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Economic and Social History Blog

36. The solitude of the organ (29-4-2020)

The solitude of the organ (29-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

The organ is a very special musical instrument, with a singular development path. As a kid and adolescent I played the organ for many years with only modest talent, but it was the instrument of choice in the protestant family I grew up in. It has an interesting ‘einzelgang’ as an instrument, which is embedded in economic, technological and musical developments over the centuries. The instrument was already born in classical antiquity. Its basic idea was to produce sounds via the blowing of air through a large number of pipes, each representing a separate tone, which could be regulated by a keyboard. One skilled operator, assisted by somebody who would keep the pressure of the air in the bellows at level, could produce complex music as well as a lot of noise. Circuses, where they could contribute to the drama, were the primary place where they were used in ancient times. In the Middle Ages the instrument – still relatively small – was (as many other things) christianized, a process that started when Pepin, the father of Charlemagne, in 757 received an organ from the Emperor of Byzantium. During the Middle Ages they grew in complexity and quality, but most of them remained of the relatively small size that can be seen on many late Medieval paintings – on one of the right panels of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Lam Gods) by Jan van Eyk for example. There it occupied its natural position in the centre of a group of singing angels (on one of the left panels).

At the same time, between about 1360 and 1520, the organ started to expand: voices were added to its repertoire (instead of the single voice of the simple organ on the Lam Gods), and to manipulate these voices, the ‘stop’ was invented, which made it possible to select one type of pipe with a certain sound (from loud trumpet to solid prestant) and ‘stop’ the others. The foot pedal was added, as were manuals, to add to the variety of music that could be played. The organ became a multidimensional instrument that could produce a large variety of notes over a vast range – a world in itself. This ‘sudden’ rise of the complexity of the instrument can perhaps be explained economically: the organ was a capital good that replaced labour (a full choir) in a period that capital was becoming increasingly cheap and labour – after 1348 – expensive. It required highly skilled labour – the trained organist – but skills were also becoming much cheaper in late Medieval Europe. There was also a technological dimension to this: the organ was one of the high-tech gadgets of the late Medieval period – together with clocks and carillons – that were linked to the big churches of the period, often symbols of pride of religious and civil (urban) authorities, and in a way anticipating, via complex mechanical innovation, the big engines of the Industrial Revolution (there is a brilliant book about one of the pioneers of this obsession with engineering of clocks in England, Richard of Wallingford, an abbot linked to St. Albans abbey, by John North, ‘God’s Clockmaker’). Precision manufacture of metals was key to the success of the new machines, which was based on the possibility to acquire high-quality steel, lead and copper (and timber) to make the pipes and the delicate parts that formed the complex machinery. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that this transition to the large-scale organ was pioneered in Germany (in upper Rhineland). This was one of the most innovative regions of the European economy at the time (the printing press was another famous innovation of the 15th century pioneered here), and still has this tradition of craft-driven ‘maakindustrie’ that other countries lack. Summing up, the big organ was not an isolated innovation but part of a much larger process in which Western Europe developed more capital and skill intensive machines, making use of sophisticated engineering, and driven, to some extent, by changes in relative factor costs.

By growing so big in scale and scope, the organ could no longer be accommodated on the ground floor of the church. It moved up, to the north or the south transept or, more often, above the front entrance, but at a distance from the main action in the choir. This move away from the choir – the eastern part of the church and the group of singers that were located there to accompany mass – had enormous consequences, however. In a way, it split the musical development of European music in two: out of the singing in the choir, supported by a small group of instrumentalists, developed – in a nutshell – the complex musical tradition of Europe, leading up to the symphony orchestra of the 19th  century. The organ became a separate world, albeit following the same musical fashions and innovations that occurred in the other arena, but the organ only rarely was the source of innovation itself. This was a slow process, and at times – in the music of Bach for example, who directed his small choir that was positioned on the balcony near the organ – the two seemed to coalesce again, but after the music went to the concert hall the organ disappeared from mainstream musical tradition. It became a separate subculture, appreciated by a small group consisting mainly of organists and former organists (in a way the nerds of traditional musical culture). Nobody did more for organ music than Bach, but even in the close community of Bach fans, the organ lovers are a separate, closed sub-group.

So this high tech product of the Late Middle Ages was and remained an instrument to support community singing, in particular in protestant services. Composers continued to compose specialized music for it, but the audience for this kind of music remained small. It followed a very different trajectory than its ‘brother’, the mechanical clock, which became increasingly popular, smaller, cheaper and accessible for a larger audience. The ways of the Lord are mysterious and seldom pleasant.

Continue reading: Simply the best (30-4-2020)


John North, God’s Clockmaker. Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time. Bloomsbury 2004.