Expression and the Organ

Stephen Bicknell

"The monster never breathes!"

Berlioz's anguished cry of despair at the inadequacy of the organ echoes down the ages and stands as a permanent rebuke to those of us foolish enough to absorb ourselves in working alongside this most unforgiving and unexpressive musical instrument.

Or could he have been wrong?

The problem of whether or not the organ is an expressive instrument is one that puzzles me continuously, not least because it is a subject on which almost everyone holds a decided opinion. An extreme neo-classicist might hold one rather determined view: that the organ is not expressive and nor should it be; that registrations are to be set in advance and left well alone; that rubato and phrasing are romantic indulgences and should be replaced by varieties of attack and release; that emotion is undesirable but articulation is an end in itself. On the other hand another kind of organist believes that there is an answer to artistic expression in organ playing: for him it lies in the confident and stylish manipulation of colour. For him, playing the notes is a technical skill that can be mastered through study and practice, but artistry is defined by the management of the swell pedals, the control of the stops via buttons between the keys, and the setting up of the memories for the combination action and sequencer.

My description of these polarised views is a caricature, but readers will grasp my point.

The alleged problem of the organ - its apparent lack of expression - was remarked on long before the romantic or orchestral ways of playing took hold. The English organ builder Renatus Harris, who seems to have been one of those involved in the development of early swell mechanisms, proposed in 1712 a new west end organ for St. Paul's Cathedral. Its sixth (sic!) manual was to be "adapted for the emitting of Sounds to express Passion by swelling any Note, as if inspir'd by Human Breath; which is the greatest Improvement an Organ is capable of, except it had Articulation. On this set of Keys, the Notes will be loud or soft, by swelling on a long Note or Shake, at the Organist's Pleasure. Sounds will come surprizing and harmoniously, as from the Clouds, or distant Parts, pass, and return again, as quick or slow as Fancy can suggest; and be in Tune in all degrees of Loudness & Softness." [Renatus Harris, pamphlet of c1712, sole copy in library of St. Paul's Cathedral, reprinted in The Spectator for 3rd December 1712]

A generation later a prominent London organist and composer returned to the same theme in the introduction to his twenty-four 'Select Pieces for the Organ' explaining that in writing for the organ

"... the most artful parts of Composition should be employed, especially when it is considered that we have no Articulation, as in Choral Music, to mark and give strength to the subjects; nor the assistance of different species of Voices, to distinguish them in their places of Acute and Grave; and, above all, that we are destitute of Poetical Sentiment, which stamps a character so truly animating on the subjects of the Chorus." [John Keeble, introduction to the first set of 'Select Pieces for the Organ', London 1778]

It is in this period that we see the first evidence of mechanical expression appear in the scores of organ music. Once the Swell Organ had made its first appearance at St. Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, in 1712, it became an essential part of every new organ and rebuild thereafter. By 1752, the hairpin marks for crescendo and diminuendo could be found in organ music for the first time. [William Walond, Six Voluntaries Opus 1, London 1752]. Thereafter they disappear again, later composers (such as Keeble himself) being content to indicate 'Swell' in the rubric and leave expression to the performer.

This is an interesting place and period to enquire after expression in organ playing because the English organ of the eighteenth century (a modest instrument usually of three manuals but with no pedals) was heard in church, in concerts and in wealthy houses as a solo or concert instrument, and its reputation in the British Isles was on terms that the harpsichord enjoyed elsewhere. In its typical setting - a parish church built new in the classical style or the assembly rooms of a large provincial city - an organ be heard clearly and without the disguise of a generous acoustic. Every detail that a good player could bring to bear on his interpretation, either in the performance of composed music or in the ever-popular improvised 'voluntaries', would be conveyed with the utmost clarity to the listeners.

And, if we explore this period in detail, it suddenly becomes clear that expression is readily evident in the text of organ music long before the introduction of the swell box. Take the organ pieces of Purcell's teacher, John Blow, which survive in a handful of manuscripts. Blow and his contemporaries were influenced from several directions: by the locally composed fantasias for viol consort (the main means of hearing serious compositions during the Civil War), by new French styles which came into fashion with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1661, and perhaps most importantly of all by the circulation and copying of music by the masters of the age. In this later category two names stand out as being known to most keyboard players in England and found repeatedly in collections and manuscripts of the late 17th century - Frescobaldi and Froberger. Froberger is supposed to have visited London, where he was kicked out of the loft at the Queen's Private Chapel by Matthew Locke for not remembering to pump the organ, and where at some point Blow wrote out his own copy of some of Froberger's pieces, adorned with a characteristic flurry of English-style shakes, beats, forefalls, backfalls and other ornaments.

