Designing a 2 Manual Organ

by Lawrence I. Phelps

Writing in these pages just one year ago on the design of the two-manual organ, Robert Noehren began his noteworthy article as follows: “Organs are created for the performance of Music.” This simple truth may be thought by some to be so self-evident as to hardly be worth stating. However, the implication of this statement, outlined rather well by Mr. Noehren in the first seven paragraphs of his article, is that since the raison d' étre of an organ is the performance of music, the design of the organ should grow out of consideration of the tonal requirements of the music to be performed. In the past 30 years of organ reform in North America this thought has been stated and restated many times and has been used to justify the most divergent practices. Only in the last few years has enough been learned about the organ's true nature to enable this approach to be applied meaningfully in creative tonal design.

The “let literature dictate design” theme has been the subject of many an elaboration and variation in both the writing and construction of this period, and, in its more superficial considerations, it may be said to have been the father of that masterpiece of eclecticism, the “American Classic” concept of organ design, an attempt to design into each instrument “everything necessary” for the performance of the entire organ literature. Because this approach produced all of the noteworthy American instruments of the 30's and 40's, and most of the 50's, it is worthy of our respect. Because eclecticism seems to be very much a part of our way of life, however harmful this may be for our creativity, this approach will continue to dictate the design of the majority of our instruments for a considerable time to come. This does not mean that we must be satisfied with it, however, and we must constantly look toward a better way.

As the writer has discussed elsewhere (“Perspective”, Organ Institute Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1954) the deficiency of the “American Classic” concept is due largely to its having been born in a period of utter decadence out of an extremely limited knowledge gained by far too fleeting a glimpse at the work of great European organ builders of the past, by too limited view of the organ's great literature and by a much too shallow penetration into the meaning of this music with respect to the concept of the instruments. European instruments were examined, but there was too much fascination with the newly found sound, too much influence by personal preference in the thinking of these well meaning observers and very little real insight into the functional aspect of sound in the presentation of music. In the past ten to twelve years this deficiency in our approach to tonal matters has gradually begun to be corrected. Unfortunately, some of our young people are going to Europe without enough background and training in deductive and functional listening to prevent them from the same error of fascination with sound that distracted our pilgrimaging tonal reformers of a generation ago, and we find them returning with the “means” thoroughly confused in their thinking with the “ends”. We thus have a new group of sound-for-sound's-sakers who may tend to confuse things through another generation. Nevertheless, there is ever increasing evidence, both in Canada and the United States, that an ever growing number of organists and other musicians, and even some of the clergy and laymen, are acquiring a really functional appreciation of the principles of good tonal design and of their successful realization in actual instruments. That this awareness and understanding of the organ as an instrument and of its literature as worthy church music, without which nothing truly significant can be accomplished, is increasing in such a representative cross section of the field, offers a brighter prospect for the future and especially for the future of the two-manual organ. We can now see the beginnings of a new maturity in our approach that will eventually restore the two-manual concept to the position of importance which it has not borne with any degree of grace for the past 200 years.

Although the idea of designing an organ from purely musical considerations is generally thought to be a good one, it is surprising how often entirely non-musical factors influence some of the major points of design. An excellent example of this is frequently seen in the matter of determining the size of a new instrument. Only rarely is this point settled by musical considerations. Three influences much more often encountered are those of financial limitations, space limitations, and pure unadulterated, although rarely expressed, “status seeking”. Of these, except in cases of dire lack, the first two will seldom impair the essential musicality of an instrument, but the third, which is a factor in more cases than might be supposed, will almost always cloud and clutter the musical plan and will, more often than not, result in a scheme that is too large for the given situation. When all three of these occur together, the results are always musically disastrous. Of the three, the latter, “status seeking” or, as we used to call it, the “keeping up with the Jones'” complex, is at present the chief deterrent to the restoration of the two-manual scheme to the position of respect which an understanding of fundamentals demand for it. Being a symptom of our times, it is difficult to overcome. However, with the increasing maturity mentioned above, the two-manual organ's being rediscovered through a deeper insight into its literature gained in closer re-examination of the principles demonstrated in the instruments for which it was written. The false notions that the two-manual scheme is a compromise, that it is incomplete, or that it is a three-manual instrument with all the “flexibility” removed, are being replaced by the realization that for the vast majority of the worthy music for the organ intended expressly for church use, the two-manual, when properly designed, must be considered complete in all respects, that it is THE basic instrument, and that the acceptance of the discipline required to design, build, or play a two-manual organ successfully is the key to, or indeed, is the test of, our understanding of the organ and of the meaning of its literature. As time goes on and as we have more good examples to help prove the point, we can be sure that quality will in the end usurp the position of prestige now so tenaciously held by quantity.

