THE SINGING CHURCH - an outline history of the music sung by choir and people. By C. Henry Phillips B.A., D.Mus., A.C.D.C.M. sometime Lecturer and Sub-Warden of the College of St. Nicholas, Chislehurst. First published in Mcmxlv by Faber and Faber Limited 24 Russell Square London W.C.1. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2004.

Chapter 38 - MODERN ORGANS

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Most improvements in the organ have been made with a view to rendering the instrument easier to handle, the question of pipe voicing being in some ways stabilised. In every generation there are, as one would expect, voicers who by general consent obtain results which defy analysis, and our own age is no different from others in this matter. Lovely tone-creations are being made by modern builders which are worthy to rank beside those of Harris and Smith, or 'Father' Willis. Tonally, however, the best builders have been preoccupied in producing timbres which are not only good in themselves but which make for a pleasant ensemble. Gauntlett, a pioneer, working in collaboration with the builder Hill, did important work in extending the manual compass down to C and adding doubles and mixtures, about which there is still much controversy on acoustical grounds; this collaboration of player and builder has always been a useful feature of English organ building. Henry Willis (genius enough to be called by the church musicians' favourite term of approbation, 'Father' Willis) was perhaps pre-eminently successful in solving this question of the balance between the tone colour of individual ranks and the requirements of the ensemble.



On the recommendation of the Royal College of Organists, London, standard measurements were adopted by all reputable firms for the console so that knees no longer knocked against the under edge of the manuals and one was no longer called upon to pedal underneath oneself, as it were. Foot pistons were made to reduplicate and supplement the finger pistons, the pistons them­selves were made readily adjustable with regard to the stops drawn; balanced swell pedals which would stay in any desired position and which were placed centrally over the pedal board soon became standard on all important instruments.



The most far-reaching improvement, which has had much effect on the technique of pedalling, was the making of radiating-concave boards with keys of standard width, their edges smooth and their surface with the right degree of 'slide' in them. Pedal playing was revolutionised; from. being a rough and ready, uncertain toe and toe business which made for bustling work in scale passages it has become a matter of each foot providing six points of contact with the key—right, left and centre of toe and heel. Organists are, however, slow to adopt new methods and not only has no 'fingering' notation been devised for the new system but every existing tutor starts off by teaching the old toe and toe method first and relearning the new later. [See 'Systematic Organ Pedal Technique,' R. Goss Custard (Stainer and Bell) for an outline of one modem method, and 'The Science of Organ Pedalling,' H. F. Ellingford and E. G. Meers (Office of Musical Opinion, 1928) for a full exposition of the subject.]  Continental organists still use for the most part the old system because their instruments almost invariably have the old straight boards; for the same reason many of their recitalists have an assistant to manage their stops, a necessity at the consoles of many French organs where the jambs are often quite out of reach. But if English organs have improved their pedal boards, the pedal organs themselves, except in very large instruments, still lag far behind those of the continent in the variety of stops provided, so that the pedal couplers have almost always to be drawn.



Increasing costs and the prevalent poverty of many churches have forced builders to experiment, chiefly on smaller organs, with 'extension' and 'borrowing'. By 'borrowing' the same stop is made available on more than one manual so that on small instruments the player of soft voluntaries can, for example, get more simultaneous tone colours. It is hardly necessary on an organ of more than, say, twenty stops, though even here it enables one to use two stops on the Great in simultaneous contrast, supposing one is 'borrowed' on to the Choir. By 'extension' one rank of pipes is made to provide sixteen-, eight-, four-, and two-foot tone played from the same key, thus saving space and expense. It has many advocates for and against, but the question of expense usually overrides acoustical considerations, though many argue that the method is desirable on acoustical grounds. It should be noted that for accompanying the congregations in hymn-singing a good full-bodied diapason running right down to the bottom note is indispensable; if the provision of such a stop costs a large proportion of the available outlay, then borrowing with or without extension will provide the means of satisfying the second raison d'etre of an organ—the player's voluntaries. Naturally, in a borrowed or ex­tension organ the full organ cannot give the rich chorus tone of a straight instrument. The enclosure of the whole organ in swell boxes would of course supply additional variety but take the 'bite' off the fortissimo.



