Heard but not seen. An organist’s box of tricks.

Our January 25 blog featured a brief mix of the history and repertoire of the organ. It highlighted the loud, grandiose and often clichéd sound of which the instrument is capable, one which has served horror film scores and The Phantom of the Opera well. The blog’s reference to early organs in China might also have mentioned their ability to produce a raft of general effects for community activities such as a play; ancient alternative film scores, if you like. This edition picks up that theme of versatility and the range of sounds and effects that organists have at their fingertips, not forgetting their toes, together with a host of mechanical aids – buttons, stops, pre-set combinations of pipes, and the like. I even heard of one instrument on which a stop operated a drinks cabinet.

The different materials and method of construction of individual organ pipes produces different tonal qualities that generally reflect symphonic orchestral sounds such as strings, flutes and reeds, in addition to the instrument’s own classic sound of the majestic diapason. Here’s an example of the string sound, taken from Widor’s Fourth Organ Symphony (note the symphonic reference).

 Organ Symphony No. 4 (8.570310)

 Organs that boast two keyboards can split the sound into one of solo + accompaniment. The more keyboards an organ has, the more agility it enjoys in hopping between different tonal combinations. Here’s an example of strings supporting a flute, again by Widor, from his Symphonie gothique.

Symphonie gothique (8.570310)

 An organ can emulate the undulating vibrato technique used by singers and instrumentalists; its own version is called a tremulant. The wind supply to a set of pipes is manipulated to produce a slightly fluctuating pitch which, on some more resourceful instruments, can be controlled by the organist to produce different speeds and depths of the tremulant effect. Here’s an example of a subtle tremulant used in Ned Rorem’s A Secret Power, part of his 11-movement A Quaker Reader. Maybe you recognise the flute sound that is again used in the extract?

 A Secret Power (8.557218)

 Imagine a screen like a large, wooden Venetian blind where the slats that would normally control the admission of light are now vertical and encase a large section of the organ’s pipes. When the slats are opened and closed, the volume level from those pipes goes up and down. The operation is controlled by an organist’s foot on an oscillating ’swell’ pedal. So much effort to produce a simple crescendo or diminuendo! Here’s an example that opens with a diapason sound before a move to a different timbre and a right-foot-controlled diminuendo. It’s the opening of César Franck’s Chorale No. 1.

 Chorale No. 1 (8.557218)

 Organists’ feet don’t operate just the swell pedals. They have their own outsize keyboard, called the pedal-board, on which they generally produce the music’s harmonic foundation, but are sometimes required to perform solo. And not just individual notes played left-right-left foot, and so on.

Occasionally a composer asks them to play chords – 2, 3 and 4 notes at a time – which requires contortions hazardous to even the most resilient knee cartilage. Here’s an example of a pedal solo by J. S. Bach – the right-left-right type – that follows an introductory flourish from the hands. It’s from his Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major.

 Toccata (PROP7719)

 I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just listening to that niftiness. It’s the feet that also operate the largest organ pipes. While the smallest can fit into the palm of your hand, the largest soar tens of metres high and produce sounds that are often felt as well as heard. The organ at York Minster in England once had to tape over the stop that operated such monsters for fear that the vibrations the pipes produced might displace some of its fragile stained glass windows. The first two notes of the next extract articulate that sort of sound before continuing to growl at the bottom of the texture and giving, literally, a real depth to the music’s expression. It’s the opening of Max Reger’s Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor.

 Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor (8.557218)

 We’ll end by putting the symphonic-inspired sounds of the organ into the context of a real symphony orchestra to see how well the two sit side by side. We could devote yet another blog to music that combines organ and other instruments, both concerto and chamber works, and perhaps we will. Today, however, we play out with the conclusion of Michael Daugherty’s Once Upon a Castle for organ and orchestra. It’s from the last movement, Xanadu. Hearst Castle, the castle of the title, was the inspiration for the “Xanadu” mansion of the 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, a fictionalisation of William Randolph Hearst’s career as a leading newspaper publisher. The composer tips us off as to how the work ends:

“My Xanadu is filled with exotic organ chords and virtuoso bass pedal riffs surrounded by sizzling strings, rumbling brass, shimmering percussion and pulsating timpani … I pull out all the stops for a dramatic ending, which concludes my tour of Xanadu and the “pleasure-dome” that Hearst built “once upon a castle.”

 Xanadu (8.559798)


Leave a Reply