Literature-Based Reed Assignment in Organ Design

Sebastian Matthäus Glück

PIPORG-L's first decade has served as a forum for many debates: the suitability of action types, whether or not imitation instruments are "the wave[form] of the future," the validity and/or danger of "praise bands," clergy-musician relations, and the decline of interest in what was once, in the eyes of Everyman, the King of Instruments.

Another phenomenon has been that of members posting organ dispositions, under construction or newly built, asking other list members for their opinions on the designs. Some had consultants, others were designed by organists, and yet others had actually been told by their builders that they had never before designed a mixture! Some of the designs, large by average American standards, were sure to frustrate those organists who hoped to authentically register many of their beloved works.

Several years ago I attended a lecture by a professor for whom I have enormous respect. When his remarks turned to the pipe organ's future role in America, and the design of instruments to come, he asked, "Why not do something out of the ordinary? Put the 8' Oboe in the Choir division instead of the Swell, to encourage composers to break the mold and write for a new and evolved form of the instrument."

I was stunned by his directive. As I catalogued in my mind all of the sizable instruments crippled by containing many stops at pitches and in divisions at which they fail to serve the repertoire, I realized that even the most learned may have overlooked the prescriptive nature of historic instruments, music, and treatises.

Part of the problem may be the seemingly constant attempt to separate "service" instruments from "concert" organs. With rare and comparatively recent exception, the recital literature as we know it was composed by church organists for the instruments over which they presided. Secular or "concert-room" organs, as George Ashdown Audsley dubbed them, did not really flourish until the 19th century. Such large secular instruments seemed a natural choice in an era of great population and geographic expansion, when organs provided convenient one-man orchestras and had no competition from recorded or broadcast entertainment. But before the age of transcription, church and concert organs were largely analogous.

It is obvious that pipe organs are not standardized in their design – otherwise they would be manufactured, not crafted. But even taking into account stylistic differences between cultures and eras over the centuries, there remain common design threads. Certain pipe forms and combinations of stops are found consistently in specific locations and pitches, and composers wrote their music based upon that knowledge. Tonal ideas were shared by likely influences (France and England across the Channel) as well as more distant ones (Spain and The Netherlands) due to the historical circumstances of political and military history.

In some countries, organbuilding and composition were so intertwined that builders and composer-organists formed great alliances. What accompanied this interaction was the frequent indication of registrations in the musical scores, in France more than in any other organ culture. In French Baroque music, many suite movements were actually titled after specific organ stops or combinations thereof. By the Romantic era, French organ design had so many "givens" that registrations could be printed in the score, and the organist could be reasonably assured of an accurate performance of the work.

This short essay limits itself to the placement of reed stops in the organ specification. Flue stops in American organs are often assigned positions and pitches that actually prevent the authentic performance of large segments of the literature. That subject will only be touched upon in the context of this basic outline of where one might assign reed voices for maximum utility and historical accuracy.

From as far north as Scandinavia and Poland, to as far south as Spain and Portugal, the 8' Trumpet appears almost universally as the first reed stop in the main manual department. While there are exceptions (reedless specifications in Austria, the very separate organ culture of Italy, some early pre-Baroque organs in the continental north), the simple, full-toned, conical chorus Trumpet has for centuries taken its place in the Great division for both hymn leading and "free compositions."

In England and France from the 17th century onward, in organs of moderate to large scope, the 8' Trumpet has almost always been joined by its 4' dependent, the Clarion. Neither thin, nor nasty, nor bleating, both ranks have traditionally been full and powerful, welding into a solid and thrilling blaze of tone. The mounted Cornet was almost always in attendance, serving as the added harmonic glue and power booster in the treble range, in addition to its traditional solo function. Sociopolitical history, as well as musical history, teaches us that the fiery Grand Jeu that we so immediately associate with 18th century French Classicism was also a staple of Georgian organbuilding, residing in both the Great and Swell departments. It does not end there: the Corneta magna, Trompeta de batalla, and Clarín fuerte still join forces as one of the most thrilling sounds in the Iberian peninsula.

Since the mid-1930s, Trumpets seem to have "fallen off" many an American Great division as Anglo-American theories pushed them aside in favor of more upperwork, and we found ourselves building for acoustically lifeless rooms. Prior to that, even on many small instruments, Great Trumpets were found at unison pitch, and often in full, matched, proper choruses at 16', 8', and 4'.

