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The Organ — Medium or Message?

by Gillian Weir

A few years ago, I was invited to talk about and demonstrate the organ at the Royal Albert Hall in London to a London organ club. I unearthed a fair amount of information on its history, including some choice anecdotes concerning the opening ceremonies after its rebuilding at the beginning of this century. One such anecdote had been reported in The Times: “The noise of the newly rebuilt organ at the Royal Albert Hall last night was used to cover up the sound of the disturbance when an unpopular decision was given by the Belgian referee after the evening's wrestling match between England and Belgium.” A less grateful commentator, writing a week or so later in the same August journal, said tartly that the sound of the organ wafting through the vast building into the corridors had “curled the milk in the restaurant's milk jugs.” My intention of livening up the sometimes rather too serious proceedings of an organ club gathering took a knock when I arrived at the Royal Albert Hall and was greeted by a forthright man who had worked on the rebuilding of the organ and had come to help me with facts and figures. “This organ,” he said, afire with enthusiasm, “has X number of pipes of which the largest is so many feet long, it is the largest organ in the world and in my opinion the best!” I found this rather daunting. While I admire the craftsmanship associated with organbuilding, instruments such as the one in the Royal Albert Hall are not really related to the performance of organ music but rather to orchestral transcriptions and perhaps playing “Abide with Me” at big moments in wrestling matches. But what really stopped me in my tracks was the sight of 300 people solemnly moving in reverent procession along the front of the organ, past the console and on to their seats. I was amazed at the passions that could be aroused by something which was simply lying there, inert. Yet this attitude has been with us for a long time. Even now, I sometimes descend from the stage or the organ loft after a concert and meet an oncoming line of people. I prepare to greet them — but with a fixed, hypnotic stare and a measured tread, they walk straight past, narrowly missing me as leap aside at the last minute as from an avalanche. So they continue until they reach the console where they stand silently worshipping it — plastic keys, chipped pistons, music desk and all. This obsession with the organ for its own sake, as a technological marvel, an engineering fact, has been often remarked. So has been the history of its unfortunate results which, among other things, produced the mini-telephone-exchange of the Hope-Jones organ and the mini-Concorde organ of the mid-20th century. How many unsuspecting tourists have been frightened out of their wits in an English Cathedral when they have walked past a concealed 64' pipe just as its power was unleashed! Yet the obsession with size and power is usually considered to be confined to the Romantic era. “We are wiser now,” we say; “we no longer worship tubas for their own sake, or thrill to the sound of decibels unlimited. We are concerned now — at last — with music on the organ.”

