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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Why the Pipe Organ?

by Michael Barone
November 17, 1997

Such a simple term - pipe organ - yet it encompases 500 years of active repertoire and a fascinating history. Contrary to common belief, the first organ was not used in a church. It debuted in an outdoor Roman coliseum, and since then has been found in theatres, concert halls, arenas, opera houses, homes, hotels, and even department stores, as well as in temples, chapels, churches, and cathedrals.

Despite the implications of its ecclesiastical affiliations, the organ is just an instrument, a tool, a useful device . . . and a marvelously multifaceted means for making music of every kind. The organ was and remains the first and best analog synthesizer. An organ’s internal mechanism is complex, and prior to the industrial age the pipe organ was second to none as representative of human ingenuity and aspiration.

Each instrument is unique, and the space in which an organ plays is as important to our experience of it as are any of that instrument’s ranks of pipes. But even without making a sound, many organs are visually impressive. The organ’s physical structure is its own special kind of architecture, and the best organs are as satisfying to see as to hear.

From country to country and generation to generation, organs and organ music are different - Italian instruments are unlike French ones, 19th-century organs different from 18th-century designs, and the music for all of them is tailored to the individual circumstance and taste.

Don’t forget the organ’s ongoing and exciting tradition of virtuoso playing. Organists are magicians who must align melodies and harmonies, manipulate stops and combination pistons and swell-shoes, provide the nuance, shading, color, and forward motion, plus make sure the bellows-pumper is paying attention. And, hey, what other instrumentalist plays with both hands

AND feet?

Why the organ? Because it can please and persuade in so many ways. You will never in your life experience it all. Yet, to enjoy the organ and its music is to enjoy the fullness of life.