The Organ

GOArt Research Reports

Three volumes of research reports from the Göteborg Organ Art Centre in Sweden have been received together with copies of two doctoral theses on aspects of organ acoustics and wind supply engineering.

The Göteborg project began in 1995 with the aim of building an international and interdisciplinary centre for research working to an altogether new and higher level of enquiry. If the reports contained in these volumes are anything to go by, then the project is well on the way to fulfilling that mission and should be required reading for anyone at all seriously interested in the future of the instrument and its music.

Topics covered in volume one of the research reports include detailed analysis of organ pipemetal alloys and methods of copying them, historic organs and organ restoration practice in 20th century Sweden, organ documentation, tempo and time signatures in 17th and 18th century music, and connections between organ and keyboard instrument building in Sweden before 1820.

Volume two is given over to articles on reconstructing 17th century North German Improvisation practice, Dutch 18th century traditions of psalm variation, the Stylus Phantasticus, and an essay by Joris Verdin on the background to the aesthetic principles of the harmonium.

The latter half of the 18th century saw attention being paid more and more to dynamic expression in music with the result that musicians began to look for a new instrument combining the ability to sustain tones indefinitely with a large degree of dynamic modulation and timbral flexibility. All these things are possible with free-reeds but it was not until the 1840s that Debain optimised their qualities in the first harmonium, later to reach the zenith of perfection under Alphonse Mustel and other continental makers. Verdin includes material on the influence of the harmonium on the organ and makes the necessary observation that 'Harmonium music cannot be transferred to the organ without losing some of its effect. One of the best examples of harmonium music misplayed on the organ is L'Organiste'. He continues noting that 'Franck intentionally wrote Pièces pour harmonium on the score and not without reason'. We look forward to more research on this interesting topic.

Volume three contains a most interesting article by Kimberly Marshall on the development of the German Organ Magnificat and how the organ itself became part of the iconography of the Virgin Mary in mediaeval religious and astrological practise. So much so that chapels dedicated to the Virgin contained their own organs used to participate in alternatim performance of Marian hymns. Thus began a long and richly varied tradition of improvising and composing organ music upon the tones of the Magnificat. A companion article by Pieter Dirksen traces the development of the chorale fantasia through the works of Dietrich Buxtehude.

Running parallel to the GOArt reports, is the publication of extended research at doctoral level into aspects of organ design. This work has been stimulated by the reconstruction of a baroque organ in the New Church in Örgryte, Göteborg. The design of the instrument is almost wholly derived from the work of Arp Schnitger with some of the pipework copied from Scherer and Fritzsche. However, the main thrust of this reconstruction is to investigate the reasons why untouched pipework from historic instruments seems to sound better than new work. To this end, research into pipemetal alloys, mechanical treatment of the metal during and after casting, scaling, and the effect of the wind supply, was carried out. The organ is provided with a variable winding system whereby different lengths and cross-sections of trunking, and different feeder bellows' configurations can be tried.

Tobias Carlsson's doctoral thesis 'On Dynamic Behaviour of Wind Systems for Pipe Organs' brings all this work together. Using a test rig, components such as bellows, clack valves, and pallets have been subjected to extensive examination together with computer simulations. For the serious student of organ-building, this makes fascinating reading but knowledge of applied mathematics would be useful to follow some of the more involved chapters.

The other thesis sent for review 'Sound Quality of Flue Organ Pipes' by Vincent Rioux is an attempt to arrive at a common means of describing the sound quality of organ pipes at the same time focusing on the voicing process. I confess to some unease with any study attempting to systematise subjective and personal impressions on the basis of psychoanalytical precepts. The voicing of organ pipes is one of those areas where the physical manipulation of the pipe mouth can be quantified, broadly speaking, and the effects described with some degree of precision using terms which most organbuilders would be familiar with.

Beyond that, how the voicer as an artist articulates the various qualities of the sound of a pipe is complex, subjective and often highly personal. In this study, it would appear that little attempt had been made to look at historical precedents for descriptions of voicing beyond Dom Bedos and Cavaillé-Coll; of some 190 source references only about 20 refer to organ pipe behaviour and voicing, and most of these are very recent, within the last ten years. No mention is made of descriptions by, for example, Bruder, Robertson, Audsley or Töpfer. Neither does predicating grounds for research on parallel studies in speech disorder evaluation seem a useful avenue because the latter deals with clinical necessity where successful treatment depends on universally understood, detailed indicators. Describing the artistic effect of voicing an organ pipe surely doesn't fall in the same category and will remain subject to nuance and semantic interpretation. Attempting to standardise ways of describing organ tone sounds a little bit too much like the proverbial EU banana.

Andrew Hayden