Two things emerge from an acquaintance with the activities of the great Dr. Blow.

First, his own organ music repeatedly demonstrates an ability to generate changes in mood during the course of a piece by changes in the texture. In Blow's counterpoint voice-leading is informal; parts appear and disappear as required and formal consistency is not the aim. But when Blow decides he wishes to convey a sense of crescendo or build towards a florid climax, he does so with effortless panache. A piece that starts with solemn imitation will gradually add rhythmic and harmonic intensity, gain additional subsidiary themes, and then finally break out into an exuberant display of florid passage work. There are other composers of the period who can do the same kind of thing; Blow is not unique in this ability: but his swings of tempo and mood are engineered simply, effectively, very smoothly, and are readily apparent to the player and listener as being part of the construction of the music.

Secondly, in leaving us his own private performing edition of keyboard music by Froberger, Blow may be indicating a set of truths about performance in his time that may (even after two generations of early music revival) not yet be fully appreciated. By adding his own set of ornaments, Blow indicates that we may play the music of one performer in the style of another. And, by suggesting this immense degree of potential freedom, he invites us to ask ourselves again what made Froberger himself such a very famous performer, and what 'secret' he might have applied to the performance of his own works that would have made his rather austere counterpoint come fully to life and amaze his listeners. Froberger himself is supposed to have said to an enquirer, who asked 'how' his pieces should be played, that the method could not possibly be described, but given a lifetime of study it could, perhaps, be demonstrated.

My own personal - and purely imaginary view - is that a first class keyboard player like Froberger, who had absorbed in a short life of intense travel the traditions and compositions of Germany, Italy, France and England and who had sat with Samuel Scheidt, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Louis Couperin and Matthew Locke, would have been fully aware of any number of different ways of playing, some of them as far removed from the written notation as jazz, gospel, ragtime - or indeed French Classical.

Modern interpreters, particularly organists, are inclined to view the ornaments and inégalités suggested by the old French tutors as a prescription by means of which a 'correct' way of performing can be followed. That was absolutely not the intention of the authors. They sought to explain that all good performance, especially on the keyboard - where there is neither breathing nor tonguing nor bowing nor dynamic change to enliven the notes - depends on the extensive development of a sense of style, and that this could most readily be achieved by the addition of ornaments and by the subtle alteration of written note values. The various indications they give of how these note values may be altered are suggestions for the learner. We should not regard them as a fixed rubric, but rather as a rough indication of the kinds of methods that may be applied, in their full variety, in performances of different kinds.

Returning to the organ music of Blow, we can see how the various manuscripts, some in different hands, indicate variation in ornamentation and in rhythmic interpretation. Where the same piece exists in two or three different manuscripts, the differences from one 'performance' to another can be substantial. And who knows to what extent the manuscripts actually reflect the full working out in practice of the basic musical notation. Take, for example, the very well known 'voluntary' in G by Blow's pupil Purcell [Z720]: could the ornamentation and passagework that adorn the slow shifting of bars 3-5 not also be applied freely by the player to the relatively blank bars 12-22? Surely the ornaments in the manuscript are not a prescription, but a series of approximate indications: the performer who used this copy would have noted the things he needed to remember, but would have left unmarked those passages where the treatment was, to him, completely obvious.

The more I explore organ music from the age before 'expression' was part of the mechanism of the instrument, the more I realise that expression by extensive rhythmic variation was not present only in the codified and formal suggestions of the French masters, but is widely implied in the manuscripts and publications of many composers from many places and periods.

Bach may be adept at notating various different styles of keyboard playing through precision in notation, for example taking the trouble to write out a fully ornamented Italian-style slow movement in his 'Italian Concerto' - but might another way of publishing the same movement not have been to present the performer simply with a row of chords?