I wish fervently that I could believe that. Rather, I fear that we have exchanged one set of prejudices or obsessions for another, and that they in fact embody exactly the same basic error. Of course the intentions have been the best, i.e. to bring to the organ a revived knowledge of the authentic practices of its heyday, the 17th and early 18th centuries, and thus to restore its integrity as an instrument in its own right rather than as a substitute orchestra or an accompanimental murmur in the background. But we have forgotten one thing — why we're doing it. Once again, the means have become the end. The fatal fascination of the organ itself has deflected us from our purpose — the communicating of the composers' ideas. The new movement started splendidly, with the examination of the unquestionably great instruments from the period in which flowered the indisputably great composers, as well the study of the performance practice of the time. We noted, for example, that encased organs had a homogeneity, a projection and a focus which unencased organs lacked. We noted, when we thought a little more deeply, that the separately encased divisions, each with its own distinct personality (gained by its relative pitch structure and by its architectural disposition), provided the essential physical counterpart of the music of the High Baroque with its passages of contrast of moods and textures. Thus we concluded (logically and correctly) that encasement is good. Then we tuned to the action, and saw that what speaks instantly and allows the performer to demonstrate his sensitivity, is obviously preferable to that which controls him. So — mechanical action, with its direct linkage and instantaneous speech, is good. But gradually the aims and objects of our research became forgotten or blurred, and a general feeling that “old is good” — simply because it's old — grew up and became tacitly accepted. A ship without a rudder goes aground, and the organ movement began to lose its rudder. Thus, when it was discovered that some old organs (and the word “old” itself, being relative, is ultimately impossible to define) had an unsteady wind supply, we said, “Old is good, so let's have an unsteady wind supply.” Evidence can always be gathered to support any contention, and it is interesting to note the arguments adduced to support this one. “Singers, flute players, violinists,” we are told, “all employ a vibrato, which is part of the intrinsic beauty of their tone. Therefore organs should reflect this.” We might cynically note, in passing, that it is rather difficult to provide a steady supply of wind to an organ, but cynicism aside, let us examine the argument. We find that until comparatively recently, vibrato in string playing was clearly understood to be an “ornament,” and it was so described in all the string instrument tutors until well into the 19th century. Indeed in vocal music, in baroque times, there was frequent resistance to any vibrato. But, employed as an ornament it was used in two ways: firstly, a very slight vibrato was used for warmth, and secondly, a more pronounced tremolo was used to amplify the sound. The second was used only very occasionally because by its nature it gives an unacceptable vagueness of pitch. So a vibrato which is enforced on the player (and the listener) because of a basically unstable wind supply through the whole organ is not only “unauthentic” in terms of historical practice: it also produces the same effect on the music at a deeper level that the despised tuba-laden monster produced — a non-musical practice, and solely an “organ effect” which the player has to accept and which cannot be altered. But further, the comparison with the voice and other instrument, is a prime example of confused thinking. A flute player uses a pipe, within which the flow of the air always, by its nature, must be unsteady. This has a liveliness which is attractive — it is “real,” one might say, as a piece of pottery is “real” while a seemingly flawless reproduction in plastic is “unreal,” lacking its own, independent life. The precise counterpart of the flute pipe is the single organ pipe. It too will always, inevitably, have an unsteady flow of air — such are the laws of physics1. Nevertheless, the corporate vibrancy of an orchestra's tone, derived from the idiosyncracies of the tone production of each instrument in that orchestra, is genuine and therefore valid. Similarly, a choir's quality derives from the combination of individual resonances and corporate blend. An organ is, in exactly the same way, an orchestra or a choir of individuals; for the color comes from the homogeneous blending of each harmonically rich and lively pipe. But what would you think of an orchestra or choir which dipped and swayed in pitch and amplitude, particularly in the music of the Baroque? Nevertheless this is what is advocated for the organ. Once again — and let the warning bells ring loud at this — the instrument has been placed outside the musical world through the dangerously misleading arguments of its protagonists.

Certainly the organist, like the violinist, must be able to employ a rich vibrato for an appropriate effect; and hence we have a tremulant device for just that purpose, though it must be used with discretion, and in the full understanding of musical style. Let us see what Bach says about wind pressure. In a letter he wrote

The old wind chests must all be taken out and freshly supplied with such wind conduction that one stop alone and also all the stops together can be used without alteration of the pressure, which has not been possible in the past and yet is absolutely essential.

Many enthusiasts will admit the logic, but then smile charmingly and say, “But I like it that way!” That is why the old Romantic view far from being ousted by the new authenticity or baroque or classical or pre-baroque or what-have you view, is still with us. Romanticism in thinking — as opposed to the use of the word to describe a perfectly honest period in historical style — might be described as the unchecked expression of the individual's likes and dislikes. It is the antithesis of the truly baroque view which presented a logically worked out musical argument or idea, full of passion and feeling and wit and love and humor, but not related to the mere whim of the performer. It is also the antithesis of the meaning of instrument, which is “tool” — something which conveys or serves. Thus the person who says “I don't care if tubas and super-octaves are not right for the contrapuntal balance of Bach, I like it that way,” and the person who says “I don't care if unsteady wind or whatever cannot be justified, historically or on terms of comparison with any other form of music, music-making or instrument, I like it that way,” are in fact one and the same person.

The bland and lifeless sound which unsteady wind pressure is often called upon to remedy, is truly an appalling defect in an organ. My point is that the thinking which has produced this so-called remedy is confused. Far from being products of a scholarly and historically informed search for authenticity, many of the conclusions which have been reached arise from exactly the same misconceptions that brought the organ into disrepute in the musical world (and virtually into annihilation) at the turn of the century. Having been brought at last on to centre stage of the world of music, it now stands in real danger of being dragged off again into the opposite wing.

