Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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(Fr. orgue, orgues; Dutch, Ger. Orgel; It., Sp. organo; Dan. Orglet; from Gk. organon via Lat. organum).

A wind instrument consisting of one or more scale-like rows of individual pipes of graded size which are made to sound by air under pressure directed from a wind-raising device and admitted to the pipes by means of valves operated from a keyboard. Although this definition could include such instruments as the Regals, Portative, Positive and Claviorgan, this article is concerned with the larger organ proper.

The organ is, together with the clock, the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Among musical instruments its history is the most involved and wide-ranging, and its extant repertory the oldest and largest (see Keyboard music, §§I–II; see also Continuo). Despite its essentially indirect and therefore relatively inflexible production of sound, no other instrument has inspired such avowed respect as the organ, ‘that great triumph of human skill … the most perfect musical instrument’ (Grove1), ‘in my eyes and ears … the king of instruments’ (Mozart, letter to his father, 17–18 October 1777).

I. Word origin

II. Construction

III. Pipework

IV. The classical and medieval organ

V. The organ, 1450–1800

VI. Some developments, 1800–1930

VII. The Organ Revival, 1930–70

VIII. The organ at the close of the 20th century




I. Word origin

Plato (Laws) and Aristotle (Politics) both used the term ‘organon’ to denote a tool or instrument in a general sense: something with which to do a job of work (ergon, from root uerğ-; cf Werk, ‘work’). Plato (Republic) and later authors also used it to denote any kind or all kinds of musical instrument or contrivance. No Greek author used it to mean ‘pipe organ’, and even in the term ‘hydraulic organ’ (1st century ce) used by Hero of Alexandria ‘organ’ has the sense of tool, so that the whole term properly indicates ‘an aulos-like device or instrument, operated by water’. (In this context, moreover, ‘aulos’ may indicate not the musical wind instrument of that name but ‘pipe’, ‘conduit’ etc.; thus ‘hydraulic’ refers to the water and air conduits.) Classical and patristic Latin show a fairly clear evolution of the terms ‘organum’, ‘organa’, ‘organis’ from a general to a specific sense, and a musical connection is often clear from the context, more consistently so than in Greek. 9th- and 10th-century Arabic had its own versions of the Greek, for example hedhrula (‘hydraulis’) and urghanon (‘organon’). The use of ‘organum’ to denote a kind of polyphony is of course post-classical (see Organum).

In his commentary on Psalm cl St Augustine correctly explained the Vulgate word ‘organum’ as derived from ‘a Greek term’, and thought it unlikely to be correct in this psalm. He defined it as follows (the English translation is by John of Trevisa, 1398): ‘Organum is a generall name of all Instrumentes of Musyk: and is nethelesse specyally apropryte to the Instrument that is made of many pipes; and blowen wyth belowes’. In one sentence St Augustine used the singular organum and the plural organa for the same object, thus foreshadowing late medieval usage of the plural in English and in Old High German (Notker Labeo's diu organâ and orglun) and present-day usage in Slavonic languages, (varhany, orgány: plural). The English derivatives of ‘organ’ (‘organic’, ‘organize’) are mostly post-medieval terms, and are sometimes found first in the musical sense (i.e. ‘organic’: ‘like organs’), sometimes first in the non-musical sense: ‘organize’, ‘to give an orderly structure to’, appears in the 17th century, while ‘organize’, ‘to supply one or more sets of organ pipes to’ a harpsichord or piano, appears in the 18th century, probably from French usage (e.g. clavecin organisé). The plural ‘organs’ denoting a single object (e.g. orgues/ogres, Orgenen/Orgeln in 12th-century French and German verse) belongs to the musical use of the term. In some languages, notably French, the singular orgue seems much the later term, but documents are inconsistent (e.g. ‘money paied to the organe maker for the orgonis’, 14th century). A ‘pair of organs’ was a phrase used in 17th-century England generally to denote an organ of any size. During the 16th century, particularly in documents prepared by non-musicians, a ‘pair of organs or virginals’ may perhaps have indicated an instrument with longer than average compass, but more probably meant merely an ‘instrument of many pipes or strings’ (cf a ‘pair of stairs’ in 15th-century French and English). By 1613 the new two-manual organ of Worcester Cathedral was called ‘Double Organ’, and it is this kind of instrument that was normally meant both in 17th-century contracts (e.g. those of Durham, Wells and Canterbury, all 1662) and in the voluntaries for Double organ popular from around 1640. The agreement from Canterbury is explicit: ‘A Double Organ, viz a great Organ and a Chaire Organ’ (see Double organ). Biblical use of ‘organ’ in English translations is unreliable. Septuagint Greek uses organon most often in its general sense of ‘tool’; Old Testament Hebrew uses ûgab on four occasions, apparently to indicate some kind of wind instrument, perhaps a vertical flute; Vulgate Latin uses organum indiscriminately for both.

‘Organ’, ‘orgue’ and ‘organo’ are also used in the sense of Werk to denote individual manual or pedal departments of the whole instrument. Before about 1675 such terms applied only to departments built into separate organ cases. In England, Echoes and Swells were not usually called ‘Swell Organ’ before about 1800, although by about 1850 all departments of an organ were referred to as ‘organs’.


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