As we pursue and assimilate the truths of good tonal design, it becomes ever clearer that, if the “American Classic” concept is questionable for instruments of more than two manuals, it is just plain wrong as a basis of design for any two-manual instrument intended for church use. The “American Classic” argument is that since it is desirable to play music of all periods on a single instrument, the ideal is to combine the “best” elements of both the classic and the romantic in each instrument, considerations of size not withstanding. Actually, except for some very recent examples, this approach has not produced anything but idealized romantic instruments, the term “romantic” being used here in the best sense. However, this is not the point to be made here. The first thing that must be realized, if we are again to design effective two-manual organs, is that, while every organ builder, from Arnold Schlick to Henri Cliquot, considered the two-manual form to be worthy of his best effort and while we have an overwhelming amount of inspired and inspiring church literature from this period for instruments in this form, from the late 18th century on, until only very recently, virtually no significant literature has been written for two-manual instruments, the Brahms choral preludes being rather remarkable exceptions. Since the romantic period is without a worthy literature for such an instrument, how can it be argued with any degree of logic, that a two-manual instrument should incorporate romantic elements? The literature for the two-manual is essentially classical. There is, therefore, little justification for the disposition of today's two-manual having anything other than a purely classical orientation.

The two-manual form is basic. Its design principles underlie all good tonal design practice, and although its precise composition can assume various forms, departure from the fundamental concept of two complete, independent, but complimentary manual divisions with an independent pedal division, leads but to disaster. The two-manual disposition, “typical of present day design”, chosen for criticism by Mr. Noehren in the above mentioned article, is indeed typical of the design produced by some of today's muddled thinking which, in attempting to incorporate “three-manual flexibility” and “romantic essentials” into a two-manual result. Fortunately we can now see the wane of this rationalistic perversion.

A properly designed and executed two-manual organ can be a very efficient and economical instrument with an excellent music making potential whatever its size might be. Any truly successful organ installation will require a complete acceptance of the discipline of the principles of the art on the part of all concerned, not just on the part of the organist and organbuilder, but this is especially important in the case of the two-manual if we are to get the full benefit of its resources. The first step in demonstrating a willingness in this direction is making the right decision in the placement of the organ. The principal here is that the organ should be in a free standing position on the central axis of the room in an elevated position. This means that it must be placed either at the front or the rear of the church, oriented to project its tone directly along the length of the nave. However, this does not mean that the organ need necessarily be in a gallery, as a low platform will often serve as well, and, in small churches with low ceilings, is often to be preferred. The choir, obviously, should be located as close to the organ as possible consistant with a good position for hearing the organ.

Along with considerations of placement in the planning stages should come those of acoustics and the physical form which the instrument is to take. In this day, it should no longer be necessary to say that in a properly designed church room, at least up to the size that a two-manual instrument can serve with good effect (about 850 seats), no acoustically absorbent material should be tolerated on the walls, on the ceiling, or on the floor, except under the pews. Yet, in many situations, because today's high construction costs will keep the volume-to-seating-area ratio low and consequently have a limiting effect, the acoustics will be on the dry side even where there is no un-toward treatment. The encased or “housed” organ will always be superior in effect to the “exposed” type, but in dry acoustics it is especially important to provide a housing to amplify, project, and otherwise enrich the tone. The two-manual organ should always be built in this form.

Another excellent opportunity for all concerned to demonstrate their sincerity of purpose is in the matter of correctly establishing the number of stops the organ is to have. At no time does the moral fiber of the organist and organbuilder show more clearly than at the time of this decision. The writer has tried many methods in dealing with this problem. Abstractly working out a specification to cover a specific literature without clear consideration of accomodation to the environment can be justified only in situations where the instrument is to be used largely for purposes of instruction, as in teaching studios or recital halls, or possibly in college chapels. For instruments for church use, the method which gives the most appropriate results from every relevant consideration is, first, to determine the basic number of stops by one of the time honored formulas on the basis of the seating capacity, and then to work out a disposition according to the literature suitable for an instrument that size, adding one or two stops as may be necessary to complete the concept or to tip the scheme in a particular direction. The practice of adding stops to compensate for perverse conditions, such as tonal obstruction, poor placement, or poor acoustics, is not effective. If the conditions cannot themselves be corrected and are so poor as to resist compensation by adjustment of scaling and or wind pressure, within permissable limits, the organ should not be built. The formula that gives the best results over a wide range of seatings produces the following correlation through the two-manual range:

100 seats 4 stops
150 seats 7 stops
200 seats 9 stops
250 seats 12 stops
300 seats 13 stops
400 seats 17 stops
500 seats 22 stops
600 seats 26 stops
700 seats 30 stops
800 seats 35 stops
850 seats 37 stops
900 seats 39 stops

Since eight is the smallest number of stops that will justify the expense of the two-manual mechanism from the literature point of view and since 37 or 38 stops is about as large as is practical from the standpoint of extending the scope of literature that may be covered, it follows from the above list that we may consider a two-manual instrument as suitable for service in churches seating from about 175 to 850 persons. Actually, up to about 200 seats, a positiv with a single divided keyboard, possibly with a pedal pulldown, will give admirable service.

The two-manual disposition does not begin to reach ultimate completeness in any particular traditional concept until it has acquired more than 25 stops. Two-manual French schemes from around 1600 often contained as many as 22 stops only one of which was in the pedal. Samuel Scheidt's organ of 1624, built by Heinrich Compenius, had 26 stops, as did Andreas Silbermann's organ of 1710, at Marmoutier. Schnitger's well-known instruments at Steinkirchen and Neuenfelde have 28 and 34 stops respectively. The largest two-manual instrument the writer can remember encountering, is the recent Metzler organ of 38 stops, in Fischingan, Switzerland, which is so complete, within its concept, as to leave virtually nothing to be desired, least of all a third manual.

The object in planning the size of any organ should not be to make it as large as possible but rather to make it as small as possible, in each set of circumstances. The economics of the art being what they are, every church group in the 700 to 900 seating range, the lower three-manual range (30 to 39 stops), should give careful thought to the rich possibilities of a two-manual scheme. Whereas a two-manual is beginning to reach fulfillment with 25 stops, a three-manual scheme cannot boast a comparable completeness until it has acquired more than thirty stops. The arbitrary manufacturing of a three-manual scheme from the redistribution of a two-manual's normal resources, is a cobbling not to be tolerated. Considering the additional expenses involved - additional key and chest mechanisms and provision of at least another 8 ft. and 4 ft. stop - a three-manual instrument of less than 30 stops can seldom be justified, and, from a musical point of view, in an instrument smaller than this, the additional “flexibility” is bought at the cost of considerable loss in scope. The practice of adjusting the price by “judicious” extension and borrowing in the pedal, or, perish the thought of the manuals, is questionable at best. Outright unification, on the grounds that it is better to have “real pipes” than some substitute device, is fallacious, for a unit organ, at best, is only an imitation and, for most musical purposes does not even function like a straight instrument. Attempts to justify these methods, or for that matter to justify anything whatever, on the grounds that “the average man can't tell the difference”, betrays a level of integrity and a standard of auditory acuity unacceptable in professional practice.

Today, it is hardly possible to consider matters relating to the construction of small to moderate sized organs without giving serious thought to constructing such instruments with slide chests and mechanical key action. This type of construction is particularly suitable and, in all respects, practical and economical for two and three-manual instruments up to about 30 and 40 stops respectively. Instruments larger than this are also practical, but they present special problems the discussion of which is not appropriate here. There is no musical justification whatever for electric or electropneumatic action, and there is very little justification for it on other grounds, except those of commercial expediency. Where consoles “must” be movable, or where the size of the room (over 2000 seats) demands a very large instrument, some type of electrically operated mechanism will always be the only practical answer. This will also continue to be the case with the divided organ in the divided chancel, both of which are musical abominations which no thinking church group will continue to permit. So far as instruments of the size and quality being considered here are concerned, there is no reason why they should ever be built with anything other than mechanical key action. On musical grounds no other conclusion is possible. In spite of all the recent todo to the contrary in these pages, the inevitability of right is on the side of the protagonists for this thoroughly musical approach. Modern slide chests can be built, indeed are being built, with tables that will not crack, with slides that will not stick or shrink and cause running, and with mechanisms that are cypher proof. With simple care in the design and with the proper use of classical voicing principles, no perceptable robbing need take place in chests of up to nine or ten stops. With special provision, this range can be extended to 13 or 14 stops on a single chest. Instruments as large as 20 stops can be built with a weight of key touch not exceeding AGO standards. However, the writer feels this whole matter of key touch needs to be re-examined, for no pianist, no violinist, no harpist, no wind instrument player, indeed, no instrumentalist who actually plays his instrument directly expects to get a greater volume of tone from his instrument without expending greater physical effort - why then should an organist?