In London, the keyboard composers struggled variously with similar problems. We know that there was a local school of improvisation on the organ, but what form might it have taken? Surely, when James Nares writes out his extraordinary florid 'Introduction' in A minor to his Fugue no.5 [James Nares: Six Fugues with Introductory Voluntaries, London 1772] he is demonstrating what might be normal. Surely, when Keeble writes an introduction to Select Piece no XIX [London 1780] with no key signature, three tempi and two time signatures, he is presenting us with something relatively commonplace, however surprising it may appear at first glance. And Arne, most usefully of all, prefaces the Prelude to his Sonata III for harpsichord with the following revealing remark:

"In this and other preludes, which are meant as Extempore touches before the Lesson begins, neither the Composer nor Perfomer are oblig'd to a strictness of Time" [Thomas Arne, 'VIII Sonatas or Lessons for the Harpsichord' London 1756]

Today's performers on the organ have become utterly hidebound by an imagined need to maintain 'strictness of time' in much pre-romantic music. The notion of the pulse or 'tactus' has been allowed to obscure and reduce the other evidence. The longing to move away from the long sweeping rubati of nineteenth century romanticism has led to the annihilation of rhythmic expression in the playing of earlier repertoire - and occasionally all repertoire. The score and its notation is the Holy Grail. If a note is shown with a single dot, then that is how it shall be played, unless a specific reference to a specific relevant contemporary source suggests that the note value be altered by a specific amount. This is not perfomance, it is arid sterility, to which no good musician of any age has subscribed.

Much early organ music remains under a cloud. When I told one fine organist friend that I was becoming interested in the music of Froberger, he retorted "but it's all sooooo boring!" ... and returned to his Hollins and Lemare and to Best's arrangements of Handel. (I would have treated his comment with more charity if his favourites had been Franck and Brahms) I have to admit that in most performances the toccatas, canzonas and ricercars of Froberger are, indeed, boring. Need it really be so? Sometimes I wonder if there are any modern 'performers' of these works: it seems they are still merely being 'played'. Listening to Gustav Leonhardt one has an impression of what may one day happen to interpretations of some of the early masters: his extraordinarily buoyant and imaginative renderings of later French harpsichord music are a clue, and I have twice heard him visit London and give a breath-taking account of one of Blow's finer organ pieces, almost a reprimand to the local organists who do not play them at all.

If this disease is identifiable and can be said to have afflicted especially the performance of early keyboard music, then I do also want to point out that a similar dark cloud has fallen over the performance of later and much more familiar repertoire. For those who enjoy music of the nineteenth century - and I am quite happy to enjoy Mendelssohn, Franck, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt quite as much as I enjoy Froberger, Couperin and Bach - the question of expression in playing is every bit as lively and interesting. Surely, from the point of view of the organist, we now enter a period where varied and stimulating changes in colour are possible, where the vision of the organ imitating the orchestra comes into play: surely expression can be handled in the later repertoire through registration and dynamics? It must be remembered, however, that one system of 'expression' was not exchanged for another, however much the new system might have dominated or obscured the old.

One cannot deny the importance of new organ technologies in lending special character to individual works. Some effects are simple to the point of naivety, such as the clankingly obvious stop-change under a single held note in Franck's third Choral. Others present the player with quasi-orchestral demands far beyond the mechanisms available at the time, as in the Elgar Sonata (which Elgar surely wrote as a symphonic exercise, even if he contented himself the organist's four limbs). Other works, such as the Schumann Sketches and Canons, may simply ask questions without offering straight answers.

In all these pieces and many others it may be possible for the player to make his performance expressive by changing the stops or using the swell pedals, But that is not the only means by which organ music is made expressive, and organists are in grave peril if they believe that a truly expressive musical performance can be achieved without the primary attention being focussed on the notes and their timing.

If we look at piano music, it is at once apparent that no matter how much the action of the modern piano developed, and its ability for dynamic control increased, rhythmic nuance was still the cornerstone of effective interpretation and expression for the Romantic age and can clearly be shown to be vital to many important works.

Let us start with an experiment, taking the unusually simple and static three Gnossiennes of Erik Satie as a test. Written in 1890, each of these similar short piano pieces is printed without bar lines, but with a clearly defined metrical pattern identified by a bass line of whole notes enlivened by left hand chords on the second and fourth beats of the imaginary 'bar'. Over this ostinato, whose pattern is identical in all three pieces, the right hand plays mournful and repetitive quasi-modal melodies. There is no development whatever. The normal romantic structures of form and dynamic interest have been deleted entirely, leaving a deliberately monotonous 'moto perpetuo' that sounds as though it might have started long before we first arrived and may still be continuing in a locked corner of a Parisian garret to this day. The only clues to interpretation are a handful of dynamic markings and some sublimely inconsequential instructions to the player: 'avec etonnement' (with astonishment), 'très perdu' (very lost), 'munissez-vous de clairvoyance' (arm yourself with clairvoyance).

