The “king of instruments” has a long history, one which can arguably be traced to the concept of a collection of “fixed-pitched pipes blown by a single player (such as the panpipes)” (Randel 583). The first examples of pipe organs with the basic features of today can be traced to the third century B.C.E. in the Greco-Roman arena; it is said to have been invented by Ktesibios of Alexander and contained “a mechanism to supply air under pressure, a wind-chest to store and distribute it, keys and valves to admit wind to the pipes, and one or more graded sets of fixed-pitch pipes.” (Randel 583) These early organs used water as a means to supply air-pressure, hence the use of the terms hydraulic and hydraulis. Hydraulic organs were in use for several hundred years before the concept of bellows, similar in concept and style to those of a blacksmith, came into use with the organ. Numerous bellows were used to supply air to the wind-chest, often being pumped in pairs by men.

The disadvantages of this method of air supply include the lack of consistent pressure, which leads to inconsistent pitch and tuning; also, many people were required to operate the bellows since there were upwards of twenty-four bellows per organ (Hopkins & Rimbault 35). Also, with organs of this size, the bellows took up large amounts of space, thus forcing the organ to be located in a fixed place, such as a church. Up until the eleventh century (approximately), pitch and range of organs were extremely limited, mainly in part to the lack of a any style of keyboard. Keys of a sort were introduced around this time, though not in the manner we are accustomed to. “The earliest keyboards were sets of levers played by the hands rather than the fingers.” (Randel 428) They looked similar to large rectangles “ an ell long and three inches wide” (Hopkins & Rimbault 33) and were played by pushing on them with a hand, although some were large enough that one might need to step on them. While allowing no real technical dexterity, they were sufficient to play plain-song and chant melodies, particularly with the use of more than one player. As time progressed, the keys became smaller and more numerous until they began to resemble the modern keyboard (except for range) in appearance ca. 1400. While these large early organs were used in limited fashion in churches, many of the organs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were known as portatives or regals. Portatives were small enough to be carried and played by a single person, one hand playing the keys and the other operating a single bellow. Due to the size limitations of portative organs, their range did not usually exceed two octaves; their use was to play plain-song and chant melodies, usually in processions. Similar to a portative, but larger, was the positive organ. “ Positives were larger, standing on a table or the floor. They were played with both hands, had a larger compass, and required a second person to operate the bellows, of which there were usually two.” (Randel 485) The positive was sometimes added to a larger, stationary organ and joined to the larger’s keyboard (two manuals), with the positive being located in front of the larger organ with the organist located between them. (Hopkins & Rimbault 42-3) Up until this time, organs did not possess pedals.

The pedal is generally attributed to a German named Bernard, organist to the Doge of Venice. It is thought that while he did not actually create the pedal board, he improved upon it to the point of being able to assign its creation to him, making it similar in concept to modern pedal boards only with a smaller range. (Hopkins & Rimbault 45-46) With the addition of the positive to the large organ, one began to have two sets of pipes associated with an organ. These two sets of pipes allowed there to be two distinct tones, similar to stops, to be produced from one organ, though they could not be played simultaneously. German organ builders in the early sixteenth century made possible the addition of ranks other than the principle, each new rank being called a stop. By “adding” a stop to a manual, one could then play, in unison, two or more sets of ranks simultaneously. These stops included new types of pipes created by the Germans which provided varying sounds, including those that mimicked the viol family, reed stops (trumpet, posaune, shalm, vox-humana, etc.), closed pipes adding a much softer and deeper sound and smaller pipes which produced more penetrating sounds. There was also the mixture stop, which originated (we think) in the twelfth century when one or two pipes were added to a key, usually tuned to a fifth and octave or third and tenth; it is also speculated that this practice helped spark harmony in music composition. (Hopkins & Rimbault 36-8) During this time the pedal began receiving its own set of stops separate from those of the other manuals. At this point in the organ’s history, development was fairly uniform throughout Europe due mainly to the unrestricted travel of organ builders and musicians whose input would influence foreign builders. The uniformity of the Catholic church also helped perpetuate the use of similar organs throughout Europe. This trend of consistent organ building began to decline during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both leading toward more political and national boundaries being enforced, which increased the difficulty of unrestricted travel. Now we begin to see trends and different regional styles of construction, some more lasting and effective than others. (Randel 585) The first area to look at are the Flemish countries of France, Spain, Italy, Austria and England.

These areas contained many organs of similar designs until the Calvinist Reformation in 1560, the northern portion (Holland) becoming Protestant and its organs being used mainly for church services, and the southern portion (Belgium) remaining Catholic, whose influence resulted in the organ becoming a strong liturgical instrument of great influence to the later French organs. Secular organ playing developed in Holland; while the organs were housed in churches, many of them were also played as concert instruments for market days and special occasions. (Randel 585) North German builders were the real masters of organ building, creating instruments known for their size and complexity. Building upon their knowledge from the Middle Ages, sixteenth century builders added numerous stops, some ranging in size from 32´ to 1´, including “foundations, mixtures, mutations, flutes and reeds” and a complete pedal division. These large, multi-faceted organs would be the precursors to the influential Baroque organs of J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Scheidemann and others; these organs also influenced builders in northern Holland. (Randel 585-586) While initially Flemish in design and influence, a new school of organ design and playing began to develop in France during the sixteenth century. While these organs usually were not as grand in scale compared with the north German organs, they are known particularly for their ornate casework and later influence on typical French-style registration and compositional techniques. The organs of the Alsace region of France, which were influence by the German builders, would become the inspiration for composers such as Widor, Franck, Guilmant and Saint-Saëns. (Randel 586) English organs of this time period suffered greatly. While in proliferation in many churches throughout the country, the Commonwealth period led to the destruction of most organs. Those which were left were small in scale and similar to the French organs in technical design, having only two manuals and often incomplete or nonexistent pedal boards. These small organs were used by composers such as Byrd, Redford, Tomkins, Lugge and Gibbons. (Randel 586) Italian organs were even more limited in design, having only one manual (two were rare) and limited ranks of pipes, although some contained inventive mixtures of pipes in 1/2´ and 1/3´ sizes. Reed stops were generally not used, and when they were, they were of limited size and number. Spanish and Portuguese organs where similar in design and limitations, though the number of stops were generally larger, and a Flemish influence remained fairly strong even after the regional Iberian style took grasp. These Spanish organs were also imported to the Americas in the early seventeenth century, thus beginning the American tradition of organ building which would commence much later and be of a more unique style. (Randel 587) While many do not consider the organ to have had such a colorful history, its history has been one of constant change and refinement. The organ will continue to survive through the ages and retain its colorfulness and ingenuity.


Hopkins, E. J. And E. F. Rimbault L.L.D., The Organ, Its History and Construction. 3rd ed. London: Robert Cocks & Co., 1887. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 5th ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton, 1996. Fesperman, John T. and Barbara Owen. “Organ.” In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel: 578–89. Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Schott, Howard. “Keyboard.” In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel: 427–8. Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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