The only reliable guide can be a pragmatic and objective viewpoint gained from study of the whole subject and from putting music first, and not a subjective one which puts the instrument first. Pragmatism serves a principle or ideal; it seeks to transmit a particular idea, to fulfill a particular purpose. In working pragmatically the musician in no way surrenders his creative originality, lessens the dramatic possibilities of his art, or allows its expressive fervor to be diminished. It is a misunderstanding of that point which has led to the extraordinary view of Baroque music as something akin to what is sometimes called sewing-machine music without humor or what we call feeling, rigid in its structure, and emotionless.

The Romanticist then, be he a 19th-century, 20th-, or 16th-century example of the genre on looking at the organ will become absorbed by non-musical, or extra-musical considerations. Another of these misconceptions concerns tuning systems, or temperament. Naturally, a musical work which exuberantly exploits the excitement inherent in the clashes of harmony produced in certain keys by an unequal temperament, and which rejoices in the perfection of certain interval in a similar instance, will be compromised if played on an instrument in equal temperament. One hopes that a harpsichordist, who is able to retune his instrument in a few minutes, will play such music in a temperament appropriate to the key of the piece he has chosen. But when one builds or causes to have built an organ of a reasonable size, one is thereby making a statement. That statement proclaims that the instrument is intended for the performance of a repertoire far wider than that from the pre-Baroque and early Baroque period. Music from those periods required organs of limited size. If an unequal tuning is used one of two things will happen: Either, only the music in keys suited to that temperament will be played on the instrument. Provided that climatic conditions have not affected the tuning (and remember that two degrees change in temperature can be critical) a genuinely authentic performance in terms of intonation will be given. Or, music from later periods, or music contemporaneous but written in other, less suitable, keys will have to be played in this special temperament. In this second case “authenticity” must be thrown to the winds for much of the repertoire. If, on the other hand, equal temperament is used, then authenticity as far as the early repertoire is concerned is compromised.

Clearly neither of the choices between equal or unequal temperaments is going to serve the cause of authenticity as a whole. But at least those who choose equal temperament will be able to use the full resources of their instrument and thereby not compromise its design. Since there is no logical argument to support the tuning of a large organ in unequal temperament, one can only conclude that it is the result of romanticized thinking: “I like it that way.” The 19th century deprived the organist of his freedom of touch by replacing mechanical action (with its infinitely subtle variations) with one that provides two possibilities only: on and off. The 20th century would curtail it further by advocating unsteady wind pressure and unequal temperament.

The same confused thinking is evident in performance practice. By a tortuous system of reasoning it is argued, for example, that “old fingering” will magically provide the way to appropriate phrasing or articulation of “old” music. Once again, to accept this line of thinking is to become imprisoned in a web of limitations which ultimately detract from the musical effect rather than assist it, and which can only result in less “authenticity,” because fingering is only one small part of the whole picture and cannot of itself bring the true nature of the music to life. First of all, why should one believe that the fingering left by a student of a past century is any more reliable as a guide to performance than that being inscribed in music scores by students good and bad of today? What is one to decide when the sources conflict, as often they do? But the real objection is that to adopt another's fingering and hope for perfect phrasing thereby is like walking blindfolded down a series of paths hoping you will stumble on your destination, because after all somebody else once reached it, when if you opened your eyes and looked at the map and the signposts you could choose your own route and your own method of transport and enjoy the view when you arrive. One of the saddest remarks I have heard recently came from a young man who said how pleased he had been at being able to turn pages for a player using “old fingering” because then he “could watch it.” Watch it? Would we enjoy Janet Baker's peerless singing better if we could see an X-ray of the throat muscles at work? Art should conceal art — the plumbing is not for viewing. But worse, far from being scholarly, this view simply does not start to be scholarly enough. It is the opposite of what is claimed for it. The notes lie there as did Pinnocchio, the wooden doll on the table of his maker: the performer's job is to breathe life into them. This life is rhythm, the heartbeat of music, and the basic principle that emerges when we see it this way is so much a matter of common sense that it is hard to believe it can ever have been obscured by scholars or anyone else. This principle is that, before all else, music of whatever age must be alive, must communicate a physical and emotional and intellectual vitality. “This principle immediately puts out of court,” as Martin Cooper has said, “the ancient sneaking feeling that tempi in old music should be slower and the dynamic range more restricted, or that old music, by which is meant music before 1800, must regard a set of unwritten conventions much the same as those that governed the behaviour of a Victorian young lady.”2

