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Why the pipe organ is the best instrument for liturgical music.

To really understand the pipe organ as an instrument, the best place to start is Genesis. In Genesis 1 God creates everything, each thing in relation to something else: day and night, land and sea, living things and their habitat, darkness and light, and finally nature and man. These relationships outlined so simply in Genesis are written into the natural law. As mankind advances in knowledge of God's creation through science we have come to understand that certain kinds of relationships are observable and universal. The human mind is able to perceive and express through art and science the Divine truths of our relationships. These truths are real. We see with wonder and amazement our ancestors, who without any modern tools were able to perceive through reason alone these truths, these Divine relationships, and use them to create inspiring works of beauty which by stimulating the senses inspire the soul to seek God.

The pipe organ began as a simple whistle of hollowed reeds, which developed into the pan pipe, culminating in the modern organ, one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity and skill. The pan pipe, or syrinx, is an ancient instrument; it was mentioned in Homer's Iliad and was known in ancient Egypt. The bellows was also known to the ancient Greeks and to Homer, Aristophanes, and Plato. The Roman historian Vitruvius recounts that "the organ was well-adapted to gratify the Roman people in the splendid entertainment provided for them by the emperors and other opulent persons." There is even a coin surviving in the British museum from the period of Emperor Nero that shows an organ. St. Augustine, writing in the fourth century, in his commentary on Psalm 66 alludes to the organ: "All instruments of music are designated by the word organs. The time is not confined to the instrument of large dimensions in which the air is furnished by bellows, but is employed to indicate any instrument on which the musician performs."

Originally the organ was used exclusively in places of amusement and was associated with secular entertainment. During this period, St. Ambrose of Milan was one of the first bishops to encourage the use of instrumental music for the Mass. There is evidence that the organ was first used in public worship in Spain in the fifth century, and Platina in his work Lives of the Popes says that its first liturgical use was at the instigation of Pope Vitalianus during the seventh century in the Church of Rome. Peppin, a king of the Franks who was eager to establish Roman practice in France, asked the byzantine Emperor Constantius V for an organ fit for the service of the Church. Constantius V sent a special delegation with a "great organ with leaden pipes." It was installed with great pomp in the church of St. Corneille at Compiegne.

Charlemagne in the ninth century had an organ constructed for his church at Aix-la-Chapelle modeled after the instrument built by his father for Compiegne, but even grander. These commissions by Peppin and Charlemagne resulted in an organ building industry in France, Germany, and to a lesser extent England. Here, through the patronage of the Church, in this art as in all the arts, we see the beginning of the three great schools of organ building that are still with us today: the baroque, the English, and the French.

Notwithstanding the technological advances made in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, not much is known about the structure of organs other than that they were quite small compared to the instrument we know today. Builders faced challenges that prevented organs from becoming an integral part of worship: clumsy and heavy keys, and an inconsistent air supply to produce the notes. There was no concept of musical instruments being of a consistent temperament or note progression relative to one another, meaning that each organ was distinct in sound and construction. In the fourteenth century many improvements were made as organs began to appear in monasteries. Keys became smaller and more neatly arranged, and the compass or range of keys increased to several octaves and keys could now be activated with the fingers rather than the fists. Monastic organs played the melody of the plainchant with the voices of the choir.

Often more than one organ was used, and there is a reference to the cathedral in Durham, England, which had seven organs. In the fifteenth century, organs appeared that had multiple windchests (the boxes on which the pipes sit and which deliver the wind to them when the keys are pressed). As the number and size of the pipes increased, we see concomitant developments in pedals and the ability to "stop "a particular set of pipes from sounding. This is the origin of the idiom "pulling out all the stops." In the days before electricity and modern hydraulics, the wind for organs came from bellows which were pumped by as many as seventy men. The more pipes which were unstopped, the harder the men had to work to produce enough wind to keep the sound of the organ in tune. Many stories in organ lore tell of organists purposely playing with all the stops out to take revenge on bellows men they had a grudge against--anyone who has had to direct a misbehaving choir can empathise.

By the sixteenth century onwards the organ as we know it today existed in all its parts and components. Advances in technology enabled a more stable wind supply, more pipes, and a standardised keyboard action enabling finer control and precision on the part of the organist. With electric power, the organ underwent its most significant change in 1,000 years. The organist no longer had to be located immediately adjacent to the pipes and the organ itself. The difference between organs called mechanical and electric or electro-pneumatic is essentially in the ways the keys and the stops are connected to the pipes. In a mechanical organ the keys and stops activate the pipes by a system of rods and levers that physically connect the keys to the pipes. In the electric or electro-pneumatic organ, each key and stop is an electric switch, which when pressed sends a signal over electric wires to magnets that activate stops and open or close the valves underneath the pipes. Electric pipe organs should not be confused with organs that have no pipes, and which produce sound by electronic means using speakers. These inexpensive substitutes lack the richness of sound of a real organ.


In the early Church there was great debate concerning the appropriateness of instrumental music for the worship of God. This was due to an association of musical instruments with pagan worship and the debauched social activities of the Roman and Greek society. St. John Chrysostom, who so profoundly influenced the worship of the eastern rites, argued against the use of any instruments, particularly what they knew at the time as the organ. The historian Eusebius associated the use of instruments with cults and declared the use of instruments unacceptable.

Later, St. Augustine described the singing at Alexandria under Athanasius and observed that "the piping organ, tabret, and harp are here associated so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theatre and circus, that it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship." Nevertheless, Augustine defended the use of instruments in church, saying in his Confessions that "as the music flowed into my ears, the truth was poured into my heart." The gist of Augustine's scruple was the ultimate purpose of instrumental music in the liturgy. If the goal of using instruments to enhance singing to bring us to the Truth of what the Liturgy is given to us to express, Augustine would find it good. His worry was with how easily music can become meaningless, a transitory emotional stimulation if the natural law and proportions that serve beauty are not respected. That is, we must maintain a proper relationship with music so that it elevates our minds to higher things, increasing the fervency of prayer rather than merely soothing or exciting us.

When Pope Gregory in the early Middle Ages introduced what is now known as Gregorian chant, it seemed that in the Western Church as in the East there was no place for instrumental music. Just simple melody was sung by the priests and monks in choir. The appearance of an organ at Compiegne firmly established the use of organs in the Western Church in spite of stiff opposition from monks who preferred the simple beauty of Gregorian chant.

Can instrumental music be as beautiful as that of the human voice? Can it, as Augustine says, elevate the mind to divine things? The ability to do so is an essential characteristic of beauty. The relationships that God has written into nature, waiting to be discovered by man through His inspiration continue to manifest themselves. The reason the organ is beautiful is precisely because it not only respects, but embodies the right relationship which we are to have to the created order. The organ has come to embody the best of what we have discovered about the world that God has created for us. It is a perfect analogy to the human body, a physical creation of God: the bellows or blower is like a diaphragm pushing the air into the reservoir, or lungs. The action, the keys and the stops, activated with skill is like the mind which can create both beautiful and ugly thoughts and sounds if not used and controlled properly. The individual pipes are like our individual voices, and the sounds they produce almost as individual as each one of us. The harmonious whole requires that each individual sound remain intact; the community of sounds requires each distinct note, a musical representation of the Church herself.

Joseph DeCaria is a lifelong student of the aesthetic of beauty, principally as expressed in the Sacred Liturgy and in Sacred Music, which he believes is essential to a proper Christian anthropology.
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Author:Decaria, Joseph
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2014
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