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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “The Limits of Mechanical Action”

April 5, 2007

Dear Michael,

I have a few questions regarding the pipe organs. On typical mechanical action organs when you start coupling manuals together and/or pulling out more stops is more effort required to press the notes?

Second, with the mechanism of pulling stops does this mean that mechanical organs don’t have the capability of memorized positions? And thirdly, I am going to Germany in the summer and I was wondering are there any organs that Bach himself played in existance? I would imagine there aren’t many left due to two world wars and passing time.

I have been listening to your show about a year and it is amazing. I never realized the possibilities of the organ. I plan on taking organ lessons in September once I have completed my grade 7 RCM exams. Keep the programs coming… Its amazing to travel around the world of organs on your program.

Thank you

Gareth Elliott
Grimsby, ON

As more manuals are coupled, there is more mass being moved (and some bit more friction, multiplied, in the action parts), so the key action is heavier. Though there may be a tiny increase in resistance as more stops are pulled, the pressure in the wind chests is constant, and the key opens a single valve per note, so there should be little difference if only one or a dozen stops are pulled. Some mechanical-action instruments use electro-magnetic or pneumatic ‘helpers’ when keyboards are coupled. The ‘Barker Lever’ employed by Cavaillé-Coll is a very famous example of this…allowing all five manuals of the 102-stop organ at Saint Sulpice organ to be played from a single keyboard with no additional resistance.

Present-day builders have worked out a means by which a thoroughly mechanical stop mechanism can also be activated by means of electrical solenoid controls, allowing for the application of combination memory systems (multi-level) while retaining the possibility of maneuvering the stops should that electrical system fail.

Bach was involved in the design and testing of the organ at Saint Wenzil’s Church in Haumburg (recently restored, with several recordings available thereof), and it is likely he played others that remain, though we do not have exact documentation to determine that.

Thanks for your good words. Keep listening!



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