The Greeks had two words for rhythm: one a noun, as ours is, and the other, a verb, so that one could speak of “rhythming” the music. This separates it forever from Metre, and we begin to get a glimpse of what our goal is. And once we have a goal we can devise a reliable means of reaching it. When people talk of old music, the period most often meant seems to be the Baroque, so let it serve for an example. What is the property of the Baroque? The term was coined to describe an architectural style, and we find that its chief characteristic is an extrovert dynamism, a kind of joyous abandon. The concertos of Vivaldi, the orchestral works of Lully all demonstrate a delight in springing rhythms — dynamic, thrusting. Our search should be how to achieve this vitality, and the undisputed authority on the subject of performance in that era is Georg Muffat, pupil of Corelli and Lully and the most important purveyor of the ideas of Lully, who almost singlehanded changed the whole face of orchestral performance practice in Europe. Muffat's exposition of the bowing (hence articulation) techniques which brought Lully and his orchestra accolades from all Europe for the liveliness the excitement, the joyousness, the abandon of its playing is found in the Denkmäler Tonkunst, Oesterreich, Series I, Vol. II.

Virtually all keyboard music from this period is devised in some measure from string music, and bowing techniques are therefore the norm — it was not until cascades of scales arrived at the time of Liszt and the impressionistic techniques of Debussy were exploited that a genuinely original keyboard style emerged. Once one has studied enough music of the period — not organ music, but the music of the theatre, opera, and the salon — to see the goal clearly, and to understand the intrinsic spirit of this music, then one can begin the process of breathing life into the notes with the techniques that Muffat has so clearly set down. Then a physical technique which is guided and instructed and artistically informed by the imagination, by the mind, and by the thorough knowledge of a natural system — bowing — will be formed. It will expand in sensitivity and in subtlety in just the right relationships — something that is impossible to achieve when the player is not sure what he is working toward but knows only that his fingers are to go down in a certain order and form. The old fingerings we have studied are not of course always misleading, they are simply inadequate. What they do all have in common is a stress always on the main beats of the measure. English writers such as Morley, etc., refer to the alternating stresses thus implied as “good and bad notes”; other composers and writers use different terms but it all amounts to the same thing: a rhythm derived from main-beat stress (itself arising out of body movement in the dance and before that in formal gestures), and taken for granted from Lully's day throughout Europe and then the Western world — until organ playing was to be deflected towards a romantically pianistic concept of phrasing which eliminated articulation and, ultimately, rhythmic vitality. It is this bounding vitality which must be restored to organ music, and it cannot be fully and successfully achieved without intelligent understanding; when that is there, it really makes no difference which fingers are used. As Praetorius wrote in 1619, if one could play with the nose and do it better, then go right ahead.

A good technique is one in which the total freedom which comes from complete control and ease is wedded to an understanding of stylistic conventions plus the intelligent awareness of unlimited possibilities of nuance in which music delights. It is madness to limit that ease by artificial constraints; and it is interesting in this context to note that Bach derived his new system of fingering not to effect articulation or phrasing in any way whatsoever, but rather to provide himself with greater virtuosity, in the new keys in which he was writing and playing. His obituary says that he devised “so convenient a system of fingering that it was not hard for him to conquer the greater difficulties with the most flowing facility — all his fingers were equally skillful.” Nervous players can now be seen demonstrating their knowledge of “old fingering” by playing with an absurdly unsuitable exaggeration of the articulation, resulting in a distortion of the rhythm, simply so that their awareness of current thinking will be noticed. While it is artistic death to be ignorant of the musical parameters within which a consummate technique will be put to work — it certainly must not be allowed to roam mindlessly — it is nevertheless true that perfection involves the elimination of constraints so that the spirit of the music may be set free.

