All About The Pipe Organ

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Podcast Transcript

There are a host of different musical instruments. There are woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion instruments. These are the instruments that make up the backbone of orchestras and bands. 

However, there is one instrument that is unlike any other. 

Almost no one who plays the instrument actually owns one, and if you want to play it, you probably have to schedule a time to play when no one is around. 

Learn more about the pipe organ, the world’s largest instrument, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Of all the instruments I could be doing an episode on, you might wonder why I’m doing one on the pipe organ.

The reason is simple: it’s my favorite instrument. 

The organ is totally unlike every other instrument.

If you have ever played an instrument or know someone who did, they probably had to carry it around in a special case. It might have been a really big case like a cello or a really small case like a flute, but regardless of what it was, it was something you could take home to practice. 

There are a few other instruments that are difficult to move, like a piano or kettle drums, but it is possible to move them. When a popular pianist like Billy Joel or Alicia Keys goes on tour, they will usually pack and ship their piano on a truck as they go from arena to arena.

The organ, however, cannot be moved. You can’t take an organ home. There is no case you can put your organ in. 

A pipe organ is intimately tied to the building where it is located. A new pipe organ will cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and each one has to be created by hand. 

As such, each pipe organ is unique. 

Likewise, if you want to attend a performance, you have to go to the organ. The organ will not come to you. If you want to practice playing the pipe organ, you need to schedule time on one because more than one person can’t play simultaneously.

So, with that explanation, let me provide a brief history of the pipe organ, how it was developed and how it works. 

The organ has a shockingly ancient history. Most instruments you are familiar with are only a few hundred years old. Organs go back to least ancient Greece and Rome. 

The word organ comes from the ancient Greek word órganon, which was then translated into Latin as organum. The word’s original meaning in ancient Greek meant an instrument or a tool.

Saint Augustine explained, “Organum is a general name of all instruments of Musyk: and is nethelesse specially apropryte to the Instrument that is made of many pypes: and blowe with belowes.”

The first instrument ever invented was almost certainly some sort of percussion device. Some early humans probably banged a stick against a rock or a log.

However, the second might very well have been some sort of early flute. A hollow piece of wood or bone that created a sound when you blew across it the right way.

The organ is just an extension of this idea of resonating sound in a hollow tube. Instead of putting holes in the tube to change the size of the resonance chamber, an organ just has multiple tubes, each of which makes a different sound. 

The person credited with the organ’s invention is Ctesibius of Alexandria, who created it sometime in the mid-3rd century BC.

Ctesibius was the first person to write about and experiment with compressed air. His invention was known as a hydraulis or a water organ. 

The name was derived from the fact that it used moving water to provide the air pressure necessary to create sound through the pipes. 

The water organ was the world’s first keyboard instrument and it was a staple of music from the period. We actually know quite a bit about the water organ as it was depicted in many mosaics and artworks. In 1931, a reasonably complete water organ was discovered in Hungary that was dated to 228 BC. 

The wood and leather parts of the organ had decayed, but the metal parts were still intact. Enough so that it was possible to reconstruct an ancient water organ based on the ancient design. 

Here is a sample of what an ancient water organ would have sounded like:

<Insert Sound Sample>

It was the size of a standing arcade game, maybe a little smaller, and it took two people to play the instrument. One person actually played the notes on the keys, and the other worked a pump to move the air and water. 

This water organ that you are listening to was designed based on the design found in 1931.

While this doesn’t sound quite the same as a modern pipe organ, a direct lineage can be drawn to this ancient instrument. Both ancient and modern organs involve the same basic principles, compressed air being blown through pipes to produce sound.

There is an inscription found from 90 BC which tells of a man named Antipatros who won a competition in Delphi by playing the organ for two days straight.

The Romans used the water organ at the arena, theater, and banquets. Because of its use at such events for plebians, Cicero claimed to have hated the organ, and Emperor Nero said it was his favorite instrument.

Eventually, the organ began to be used for more solemn events such as weddings and the swearing-in of consuls. 

The organ, from its initial invention, never went away. It simply evolved. 

Organs that didn’t use water were eventually developed. These were known as positive organs, and they could be played by a single person who used one foot to pump the air. 

Organs became a staple of Orthodox Christianity in the eastern Roman empire. There is an organ depicted on an obelisk dedicated to Emperor Theodosius I on his death in 395.

There are records of an organ being sent from Emperor Constantine V to the Carolingian King Peppin the Short in 757. 

