Ministering through Music
Keyboard to Keyboard
The Organ’s Tonal Design and its Building Blocks
The following article was written by John-Paul Buzard, President of Buzard Pipe Organ Builders. John-Paul is a colleague I have known since our student days at Northwestern University, and he is always willing to jump in and be helpful to a friend. Here John-Paul explains the basic sound classes of the pipe organ:
The pipe organ is a unique musical instrument. It does not have a single tone color, but a wide variety of different tones which can be combined to produce the richest palate of sound known to humankind. Even though Full Organ is harmonically complicated and sophisticated, its fundamental building blocks are fairly simple.
There are two species of pipe construction: Flues and Reeds. Flues are like whistles; a vibrating column of air produces the sound and the geometry of the pipe colors it; Reeds produce their tone by a vibrating brass tongue which is amplified and colored by the resonating tube connected to it. Flue pipes make three groups or families of tone: Principals, Flutes and Strings. Reeds, being their own beast, produce a variety of imitative sounds.
Once you become familiar with the four families and their pitch levels, you can combine them to create new sounds. By using one’s ears and imagination the organ can be registered to text-paint hymns and anthem accompaniments. All it takes is spending some good play-time in the musical sand box minding the basic premise that there’s no right or wrong.
The Principals (or Diapasons) produce sounds specific to the organ; they do not imitate anything. These cylindrical pipes are made of metal. Stops in this family may be called Principals, Diapasons, Octaves, Super Octaves, Twelfths, Fifteenths, Seventeenths and Mixtures. Principals form the backbone of the organ’s tonal design, and they are found at a wide variety of pitches in both the manuals and pedal, to build up complete harmonic choruses.
Flutes can be orchestral or organ-like with a wide range of tone colors. Flutes can be played together or with any other stop in the organ to fatten the tone, color an ensemble or a solo stop. The range of Flute Tones is limited only by the imagination of the organ builder. The geometry of the pipe body and the mouth treatment creates a flute’s tone color.
Flutes may be made of wood or metal, open or covered by a tuning stopper (or canister) inserted into or over their open ends. Stoppered pipes have prominent fifth-sounding harmonics, rather than the full range of an open pipe. These may be called Bourdons or Gedeckts. Open pipes may be called Melodias, Claribel Flutes, Open Flutes, Nachthorns. Some stoppered flutes have a “chimney” bored through their stoppers, or soldered onto their metal canisters. These are called Rohrflutes, Chimney Flutes, Flûtes á Bibèron, Flûtes d’Amour. Some flutes are tapered and are called Spire Flutes, Spitzflutes, Blockflutes, Recorders. These hybrid constructions replace a wee bit of the octave harmonics missing from a completely stoppered pipe.
Some open pipes are double their normal length, and have a hole drilled in the center of the pipe to stabilize the pitch. These are called harmonic pipes and their intense tone is imitative of a modern orchestral flute. Harmonic Flutes can be found at all pitches. These may be called Harmonic Flutes, Orchestral Flutes, Flûtes Octaviante, Octavins.
Organ strings are the warmest, keenest sounds in the organ, but sound least like their orchestral counterparts. They are called “strings” because they produce a harmonic series similar to a bowed string instrument. They may be soft or loud, and appear at many pitches. Typically a string-toned stop in the Swell division of an organ will have a partner rank, tuned slightly sharp, called a Celeste. The resulting undulation is warm and shimmering. Strings may be called Salicionals, Viola da Gambas, Gambes, Violes, Gemshorns, and Voix Celestes.
Reeds produce the greatest variety of tones within a single family. They imitate medieval or modern orchestral instruments. Wind pressure, geometry of the resonating tube and the treatment of the reed itself determines the tone color and volume which the pipe will produce. Conical resonators produce a blaze of the entire harmonic series. These are called Trompettes, Trumpets, Cornopeans, Clarions, Trombones, Tubas. Cylindrical resonators produce a fifth-sounding harmonic series and may be called Krummhorns, Cromornes, Clarinets, Basset Horns. Hybrid-shaped resonators produce orchestral tone colors as English Horns, French Horns, Oboes and Bassoons in addition to the antique sounds of Bombardes and Zinks. Short-length resonators, often with creative resonator shapes, produce unusual tone colors like the Vox Humana, Rankett, Regal, Baarpfeife.
