfected one. At the time of Bach and Rameau the organ had attained a more noble form; the number of stops were increased, and could be pushed in or pulled out at will, enabling the organist to use them for registration. In order to place further resources at his disposal, the organ builders increased the number of manuals, and added the pedal keyboard. Germany alone at that time possessed pedal keyboards worthy of the name, which were adaptable for the performance of an interesting bass part. In France and elsewhere the pedals were so rudimentary that they could only be used for fundamental tones and prolonged notes. Nobody outside of Germany could have performed the works of Sebastian Bach.

On the old instruments, performance was tiresome and uncomfortable. The touch was hard, and when the manuals were coupled considerable demands were made upon the physical strength of the player. It was also very difficult to pull the stops out or push them in, and sometimes they were quite out of the player’s reach. In fact, an assistant was necessary when playing on organs as large as the ones at Harlem or Arnheim, in Holland. Often it was impossible to change the combination of stops when playing, and all nuances were impossible, except for alternating a brusque, staccato touch with a smooth one.


It was reserved for Cavaillé-Coll to change these conditions, and to open up huge vistas of possibilities for the organ. He introduced into France pedal keyboards worthy of the name, increased the compass of the instrument by the addition of harmonic stops, thus adding a brightness to the tone quality hitherto lacking. He invented marvelous combinations, which enabled the organist to alter the registration and to vary the tone quality without the aid of an assistant. Since his time the idea has been conceived of enclosing certain stops in a case supplied with shutters, which can be opened and shut at will, permitting the most delicate shadings of tone; and by various means the touch of the organ keys has been rendered as easy as that of the piano.

Since those days the Swiss organ builders have invented new facilities which make the organist a kind of magician; the manifold resources of the instrument are at his command, obedient to his lightest wish.


The resources available are prodigious. The compass of the organ, both in the higher register and the lower, is far beyond that of all the orchestral instruments. Only the harmonics of the violin attain the same height; but how limited their volume and how restricted their usage! In the lower register what instrument can rival the thirty-two foot stop, going two octaves below the bottom C of the violoncello? From a pianissimo approaching the border lands of silence to a tremendous, awe-inspiring volume of sound, all degrees of intensity are within the scope of this bewitching instrument.

The variety of its tone qualities is immense; reed stops of all kinds, gamba stops approaching string tone, mutation stops, in which several pipes are connected so that with each note sounded is heard its fundamental and harmonics—a special property peculiar to the organ; imitations of orchestral instruments, trumpet, clarinet, cromorne (an instrument now obsolete, whose tone quality is not found elsewhere), bassoon, vox celeste stops of different kinds, in which special effects are

produced by two pipes playing the same note, but not tuned exactly in accord, the famous vox humana, a favorite with the general public on account of its nasal, tremulous, seductive quality; and the innumerable combinations of these stops, and all the gradations of tones by which one obtains an infinite blending of colors from this marvelous palette.

Add to these qualities the inexhaustible wind-supply of the huge lungs of the monster, giving to its tones the incomparable and inimitable suavity so familiar to all. The power needed to work the bellows has only recently been supplied by other than human agency— the organ-blower working by hand. Nowadays we have improved on this system. The bellows of the gigantic organ at the Royal Albert Hall, London, are worked by steam, thus assuring the organist of an inexhaustible wind supply, but eliminating all possibility of an impromptu performance. Other instruments are served by gas engines, and are therefore much more readily available, and there is also the hydraulic method, giving enormous power and affording easy access, as it is merely necessary to turn a spigot to put the bellows in action. But mechanical systems of this kind are not always free from accident. I remember an occasion when I had just finished the opening phrase of the Adagio in the grand Fantasy of Liszt on the chorale from Le Prophête. (It happened at Geneva, in the beautiful Victoria concert hall.) The pipe conducting the water burst, and the organ was silenced. I have often thought, perhaps wrongly, that ill-will was not irresponsible for the accident.


