The organ at St. Cosmae, Stade, Germany, built in 1669-73 by Berendt Huess and Arp Schnitger. Now beautifully restored by Juergen Ahrend, it is an instrument which compels one to question the musical quality of modern organs.

Baby or Bathwater?
Organs and organ building in Britian today

(No.5 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1997 under the heading 'Raising the Tone')

Criteria of musical beauty are hard to define; yet some organs have an indefinable 'it'.

Famous instruments often impress because of their size, complexity or spectacular casework. A large building with resonant acoustics may be part of the equation. Some stand apart from their brethren also on account of their tonal beauties.

For half a century, in a period of 'Organ Reform', we have considered our instrument from the builder's and player's point of view: an instrument which exists - and is designed as - a vehicle for these two artists. One demonstrates his principles and ideas, the other performs and interprets. In this same period we have perhaps neglected to consider the position of the audience. In both solo playing and in accompaniment the organ exists partly to serve its listeners. What sounds are not just appropriate for the music - but also beautiful to listen to?

Amongst those who actively seek out the very best in organ-building of all periods, and who have had the good fortune to travel, a consensus emerges. Certain instruments are widely regarded as exceptional from the listener's point of view.

The organs of Gottfried Silbermann have always been famous for their beauty; those at Frieberg Dom and the Marienkirche Ro"tha especially so. The true beauties of Arp Schnitger's organs have been slightly obscured by less than perfect 'improvements', but the Ahrend restorations at Norden and Gronigen suggest where that beauty lay. At Alkmaar, the organ by Franz Caspar Schnitger (Arp's son) has always bewitched its audience. After its recent (and exceptionally stylish) restoration by Flentrop it will do so even more. In France: Poitiers, Souvigny and St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Beaume hold the prizes amongst the classical organs; Rouen, Caen and Toulouse represent the work of Cavaille-Coll. The English-speaking world has its own examples; some, like the Grove Organ at Tewkesbury Abbey even managing to build a considerable reputation through years of obscurity.

The existence of instruments of such quality, in many countries and from many periods, shows that there was no one 'Golden Age'. The craft has flourished in many very different ways. The skill generously applied to these organs, in addition to their many other merits, is that of voicing.

How seriously did the organ builders of the past take the art of voicing? A full answer to this question may never be possible (least of all in a short article), but my belief is that they took it very seriously indeed. From all countries and in all periods this branch of the craft has been revered, Hawkins' 'Art and Mystery of voicing organ pipes' being only one verbal description.

In the classical revival of the twentieth century voicing was demoted.

The famous Danish organ builder and author Poul-Gerhard Andersen chose more gentle words than mine ('Orgelbogen', Copenhagen 1956, translated as 'Organ Building and Design' London 1969):

"The machine-like exactness of the voicing ideal inherited from the nineteenth century resulted in the use of many artifices (nicks, beards, etc.) to obtain the perfect attack and tone. Now it was clear that this smoothly polished voicing actually robbed the pipes of some of their most valuable qualities; the 'imperfections' of many old pipes (chiffing and odd sounds at the attack) indeed provided the 'spices' of the lively and vibrant timbre."

Andersen's point may still be as clear as he claims, but the practical effect of this widely held view was that voicers were asked to do much less work on the pipes and to operate within certain dogmatic guidelines. It does not take long to realise that there is at least a possibility that the craft of voicing was seriously damaged by the Classical Revival in organ building. Was the baby thrown out with the bathwater?

This is a dangerous time in the wider history of organ-building. The natural turn of events virtually dictates that this generation will find fault with the work of its immediate predecessors. The neo-classical organ is falling out of fashion. There is revived interest in Cavaille-Coll (once the bete noire of cultured organ historians) and in the work of other romantic builders. Anyone who mentions 'polyphonic clarity' today will receive a sharp look or two from his peers. We have been though a period of exceptionally thin and bright sounding organs, for however beautiful the results achieved by Frobenius, Flentrop and Marcussen the vast majority of their contemporaries tended to over-emphasise brilliancy and articulation, and a reaction is setting in.