Mixtures are stops in which multiple ranks of pipes sound on a single note. These are nearly always made of Principal pipes. Mixtures are typically composed of unison and fifth-sounding ranks, repeating themselves at points in the musical scale which the tonal designer determines, given the desired result. If appropriately composed, scaled and voiced, a low-pitched mixture can be used to create a complicated full sound, but without adding brilliance to the ensemble; a medium-pitched mixture can add brightness to a chorus in the bass and reinforce the unison in the treble; a high-pitched mixture can add brilliance to a chorus or an individual unison stop for special effects. Mixtures are easy to spot as their stop controls indicate how many ranks each note plays by a Roman numeral. Common names you might see on your console might be: Mixture, Fourniture, Plein Jeu, Full Mixture. Scharf, Sharp Mixture and Cymbale are high pitched mixtures.
By artfully combining stops one can create a sound for any situation. By varying registrations for each verse of a hymn, the organ can add interest and, if the right stops are combined at the right time, highlight the texts being sung.
If one were to analyze the harmonic structure of Full Organ, the resulting graph would be almost impossible to read. With a majestic, full sound the organ can support hundreds of people in their singing. It can create a “Festal Shout” in one breath, and weep for the passing of a child in another. It significantly energizes the acoustics of the building, and routinely elicits emotional responses.
Have fun and take the time to listen to every stop in your organ, and combinations of others. You’ll find hundreds of possible combinations which you might use for just the right moment in an upcoming service. Enjoy your time in the musical sand box!
John-Paul Buzard is president and artistic director of Buzard Pipe Organ Builders, based in Champaign, Illinois and founded in 1985. He was appointed Curator of Organs for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign following graduate school, and began to lay the groundwork for his company through organ-building and restoration projects in the Champaign area. Mr. Buzard continues as Curator of Organs for the University of Illinois, and also serves as Curator of Organs for MacMurray College, Illinois College, Indiana University, and DePauw University. He earned a Master’s degree in organ and church music from Northwestern University, studying organ with Richard Enright and Wolfgang Rübsam, and also spent two years in the organ performance program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studying organ with Jerald Hamilton. Mr. Buzard is a certified Master Organbuilder with the American Institute of Organbuilders (AIO), a member of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA), and a member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians of the City of London.
Welcome to my first edition of Keyboard to Keyboard! This article appeared in the GIA Quarterly, Volume 30, No 4. The beauty of a blog is that I can add links to the information included in that print article, and give you a bit more information. I am very excited and honored to be sharing my love of the organ with you, and I hope that you are inspired to jump in with both feet (or, if you don’t want to use your feet, just jump in anyway).
As a child I wanted to fly airplanes. (I also thought I wanted to jump out of them.) Then I discovered the organ and transferred my fascination with gadgets, knobs, buttons, lights, power, out-of-body excitement and massive sounds to a safer yet just as demanding career. As the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and as an organist, I’ve spent most of my life in churches. When I was ten years old the organist at my father’s church asked me to turn pages for her, knowing that I was taking piano lessons. Seeing my rapt attention, she offered to teach me for free (she was finishing an undergraduate degree in organ at Northern Illinois University and wanted a student…here’s a shout-out to Norma Washburn Kentner). Since then my love for the instrument and its repertoire has grown and deepened, and it is my hope to encourage others to discover for themselves what fun, satisfaction and downright excitement can be had by playing the organ. My focus is to help pianists who play in any church or synagogue where they are occasionally expected to play the organ and have not had any formal training on the instrument, pianists who have already taken some organ lessons and would like to find more resources, or anyone who has keyboard proficiency and would like to work on their service-playing and church-repertoire skills at the organ.
What’s stopping you?
Thinking back to my first organ lessons, I am remembering what was fascinating and what was intimidating. The array of pipes in varying shapes and materials in the chancel of my dad’s church was the first draw, even before I had seen a historic, large organ…also those wooden shades that opened and closed. Why did they do that? I wasn’t very attentive to my dad’s sermons (he knew that!) but instead was paying attention to the organ, the graded choirs, the choir directors and the organist.
