The History of the Pipe Organ

Organ Pipes

The earliest known use of the term, organon, was used by Plato and Aristotle in the 4th century BC to denote a tool or 'instrument' in a more general sense. In Plato's Republic and in the works of later Greek writers, organon denotes any kind or all kinds of musical instruments. In the later periods of Latin, various terms gradually moved from the general sense used in Greek, to something more specific in which the context indicates there was some kind of a musical connection.

St. Augustine correctly explains the Vulgate Latin organum as derived from 'a Greek term': "Organum is a general name of all instruments of Musyk: and is nethelesse specially apropryte to the Instrument that is made of many pypes: and blowe with belowes."

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Greek and Roman Organs

The first pipe organs were conceived and built in Greece around 200 BC. There is no evidence of any kind to suggest that pipe organs were in existence before the Hellenistic period, or to have originated anywhere outside of Hellenistic influence. Later Greek authors claim that the organ was invented by one man, Ctesibius of Alexandria, a third century BC engineer. For him the organ served as a demonstration of the principles of hydraulics rather than as a musical instrument.

The principles of Ctesibius's design were described in two sources: Hero of Alexandria (1st century AD), and the Roman Vitruvius. The diagram above shows the general mechanics of this type of organ. A piston in a cylinder forces air into a pnigeus, a hemispherical chamber anchored at the bottom of a tall container of water. The air under pressure ("wind") forces the water out through openings at the bottom of the pnigeus. The hydraulic force kept the air at a consistent pressure.

When in the pnigeus, the wind is prevented from blowing up into the pipes by the second mechanism shown, a type of valve operated by a slider. When the slider is pulled, a strip is moved in between the wind chest and the base of the pipe. When a hole in the strip lines up the two, wind is allowed to move from the pnigeus into the pipe, thus creating sound.

Vitruvius describes how wind for the pipes was provided by two cylinders operating in alteration. Each row of pipes was described as having its own separate wind chest, with a valve which could be closed to cut off its wind. Hydraulic organs are described in Greek texts as having a strong sound with a high and constant wind pressure.

At first, the organ probably only served as a mechanical showcase of the powers of hydraulics, and perhaps a type of emergency signal. The earliest specific references to it being used as a musical instrument are found some 150 years after Ctesibius's time. An inscription from c. 90 BC tells of someone named Antipatros competing at Delphi on the hydraulic organ, playing for two days and 'covering himself in glory.'

A somewhat persistent element in the history of the organ is various puritan's criticism of it. Writers from Cicero to Milton saw it as a temptation away from virtue and reason. One of the causes of this was the use of the organ by the Romans at theaters, games, amphitheaters, and banquets. Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) named it as his favorite musical instrument. But by 400 AD the organ was used during weddings and the swearing-in of new consuls, elevating its aura and giving it a more honorable perception.

Classical Enginuity

Whatever their musical use, water organs had several expensive requirements: precision engineering, quality materials, and intricate designs. They were also difficult to maintain or to move from place to place. To simplify the design, bellows began to replace the piston, valves, and water cistern. References by Julian the Apostate (332 BC - 63 AD) may refer to a bag of bull-hide feeding the pipes. It appears that the bellows organ were known in the Byzantine Empire more so than in the western Roman Empire, where the hydraulic organ disappears with the civilizational decline of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Parts of two Roman organs are said to still exist, fragments from one in Pompeii (now in the Museo Nazionale, Naples), and more complete remnants of a small organ in Aquincum, Hungary (now in the Aquincum Museum, Budapest). The organ from Hungary has a plaque which reads 228 AD as its dedication. Reconstructed first in 1958, it has four rows with 13 bronze pipes each, one row open to wind at all times and the other three able to be shut off with stops. The wind chest is made of wood lined with bronze. The organ is small, 2ft high, 1ft-3in wide, and 10in deep. Wind was made using bellows and it likely had a wind pressure between 3in and 12in of water (0.1-0.4 psi).

The Byzantine Empire

At first, the organ was not used in Byzantine era churches. It remained in use for banquets, weddings, and and the courtly social activities of the capital. In the emperor's palace was the famous 'golden tree,' with moving and whistling birds activated by wind pressurized by water, and a total of 60 bronze pipes.

