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The Organ As a Box of Whistles

The basic form of the organ up to the late fifteenth century, when reed pipes such as regals were sometimes added, was simply a conglomeration of duct flutes, or as it is sometimes called, ‘a box of whistles’.

It was invented in Alexandria by a hydraulic engineer called Ktesibios in around 250 BCE, and it was described by several Latin authors, pre-eminently Vitruvius, with the air supply controlled by water pressure and therefore called a Hydraulis. It is illustrated in a number of well-known mosaic floors. The earliest surviving instrument was found in Aquincum, the Roman suburb of Budapest, and it has been dated to CE 228. It is in a fragmentary state but all, or almost all the of the metalwork survives, including parts of the pipes, all of which were duct whistles. These were arranged in four ranks of thirteen pipes each. This organ was very small, even smaller than the mediaeval portative organ, which we will come to shortly. The air supply is presumed to have been pneumatic, probably a pair of bellows and the air pressure probably stabilized by a lead weight rather than by a tank of water, so its name would have been a Pneumaticon rather than a Hydraulis.

There is evidence for organs in Byzantium, both long before and after the Ottoman conquest of that city in 1453, and one is said to have been presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the mid-eighth century, presumably in Aix-la-Chapelle, known more often today as Aachen and now in Germany. By the tenth century organs were widely known in Europe, with, again, the earliest surviving set of pipes, but no other parts of its mechanism, found in Bethlehem, and dating probably to the time of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the early twelfth century. My article ‘The Oldest Organ in Christendom’, describing it in detail, is also on this website. Again, these 220 surviving pipes were all duct whistles.

The Roman organ at Aquincum had stops so that any one, or all of the four ranks of pipes could be played alone or together, and a keyboard, but these ideas had been forgotten by the ninth or tenth century, and organs were played by pulling out and pushing back a handle for each note, which meant that the music could be played only fairly slowly, and with only two notes at a time, one for each hand, unless, as shown in some manuscripts such as the Utrecht Psalter, there were two players who could interlock their parts. Also, being without stops, only a single note could be played at a time, or else a fixed chord by mounting a group of pipes of different pitches on each key, known as Blockwerk – the number of pipes of the same lengths found at Bethlehem makes it plain that this practice was adopted there.

There many illustrations of such organs in mediaeval manuscripts of that period and before, always with the pipes arranged in scalar order, longest at one end and shortest at the other, though sometimes with one long drone pipe at the shorter end. By the thirteenth century we see, in many mediaeval manuscripts and church carvings, a very small organ which could be carried around by the player, supported with a strap over the shoulder and played with one hand while the other hand pumped a small pair of bellows; these are called portatives, and they often have two rows of pipes.

A century or so later the positive organ was introduced, a medium-sized organ that could be moved around within the building to where it could be most usefully played – such organs are still widely available and are frequently used as continuo instruments for concerts of Baroque music, and these also are merely boxes of duct flutes, despite the fact that most Baroque European composers, pre-eminently J. S. Bach, had far bigger organs at their disposal when performing their music.

By the mid-fifteenth century organs were arranged as most, until recently, have been, with the longest pipes in the middle, and the rest dwindling progressively on each side. By the seventeenth century, and possibly earlier, longer bass pipes were added in towers at each end, still a common sight today. By the eighteenth century in Britain, when Handel was writing his organ concertos, the organ there was still a box of whistles, though in Bach’s Germany at the same time, added ranks of reed pipes were already common.

So from the third century BCE until the eighteenth century CE, at least in some places, the organ was nothing but a box of whistles, a multitude of one-note duct flutes.

It seems inappropriate in a group of articles about on flutes to go into greater detail of how an organ works, so that one player could control many hundreds of pipes, but information on this will be found in my Origins and Development of Musical Instruments and in all the normal encylopaedias such Grove.

Nevertheless, it should never be forgotten that the basic organ was and still is a great gathering of flutes.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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