The organ was one of the inventions which traveled from west to east. It was transferred to the Islamic Caliphate. In the 9th century, in Bagdhad, two men, known as the Ban? M?s? brothers, invented an organ that would play itself. 

It became known as hydraulic automata, and it was basically the water organ equivalent of a player piano. 

The organ’s biggest innovation was replacing water to move air with bellows. For the most part, bellows are what are used to move the air on modern pipe organs today.

Bellows allowed for more air to be moved, which allowed for bigger pipes, which allowed for bigger organs. 

In the 10th century, large non-portable organs began to be installed in churches in Europe. 

We don’t know where the first permanent church organ was installed, but the first well-documented organ was in 1361 in Halberstadt, Germany.

The Halberstadt Organ had twenty bellows operated by ten men, and supposedly, the air pressure inside the organ was so great that it took the entire strength of the player’s arm to press down a key.

The world’s oldest playable pipe organ is located in Sion, Switzerland, and twelve of its pipes date back to 1485.

14th and 15th-century organs began installing huge pipes to create some of the lowest notes that humans had ever heard up to that point. 

As more and more pipes were installed, the next development in the organ is what is known as a stop. One key on the keyboard would often allow air to flow to a series of pipes. A stop allows for the control of air to individual pipes to produce different sounds. 

A large pipe organ will have a multitude of stops that look like small handles that can be pulled out. 

This is where the term “pulling out all the stops” actually comes from. To be fair, there are some videos you can watch where an organist actually does “pull out all the stops,” and it doesn’t really sound that impressive. 

Stops allowed organs to mimic the sounds of other instruments, including flutes and trumpets. 

The number of stops that some modern pipe organs have is astounding. The pipe organ at the US Naval Academy chapel, for example, has 522 stops. 

It isn’t surprising then that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the pipe organ was the most complex device in the world. 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw pipes being controlled by electrical signals, which allowed for a separation of the organ and the pipes. You could now place the keyboard in a different location and didn’t have to control the airflow manually.

The early 20th century saw the creation of some of the largest organs in the world. 

The 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis saw the creation of a pipe organ with six keyboards, 401 stops, 464 ranks of pipes, and 28,750 individual pipes. After the fair, the organ was shipped in sixteen railroad cars to the Wannamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. 

It is the largest musical instrument ever created based on sheer weight and size, and it is still functioning today. Today the store is owned by Macy’s, and two organ performances are performed daily.

Depending on how you define it, an even bigger organ can be found in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Boardwalk Hall has an organ that was inaugurated in 1932. It has 33,114 pipes, the most of any organ in the world, and it also holds the record for the loudest organ in the world. 

Organs weren’t just for churches. Theaters during the silent movie era often had organs, as did stadiums and other public venues.

As far as sound goes, the modern organ was pretty much complete in the 17th century. This saw a rise in compositions for the organ, including the first real great composer for the organ, Johan Sebastian Bach. 

He composed what is probably the most well-known organ piece in the world, Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This was used in the Phantom of the Opera and, perhaps even to better effect, the 1975 science fiction film Rollerball. 

One of the other major composers for the organ was Charles Marine Widor. The toccata from his Symphony for Organ No. 5 in 1897 is also one of the best-known works for organ. It is one of my favorite pieces of music, and I have a public-domain extended clip of it at the very end of this podcast.

I should note that both of these organ compositions I’ve described are called a “toccata.” A toccata comes from the Italian word for “to touch,” and it usually refers to any fast-moving, virtuoso selection of music. So, Eruption by Van Halen would also, technically, fall under the category of a toccata.

However, if you just told an organist to “play the toccata,” they would probably play the piece by Bach.

I am not an organist. However, I am confident in saying that the pipe organ is the most complicated instrument in the world to play. In fact, I don’t think anything else is even close. 

There can be anywhere from two to five keyboards. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of stops. On top of all that, there is another keyboard that you play with your feet. This isn’t pedals like on a piano, but a full-blown keyboard that you could play music on without using your hands. 

Whereas a virtuoso violinist will take their instrument with them everywhere and probably play nothing else, an organist doesn’t own their own instrument. Every organ they play will be different, with an entirely different layout of keys and stops. 

No other instrument is so large and complicated as the pipe organ. We have to build buildings around it; if we wish to hear or play it, we must come to it as it will not come to us. 

Even if you don’t like the organ, you do have to respect it.