It is far too easy for us to assume that craftsmen in the distant past were mere primitives doing the best they could with the crude technology of their day. Fortunately a moment's consideration of the brilliance of Giotto or van Eyck is enough to remind us that artistic excellence has never been dependent on the laughable ephemera of 'progress'. In the field of organ building the incomparable masterpieces at Alkmaar and Klosterneuberg (both rebuilds) are enough show the seminal importance of the early tradition and are clear examples of how a chorus may be elaborated to suit varied ideals.
Of course the recipe may be varied almost infinitely. The several parameters of disposition, scaling, and voicing give plenty of possibilities, all equally valid and interesting. We need not judge the relative merits of an Italian ripieno and a French plein jeu; each is potentially excellent, though neither can be expected to fulfill demands intended for the other. Both are lofty pinnacles in their own right, and they retain a certain defiant independence.
In the English-speaking world 'defiant independence' has been cherished as warmly as anywhere else, and in organ building as in any other field. The principal chorus was alive and well in the nineteenth century, nurtured by Hill and Lewis in Britain, and by the Hooks in the United States: but alongside there grew another tradition with a different slant. Descending from the eighteenth-century habit of drawing the Trumpet with the chorus, there arrived a new notion: an ideal of organ tone in which, whatever the power required, there was usually an element of reed tone present. In its later form, this is what Henry Willis III meant by the word 'ensemble', in which foundation, reeds and mixtures all play mutually dependent roles.
Modifications to the principal chorus in order to accommodate this alternative ideal began in the second half of the eighteenth century, and were taken up by Samuel Green around 1780. It was always possible to introduce varied scales into an organ chorus - indeed advisable where there were duplicate ranks of the same pitch - but Green varied the scales to a radical tonal purpose. On the English organ of the day, which lacked a pedal division, he sought to bring out the bass and increase its solemnity. He increased the diameters of the diapason basses and progressively reduced those of the higher ranks, which were allowed to become delicate. Brilliance was now provided not by the upperwork, but by the right hand playing far away at the top of the keyboard, where the smaller pipes could shimmer in a delicate and refined manner. In any case, by Green's time it was usual to draw the reeds with the full chorus; the mixtures contained a tierce rank, and the old conventions of the chorus were largely ignored.
It was this later mannered style, that of Green and his sucessors, that was cherished in the nineteenth century by Father Willis. While Willis's contemporaries sought to renew their links with continental tradition and reform the English organ along cosmopolitan lines, Willis allied himself with S. S. Wesley, unequal temperament and the Old Guard. His organs were technically advanced and contained many soft stops of the most innovative kind, but the overall effect was that demanded by the most conservative English taste - now delivered, with characteristic Victorian confidence, at double the power and with a much harder quality of tone.
Willis turned his back on German taste and, whatever claims may be made, borrowed only a few French ideas to be subsumed in his method. The result was successful on every front except one: somewhere the traditional organ chorus was lost. While Hill and Lewis could still fill a building with the sound of principals and mixtures alone, Willis relied on his reeds, and reduced the scale of the mixtures until they were Gambas and Dulcianas. In the 1870s and 1880s his upperwork remained loud, and though brilliant was distinctly reedy in tone and effect. By the 1890s it was softened, leaving an ensemble in which bass-heavy foundation and smooth high pressure-reeds were the distinguishing features.
It is possible to construct a principal chorus in which each successive rank is an echo of the one before, but the plan brings problems with it. Nevertheless, and despite two generations of classical revival, an overly 'tapered' final effect is often preferred by mainstream British and North American builders. In my opinion (though it cannot be the only cause) it is indicative of the reasons why prestigious organ contracts have repeatedly been lost to organ builders from continental Europe. A principal chorus contructed in this 'safer' way is not always up to today's demands.
The reasons are many.