That new voicing dogma was sometimes destructive. The world discussed a flue voicing style which combined low pressures, low cut-ups, large footholes and no nicking. This put an accent on attack and brightness never attempted in organ building before. Most pre-romantic organs do indeed exhibit one or other of these features, but very rarely all at once. Such a recipe may apply to certain Italian organs, though these are small and relatively quiet. It does not apply to the louder early organs, where the pressures are moderate and the cut-ups often high - and the distribution of wind affected by narrow borings.

The history of nicking is typically controversial. But can it not be traced from its origins in the seventeenth century, through its almost universal introduction in the early eighteenth, to its full application in the nineteenth? The characteristic nicking styles of the eighteenth century are indeed lighter than most of those practiced a hundred years later, but each is associated with a particular tonal result - and yes, Arp Schnitger, Gottfried Silbermann and Francois-Henri Clicquot all seem to have used some nicking.

The tonal recipe of Organ Reform was indeed not derived from early instruments, and in the sounds characteristic of the twentieth century we hear the clarion call of a modernising movement, and one that was first and foremost anti-romantic.

In romantic organ-building the voicer was exalted. To the Organ Reformers the idea of precision regularity was anathema and a whole generation chose, in effect, not to be trained in the art of voicing. Instead they set out to teach it themselves from the ground up. An account of such a process is an important part of Ralph Downes' fascinating book 'Baroque Tricks'.

However, what could have been learned from a training in the 'old' art of voicing was the nature of the 'secret'. Ralph Downes learnt by experience that, if he was to achieve his desired ideal tone, then the precision required was fantastic. He was right, and this is in its simple form the truth of the ancient 'secret'. In order to actually achieve a specific musical result in organ building the voicer works within tiny precision. For any truly musical result - rather than a merely aural one - to emerge, the voicing and finishing have to be so motivated.

The organ builders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived in a world where decoration was the norm. They had no modernism, and their creative spirits belonged to a period of florid abundance in the decorative arts. There can be little doubt that when Riepp voiced the organ at Ottobeuren that was to make him famous, he invested as much sense of beauty into the result as did the designers and makers of its wonderful casework.

>From the characterless square boxes of lesser twentieth century organs we expect fewer pretty sounds. From the accurately measured and scrupulously copied replica pipework we should expect only noise, either more or less beautiful, depending on how well it has been voiced.

Training with a really experienced old-school bench voicer teaches you one thing very clearly. To achieve a really satisfactory musical result from an organ pipe of any type or style is a 'knack' developed after years of experience - this is perhaps part of the 'secret'. The purity of tone exhibited in so many famous old organs is not entirely on account of age, though this possibility has sparked a widely held belief that organ tone mellows over time. The beauty of old wooden ranks and their relationship to contemporary metal pipework tends to belie this theory. Part of the equation is simply the quality and beauty of the voicing. At Alkmaar Franz Caspar Schnitger spent a great deal of time and trouble on the musical beauty of his work. The result is stunning. In the seventeenth century the English builders of small chamber organs worked obsessively on the perfection of intractable little wooden principals and mixtures. The results are equally delightful.

Of course it would be a gross overstatment to suggest that in the period of Organ Reform the craft of voicing was unceremoniously dumped, yet such a claim would form the core of a necessary debate. There is much evidence to suggest that the main thrust of Organ Reform was directed towards principles, and that its benefits can be seen in qualities of design, layout and manufacture. We can also be thankful for the renewed interest in proper casework, which makes the pipe organ 'whole' again. But what about tonal finish and beauty? We can legitimately be suspicious of the fact that the Modern Movement discouraged decoration, elaboration, detail - and any impression of prettiness.

This is the discussion that needs to be opened most widely at the start of the twenty-first century. How are the rarer levels of tonal beauty actually achieved? That they can be reached is still as clear as it always has been. There are neo-classical organs which, despite their austerity and logical discipline, nevertheless come across with the most remarkable personality. These instruments will, one hopes, be jealously guarded. More recently still, a number of builders round the world have demonstrated that musical beauty can again be a priority, regardless of style. They have embarked on a significant revival and reinstatement of the crafts of pipe-making and voicing. For the listener who has been patiently waiting for the neo-classical movement to produce organs of the sheer musical quality exhibited in those of Silbermann or Cavaille-Coll, there are now signs of considerable hope. More of this in the next (and final) article in this series.

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