And yet these strangely static and minimalist works have a resounding emotional impact and are among a handful of little pieces that seem somehow to be known to the man on the street (along with the yet more hackneyed Gymnopédies). Getting that impact across as a performer requires that you work in opposition to the rhythmic notation, applying not only everything a romantic teacher could tell you about phrasing, rubato, dynamics and shading, but also introducing a degree of variety of utterance in each repetition of the dull little melody - a species of variety that would surely have been recognisable to a clavéciniste a century and a half before.

In the first Gnossienne, the three melodies are repeated four times each. It could be a profoundly wearing experience. But a sensitive player will make each recurrence of the plaintive theme different from the one before, as if responding to the childish instructions in the rubric (one time 'astonished', then later 'clairvoyant'). Some of these alterations will adjust the phrasing through dynamics and accent, devices possible on the piano but not on the unexpressive organ. But the most telling of the alterations will be achieved through changes in rhythm, the still-common thread of expression on any keyboard instrument.

Other 'moto perpetuo' pieces can be used to make the same point. The extremely sea-sick-making 'Barcarolle' of Alkan [Trente Chants Op.65 No.6, 1861] has an ostinato bass of sixteenth-note waves in 6/8 time. The ambiguous harmonies are relieved and marked out with conventional marks of phrasing and accent and these give most of the clues to interpretation. But, being a Barcarolle, there is also a subsidiary rhythmic accent on the second and fifth beats of the bar. It is almost impossible to play the piece without an occasional rhythmic lingering on these off-beats and, as you get to know the work and play it often, so the degree of rhythmic variety you can subtly insert into this pattern gives an emotional intensity entirely missing in a composition lacking significant development or narrative thread.

Going back a little further into the nineteenth century, I think one can see the same fundamental need to be alert to constantly shifting patterns of rhythmic nuance in the more colourful (and therefore more typical of their period) Schubert Impromptus [first set Op.90 (D899) publ 1827]. These works belong to the period of the early romantic piano, an instrument capable of infinite dynamic shading and much in the way of singing beauty, but entirely lacking the thickness of tone and fantastic range of power that became available by 1870. Schubert uses the then modern instrument to its full potential, but at the same time he subdivides his music in order to allow major changes in dynamics and colour - the 'registration' as we organists would say - to have its proper rhetorical effect. However, in addition to these and many other conventional techniques, he leaves us with some wonderfully powerful indications of how important the interpretation of rhythmic patterns can be to the successful performance of apparently simple music.

For example, the theme of the first impromptu opens with a dotted pair of notes. During the remainder of the piece this pattern is developed extensively, sometimes through direct means, and sometimes transformed slightly by being set alongside patterns of triplets. At every reiteration the context, texture and rhythmic emphasis of the theme is altered slightly. Sometimes the gestures by which Schubert affects the change are incredibly subtle, an additional note here or a tiny slur there. One has to be alert for each and every detail. Less good players of this first Impromptu get bogged down in trying to decide how to treat the apparent ambiguity. Given that Schubert shifts into triplets in the middle of the piece, does that mean that he requires the dotted figure to be played in triplet rhythm throughout?

Of course not. The full expression locked up in this wonderful work can only be fully explored by varying the rhythm of the principal theme according to its position and context. Sometimes the triplet rhythm is obvious enough; at other times a four-square dotted rhythm is called for; sometimes one might want to land in between, leaving the result full of poetic ambiguity; on other occasions one might want to slip into the area between dotting and double-dotting, just for a special effect. Once it is fully understood that this tiny two-note figure and its rhythm are the germ to an understanding of how to express the entire piece, it then becomes far easier to marshal the conventional forces of rubato and rhythmic phrasing to enliven the entire work and to give it the sense of narrative without which the rhetoric of development will lie unnoticed.

How are these techniques applied when playing the organ?

The first piece I learned to play on the organ is one familiar to most organists, the Berceuse by Vierne [24 Pièces en Style Libre, No.19]. In performance, the expressive object of the piece is not actually to make the listener fall asleep, but to convey an atmosphere of gently child-like 'sleepy-time'. The theme is developed via a series of dream-like enharmonic shifts. There is registration indicated in the score, but changes need to be effected with subtlety if the piece is to hang together. On most English and American romantic organs the instruction to use the 'G.' or Great Organ will be ignored, and much of the activity will take place on the Swell and Choir organs. The phrasing is marked, mostly dividing the music into two-bar sections - simple enough.

