This article is the second in a series on organs and organ music, written to help the general public regain and understanding of this unique instrument and its music. The first article, Pipe Organs 101, gives an overview of the organ in terms of its construction and operation. This second article moves the focus to the music of the organ.

Pipe Organs 105: What is 'Organ Music'?

Before we try to understand what organ music is, we should first think about what music itself is. Music is complex- we hear sound vibrations with our ears, but it's much more than mere sound. Sound is from the outside in, music, from the inside out. It transforms our mood, our view of the world. Music is universal; it is not bound by spoken language. We respond to it from infancy, we strive to fill our lives with it. To live without music is to live impoverished. So tightly knit to our spiritual core, music can run the gamut of our emotional spectrum, from joy to anguish and everything in between. Music can not only move us but can cause our voices to sing and our feet to dance. It is not limited to the domain of man- other creatures such as birds join in chorus. Perhaps the most powerful and pervasive force on earth, neither is it limited to earth, for heaven itself is filled with music. Music, then, is the best way that creation has to express outwardly its inner spiritual being. Music, the most sublime of the arts, draws its word meaning from muse, to reflect and meditate about something in depth. That's why thoughtful, attentive listening is a skill worth developing.

So what happens when we cross one of the most powerful forces on earth with the King of Instruments?

Well of course we have organ music! The organ has a long and rich repertoire with music from many countries, times, occasions, and styles. It can range from the most powerful and overwhelming music possible to the simplest and purest melody.

The organ has been around for many centuries and precedes the development of the piano and the symphony orchestra. The organ has been referred to as "The King of Instruments" and had its Golden Age during the Baroque era (1600-1750). The church was for centuries the major custodian of the arts in society, and music was chief among those arts it cultivated.

What makes “organ music” unique?

Music composed for the organ is unique in several respects. Because of the pedal keyboard, an organist plays not only with their hands like a pianist does, but also their feet. Another difference is that because the pipes produce sound as long as the keys or pedals are held down, notes can last indefinitely without decay in volume. While piano music is normally written on two staves, one with the bass clef and one with treble clef, organ music is typically written on three staves: the two mentioned above and a second bass clef for the pedals. This example shows J.S.Bach's Fantasia in C major:

The organ will have 2 or 3, sometimes more, keyboards to play on, so music can be written where the left hand has a sound different than the right hand does. As we have explained in Pipe Organs 101, the organist has many different sounds that he or she can use, like a painter with a pallet of colors they can mix to make new colors.

What other factors make organ music unique?

Organs are not portable and are designed and built for the room in which they are located. Rarely are two organs alike, so performance of the music requires the organist to understand the particular instrument they are playing and prepare accordingly. Music played on a large four-manual instrument in a large cathedral with lively acoustics would be handled differently than when playing the same piece on a two-manual organ in a small church. The choice of stops used and even the tempo would change. This is why it's hard, in our current age where recorded music tends to "freeze" a certain performance as the correct one, to realize that music is a living interpretation of one composer's ideas and that it is permissible and even desirable for the music to adapt.

How long has organ music been around?

Music for organ has been around since before the 15th century. Early organs had either no pedal division or only a small one, and performers and composers for the organ were also well acquainted with the harpsichord. In Germany, the pedal organ developed first, so that is where music composed uniquely for the organ as we know it today first developed. This is not to say the music must have the use of pedals to be organ music; it is just one unique characteristic. Organ music of the French Baroque did not require much use of the feet, but rather focused on the many sound colors and contrasts between keyboards that the organ provides.

What was organ music written for?

To most people, organ music is automatically associated with the church. Because of the dominance of the church in society, it provided fertile ground for the organ to develop. There is the seemingly obvious use of the organ to accompany singing and religious worship, although organs were fully developed before they were used for voice accompaniment. Another factor is that since building organs were large projects, the church could afford to do this since it was the focal point of society at the time.

Organ music has developed a larger audience than strictly religious worship and singing accompaniment. The music of J.S.Bach, for example, includes liturgical pieces that were written for specific church seasons and events, but also pieces for study and performance.

Isn't organ music always loud?

