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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Of Starts and Stops”

April 28, 2007

Dear Michael,


My question is this:

When an organ builder is planning an instrument, what criteria are used to determine how many stops will be placed on any given manual? Similarly, what criteria determine how many manuals will be installed on any given organ?

I ask this specifically because I’ve run across many instances where organs of equal size (number of stops, ranks, and/or pipes) will have a differing number of manuals (three vs four, as an example) and I’m curious if there practical considerations that influence the decision to either squeeze more stops onto fewer manuals, or spread the same number out over a greater number of manuals?

Thanks for everything you do with the show. It’s fantastic.

Brett M.


I submitted your query to my organbuilder friend Charles Hendrickson.
Here is his response:

Dear Brett Miller,

Michael Barone has graciously forwarded your questions to me, and I will try to answer them as best I can. Please don’t hesitate to ask further of me if you wish.

The matter of stops-per-manual and number of manuals is always a challenge. A builder tries to gauge the situation of the church, organist, music traditions, physical and acoustical climate, funding possibilities, various goals, and the “mood” of the committee. No two situations are alike (at least not yet) so we start with some basic ideas.

In the 1960s it was popular to show your acceptance of the latest neo-Baroque (but not true Baroque) fads by planning all divisions with the same number of stops. So if the budget allowed for a 30 stop organ, there would be 10 stops on the Great, 10 stops on the Positive (or whatever the 2nd manual was), and 10 stops in the Pedal.

However, in the early 20th century, E. M. Skinner was a big fan of a HUGE enclosed Swell divisions, thus many Skinner organs had relatively small Great and Pedal divisions, and a Swell that had as many stops as the Great and Pedal combined. The fads and fancies of the organ world have swung widely, and these variations are still with us; no two builders think alike.

As to whether to build a “complete” two manual or a “thin” three manual with the same number of total stops, if the organist, committee, and congregation are expecting a three manual, regardless of size, many builders will give them one. I try to resist this and always opt for the complete two manual design whenever possible.
However, for my largest instrument (70 ranks) we started with a very complete 3-manual design, but it soon became evident that 4 manuals would solve many problems, so we changed and I have been very pleased that we did so.

But the obviousness of the best tonal designs does not prevent the appearance of organs which violate all expections of good taste and design! One can find all sorts of allocations of number of stops per division, and numbers of keyboards. Some work; some do not, and one wonders at how such instruments could have come into being.

I’m not convinced that the number of stops-per-division, or the number of keyboards is important. Most significant is the quality of the musical result. An organ of 10 stops on one manual can be extravagantly exciting, and completely functional in a particular environment, if each of thse stops is exquisite.

Charles Hendrickson

I would agree with Charles that generally less-is-more. All of this becomes hopelessly confusing when dealing with instruments where ranks/stops are borrowed from one division to the next (this is possible with mechanical as well as electric actions). The ultimate goal should be to create an instrument which is flexible to use, tonally complete yet efficient in the allocation of resources, and beautiful to the ear (a very subjective term!). Let the buyer beware, and be intelligent in knowing what to ask for (and understanding what they are actually getting).


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