In 20th century "American Classicism," the burden of Trumpet tone was gradually shifted to the Swell, where increasingly thin, bright, "French-style" Trumpet tone was asked to carry the manual reed responsibility for the entire instrument. This simply does not work authentically. If the Swell reeds are large and bold enough to serve as reeds for the entire organ, they are much too assertive to do what Swell reeds are meant to do, whether in the Romantic solo literature or for anthem accompaniment. The reverse also holds true: if they are subtly rich and balanced enough to be true Swell reeds, they cannot display the grandeur and power needed for "full organ." This, too, is why the balance of power is rarely satisfying when a manual reed is "duplexed" to the pedals and is expected to undergird the entire ensemble.

Despite the fascination with "French-style" Swell reeds, by the final decades of the 20th century, many American consultants, and consequently organbuilders, had reduced the reed complement of the Swell division to a 16' Dulzian and an 8' Fagotto or Oboe. This combination neither "simulated an English full Swell" nor produced much more than a thin buzz of non-cohesive tone for which no literature ever had been written. While a half-length cylindrical reed will resonate its fundamental, it creates little impact beyond its color, even when generously scaled and winded. Obviously, where space is extremely limited, this type of compromise is better than nothing at all.

So what of the Oboe? When the organ literature actually calls for an Oboe, composers expected to find it at 8' in the Swell. (Despite the name, the Schalmei stops found at 4' pitch in 16th and 17th century organs in the continental north were more Trumpet-like, likely for cantus firmus playing or in combination with the Hauptwerk 8' Trompete. The Schalmei might also have been found in the Oberwerk at 8'). But the 4' Hautbois or "Oboe Clarion" of the American 20th century organ is musically useless for the main body of the literature, having no ensemble or solo function at that pitch unless coupled to somewhere more useful.

The 19th century American organ most frequently had three Swell reeds, all at 8' pitch: Cornopean (or Trumpet), Oboe, and Vox Humana, the three basic Récit reeds of the French Romantic school. So essential is the position of the 8' Basson-Hautbois in the French literature that it was occasionally considered part of the foundations, rather than the reeds. Its recombinant effect in performance, either with the 8' flue foundations or when drawn together with the 8' Trompette, cannot be duplicated. At unison pitch, its color can melt into other tonalities, adding richness, rather than playing in parallel octaves to the written musical line. Composers and organbuilders knew this well. In the smallest of American organs of the same period, sometimes the only reed to be found was the Swell Oboe-at 8' pitch. Certainly, in England, the Hautboy has always been found at 8' pitch, in the Swell department.

The Krummhorn, Cromorne, Clarinet, and the like, are all cultural variations of the cylindrical half-length reed, at home in the Positiv, Positif, or Choir of nearly all three-manual organs through history. Their tone became rounder, fuller, and more orchestral, progressing from buzzy Regal-types to woody orchestral facsimiles as they evolved from the late 16th century through the 19th century. But as a form with musical intent, their location has been steady and secure.

Placing reeds of this family in two-manual organs is open to further discussion. If one is building in the north German Baroque style, such a stop is most at home on the Positiv or Brustwerk. Other organbuilders, past and present, have placed it on the Great manual. In England, John Gray, Kirtland & Jardine, and Henry Bevington were among those who engaged in this practice. Henry Willis would sometimes put a Corno di Bassetto in the Great organ, alongside a Trumpet, in his two-manual schemes (both stops having hooded resonators!).

The Cremona or Clarinet occasionally made it into the English Solo organ. The Clarinette could be found in the French Récit, but only after the Cromorne had been placed in the Positif, which by the 1860s had pretty much moved up from the first manual to the second.

If an organ is to be versatile and give some nod toward authentic registration of the literature, the 8' cylindrical half-length reed should be placed in the division opposite the Tierce combination or Cornet. This permits them to be played in dialogue in French literature, and also does not lock up two of the most pungent solo voices in the same holding pen. Placing the Cornet combination with the Trumpet, or Trumpet and Clarion, gives one a fighting chance at a Grand Jeu.

While over the past few decades hundreds of Vox Humana ranks have ended up in the nation's landfills or in home organ projects, we are beginning to realize that this early form of reed pipe has been with us since reeds first stepped onto the tonal playing field. This fractional-length reed has certainly floated about the instrument, from the multiplicity of forms used by Hans Scherer the Elder, Friedrich Stellwagen, and Joachim Richborn in their Brustwerks and Positivs, to the Grand-Orgue Voix Humaines of François-Henri Clicquot, Jean-Esprit Isnard, and Alexandre Thierry.