No. An organ should not be voiced as a tempest in a teapot although some builders still do this. The organ can have a powerful sound, but most of its use and music is much more than that. It's like saying a fine automobile "just goes fast"- there's more to it than that of course, with handling steering, suspension behavior, safety systems and layout being important pieces too. The goal of music can be to overwhelm the listener with sound when that's what the piece is calling for, but that is not the usual case. The organ is not a one-dimensional instrument!

We live in age where electronic reproduction of music has essentially separated the volume at which music is played from any sort of reality. Turning a simple knob on an electronic amplifier can harness energy from a nuclear power plant and transform it through speakers into deafening sound. Traditional weaknesses in sound reproduction accuracy in conventional speakers has led people to solve these problems by turning up the volume- it always sounds better when louder. The industry has focused on amplifier wattage and bass response as of late, but there is nothing on the horizon that ensures listening volumes are at an accurate decibel level. Of course much popular music today is entirely synthetically produced, so there no criterion from reality with which to gauge the sound volume like there is for naturally or acoustically produced music from voices or real instruments. Organists need be careful not to succumb to the temptation to play loudly all the time to keep up with the musical views of the day.

So what are examples?

Johann Sebastian Bach is undoubtedly the most influential musician of all time. He composed large amounts of music for the organ and for other instruments as well.

The following table illustrates music from a range of time and countries. We begin with pre-Bach German music, and then offer some examples from the French Baroque.

To play the excerpt, simply click on the music note; this should play the MP3 format sound on your PC. It is recommended that you listen with headphones if possible to get a better idea of the sound than just with a PC's built-in speakers.

Composer: Nikolaus Bruhns, 1665-1697
Music: Praeludium No. 3 in E minor
Organ: Beckerath organ at Clare College, Cambridge, England
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 2

This clip demonstrates the sectional nature of German organ music before Bach. Shown here are the first two of seven sections; the piece begins with feet flying in an introductory pedal solo with contrasting manual chords entering in on top of octave-alternating footwork. The registration used here highlights the ability of the pedal organ to speak clearly and carry its own weight without any manuals coupled to them, and the chords on the hauptwerk include the trompete stop (see sketch in Pipe Organs 101), which is very different sounding than the French trompette heard in the next two selections. The second section changes mood dramatically to a lighter, more intimate dialog between manual divisions, showing the contrasts of pitch and weight between them.

Composer: Louis Marchand, 1669-1732
Music: Dialogue sur les Grands Jeux, from Pièces d'Orgue, Premier Livre
Organ: Great Organ of the Church of St Maximim, Thionville, France
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 1

This clip is an authentic example of the French Grand Jeu sound which is made from reeds and mutation stops. This sound is not so commonly heard outside of France or French-speaking regions. Also, this music is performed entirely on the manuals; no pedals are used. Pedals were used rarely, providing the cantus firmus in some pieces or a reed at cadence points.

Composer: Louis Marchand, 1669-1732
Music: Basse et dessus de Trompette et de Cornet, from Pièces d'Orgue, Premier Livre
Organ: Great Organ of the Church of St Maximim, Thionville, France
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 1

This clip is a conversational dialog between two of the primary colors in the French baroque organ: the trompette and the cornet. In this way it has a similarity with the second section of the Bruhns above, but the sounds are entirely different. The cornet is unique in that it uses stops of the pitches at 8', 4', 2 2/3', 2, and 1 3/5', and were mounted on a separate soundboard higher and towards the front of the organ case to make the sound more majestic.

Composer: Louis Marchand, 1669-1732
Music: Plein-Jeu, from Pièces d'Orgue, Cinquième Livre
Organ: Great Organ of the Church of St Maximim, Thionville, France
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 1

This clip is an authentic example of the French Plein Jeu sound, which this performance uses to portray a regal sense of power, majesty, and elegance. The Plein Jeu is similar to the German principal chorus, but has fuller pipe scaling and lower pitched mixtures to provide more fullness to the sound. Like dark chocolate, these pieces are often small but intense and maximize the delicious creation and resolution of tension through tight harmonies enriched by this sound. No reeds or mutation stops are used, so it is somewhat the opposite or compliment of the Grand Jeu. Again, this music is performed entirely on the manuals; no pedals are used.

