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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Organ Design”

November 2, 2006

Dear Michael,

How large, or what other criteria should be met, for a church/concert organ to justify adding a 16ft open principal in the pedal division (as opposed or inaddition to a 16ft stopped rank, e.g., bourdon, subbase or pommer)? And, how well does a 16ft extention of an 8ft open principal, say on the great division, meet the need for this tonal component?

Are there any stoplists in your collection that speak to these questions?

Bob Bacon
Darien, IL

Dear Bob,

I don’t think there is a pat answer to your question. In organ design, the matter of ‘need’ is very relative and subjective, depending on the use to which the instrument will be put and the room in which it plays. One of my favorite French Classic organs (in Houdan), by Louis-Alexandre Clicquot, is an 8′ organ…no pitches lower than 8′…yet this instrument generates a rich, full ensemble (both principals and reeds) that lacks nothing…it is remarkable, perfect in the French classic repertoire. There is no need for a 16′, grand as that might be.

But in other situations, that lower octave of sonority is necessary and desired, though as you indicate, that function can be served by stopped pipes.

As for cost, the expense of a 16′ Principal (the term ‘principal’ implies that it is an open, un-stopped pipe) is related both to the price of metal and the complex process of fabricating pipes of larger dimension. But the ‘gravitas’ that such a rank brings to the organ’s ensemble sound is significant.

However, the success of such a rank is related to the size and type of room in which the organ plays (also instrument placement), and the manner of voicing of that stop. I know of one instrument with a very impressive-looking 32′ principal in its facade…but, for a number of reasons, its sonority is hardly compelling.

A metal principal in the 16-foot pitch range will have a smoother, gentler overall tone than an Open Wood 16′ (which has more fundamental punch, but often a hootier tone). In rooms with thick walls and few absorbtive surfaces, a rich low-frequency sound can be very nicely produced with the several stopped ranks you mention above). Because of the different tone quality (stopped pipes emphasize every other harmonic partial, while open pipes generate harmonics of equal strength), the stopped rank may have a more ‘round’ tone (not unlike an open wood, but less powerful).

When cost is a consideration, the transmission of a 16′ Principal from the GREAT manual (presuming that the rest of the GT chorus is sufficient to justify this) into the PEDAL division allows flexibility and can prove to be totally functional. The Fisk shop (and others) uses quite a bit of this sort of ‘sharing’ in instruments small and large, depending on circumstances.

Ultimately, the builder trys to create the best sound and maximum flexibility…usually through some sort of compromise. That’s my two-cents worth.



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