The stop appears to have settled in the Swell or Récit during the Romantic era, and remained there comfortably. It landed where the French specified it for their symphonic works, yet could be used alone or with other stops, without tremulant, for suggesting early Regals for the Netherlandish, German, and Spanish repertoire. As we know, nothing adds that final touch to an American funeral like a well-tremmed Vox Humana and Flûte Céleste with the shutters tightly closed. If Vox Humana forms were so useful for so many centuries, and could please Romanticists and Baroque specialists alike, why did we discard so many of them?

Beyond these basics, we must really evaluate how organs are played, and heard, and what voices are truly useful. The search continues for a piece of significant (or insignificant) organ music that specifically calls for a 4' Rohrschalmei in the manuals. How many documented examples of 4' Rohrschalmei pipes exist in historic instruments? Yet hundreds of them have been built and installed. Has this past half-century of doing so pushed composers to write new works with this tonality in mind? If one has the luxury of including such a character voice in a large instrument, at least build it at 8' pitch, where it can be colored with other stops, where its personality is most effectively displayed, and where it is not mostly open flue pipes. Might we consider the 16' or 8' Cor Anglais as the French and English did in the 19th century, for richness and appealing character? For transcriptions, so fashionable with today's audiences, such a voice is far more useful than the 4' Rohrschalmei.

Manual reeds at 16' pitch are present in most cultures during all periods in which organ music (and choral music with organ accompaniment) was written. While the choice of 16' manual reed type varied, they appear to have been favored over 4' reeds, except in the case of Trumpet or horn-like 4' reeds. Reed tone gets more complex, rich, and interesting as the scale descends. Reeds pitched at 16' usually provide more color and impact than 4' reeds. There are exceptions to all statements regarding tonal design. We can certainly find buzzy 4' Regals in Brustwerks, and 4' Schalmei-types populating Hauptwerks in Hamburg, all of which point to their having been used. They did not seem to have survived, uninterrupted, over the centuries, except for their recent "revival," which has waned. Other voices have enjoyed greater consistency and longevity.

As orchestral instruments and organ stops ascend the scale, we perceive them to take on a collective similarity, and this phenomenon may increase with the listener's age. An orchestral Bassoon, French horn, Clarinet, and Violoncello will sound more Flute-like as they ascend into their highest ranges, as the fundamental gets higher and the upper partials compact. Some people actually confuse the sound of a high-pitched Oboe with that of a high-pitched Trumpet, and I have seen a conductor substitute Oboes for Trumpets in a Baroque oratorio with satisfactory results. But within the middle range, and descending to the bass, there is no mistaking tonal color.

The organbuilder's choice of 16' manual tone is based upon several criteria, including the stylistic desires of the client, and responsible, knowledgeable choices based upon the tonal director's understanding of how the room shapes sound. While the battle over whether specific denominations favor certain styles of organbuilding will rage forever, historic documentation answers many of the questions raised, and more energy is expended defending alarming exceptions than on enjoying appropriate choices. Suffice it to say that a Lutheran church just might favor a 16' Dulcian in the Oberwerk, and an Anglican church might choose a 16' Bassoon or 16' Double Trumpet over a 16' Rankett in the Swell.

Pedals were known by the late 15th century, as was the separate drawing of stops or groups of ranks. The Pedal organ quickly developed into a mature concept in some areas, while other cultures did without it, literally for centuries. Pedal reeds arrived even later, as the division progressed from mere pulldowns, to a single set of bass pipes, to remarkably developed, independent divisions.

While early, small instruments may have had only an 8' reed in the Pedal, most often a Trumpet, there has been for centuries an almost universal consensus regarding the utility of a moderately large 16' full-length conical reed in the Pedal organ. An independent scaled and voiced 16' reed, such as a Trombone, Bombarde, Bazuin, Posaune, Ophicleide, or even the quieter Bassoon or Fagotto, seems to have fit the bill for most organists, composers, and organbuilders over the centuries. They can be full, smooth, and round like the Posaune or Trombone, fiery and considerably brighter like the Bombarde, or brassy, rolling, and full, like the Ophicleide, but if they are too loud, they will obliterate the manual textures. This can be quite destructive and distracting in a Bach Prelude and Fugue, yet a big Pedal Bombarde might just be the fire one needs beneath the Finale to a Vierne symphony.