As far back as the middle of last century Gauntlett was advocating the use of electrical contact between key and pallet. By this means, he argued, the console could be placed in any convenient position. A scheme which came to nothing was suggested whereby eight different organs placed in various parts of the Crystal Palace could be played from manuals set up in the central nave. Organists, as instrumentalists have ever done, set their faces against such new­fangled ideas, though Barker in 1868 took out a patent for an electric system and Bryceson managed to apply it to a few instru­ments. The real objection then was that electric power was not easy to come by. Willis, taking advantage perhaps of this, fitted to St Paul's organ in 1874 a device which achieved much the same result, tubular-pneumatic action; this enabled him to transmit wind-pressure through flexible tubing over appreciable distances. His scheme has since been adopted in all large organs and in many smaller instruments. It was reliable and not only enabled the builder to place his pipes where he wanted them but allowed the player clearly to hear the result of his efforts by removing the console from the pipes.

Now that electric power is almost universally available the organ is rapidly becoming electrified. The advantages are many, the most useful of which is remote control, though full use is not always made of it. An octave or two of keys set in the choir of cathedrals for giving the chord when the anthem is unaccompanied has yet to appear; all large churches might with advantage have two consoles placed at different ends of the building for nave services, accompanied processions and so forth. The electric organ can be built on the spare part principle where broken and worn parts are easily replaceable, the action can be accessible and visible under glass dust-covers, and takes up incredibly little space. Hope-Jones' invention of double touch has been little exploited in church organs, yet its advantages are obvious. Stop-tabs arranged as a keyboard above the manuals (they might well be reduplicated at the sides and between the manuals) have divided loyalty from players. Electric systems of blowing more and more supplant the old hand-, water-, and gas-driven methods, the most efficient being the rotary fan which maintains a constant wind-pressure. A minor difficulty has been the electrical transmission over long distances of a graduated crescendo, but the problem bids fair to have been successfully solved. The application of electric power to the organ has in fact transformed the mechanism and made the instrument less un­wieldy, less extravagant of space, less costly in repair bills. It must always be remembered that an 'organ' is not just the mechanism and pipes; the building in which it is erected is acoustically part of it and the player is playing the building as much as the pipes.



Recent experiments in radio have resulted in the invention of the 'electronic' organ, the various types of which may be classed together as 'electrophones'. In all these instruments the tone emanates from a loud-speaker diaphragm. By various means, which need not be described, an electric current is made and broken at a given frequency per second: these electrical impulses set up a vibration of equal frequency in the loud-speaker diaphragm (after being amplified) which gives off a pure note with few or no harmonics. Different timbres are then built up artificially to resemble the various types of organ stop, though it has not been found possible as yet to use enough artificial harmonics—which produce the different tone colours—to copy exactly a given pipe. Even if it becomes an economic possibility to do so, no diaphragm has yet been used which has a wide enough range of frequencies to which it will vibrate: no doubt the making of such a diaphragm (or set of diaphragms) will be merely a matter of time and experiment. These new instruments are as yet in their infancy, and their distinctive tone has not been too favourably received; its chief characteristics are an unusual suddenness or click in the 'coming on' of the tone and a kind of colourless purity with no 'edge' or 'drive', resembling the faded notes of a tuning fork. With the use of more harmonics this pure but dull tone should disappear, but history shows that instruments best improve when they cease to ape other instruments and develop their own characteristics. In fact, electrophones will claim serious attention when they stop imitating or claiming to be organs and boldly become themselves.



It is unlikely that they will replace organs which have had an uninterrupted run in accompanying the church service for a thousand years or more. Like the piano and harmonium—and the regals before them—they may become useful substitutes with a character all their own. In other words a future in some musical milieu for the electrophone is no doubt assured, but its place in church is as yet a matter of experiment. All that dare be said is that, like the piano and harmonium, the electrophone is portable, cheap (though not cheap enough) to buy and run; it needs no tuning, but it might need replacement of burnt-out or broken valves. Its tone is pleasant enough up to the mezzo forte but at the fortissimo it seldom pleases the musician. It is, in fact, in the form we have it today, essentially a quiet instrument: the present size of its sound producer ensures that. It has solved many problems including the accompaniment of nave services and processions in cathedrals, portability and the utilisation of restricted space; one may even hope that a cheap practising model with earphones may one day become a useful part of the equipment of every organist. The technique of writing for it as a solo instrument has scarcely yet been tackled. Given half a century of development it may yet prove useful in church; one must always remember that Bach had little good to say of the pianos at Potsdam.