Fingering is not the only thing to have been seized on as an exciting new toy, divorced from its function. Authenticity has become a fashionable word to be used to sanction many a spurious line of thought. Alongside the laudable and necessary attempt to learn more about the properties of old instruments of all kinds, is found a blind belief that if we could go back to the past and recreate every aspect of a certain work's environment, we should have performance on which the ghost of the composer would smile in perfect happiness. So long as some of the most obvious but comparatively unimportant criteria were ignored, this was a harmless conceit. For example, the comparative noise levels of the 17th or 18th century and ours are different beyond all imagination, and inevitably affect any comparison of performances. The size of the rooms is another factor contributing to a totally different musical effect. But this viewpoint can become unsuspectingly dangerous. This extract is from a recent “Musical Times”: “The chamber orchestra performed with beautifully worked out and elaborate nuances. This type of playing was taught by Quantz (among others) as suitable for flautists and violinists when playing solos. It is doubtful that such nuances were ever applied to orchestral playing, and for two reasons: most ripieno players then, lacked the technical ability to carry them off, and most concerts were given after a single rehearsal which is inadequate time to obtain these effects. Hence a playing technique which may be the height of authenticity in one repertory can prove erroneous when applied to another contemporaneous with it.” One does not object to the conclusion in that extract, because the 19th century way of making swooping crescendos and diminuendos, often on one note, is not part of the ethos of the Baroque and therefore is demonstrably wrong on those grounds, it is alien and thus jeopardizes the music. It is the argument which is the dangerous thing. What this paragraph says in effect is: these overworked (they could have only one rehearsal) and incompetent musicians played badly, so we must play badly too.

And then the “authenticity search” is no longer a joke. It is time to remind ourselves that players and instruments are essentially servants of music. They both exist to convey a message, to bring to people something so important to the souls of men that all history's great philosophers have named it the greatest of the arts. Socrates wrote: “Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace.” T. S. Eliot said, “Great art communicates before it is understood.” We have therefore some responsibility not to tinker with it, or to submit it arrogantly to our whims of fashion, or to cut it down to size — to a size that we can understand. In the service of such an art, only perfection will do. The organ world seems particularly vulnerable to the concept of music and the instruments themselves as something which can legitimately be used in any way the individual wishes — as we have seen today in studying the real reason behind the espousal of certain aspects of the search for authenticity. In other words, what should be the medium for music has itself become the message. That way lies confusion at best and annihilation at worst. The search for authenticity has largely become an excuse for the indulgence of our own prejudices because it is without direction. It is simply not good enough to profess scholarly aims and then lamely to admit when they are proven mistaken or inadequate, “I like it that way.” As Charles Rosen, the brilliant pianist and classical scholar, concludes in his article on the subject, “There is no such thing as authentic performance of a work, at least an interesting and original work, and what is more, there never was one.” For example, he remarks on the 19th century's widespread custom of interrupting a symphony or a concerto with solos between the movements, “The première of Beethoven's Violin concerto was made more interesting by the interpolation between the first and second movements of a sonata for upsidedown violin with one string, written by the violinist.” But this is only the most scandalous and bizarre example of a general tradition. Moving back into the 18th century, he recounts how, in 1767 Rameau complained that the conductors at the Paris Opéra made so much noise beating a rolled-up sheet music paper on the desk to keep the orchestra in time that one's pleasure in the music was spoiled. But this practice was traditional and part of the immediately audible experience of 18th-century opera. Pointing out also that changes take at least 20 to 30 years to take effect, he goes on:

“We are always either too early or too late to claim an authentic performance. And yet — it must be emphasized — the work of music remains unchanged behind this relativity, fixed, unswerving, and above all, in principle, accessible. This is the justification for the study of performance practice. It is not to unearth the authentic traditions of performance and to lay down rules, but to strip away the accretions and the traditions of the past (including those accepted by the composer himself) and the fashion and taste of the present — all of which get in the way of music more often than not.

