The Organ (i)

Jethro, Going Postal

As, everywhere, yet more low-churchmen and liberals do what their Protestant forebears did in the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries, cast aside as worthless and despised ‘kists of whistles’ and ‘rags of Popery’, and Organists are often seduced by salesman into doing away with real Organs, in favour of gleaming Electronics that seem to promise so much more flexibility, variety, compactness…, fearing that perhaps the day is not now far off when the Church Organ will have gone – as (very nearly) have the Theatre Organ and The Cinema Organ, and that people will not know what the Organ was, nor will have experienced one, I ventured to pen this (O, excellent Going-postallers) that you might know something of this ‘thing’.

‘Horrid Victorian things’, I hear you cry: ‘foisted on far too many innocent villages by the Tractarians, displacing the rustic bands of which Hardy so tenderly wrote.

You will probably at least know what to look for: perhaps perched up on a Gallery, or taking up an inordinate space to one side of the Altar Communion Table is this large wooden box, adorned, if that’s the word, with a couple of dozen drain-pipes, perhaps painted grey or blue, or crudely gilded – or even more crudely, stencilled! Nor are these pipes of the same size, but often arranged in a V formation, at least as far as length. ‘£24,000, to restore that monstrosity? We’d be better off spending a third of that, and having all that extra space…’

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Well, it all goes back far beyond The Victorians, indeed, to the Romans and to the Greeks, even further: Ctesibius of Alexandria (c. 246 B.C.) is credited with making a flute-playing machine that was worked by both air- and water-pressure. Here, from more than half a millennium later is this charming picture: my guess is that the two little boys in nappies are ‘bellows treaders’, keeping the organ supplied with air; the woman just right of centre is probably not about to say, ‘Here’s some I made earlier’, but is sounding the ?brass bowls by means of what any Artiste on the Triangle would recognise as beaters – her eight bowls (with graded amounts of water?) would give her an Octave – doh, ray, me fah, soh, lah, te, doh1.

Jethro, Going Postal
4th century AD “Mosaic of the Female Musicians” showing a woman playing organ from a Byzantine villa in Maryamin Syria.

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Interestingly (despite Brexit) Organ-builders everywhere work on the basis of the 8-foot pipe (8-fuss in Germany, 8-pieds) in France: an open pipe, of eight-feet speaking-length, will sound the note ‘C’, at four-feet, a pipe will sound the octave above – and so on. If the 8-foot pipe were to be of 6 inches diameter, you would expect that the pipe half that length would be half the diameter, however, for various reasons, this is not so, and over the centuries, various systems of ‘scaling’ have been tried, the usual one being that whereby the diameter halves at the seventeenth note, not the twelfth, attributed to Töpfer, but already used by organ-builders such as Dom Bedos de Celles, half a century earlier:

The system most commonly used to fully document and describe scaling was devised by Johann Gottlob Töpfer (de). In this system, the diameter of a given note is compared with a reference scale by means of half-tone deviations larger or smaller (indicated by the abbreviation ht). This reference scale is called Normalmensur. Normalmensur is a rank of pipes based on an internal diameter of 155.5 mm (6.12 in) at 8′ C (the lowest note of the modern organ compass) and a mouth width which is one-quarter of the circumference of such a pipe. The scale provides for a reduction in diameter of the pipes by half at every succeeding 17th pipe. [Wiki]

Pipes are made either of ‘Metal’ (an alloy of lead and tin – ‘Spotted Metal’ where there is a higher proportion of the more costly tin – 45%-55% – than usual), or of wood (usually of rectangular section), the malleability of the metal allowing the ‘voicer’ to make all sorts of minute adjustments.
Plainly, just blowing air through an eight-foot long tube will not produce much in the way of music, so an organ pipe will have a mouth, a foot, a pair of lips, and a ‘languid’: the ‘foot’ is the cone-shaped part of the pipe, the ‘mouth’ the letter-box slit, with ‘lips’ either side (in some cases ‘ears’, and even a ‘beard’, and, barely visible, the ‘languid’ is the shelf just inside the lower lip:

Jethro, Going Postal

I mentioned ‘speaking-length’ earlier, that measured from the mouth to the top, the foot’s length allowing for that agreeably symmetrical V-shape mentioned earlier.
English Organ-builders traditionally aimed at ensuring smoothness of sound, and also to make imitative pipes – many of these being ‘Reeds’, like the lowest pipe above, and labelled ‘Trumpet’, ‘Oboe’, ‘Clarionet’, and so on; otherwise, perhaps ‘Viole’, ‘Flute’, or ‘Piccolo’. German builders, on the other hand trod another path, one formulating the difference thus, ‘An English organ-builder makes the pipe sound as he wishes; a German, as the pipe wishes.’ Much like the final words – after a good hour of impassioned argument – of the Harpsichordist, who said, to her rival, ‘We shall have to continue to disagree: you go on playing Bach in your way, and I will go on playing in his.’ But, for both, the basic, foundational sound of an Organ, is what, here, we call the ‘Diapason’, that immediately recognisable but indefinable sound that we hear in our heads as ‘The Organ’, and which Electronic organs signally fail to simulate. You can, of course, hear such sounds by searching e.g. ‘Compton Organs’ – Christopher Lawton playing the Hymn ‘Hark the sound of heavenly voices at All Ss. Clayton, Wakefield, gives a quite reasonable indication of the typical Diapason sound.

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But, as every schoolboy knows, to keep not just the sound’s volume, but its pitch up, demands a stable supply of wind. How to achieve that, will be looked at in another part, also, how to be able to select different tones and levels of volume, rather than having all the pipes sounding for every key depressed.

[A good diagram can be found here ‘How a Pipe Organ Works’]

Jethro ©