In 757, Emperor Constantine Copronymus sent an organ as a gift to Pepin, King of the Franks at Compiegne. Later it is noted that an organ was sent to Charlemagne in 812, with bronze pipes, 'bellows of bull leather,' and three specific sound effects: rumbling thunder, trembling of a lyre, and tinkling cymbala (likely small bells).

Western Europe

As previously stated, the Western Roman Empire lost its knowledge of the hydraulic organ during the civilizational decline of the fifth and sixth centuries. It seems that the revival of the organ in western Europe came from the Eastern Empire 400 years later during the ninth and tenth centuries.

It is not clear how the organ came to be a such a standard church instrument in western Europe starting around the year 900. A key to this puzzle no doubt lies in the development of the Benedictine order. New abbeys were cultural centers in and of themselves, and large churches gave the opportunity to advance music in general. Amongst all branches of Christianity at this time, the Benedictines were perhaps the only community to develop organs and polyphonic music, and to do so as a part of their church service.

The Benedictine Abbot Gerbert, Archbishop of Rheims (991-995) was said to have a hydraulic organ installed in the cathedral. Organs were objects of mechanical ingenuity, much like the elaborate clocks, for which cathedrals were becoming vital centers for.

A man named Theophilus, probably a German monk, describes the 10th century organ at Winchester. He spent a large portion of his life compiling a large encyclopedia describing techniques used for making church objects, including painted glass, glass blowing, forging, bell casting, and organ making.

Organ pipes are operated using sliders instead of keys. The wind chest was again made of wood and molded metal, and the entire oran could be placed with a wall, showing only the pipes to the church congregation. Wind was made using three bellows. Theophilus advised his reader to use a constant diameter for all pipes, with varying lengths. Getting any clear description of a pipe length used during these times is difficult. The craftsmen building organs were not overly dependent on written instructions. It is likely that the constant diameter of pipes only applies to a rank of pipes no longer than two octaves, or even one.

Medieval Church Organ

It was at this time that sliders were replaced with a keyboard, many times even more than one keyboard. The number of pipes used was greatly expanded, increasing the total available notes to around 40. The low pipes in the largest cathedral organs produced some of the lowest sounds ever created by man. Deep sounds were not characteristic of Medieval music. It seems reasonable to assume that the movement towards a bass dominated nature of western music from the sixteenth century onward could have sprung from the large organ pipes of the 14th and 15th century cathedrals.

The Development of Stops

It was during the late 15th century that the Blockwerk was divided into different sounds. Written contracts outlining the construction of organs specify the number of keyboards, pipes, and 'sounds,' that is, the number of pipes able to be activated by the pressing of one key.

The pressing of any one key opened wind to a row of pipes. Stops kept wind from operating all of the other pipes in the same row. By 1474, S. Petronio, Bologna, had a full scale 50 note organ with 9 stops. By the year 1500, the average organ in western Europe probably consisted of 10 separate stops.

At the Antwerp Cathedral in 1509, Hans Suys promised that the organ he built would have stops to provide, alone or in combination, the sounds of the flute, Waldhorn, Quintadena, trumpets, shawms, Zink (cornett), Rauschpfeife, and 'several other unusual stops.' Organ builders of this time likely held 'other unusual stops' to themselves to enhance their prestige and guard their trade secrets.

It was breaking tradition that in 1511 Arnolt Schlick wrote and published Spiegel der Orgelmacher, a book on the construction of organs. Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire requested that such a book be written to have as a standard code, equivalent to books such as hunting, falconry, and other types of specialized construction. The two ideal organs described in Spiegel contained 15 stops.

Schlick's book covers the entire field of organ activity: building, composing, and playing. He suggests that the organ should be constantly played, if only softly, throughout an entire church service.

Runaway Specialization

Advanced Organ Keys Sophisticated key actions

As time passed and organs became ever more elaborate and capable of producing more colors than ever before, organ characteristics began to develop for specific geographic regions. Differences arose for about every aspect of the organ imaginable, from the operation of keys and the number of keyboards, to the types of stops and how they were operated. Northern European organs had a higher volume of sound than Italian organs. Different types of wood locally available influenced the design of wind boxes. The types of organs built likely had at least some effect on the nature of the music composed locally.