“All this may seem a little simple-minded, and it is certainly not original to remark that a radical innovation in music requires a number of years to be absorbed, I do not want to belabor the obvious, nor do I want to be paradoxical. But I recently read an article by H. C. Robbins Landon, a musicologist to whom we are all indebted and for whose work we are deeply grateful, in which he expressed the hope of hearing at last an “authentic performance of the Beethoven Second Concerto with a continuo.” Leaving aside the question of authenticity, I should like to ask, why? Does Landon think the work would be improved thereby, and if so in what way? I can more easily imagine and sympathize with the musician of 1799, who wanted to hear a performance, without any continuo, properly and efficiently conducted. My musician is not imaginary. He must have existed, for pianists very soon stopped playing any continuo at all — audible or inaudible — and they can only have stopped because it seemed like a good idea.

“If Landon's wish is inspired only by curiosity — to hear what this odd and useless appendage from the past is like — then I am one with him. But my real dream is more ambitious: it is to hear a Rameau opera with the conductor loudly beating on the music stand with a rolled-up sheet of paper. For those who are interested in history, rather than the music, the ability of music to call up the past and to re-create it for us is a legitimate and important function; but this interest should not disguise itself as the search for musical authenticity.

“The Letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.” It seems to me that both the Letter and the Spirit, when separated, can kill. The performer who plays pedantically and only what is on paper and the performer who uses a piece of music as a springboard for his own private dreams or as a release for his personal inhibitions are not just equally unsatisfactory extremists. They often sound more alike than is realized. So too are opposing ideas of performance: that the way it was done during the composer's lifetime has immediate and absolute authority, or that it doesn't matter how you play a piece provided it sounds well. These are mechanical principles that are applied without discrimination, and both, paradoxically alike, touch only the outer shell of music. Both treat music as if it had no significance and no reference beyond itself, forgetting that a performance is more than a voluptuous noise or a historical echo from the past.”3

This is particularly applicable, I think, to the organ world. The fascination evoked by our supremely fascinating instrument is such that it is all too easy to allow it to become the obsession, its real function almost forgotten. Thus its nature is allowed to change at whim. The schools of organ music are so many and so diverse compared with any other that studying all its facets and seriously trying to understand the ethos of so many civilizations and social mores is an enormous task. Please do not misunderstand what I have said about so-called authenticity — I am not dismissing intelligent and informed research but rather putting in a plea for infinitely more, and more thoughtful, scholarship, which does not leap gleefully upon one small facet of performance or of organ building and pursue it down a narrow road with tunnel vision, but rather seeks to inform itself on every aspect of music, seeing it as a living and independent entity and then putting it to work in the search for perfection. At the moment, no sooner has the surface been scratched that our research goes off at a tangent as we become side-tracked by the instrument itself. We will learn more about music, and learn it faster, if we approach it in a spirit of respect than if we seek to impose ideas on it which change with the frequency and the capriciousness of those perpetrated by Womens Wear Daily. Let us make an end to dilettantism, and instead of swinging wildly from one side of our pendulum to the other, as we in the organ world have done over the past century, let us stand firmly rooted in the centre and work steadily towards greater and greater excellence. An organ should serve the music. That decision made, all others make themselves. It becomes necessary for it to be self-effacing, to be perfectly made, with all its designed attributes derived from the study of musical needs. A musician, too, should serve the music. His reaction to this vital force and its message will naturally color his interpretation. But he will never forget that both he and his instrument exist only as the Medium. There is only one Message.

  1. It is this gentle, slight and attractive unsteadiness that Allen sought unsuccessfully to emulate by introducing random oscillation many years ago in the electronic imitations. It was not successful largely because, as is typical with something that is artificially induced, it was exaggerated.
  2. Daily Telegraph
  3. High Fidelity Magazine, May 1971

This article appeared in the February 1979 issue of The Diapason.