The Organ

Concerning Strange Organs

by Norman Cocker

THE opening recital at St. Ebenezer's was another feather in the cap of my friend Pipes.

"You promised to tell me more about managing strange consoles," I told him, as we turned into the street. "You gave a great show to-night, just as if you'd known that beast of an organ all your life."

"It wasn't a beast at all," said Pipes, jovially. " The vox humana was a beauty." And he began to fill his meerschaum.

"Hang the vox humana," I said, irritably.

"And the machinery worked without a hitch," he continued, "except for one narrow shave when the great to pedal piston reversing gadget jibbed. Which reminds me." And he struck a match, which went out.

"Well?" I asked. But he was busy lighting up, so I went on, "I've digested your ghostly counsel concerning stop lists, jambs and things that oozed from your cunning old head at our last merry meeting; so I am all ears for any further words of organic wisdom that may fall from your lips. So proceed."

"Which reminds me," he grunted unheedingly, as he began to puff successfully, "I was about to disclose the mysteries of couplers and pedal stops, wasn't I?"

"You were," I replied.

"Well then," he proceeded, blowing out clouds of smoke, "let us suppose you are seated proudly at a strange console."

"Not proudly, like you, my dear Pipes," I put in; "you mean nervously."

"Shiveringly, then," he corrected. "And you have, as I suggested last time, already sized up the stops of the swell and great, and familiarised yourself with their positions on the jambs, and with the sounds they make."

"And generally made an idiot of myself fooling about with them for ten or fifteen minutes, I suppose," I said.

"Yes," said Pipes, "that's exactly it. Played with them, like the child you are, as if they were nice new toys."

"Now don't get facetious," I interrupted.

"But I mean it," he said. "If you want to get friendly with any organ, you mustn't play it so much as play with it."

"And not take it too seriously, you mean ?" I asked.

"All real play is intensely serious," blurted Pipes "but unself-conscious and enjoyable into the bargain."

"Quite," I said, "but you haven't yet mentioned those blessed couplers and pedal stops; for you must know what a - h'm! - byword my pedalling is."

"From what I've seen and heard of it," said Pipes, "your pedalling is a byproduct."

"Possibly," I remarked, "until I've found out where the pedal stops and the wretched couplers live. Then you'd be surprised."

"Maybe," murmured Pipes. "I'm coming to them in a moment;" and he produced the familiar stub of pencil and another old envelope. "First, however, make a point of hunting for five essential stop-knobs and two bits of machinery before you begin to play on a strange organ." And he wrote:

Bourdon ... 16
Flute ... ... ...8


Swell to great
Swell to pedal
Great to pedal

The swell pedal
Great to pedal reversible
"These," he said, "must be earmarked. You must sort them out from the other junk and be able to lay your hands on them without having to hunt; and don't take a scrap of notice of any other pedal stop or coupler until you have learnt the position of these." And he jabbed the list forcibly with his reeking meerschaum. "And I venture to say that you could then proceed to put up a fair show on almost any strange organ without turning a hair. Now, how do you feel about it?' he asked, patronisingly.

"It's those confounded couplers," I replied. "I can usually spot the swell to great and the rest on ancient tracker organs but some of these new-fangled specimens get me guessing."

"Maybe," said Pipes, comfortingly. "Some of the latest models area bit tricky. Wait till you try a cinema organ. I bet that'll stump you."

"Leave those contraptions out of the discussion," I growled. "I tried one once and could make nothing of it at all."

"Ah," murmured Pipes, with a superior tone, "they aren't quite as bad as all that. After all, there are plenty of church organs fitted with dentures instead of stop-knobs, and you may be called upon to play one at some time. If so, you merely readjust your ideas horizontally instead of vertically, thus" and out came the envelope.

FLUES: 16 8 8 8 8 4 2 III rks. REEDS: 16 8 8 4

"But," he went on, "we were talking of couplers. On the more up-to-date organs you will often find the couplers grouped with the departments they augment."

"That's what I could never understand," I put in.

"It's simple enough if you think it out," said Pipes. "If you want to add the swell to the great the necessary coupler will be found under the great stops, the great being the manual you wish to augment. In short, the coupler you want belongs to the manual on which you want it."

"I see," I said, "then the swell to choir will live with the choir stops?"

"Precisely," he answered. "And swell to pedal will live with the pedal stops, and so on. But you must not take all this for granted. Sometimes the pedal couplers will be grouped separately, though always on the left jamb..."

"I know an organ where they are on the right," I interjected.

