King Pippin and the origins of the organ

This essay first appeared on the electronic mailing list Piporg-l

"The old idea that the organ was introduced into the western Christian church by one or more particular events in the lives of the Carolingian kings - the gift to Pippin in 757, or Louis the Pious's welcome for a Venetian organ-builder in 826 - has seemed inadequate for some time now, an idea that came originally from depending too much on the many written sources of the Carolingian period."


...and so says Dr. Peter Williams (The Organ In Western Culture 750 - 1250, Cambridge 1993: 58).

Hang on - what gift to Pippin???

Well, dearly beloved, it was like this. It was once widely claimed that the Pipe Organ was introduced to northern Europe in 757AD, in the form of a gift from the Emperor Constantine Copronymus in Byzantium to King Pippin the Short of the Franks (part of modern France). (Of course there were Roman and probably Greek organs too, and there is evidence in a Roman carving as far north as Colchester in Essex, so perhaps we are really talking about the re-introduction of the organ to northern Europe.)

This appears at first sight to be one of those 'dubious legends', cooked up in a more recent and prosaic past, just like the modern Druids (please see 'Stonhenge Complete' by Christopher Chippindale, London 1983, especially chapters 4 and 5 - somewhere Professor Chippindale exclaims: 'Phoney history is tiresome in the end. There are no real facts to be discovered, nor the different discipline of admitted fiction.' It turns out that the only source for the existence of the Druids at all is a few lines in Tacitus, and the entire idea of Druidic customs and religion was cooked up out of nothing in the 18th century by the dotty John Aubrey's still dottier associate, the Revd. William Stukeley.)

The point of Peter William's book is to grab the time-honoured and oft-repeated story of King Pippin's Famous Organ, and worry it to death; to try and convince us that the story handed down through the generations is somehow 'incorrect'.

Now Revisionism has been something of a 'movement' among historians over the last one hundred years. No legend has been allowed to pass without new discoveries of a 'factual' kind being used to challenge Traditional Tales of Times of Yore. Many much-loved versions of the activities of our ancestors have been set aside, in favour of dry archaelogical evidence and tediously accurate footnotes. Peter Williams is very much one of these Revisionists; perhaps, being older than I am, his style was still more intensely forged in the white heat of Revisionist revolution than was my own. In dismissing the legend of King Pippin's Famous Organ, he is perhaps pushing the boat out a little too far, as he is almost forced to admit:


'Annals and comparable sources have left reports of three organs in the Carolingian court during the successive reigns of Pippin, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. It is the first of these that has been credited in the past with being 'the first organ re-introduced to the West' and hence the first in the western Christian Church. Over twenty annals refer to this instrument, sometimes giving supplementary details' (Williams, op.cit.: 137)


And, as Williams also points out, there is also what appears at first sight to be a complementary source from the Eastern side of the legend: a twelfth century copy of a treatise by the (?Arabic) engineer 'Muristos' speaks of a hydraulic siren-organ made for the King of the Franks.

With this much evidence to hand (from, after all, an age in which writing of any kind was scarce) one more or less has to admit that this gift was probably a fact, even if the detail is unreliable in any modern sense (ancient accounts tended to be written for the value of the story, not in order to set down facts). Williams rightly observes (if I may be bold enough to precis his thinking) that in light of the confusion surrounding the word 'organ' in the distant past ('musical instrument' or just 'wrought object'?) the best we can assume is that this was some kind of (relatively) complex machine that made a noise.

I think that Dr. Williams has revised just a bit too far. It is not that he has missed out any facts from the accounts, which are indeed perilously vague. But I do wonder if he has weighed the evidence correctly.

Twenty ancient written sources for King Pippin's Famous Organ? Now this is a positive torrent of information! The sources may not tell us a great deal about whether the event was real in the modern sense, but they do tell us that the Franks thought they had something really special to crow about, just as the Bayeux Tapestry informs us just how pleased the Normans were in 1066 over their latest territorial acquisition (England).

The gift of the organ to King Pippin is really hot stuff: it is more than stop-press headline news - it is the stuff legends are made of, and the survival of the story in twenty or more sources is proof enough that just such a legend was successfully manufactured. How on earth could some crude noise-making machine have made such a reverberation down the centuries? Why on earth did the Carolingians rate this object so highly?

The answer is to be found in the very vagueness of the Greek-derived word 'organ', and the fact that we cannot be sure whether early references really mean keyboard instruments with pipes or (the dull alternative) mere 'wrought objects'. It actually means both, and much more besides.

I propose that to King Pippin and the Carolingians the gift itself was indeed just a machine that made a noise, but that in their minds the word 'Organ' actually comprised The Entire Engineering Knowledge of the Ancient World. The Dark Ages may have been Dark, but there is no doubt at all that the people of that far-off time knew quite well how far their civilisation had shrunk since the collapse of the Roman Empire only a couple of centuries before. Any vistor to Rome (in fact until the late nineteenth century) would have found a city of no great size nestling in the stupendous ruins of a much larger and grander ancient city, that once housed no less that two million people. Countless towns round the Mediterranean were still dominated by the spectacular ruins of temples, archways, aqueducts, fora and theatres: buildings that were not to be matched again for sheer bravura and quality until the high gothic of the late middle ages.

King Pippin, according to the litanies of praise that reverberate from the chronicles, was more than just the happy recipient of an unexpected present. The keynote of his reign, as the chroniclers would have us believe, is the introduction of Roman forms of liturgy into the western church.

My own feeling is that he wished to introduce far more than just Roman liturgy, and that both the liturgical reforms and the arrival of The Famous Organ have been written up as major political statements. This was not the mere arrival of an expensive toy, but the public announcement of King Pippin's campaign to re-introduce the full wonders of Roman intellectual, practical and political skill, in fact to build a new Empire in the north-west. No wonder then that the gift is important. Just as the flashing Coca-Cola sign is the true public face of the North American economic empire, so King Pippin's Famous Organ advertised the wondrous possibilities offerred by the entire Roman approach to 'wrought objects'.

Roman? - but didn't the blasted thing come from Byzantium?

Yes it did, but remember that after the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern half (Byzantium, later Constantinople, now Istanbul) was effectively regarded as the Roman Empire in exile, and that the entire repository of Classical learning existed in the library at Alexandria until the Arabs, in a moment of hot-headed fervour, set fire to it. To the early mediaeval man-in-the-street Byzantium was 'The Empire'.

In the church the organ symbolised Classical learning, a learning that today we understand as a literary phenomenon, but then meant an entire way of life, complete with architecture, engineering, political structure, social convention - and machines that made music. It established a link with that glorious period in which the Christians became so strong in Rome that the Emperor himself became a convert - glorious days indeed. The organ is a continual reminder to us that learning and 'wrought objects' are God-given mysteries and part of the human struggle for Heaven on Earth.

I think that this simple interpretation may be a much more satisfactory answer to the question 'How did the Pipe Organ come to be Used in Church?' than the very vague conclusions that Dr. Williams has reached, even after much reading of historical material and many hundred footnotes. It has a serious flaw, however, and that is that it is based on deduction and surmise, not on facts. Facts? I have none on my side. To any modern historian my account would be regarded as a romantic fiction. Is my Chanson d'Avril worth taking seriously, therefore, or is it a total fabrication?

(1st April 1997)