But, as my organ teacher pointed out to me, the phrasing does actually have to be observed if the piece is to live, and in order to make the phrases apparent the fingers have to be lifted from the keys to give a tiny breath between one phrase and the next. In order to make that breath, extra time has to be put in, for neither the last note of the preceding phrase nor the first note of the following phrase will survive being shortened. Thus the tempo becomes fluid and irregular. It takes only a moment to realise that each two-bar unit subdivides further into subsidiary 'phraselets' of one bar, where another tiny hiccup may appear and that, one layer even further down, the patterns of eighth-notes in the melody are so very pretty if they are played in accented pairs.

Inégalité never died.

Before neo-classicism took organ playing in its icy grip, one could still hear occasional masterful performances of the old school. I have one such, an old LP of René Saorgin playing the Franck Pièce Héroique on the organ at St. Sernin, Toulouse sometime in the 1960s (the disc was issued in 1968). You know from the very start that Saorgin has expression under his belt, for the first of the opening chords in the right hand is delivered with weight, and then there is a tiny accelerando to bring the listener up to speed and into rhythm before the irregular theme appears in the bass. The rest of the account is equally compelling, right down to the long sequence of final chords - usually crashingly dull - where Saorgin actually manages to build tension through the inauspicious final passage by deleting tiny amounts out of each of the long rests.

There have always been one or two players who seem to have grasped this kind of elegant musical expression as if by instinct. Another favourite LP of mine is a rare old recording of the least altered of all the remaining organs by Father Willis, at St. Dominic's Priory, Haverstock Hill in north London. The performances date from August 1978, and include renderings of Schumann's four sketches, opus 58. The sleeve notes correctly observe that the pieces were composed in Dresden in 1846, when Schumann was fascinated with the music of Bach and the possibilities of counterpoint. The organ, which I know well, is nearly a semitone sharp, has Barker Lever action to the Great, pneumatic to the Pedal and is otherwise all-mechanical. Though there are composition pedals and a Great to Pedal reverser, there are no pistons. There is a balanced Swell-pedal - a later addition - but perversely the only undulating strings are on the unenclosed Choir Organ.

With resources that some modern perfomers might find Spartan, the performer on this record of 1978 brings Schumann's world to life with imagination and skill. The registrations are immutable. There are manual changes, but the stops hardly alter. Use of the Swell box is not especially noticeable. Yet the music lives. This is partly owing to the quality of the organ - one of those instruments where the voicing itself holds a quantity of musical expression, partly to the very generous acoustic, but mainly to the good sense and judgement of the organist who is content to leave the organ and music to speak with clarity, beauty and expression.

The player on this disc is that much admired artist, Thomas Murray, and the LP appeared shortly after his famous recordings of the 19th century organs of Boston.

I have heard other performances of the Schumann sketches, and I possess one newish CD where the player seems to agree with a recent internet correspondent who stated firmly that the proper way to interpret Schumann's pieces on the organ was to start by looking at his orchestral works. In other words, to 'interpret' this music the player must find on the organ the same variety of colour and dynamics as can be enjoyed when listening to an orchestra. On this CD, the organ is very much up to this ambitious task. It has multiple enclosures, multiple célestes, multiple orchestral flutes and reeds, multiple pistons, multiple memory levels - the works. And it is a good instrument, conscientiously made and beautifully voiced. The player is on virtuosic form, and grasps the 'problem' of expression with undisguised enthusiasm. The accessories are worked until they smoke.

The player on this disc is that much admired artist, Thomas Murray, and the CD is that recorded in 1999 on the Schoenstein organ at Lincoln Nebraska.

What Tom Murray does with the Schumann is immensely impressive and immensely enjoyable. His console technique is simply fantastic, and his talents for colouring and shading are displayed to the maximum.

If you want to hear Tom Murray, then the second recording is the better. But if you want to hear Schumann, then the first is the better. It boils down to a question of taste I suppose, which version you enjoy most, but where I take issue with the second recording is that it sets out to be 'expressive' - and I think it fails - and it sets out to reveal the 'fabric of the music itself, rather than a historic mode of playing' - in which it is muddle-headed.