One advantage of a mechanical slide-chest instrument that has been completely overlooked in previous discussions, and one likely to be very important in churches of the size being considered here, is that of its comparatively small space requirements. An instrument on slide chests, disposed in traditional fashion, will require from one-third to less than one-half the space required by the same stop list and scaling laid out in the closest possible way on modern pitman chests in the conventional manner. A 14-stop mechanical slide chest instrument, scaled conventionally for a church seating about 300 people, has just been completed under the writer's direction that stands in only 64 square feet of floor space, including pedal board and bench, and in a height of only 13 feet. The same stop list and scaling would require, in the same height, at least 140 square feet of floor space on pitman chests. For further comparisons the reader is referred to pages 440-443 in Joseph. E. Blanton's The Organ in Church Design where Mr. Blanton gives dimensions of 30 organs by several Americans and Europeans. A study of this data will show that whereas two instruments, constructed with modern slide chests and mechanical action, of 42 and 77 stops each require only about 90 and 160 square feet respectively, an average of about 2 square feet per stop, an organ of only 33 stops with electro-pneumatic action requires 365 square feet. While double decking (placing one chest over another) accounts for some of this advantage, a study of the Rückpositivs of the two mechanical instruments will show that these eleven stop divisions require an average of 1.9 and 2.4 square feet per stop which is very close to the over-all average for these instruments. With space at such a high premium today, the space-saving feature of mechanical instruments may well become one of the most important advantages among those to whom their musical superiority has little meaning, architects coming particularly to mind in this respect.

Indeed, the writing is clearly on the wall for all, who will, to see. When the truth about mechanical action and key-chambered chests are popularly known, it may well be difficult to interest enlightened men of good taste in any other mode of construction. The issue will, of course, continue to be controversial for sometime to come, but arguments against the system are largely based on a small sampling of old American instruments and do not apply at all to the modern case. The “old soldiers” with their limited experience and misinformation, will eventually “. . . just fade away”, then will begin the real work of the organ renaissance in North America. We may expect that in the foreseeable future the majority of our quality instruments of below 40 stops will be constructed in this manner. Meanwhile, the controversy is welcomed as a delaying action, for it would be disastrous for the industry if the demand should grow too rapidly. While one of our largest builders is now building mechanical instruments under the writer's direction in a small new department especially established for this purpose, and while we may expect other major builders to follow this example, the total North American output is not able to meet the current demand, and, for the moment, we have little choice but to welcome the several fine instruments coming to our shores each year from the plants of some of Europe's leading builders.

The problem of better organs for North America is largely one of enlightenment through education. We must admit, once and for all, that the future of the organ is essentially dependent upon the strengthening of its position as the leading musical instrument of our society for use in the service of divine worship. We must reaffirm that the only reason for music in the church is to assist in the making of a worthy offering unto the Lord, the making of music in itself being virtually an act of worship and praise. We must realize that music in the church is not for the entertainment of those present but for their strengthening and elevation through their experiencing it. When we have done all this and firmly established it in the thought of all concerned, we will again be ready to design and build and play out instruments according to the needs of the church and not, as has so often been the case, according to the “wants” of the individual. We will be working with a church-going public that knows and cherishes the great music of the church, and not with a largely uninformed group who considers this great literature to be “Concert music”, perferring instead the merest of trivia in their churches. The work has begun. The enlightened organist and his organbuilder are no longer pioneers, but willing partners in the faithful service of a musically enlightened church community.


1. Although musicologically it is strictly incorrect, for the sake of convenience the writer takes the liberty, in this article, of using the term “Classic” to refer to the period in which the organ flourished before the outright appearance of “romanticism” as a mode of musical expresson. In this sense, therefore, the term covers the work of the late Renaissance, the Baroque, the Rococo and the very early Romantic, roughly the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, with special emphasis on both French and German concepts in the 100 year period centering around 1700.