What was intimidating to me was learning what the stop tabs were and how to use them, as well as what to do with my feet. I do remember that the first question I asked my teacher was how the pedals were arranged. It didn’t occur to me that they would be in the same order as the black and white keys of the piano—they were so big (to my ten-year-old eyes). I was afraid it was a completely different order of pitches. Believe me, I was very relieved.
Having a teacher meant that learning the stops and how to use them wasn’t an issue, because she drew them for me. Such help is not available to the pianist without a teacher who wants to experiment and play occasionally, and it’s the question most people ask me first. What do I do with the stops? So, is that what’s stopping you? If so, there’s a lot of help out there.
Thankfully, much newly-published organ music has registration suggestions for each piece, which is helpful. The names and spelling of the stops may vary from organ to organ, but one can google the stop name to look for alternatives, explanations and even sound examples. For example, flutes on the organ can be called Rohrflote, Harmonic Flute, Bourdon, Gedeckt, etc.
Where to look for help, both in print and online
GIA is publishing a book on the organ from past Quarterly issues, edited by Jennifer Kerr Budziak, available in the summer of 2019. The Organist’s Craft contains articles on organ-playing and registration from a variety of authors. There are also books and online articles on organ construction and registration available from a variety of sources.
Easily-accessed videos make such learning and knowledge accessible to those who have internet access. These two resources combined can empower a curious and dedicated person with the techniques necessary to develop their abilities at the organ.
The American Guild of Organists has a wealth of information online. Lessons for the New Organist can be found on their YouTube channel. There are thirty videos intended to assist pianists in learning to play the organ, starting from A Pianist’s First Steps in Transitioning to the Organ through the topics that concern all of us as organists, such as organ stops and design, technique, pedaling, and other subjects. The length of the videos ranges from less than five minutes to fifteen. Also at that site are many other videos of masterclasses and performances that the AGO has posted for all enthusiasts of the organ to view. Take a look!
In addition to the AGO videos, numerous instructional videos are available on YouTube, so start by searching for “organ registration.” Here’s one from Dublin, Ireland.
Most organists are delighted to give tours and basic information to anyone who expresses interest. Contact an organist nearby and ask for a tour or demo. Those of us who have spent our lives loving this instrument are happy to share our knowledge with you, and offer the occasional lesson if you want it, to help ensure that our craft continues into the future.
Two Spirituals for Keyboard (G-6239) arr. Richard Proulx.
These arrangements are moderately easy, and suitable for preludes or interludes. Here are my registration suggestions: In Christ There Is No East or West: Swell: Flute 8 and Gambe 8, Swell to Great; Great: Any of the 8’ principal, flute or string sounds combined, your preference.Begin on the Swell, at the “Slower,” take off the Flute and add the Celeste. At the mf take off the celeste, add any Principal or Flute sound on the Swell and move to the Great. Over My Head: Swell: Principal 8, 4, 2, Oboe 8’, Swell to Great; Great: Principal 8, 4, 2. Play the Forte sections on the Great, At the mp section, play on the Swell, using the Swell pedal to adjust the volume, and playing the mf phrases on the Great, first moving the left hand, later moving the right hand. Add the Mixture to the Great for the D.S. Experiment a little, and trust your judgment.
Available for free download from GIA is one of my favorite go-to pieces when I want something fun, flashy, and not too difficult. The Jig Fugue is a short piece (about four minutes) by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637/39-1707), a Danish-German organist of the Baroque period who was a strong influence on the young J.S. Bach. I use it most often as a postlude, or for a wedding postlude if the recessional isn’t long enough. I have done an arrangement of the fugue, which has minimal pedal (DOWNLOAD HERE), as well as for keyboard alone, which can be played convincingly either on an organ or a piano: (DOWNLOAD HERE). In a few weeks I will give some more extensive comments on how to learn, register and play the fugue, in hopes that you will enjoy playing it as much as I do.
Don’t let anything stop you!
Why Do We Sing?
By: Diana Kodner Gokce
Explore Sing Amen
Looking for more great resources, articles, podcast, and more throughout all Sing Amen blogs? Search through the site here.
Search By Category