The Pipe Organ

Nov 2014 7

The pipe organ at The University of Queensland’s Art Museum.

“Ring out ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears,
     (If ye have power to touch our senses so);
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time;
     And let the base of Heav’ns deep Organ blow,
And with your ninefold harmony,
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.”

John Milton, “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629)

The pipe organ is an instrument commonly found in churches and cathedrals, as well as concert halls, synagogues, and other public places of performance.

The pipe organ has its origins in Ancient Greece, where the hydraulis – a water organ – used water pressure to create a wind supply that made sound.  As the organ developed in the medieval era, it became a complex instrument capable of producing many different timbres, often in imitation of other instruments.

Each of the organ’s pipes produce a single pitch, and organ stops enable the musician to create a range of timbres, pitches, and volumes. Unlike many other keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and later the piano, the pipe organ features one or more keyboards (called manuals) for the hands, and a pedal board for the feet.  Modern technological developments have created electronic varieties of the original pipe organ.

A substantial amount of music has been written for the pipe organ.  From the medieval era to the present, there is sacred, liturgical, secular, classical, and popular music composed for the organ.  Some of the most renowned composers include J.S. Bach, George Frederick Handel, John Stanley, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The image of the pipe organ holds an important place in popular culture.  It was a hallmark of the silent film era, and its key narrative role in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910) means it is featured in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical theatre sensation.  Organ music also is featured in a variety of films, from The Sound of Music (1965) and The Blues Brothers (1980) to The Tree of Life (2011) and Interstellar (2014).

Further reading:
American Guild of Organists
The Pipe Organ on Film
The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, ed. Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffry Webber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).