This fantasy of Liszt is the most extraordinary piece for the organ in existence. It lasts only forty minutes, and the interest never fails for an instant. Just as Mozart, in his Fantasy and Sonata in C minor anticipated the modern pianoforte, so Liszt, writing this fantasy half a century ago, seems to have foreseen the instrument with its thousand resources, which we now possess.

Are these resources as frequently used as they can and should be? Let us admit that too often they remain unused or in but little favor. Before the resources of the organ can be drawn upon to their utmost, it is necessary to know the instrument thoroughly, and this knowledge cannot be acquired in a day. The organ is a combination of instruments, the number of which is optional, so that a great variety of alternatives is at the command of the organist, and consequently there are not two instruments alike. The organ is a theme with innumerable variations, determined by the space the builder has to fill, by the financial means at his disposal, by his inventiveness, and by his personal caprice. Only after a long time can the organist know his instrument “as well as he knows his own pocket,” so that he can manipulate the mechanical part of it as unconsciously as a fish glides through the water, and be free to concern himself solely with the music. Then only is he free to mix at will the varied colors of his vast palette, and to plunge freely into extemporization.


Alas! Improvisation, the glory of the French School, has been largely discounted through German influence. On the plea that an improvisation is not equal to the masterpieces of Sebastian Bach and Mendelssohn, the young organist has been denied its privileges.

This way of looking at the matter is unfortunate, for it is the wrong point of view. It is simply a negation of speech. Suppose that on the platform, in the pulpit, or at the bar only speeches learned by heart were to be heard? Surely everybody is aware that the orator or the lawyer may dazzle us with their eloquence, and yet lose their power as soon as they put pen to paper? The same phenomenon is noticeable in music. Léfébure-Wély, who was a remarkable extempore performer (I am speaking of what I know, for I heard him) has left only insignificant pieces for the organ, and I could mention, among our own contemporaries, some who only fully reveal them Selves when improvising. The organ is an inspiration in itself; it appeals to unexpected depths in one’s inner consciousness; a new and undreamed-of world springs up, as if one sailed across the sea and discovered some enchanted isle never to be found again.

Instead of these fairy imaginings what does one too often have to listen to? A few compositions of Sebastian Bach or Mendelssohn repeated to satiety; pieces which are undoubtedly beautiful, but concert pieces which have no place in the Catholic service, with which they are not in sympathy; pieces composed for old-fashioned instruments which are not at all suitable or are ill-adapted for the resources of the modern organ; and one is asked to regard this as progress.

I am well aware that objection can be raised to improvisation. There are poor extempore players whose performance is of little interest. But then there are preachers and lawyers who are poor speakers. This has nothing to do with the case. An indifferent extemporization will always be tolerable if the organist is inspired by the idea that music in church should always be appropriate to the service and an aid to contemplation and prayer. And if the organ played in this way produces harmonies which are not music in the strictest sense, it does not matter if these musical sounds are not worth the dignity of being written out, we are merely reminded of the old stained glass windows in which one has difficulty in recognizing the figures, yet which charm us, nevertheless, more than the most beautiful of modern stained-glass windows. Music of this kind might, at times, be easily more appropriate, one might suppose, than a fugue by a great master. Only that is good in art which is appropriate to its surroundings.


During the twenty years I presided over the organ of the Madeleine, I always improvised, permitting myself to follow the dictates of my own fancy, and it was one of the greatest pleasures of my life. There is, however, a story to be told in this connection. I was a musician much given to austerity in style. It was generally believed by the public that I continually played fugues; so much so that on one occasion a young lady about to be married begged me not to play them at her wedding service! It is also true that another bride asked me to play funeral marches. She desired to weep at her wedding, and, not having any sorrows available, she was relying upon the organ to bring tears to her eyes! But this was the only instance of its kind. As a rule, it was my severity which occasioned alarm. This severity, however, was only practised in moderation.

One day a member of the parish clergy undertook to lecture me on this point. The congregation of the Madeleine, he said, was composed for the most part of well-to-do people, who frequently went to the Opera Comique. They had formed musical tastes which it would be well to gratify.

“Reverend sir.” I replied, “when I hear the dialog of the Opera Comique spoken in the pulpit, I will provide appropriate music, but not before.”


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