The main 16' Pedal reed must be scaled to match the size and acoustic of the room, as well as the overall scope of the organ at hand, all in the context of its use with the organ's ensembles. The makeup of these ensembles is most often determined by the literature. Moderate to moderately large-scaled reeds with full-length resonators at 16' and 8' pitches are quite utilitarian. An organist who designs an organ with only a 16' Sordun and 4' Zink in the Pedal is most likely going to frustrate their successors. If the only Pedal reeds are borrowed entirely from the manuals, or the 16' reed is a one-octave extension of a manual reed, one must acknowledge that the practice is a compromise.

The current fascination with simulated 32' stops distracts us from the task of designing an organ for flexibility and application to the known repertoire. Stops at such pitches are rarely called for, or specifically required. Of course, they do provide drama for the end of a French toccata, for the ultimate entrance of the subject in a Bach fugue, or for the last verse of a majestic hymn when accompanying a large congregation. While the drama of 32' reeds has been largely diluted by the proliferation of noisy, but sterile, imitations, large organs in large auditoria can accommodate them if space and budget permit, and the rest of the organ is reasonably complete in its design (not luxurious or frivolous, but complete). More music could be served by the completion of a manual reed chorus. More repertoire could be satisfactorily conveyed by adding an 8' Flûte harmonique where it belongs in the Great, or a 4' Principal in the all-flutes Choir division, or a 16' string in the Pedal, or full-compass mutations, or even a second 16' Pedal reed of different power and character. Are funds being sensibly spent?

Half-length 16' "chorus" reeds should be avoided if possible. The investment in full-length resonators over half-length resonators in the 16' octave is so minimal as to make little difference in the price of a moderate-sized organ contract. If physical space is the cost factor, some creative mitering or rethinking of the layout may be in order.

The half-length 16' Bombarde or Bassoon is robbed of its fundamental resonance, even though the pitch is being produced mechanically in the bottom assembly, and the note is heard. Yes, the note is generated, but it is not preserved, enriched, or amplified. The resulting sound of such pipes is thin and weak in comparison to those with fully-grown resonators. The break in tone between the full-length and half-length portions of the stop is noticeable, and cannot be completely "voiced out" by the finisher, no matter how legendary his or her artistry.

The premise here is that organ music, and the surviving or documented organs for which it was written, are first-hand sources that teach us the elements of tonal design. This applies no less to how we design our flue ensembles than to how we make decisions about reed choice and placement. Organists, organbuilders, and especially consultants, should also look at period treatises on registration. While we know more about our 19th and 20th century colleagues because there is usually more surviving physical evidence and oral history concerning their ideas, we often make assumptions based upon what we would like to hear and believe.

Many still cling to the Orgelbewegung Werkprinzip because that is what they learned in college and graduate school. Have we really looked at the organs of Bach and his contemporaries? Maybe a look at the 1762-7 Hildebrandt in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg would begin to disassemble some of those theories, as the Hauptwerk, Oberwerk, and Brustwerk all sported 8' Prinzipals with doubled ranks in the treble! Add the nine other 8' manual flue stops into the mix, and the unison-free "revival" organ appears rather inauthentic.

We expect pipe organs, like all works of art, to be highly individualistic, distinguishable by stylistic focus, physical scope, and musical results. They are odd art forms, usually private commissions in the service of the public. They are artwork that is best appreciated when being used to convey another work of art by yet another artist. They are perceived as costly, occupy a great deal of space, and are genuinely as misunderstood as they are fascinating.

Let us not make design decisions quickly, but rather rejoice in all of the information that has been handed down to us. Organbuilders, organists, and composers left us millions of pages of clues, desires, and directions, along with masterpieces of instruction, both written and built. Let's get to work…


About the author: Sebastian Matthäus Glück is an organist and organbuilder in New York City. Mr. Glück is Editor of the Journal of American Organbuilding, and Tonal Director of Glück New York, Inc., Pipe Organ Restorers and Builders. He earned his AB in Architecture and MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University, and was an organ student of Jon Gillock at The Juilliard School. He serves on the Historic Organs Citations Committee of the Organ Historical Society, and holds the Colleague's Certificate from the American Institute of Organbuilders.