The organ itself
An organ is a pressurized wind instrument that really can produce any frequency, it is even possible that on some organs there are stops that are not even audible but contribute to the final sound. These organ stops can be very high or very low (1′ or 64′ (128′)).
Distribution of the pipes inside the organ and their categories
In most organs, the pipes are arranged to be evenly spaced. Per octave, there are six pipes on the left and six pipes on the right. In most cases, you also have pedal towers that are evenly divided into ranks.
Organ pipes fall into five broad categories
- Principal stops are non-imitative; that is, their sound does not attempt to imitate that of a particular instrument. The Principal sound is the most characteristic sound of the pipe organ; it is the sound that comes to mind in the context of traditional church music (such as hymns).
- Flute stops attempt to imitate (to one degree or another) the sound of flute-class woodwind instruments, such as the transverse flute and piccolo.
- String stops attempt to imitate (to one degree or another) the sound of stringed instruments, such as the violin and cello.
- Reed stops attempt to imitate(to one degree or another) the sound of brass, instruments such as the trumpet and tuba, reed instruments such as the clarinet and oboe, and even the human voice. Reed stops will give the organ extra power. Even in the pedals, you can find reedstops. Note: hybrid stops contain one rank of pipes that attempts to combine the tone qualities of two other classifications of stops, such as Principal + String, String + Flute, or Principal + Flute.
- Percussion stops (often referred to a”toy counters” or “toy stops”), unlike other organ stops, are notaerophones, but actual embedded percussion instruments (although they may still be actuated by the wind supplies of an organ). Both tuned and untuned percussion stops exist (for instance, marimba and snare drum, respectively). They are commonly designed to imitate orchestral or band instruments, or to imitate non-musical sounds (for instance, thunder), or to produce unique sounds (for instance, zimbelstern). Percussion stops are particularly common in theatre organs, which were generally made to accompany silent films.
Composing for a pipe organ
When you start composing for organ you have to deal with a number of characteristics. One of those characteristics is the acoustics of a room. Always pay attention to the acoustics by means of the clap method. By clapping a few times you know how long the reverberation lasts in a room, hall, auditorium, or church. In most rooms where the acoustics last longer than five seconds, you have to cut a fraction of the actual length everywhere. Especially with the use of accents.
Because most spaces have a long acoustic reverb, it is wise to change the length values of the notes. Otherwise, it will sound like knitting with too many colors. Articulating on an organ is therefore the most important aspect of the entire game. When it comes to pedaling, you have to master a good legato technique. Applying legato at the right moments while playing the hands accentuated gives a wonderful effect for which the organ is intended.
What is a toccata and what is a fugue?
A toccata is a fairly fast piece that often serves as a prelude to the fugue. In addition to the swift and fast playing that clearly emerges here, the toccata can already contain elements that will soon form the main motif of the fugue. A toccata does not necessarily have to contain the motif of the fugue, it can also be a fairly musical piece and that is actually called a fantasia within the organ world. A contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts is called a fugue.
For those who don’t know what counterpoint is, it’s an important part of understanding the organ. A counterpoint is something that contrasts. In music, counterpoint is when two separate melodies are played or sung at the same time.
In general, a fugue has two to five voices (melody lines), but in large choral or orchestral fugues, as many as eight to ten voices are possible. Fewer than three voices are very rare because, in the case of two voices, the so-called subject can only switch between the first and second voices.
The best-known example of such a two-part fugue is the fugue in E minor from Bach’s Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Pieces that use related fugal techniques are also called fughetta or inventions. One-part fugues are of course impossible. It is possible, however, to suggest polyphony, as is done by Bach in his sonatas and partitas for violin and cello solo. In the first movement of the fifth suite for solo cello, Bach writes a suggestion of a polyphonic fugue.
Following Bach, many composers used fugues in their compositions. The finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, KV 551 (“Jupiter Symphony”) is a good example. Other composers who regularly composed fugues are Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner. The finale of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, WAB 105 (“Fantastic”) in particular is regarded as one of the most complex fugues in music literature.
Much more is of course possible on the organ, including music from the avant-garde, but the instrument has also been given an important place in film music. One of the most controversial organ pieces out there is that of John Cage.
Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible) is a musical piece and the subject of one of the longest-lasting musical performances yet undertaken. It was originally written in 1987 for organ and is adapted from the earlier work ASLSP 1985; a typical performance of the piano version lasts 20 to 70 minutes. In 1985, Cage opted to omit the detail of exactly how slowly the piece should be played. The performance of the organ version at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640. The next note is played on February 5, 2022.
In addition to the composition techniques that are available for the organ, it is very important to work with tempo. In addition to placing accents by subtracting length values from notes, you slow down the tempo at certain moments. (These are very small fluctuations not to be confused with a fermata.) These tempo changes often occur in the first beat of the measure and on a second beat in the measure. It also occurs with irregularly composed time signatures. A very good example is Caesar Frank’s Prelude, Fugue, and Variations for his good friend Camille Saint Saens. The first beat of every measure should be played like breading.
As you can clearly see in the tempo list, there are deductions on the pulses of every musical phrase. It’s also important that if you’re writing organ music with a daw, make sure it doesn’t get too static and keep small variations in tempo throughout.
Finally, here is a list of famous organ composers and their most well-known works. You can learn a lot by listening to every style period there has been for organ. The organ is one of the richest instruments there is, if not one of the most expensive. Several composers have crowned the organ king of instruments.
- J.S. Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
- Eugene Gigout, Toccata in B minor
- Charles Marie Widor, Symphonie Romane
- Caesar Frack, Prelude Fugue and Variations
- George Friedrich Handel organ concertos
- Léon Boëllmann, Suite Gotique Toccata in C minor
- Félix Guilmant, Sonata No. 1, Finale
You’re now a bit more familiar with the basic principles of the organ. And, to conclude, remember this short statement about the use of stops: less is more!
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