Unless the reduction in scale and power is handled with great care, the mixtures may not be principals at all. While brilliance of pitch may be desirable in upperwork, brilliance of tone is not. While we may want high harmonics present as ranks of upperwork, we certainly do not want the additional harmonics caused by voicing those high-pitched ranks brightly - in the case of the quint ranks the overtones tend to be unmusical. By making the small pipes dull - but not fluty - in tone, it may become possible to incorporate upperwork of small scale but reasonable power into a chorus scheme, along the lines of the later French classical plein-jeu.
However, if the upperwork is very much smaller or softer than the foundation the two cannot be true partners. A small-scale mixture may have some sense in the bass - where it is higher pitched than the other ranks - but in the treble, where after several breaks it now duplicates the foundation, it risks sounding as a separate squeaky alternative - unless it is softened towards inaudibilty.
If reduction in power is the only means of securing blend in small-scale upperwork, then the overall impact of the organ will be diminished. It can then be restored by increasing the power of the foundation or by relying heavily on the reeds. This route may bring a successful result, as many romantic organs show, but there is considerable risk that the principal-toned backbone of the instrument will be cast into shadow.
One element will probably be lost for good: that peculiar and special presence caused by matching unison and quint ranks played together. That true organum, with its many difference and addition tones, is the thing that makes a fine organ chorus more than equal to the sum of its parts, for the quint ranks add not just their own voice but also considerably to the strength of the unison.
If the foundation is made large or loud and the upperwork small or soft, then working out the appropriate balances between ranks and between departments becomes treacherously difficult. For a start, the entire organ tone will tend towards bass-heaviness and the corrective adjustments needed are rarely subtle or pleasing. It is a very short step from the 'tapered' chorus with small or soft mixtures to an instrument where the pedal stops are powerful - another notable feature in the organs of Father Willis. The effect of a loud Open Wood and a potent high-pressure Ophicleide is undoubtedly impressive, but a quick cross-reference with the easily-balanced pedal divisions of Hill or Lewis quickly reminds us which is more generally useful.
Solo mutations are tricky under a 'tapered' regime - unless they are only required for 'synthetic' effects in the manner of the 1930s. The real Sesquialtera of tradition is composed of pipes as large and loud as the other principals and serves not just as a solo stop but also in the chorus - the ringing sound of a 'terzchor' is a far more important part of the north Eurpean tradition than neo-classical taste would have us believe.
Finally, upperwork of reduced power encourages, among less able firms, the nefarious practice of short-cutting on tonal finishing. If the mixtures are designed to produce brilliance alone, then they can be left rough - and almost always are. Any tonal finisher or voicer who believes that a rank of a mixture can be finished in less time than it takes to finish the Principal 4' is guilty of laziness and deception. In good organ-building every pipe receives equal consideration.
I do not wish it to be thought that my plea for more generously handled chorus-work is a final attempt by an apostle of the neo-baroque to enforce the abolition of all remaining romantic delights - my models for the traditional way of doing things include Hill and Lewis, whose credentials in the full-blooded romantic repertoire could not be disputed for an instant. Though neither firm actually used strict 'straight-line' scaling, their flue choruses are fully cognisant of traditional method. I would even encourage the critical listener to keep his ears open for the better flue choruses of Cavaille-Coll, for somewhere among the swimming harmonic flutes and blazing reeds the basic elements of the authentic French plein-jeu survive in modified form.
If all that is required from a principal chorus is that it should be an occasional 'effect', to be juggled into a scheme of kaleidoscopic changes alongside dozens of other fancy colours, then a 'tapered' tonal scheme with generous foundation and delicately-treated mixtures is ideal - allowing the smoothest possible gradation from one tone-colour to another and the most gradual 'build-up'. But, if your interests stray one semi-quaver beyond the late-romantic repertoire and the orchestral transcription, then some attempt at classical chorus building is certainly required. How this may actually be done is up to the individual taste of the organ builder concerned, and there are still hundreds of different examples to copy or new recipes to be invented. However, let it not be forgotten that upperwork is not there to provide brilliance alone (as some high-pitched and anorexic schemes of recent times would suggest), but also body, fullness, grandeur and complexity.
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