The second point is easy to dismiss. Murray's sleeve note shows that he has fallen into the common solecism of assuming that all romantic art expresses the same degree of romanticism, that Schumann is every bit as much a romantic as Rachmaninoff, that early romantic may be interpreted with exactly the same freedom as one would apply to late romantic. Far from revealing the 'fabric of the music itself', this account goes to great lengths to overlay a foreign aesthetic, obscuring the actual notes under a blanket of rapidly-changing quasi- 'orchestration'. Is this the music of Schumann? Or is it not more the style of Stokowski? Just because Schumann was a romantic doesn't mean that every piece he wrote has to be a passionate bodice-ripper. It is possible to portray beauty and poetic sentiment without applying make up, heels, and fishnets. Romance is not the same as allure.

Tom Murray's performance is good, possibly even wonderful. It tells you about Tom Murray, and about American taste of the 1920s as deliberately revived in the 1990s. It tells us nothing about the taste of 1846, not a lot about the fabric of Schumann's music, and a good deal about the recent revival of ... a historic mode of playing!

But is it expressive? The rapid changing of scenery, the constant presentation of mechanical effects, the crudely smooth and characterless crescendi and diminuendi of departments in swell-boxes: all collude to distract the listener from the expressive potential of this delicate music. There is a law of diminishing returns with organ registration. The more changes you make, the less effect each one has. It is certainly possible to enter a world of constantly changing registration, just as Wagner showed it was possible to enter a world of constantly changing tonality. But that is an effect that belongs to another quite different period, to the age of the Elgar sonata and its successors. Even the mammoth organ works of Liszt and Reubke, though they seem to demand an organ capable of total dynamic flexibility and therefore a perhaps a crescendo pedal, hardly require any changes of colour other than those that are automatically achieved by the number and position of the notes on the page. It is the texture of the score itself that is expressive - that is why great composers are great.

And, in sparing the full capabilities of his toes and fingers to perform the notes by allotting them, in addition, tasks of pressing pistons and moving swell shades, Murray audibly presents us with a performance that is less rhythmically interesting than he could manage in 1978. There is plenty of control and technique in 1999; only once or twice does the moving of scenery actually force Murray into a rhythmic impasse, where he simply cannot change manual or change stops in time to preserve the fluency of the music. But what is audible, to me at least, is that in spending so much of his considerable intellectual energy on colour he has neglected phrasing and rhythm. The phrasing has become a function of the registration, and the rhythm has become flattened and mechanical in order to accommodate all the extra activity with safety. In 1978 he played with expression; poetry flowed from his fingers. In 1999 he gave us showmanship and technique instead.

And here lies the ever-present danger of the organ. Berlioz was right - the monster never breathes! And because it doesn't breathe, we have to make a very considerable extra effort to put life and breath back into our organ playing. For those of us who have to accompany a choir and hymns and keep a body of singers in order, that is difficult to remember. But whenever we play solo, we are musicians in our own right, not accompanists or liturgical functionaries, and that is where our musical skills live in their own right, whether in the service of God or in a secular context.

It is often said today what a shame it is that the organ is not popular, like it used to be. Where are the crowds who once thronged to hear Lemare, Clarence Eddy, or even Olpihant Chuckerbutty .... ? This is an error. The organ was never the popular item. It was the show that was popular: the performers and what they did, plus the newness of the music that the mass audience had heard so much about and now were finally hearing. That adulation extended to some areas that are now exactly those most critcised for being 'boring': when Guilmant played to huge crowds at St. Louis in 1904, on the organ that was later to move to the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia, his recitals included works by Scheidt, Frescobaldi, Pachelbel and Titelouze. At that stage in the progress of civilisation the organ held the kind of appeal that the Three Tenors have today. The organ and mass appeal are unlikely to cross paths again, nor - if we are interested in Art - would we wish it.

But we would like the organ to be taken seriously, to be a real musical instrument. We do not want it to be seen as the poor relation of the piano and the violin, an instrument so obviously machine-like that it is incapable of rendering the great works written for it with expression and conviction. To achieve that end we have to handle those very mechanical devices with extreme care and as sparingly as the context allows. Expression comes only from the application of the fingers to the keys and the feet to the pedals. Colour is merely colour; the composition is in the notes; expression comes from how you play them.


About the author: Stephen Bicknell worked for the English organ builders Mander and Walker, and was in charge of technical design at Mander at the time of the construction of the instrument at St. Ignatius Loyola, New York. He left full-time organ building to pursue a varied career in writing and free-lance design and consultancy. His 'History of the English Organ' is the standard work on the subject and he is a Tutor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.