Composer: Nicolas de Grigny, 1672-1703
Music: Tierce en Taille
Organ: 1974 Phelps Organ at Hexham Abbey, England
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 4

Quiet. Contemplative. Sensuous. Meditative. Serene. Unhurried. These adjectives barely begin describe the mood conveyed by this piece; you live in the moment and savor it. The Tierce en Taille, or "tierce in the tenor", is a example of the beautiful solo possibilities of individual organ stops. This sound is uniquely French, as German organs of this period did not have an individual tierce (fifteenth) sounding rank.

Composer:J. S. Bach, 1685-1750
Music:Trio Sonata No. 1 in E-flat, BWV 525
Organ: Marcussen Organ at St. Lawrence, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 1

In this selection we hear a Bach trio sonata where three independent voices play together. This format is not unique to the organ and is commonly used in instrumental music of that time. The music begins with the left hand and pedal, the right hand joining in on a different manual two measures later. We hear the sparkling and bright sound of the North-German style of organ building which contrasts with the previous examples of the French Classical organ. This is a superb example of the mastery of Bach's polyphonic writing for the organ- three voices playing together, each with their own melody, yet the sum of the parts creates still another dimension to the music. Three voices is certainly not the most complex Bach has written; some works have five or six. But here, the sounds combine in joyful delight and lift the spirit in a way that was unique to Bach. In this performance the right hand melody is played with a 1' stop which draws attention as a lead, but the supporting voices are also clearly heard. This ability of the organ to support a singing treble line and still have clarity for the other parts is an essential ingredient for a successful instrument.


Composer:Julius Reubke, 1834-1858
Music:Sonata on the 94th Psalm
Organ:Aeolian-Skinner organ at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston
Disc:Organ Master Series, Volume 1, Gillian Weir

We are now a full century past Bach and the world has changed significantly. The church is not the cultural center of life as it once was, the symphony orchestra is the primary vehicle for composers to express themselves, the piano has emerged as the keyboard instrument of choice and Romanticism is in full swing. These things do not necessarily mean that organ music could not flourish; this piece is of one of the great monumental compositions for the organ to emerge from that time period. In this clip we hear the organ which has grown in size and has a true "keyboard style" of composition, reflecting pianistic and symphonic elements.


Composer:Camille Saint Saëns, 1835-1921
Music:Organ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78
Organ:Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Disc:Gillian Weir, organ, Ulster Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor

The organ is not just a solo instrument! Here we have the organ and orchestra combined, performing one of the most popular organ and orchestra works.


Composer:Henri Mulet, 1878-1967
Music:Toccata tu es Petrus
Organ: 1974 Phelps Organ at Hexham Abbey, England
Disc: King of Instruments: The Art of Gillian Weir, Volume 4

The Toccata that emerged from the French Romantic period has a musical theme presented on the pedals under a driving manual rhythm. Mulet's Toccata is a technically challenging piece which uses an agitated ostinato rhythm played on the manuals with a compelling pedal tune. This music makes use of the "swell box" which is a division of the organ which is enclosed in a box that has louvers on the front which can be gradually opened or closed to control the volume. The position of the "swell shades" is controlled by the organist with a foot pedal at the console. (See photos on the Hexham Organ page.) Clicking the first note on the left plays the beginning of the piece which starts off with the swell box closed. It then opens; you can hear more sound volume and clarity of the stops being used. It then closes to decrease the sound for the entry of the main theme introduced and played on the pedals. Clicking the second note plays a sample towards the end of the piece. You hear the swell division open again adding intensity of the left hand chords, which is then followed a few moments later by coupling the two keyboards together and a literal "pulling out all the stops". The effect is a spectacular crescendo into a blaze of sound as the relentless chord rhythms and pedal line propel this exciting toccata to its destiny.

The above examples are but short glimpses into the fascinating realm of organ music. It would take volumes to reveal all the complexities of the music, its evolution over time and its associaton with the history of the times. Our intent for the moment was to highlight those characteristics of the organ as an instrument and show how its resources can be used for the good of music. The best next step is to find some of the CDs referenced here and listen to them on your good stereo and read along with the CD booklet notes.


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© Steve Thomas 2005