Wed 12 Dec 2018

King Of Instruments

The electronic instrument you can hear at John’s performances has come a long way from its original form. The entire design seems to have developed from pan-pipes through the addition of mechanical blowers and pipe stoppers to replace the human lungs and fingers.

The first description of organ construction was way back in 250BC when the air supply was regulated by means of water pressure. This was in general use by the first century AD, but was usually replaced by bellows. England’s own organ building began towards the end of the sixth century.

The organ has had a permanent place in church services since around 1400 although a description of a large Eynon church organ dates back to as early as AD 980.

From the fifteenth century rapid developments were made. The pedal keyboard was invented and a spring operated sound board made possible the playing of separate series of pipes by sliding to and fro over the wind valves. This was used at first only to vary the volume. Later, pipes producing sounds of different qualities were introduced which could likewise be sounded or silenced as desired by the spring board.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were three types of organ as well as the large church ones. These were “The Portative”, “The Positive” and “The Regal”, but they became overshadowed by the harpsichord and clavichord. The Baroque organ was a synthesis of centuries of experience. Its tone was transparent and limped with additions of string combs and swell boxes though the latter were not extensively used until the Romantic age with its yearning for a more expensive style. For a time the orchestra ousted the organ, but the designers tried to adapt the instrument to the new Romantic style, often adding new inventions such as the Reservoir Bellows, Ventil Chest, Crescendo Roller and Octave Couplers.

After many forms of unsuccessful keyboard action, it was only when the electric system of operation came into use in about 1900 that response of the mechanism of the pipes to the organist’s movement at the console was really swift and smooth.

The number of pipes may vary from 200 to over 30,000. There are many different types, their names indicating their place in the instrument as well as their pitch and tone colour. The two main types are the Flue Pipes and the Reed Pipes. Organ pipes are placed in ranks. These are as many pipes in rank as there are keys on the keyboard and as many ranks as there are steps. The pipes stand in a box (wind chest) which is divided into air compartments and valves which when opened allow the air to pass into the pipes. The number of keyboards or manuals for the hands vary from one to seven keyboards and most organs have a Pedal System with a range of about two-and-a-half octaves.

There are, thankfully, still many fine examples of the King of Instruments around the world even though they are not used so much these days. They are a great challenge to play, even for the most competent of performers, and require a high level of agility, dexterity and energy.