By the middle of the 17th century, some standardization had developed in the form of the French Classical organ. This was true both of organ building and musical composition. It came as a result of nearly all of the organ builders in France living in Paris. The shear number of livres d'orgue (organ books) suggest a unified organ school existed in the metropolis. When a cathedral installed a new organ, the builder almost always was dispatched from Paris. This is the opposite of how most of the rest of Europe built organs, with noticeable differences in organ construction from region to region.

Development of the French Classical organ still progressed, that is, until the French Revolution in 1789. It was ripe for further development during the years when the sons of Clicquot (a prominent French organ builder) were enlisted in the army.

Organs After 1800

Fischingen Abbey organ Fischingen Abbey, Fischingen, Switzerland
photo credit: Fischingen Abbey

Europe experienced considerable political and social turmoil which finally began to settle down after 1820. This gave organ builders a moment to rethink and replan organ design and construction. There was an increase in demand, as some organs had been destroyed or damaged in the turmoil. At the same time, reformes in the various churches of Europe led to a simplification of church services, and thus a simplification of church organs. A new influence was 'congregational needs,' that is, an organ was thought to complement a congregation while singing church hymns. For this, only 8 stops was thought appropriate.

Another influence during the 19th century was the widely available assortment of printed music. This resulted in a dilution of regional styles. A vast amount of German music, much of it from Leipzig, was spread throughout Europe. The international revival of the music of J. S. Bach meant that organists in England, France, Spain, and Italy found their instruments to be inadequate. Thus imported music was responsible for persuading many organists to have their instruments rebuilt.

Modern Refinement

National Cathedral Organ Pipe Organ in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC
photo credit: American Guild of Organists

After the 19th century, the organ builder had a vast array of techniques to choose from. Even the least experienced builder had countless books and tools available to help with design and construction. Newly built railroads allowed musicians and builders alike to travel to and inspect any kind of organ they chose. Economic progress of the era brought tremendous amounts of material resources unheard of before. And the enormous amount of experience from building thousands of churches had yielded labor saving designs and techniques. The organ proliferated out from the grand cathedrals of the major cities and into every small town on the continent.

For an example of a truely modern organ you can research the one in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It has 186 ranks with a total of 10,647 pipes. The organ is operated by electronic keys linked to valves beneath the organ pipes and has about 200 stops.

Organ Pipes

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day by
  The Organ From its Invention in the Hellenistic Period to the end of the Thirteenth Century by

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The History of the Pipe Organ

  • Liz Pacini
    Very informative article. I love watching the lady play the organ at church and have always wondered what's under the hood.
  • Kim Clarkson
    A very interesting and informative article. I have often wondered what the stops were for. The history and description of operation answered many questions.Thankyou.
  • Wake
    Glad it could help Kim. There is certainly quite a bit going on inside of these beautiful machines.
  • John Brombaugh
    Very well thought out article. I ran a small organ shop for 40 years that built some major organs around the world - one in Toyota-shi Concert Hall with about 4000 pipes. I am now retired, but want to write a book to pass my thoughts on to future generations of organ builders. Could I borrow some of the historical information you put together as you have said so much with less words and really good. Thanks!
  • Wake
    Thanks for your kind words John. Yes please use whatever you feel would be useful, just reference this website as a source. The goal of this website is to simply pass on our history to future generations. So if I can help with your book at all please reach out to me. Use any of the images or references in this article if you think they would be useful.
  • Anonymous
    A most helpful article which has answered many questions

    The organ is fascinating and invaluable. It hasn’t yet replaced orchestras

  • Chris
    A very interesting article, but who squeezed the bellows? Was it done by boys and how many and would they have been building up the air pressure for a time before the organ was to be played?
  • Wake
    In all my research I found that a volunteer from the church would power the smaller organs. For larger organs someone was paid to pump the bellows. These larger ones would have 3 or more bellows.
  • Fenn Rau
    Liked it! Very useful
  • Ben in Seattle
    The article mentions that Roman and Byzantine organs were made of bronze (copper + tin) pipes, but there's nothing mentioned about modern organs. Are they made of brass (copper + zinc)?
  • Anonymous
    Thanks for this great article
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