"I know two," added Pipes. "They are freaks. But half the fascination of playing strange organs is due to the fact that you never know what you are going to find next."

"What about choir stops?" I asked him.

"Not only choir stops, but also, on red letter days, solo organ stops, my boy," murmured Pipes, striking a match. "Where you will find these or any others, I do not know. They are sometimes very muddling. Have you a cool head?" and he peered at me through his horn-rims. I said I thought I had. "You'll need it on these bigger organs, too," he added, "though I fancy two manuals and pedal are about your mark, all the same."

"Yes, but supposing I do have to play a three-manual, then what," I asked.

He blew a noble G on his nose. "Well, you aren't likely to need the third deck in a hurry," he remarked, "so you can make a selection from its stock bill of fare before you begin to play, and then use it at your leisure. It is nearly always labelled 'choir', and it contains - more often than not - a couple of flutes, 8ft. and 4ft., plus a dulciana and a clarinet. It might also have a string stop, a piccolo, an orchestral oboe, or any other juicy sounds. On old organs it is usually unenclosed, and on more modern ones it lives in a swell box. You can tell which by noticing the number of swell pedals, for if there are two pedals, there must be two swell boxes. On a four-manual organ the second box may concern only the solo department ... which reminds me of another snag ..."

"Organ-playing seems full of snags," I moaned.

"Don't interrupt," he said. "Listen. If there are two balanced swell pedals, the left one usually belongs to the choir or solo; but if the pedals are of the old-fashioned lever variety, the right one is what you must aim at."

"Now isn't that a silly idea?" I queried.

"It's illogical, perhaps," he replied, "like many things connected with organs; but in this instance the reason for it is that the pedal for the swell organ is more frequently in use than its brother, so it has to be placed nearest the right leg."

"And the stops of the choir organ?" I asked.

"I told you I didn't know where you should look for them. Like those of the solo organ they may be in the right or in the left jamb. Hang it all, there'll be a huge fat label over them to tell you. Do be sensible."

"It's a confounded muddle, anyhow," I sighed. "Suppose there should be a fourth manual, what then ?" I pestered.

"Then you can have all the more fun," answered Pipes, "for there's pretty sure to be a tuba. Think of that, now! If there is, be sure to push it in when you've done with it."

"I've seen a tuba on the choir before now," I said.

"Oh!" said Pipes, "I've seen couplers over the top manual, a tuba on the swell, and the great in the swell box before now. It all adds to the fun of playing."

"You haven't mentioned composition pedals and pistons," I interrupted. "They always bewilder me."

"That is because after kicking them and poking them you can't remember what they do," he hurled at me.

"Naturally," I assented.

"Not at all," he said. "You could remember if you made yourself. Yet surely at a pinch you could get through a church service without using such toys. I know organists who could give you a recital without using them. Not very many years ago there was a large four-manual cathedral organ without a single one of them in working order. No one seemed to worry, though. They wouldn't have been used if they had been put right. We younger generation have been brought up on a softer diet; so if you must use such contrivances, notice not so much what particular stops they draw, as what their general effect is."

"Meaning?" I asked.

"Well," he answered, "if, on a strange organ, I want the full swell, I push the extreme right piston under the swell manual, and that does the trick, unless I'm unlucky. Similarly with the full great. And, working to the left, I always assume that there will be a diminuendo, and in nine cases out of ten my assumption will be correct."

"And if I should strike the odd tenth?" I put in.

"Then may heaven help you," he replied, "as it has often helped me. But," he continued, "you may take it that the composition pedals work similarly, though I have found some swell ones - and these always live over the left half of the pedal board - which work in the opposite direction," and again he produced the envelope:

Pipes' diagram

"Why the swell compositions the wrong way round?" I asked, more bewildered than ever.

"We all wonder that," he replied. "Sheer cussedness, no doubt."

"Does all this information apply to cinema organs ?" I asked.

"It does not," he emphasized, scraping out his meerschaum. "The real cinema organ is a law unto itself," he went on.

"Do you mean it is a different instrument?"

"Not exactly," he replied. "A different type of instrument designed for a different purpose. I'll explain it to you some other time."

"Anything else?" I asked.

There's just one thing," replied Pipes. " If you can't manage a balanced swell pedal as well as you can a trigger one, you had better hurry up and learn. Triggers are fast dying out. And I'll tell you what," he added, "when next you are on holiday, scout round all the churches you can find, and examine a bunch of organ consoles to see what you can make of them. It will do you good. Here's my bus. Good-bye."

"Half-a-minute," I shouted. But he'd gone.

(First published in The Organ World, October 1935)