Pipe Organs as Metaphors:
Voices of Times and Traditions

Agnes Armstrong

Metaphor is a rhetorical term defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or analogy between them (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1956). In metaphor, one thing represents another. Metaphors help us to better understand our surroundings. By comparing the characteristics of familiar objects or ideas with similarities and differences of other objects and concepts, we are able to make more sense of the world around us.

Shapes and forms of artistic expression inform our perceptions of a particular era, of a particular culture. Because each of these perceptions relies directly or by extrapolation on the senses of each perceiver, there is no one reality. There is, however, a shared reality - a reality existing only as it is shared with others - and this accounts for widely-held perceptions, opinions and ideas, along with our communal acceptance of metaphors as concepts. Investigating what kind of metaphors are evoked by the musical instruments of a certain culture may prove useful to those attempting to understand both the culture and its musical expression, because every musical instrument is a representation of and thus a metaphor for the society in which it is created.

In our western world, music is a highly textualized culture. Written texts are perceived as archetypes, asserting the correctness of the society in which they are produced. Our culture relies heavily on written histories and literature to proclaim our truths and exchange æsthetic information. Organ metaphors abound in literature from many periods and traditions. Seventeenth-century English poet John Milton used the organ as a symbol of the cosmos in his "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity," and himself was later likened to the organ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson - nineteenth-century British Poet Laureate - in an eponymous poem written in 1863 ("Milton - Alcaics"). Another nineteenth-century writer, Robert Browning, portrayed organs as "huge houses of sounds" ("Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha" in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842). All these and many more literary organ references may be found at "The Organ in Literature" section of the marvelous "Dream Organ" website created by the late and greatly-lamented Julian Rhodes. Julian's frequent and welcomed contributions to PIPORG-L showed evidence of a brilliant mind as well as a deep passion for the pipe organ. This site is still maintained by friends as an ongoing memorial at www.ondamar.demon.co.uk.

Pipe organs serve as metaphors on a number of levels. In a basic way, the instrument can be seen as a metaphor for the people who design and build it. The very structure of a pipe organ is a representation of a human being, with scores of moving parts and a wind-breathing system, all integrated into a complex machine. Producing sounds organized in several dimensions, it speaks a musical language which communicates with its auditors. The bellows are the lungs of the instrument. The pipes themselves are referred to in anatomical terms, their components being labeled as body, foot, mouth, and lip.

As for the tonal aspect of the organ, just contemplate the plethora of pipes - pipes of every size and kind, of every shape and color - tall or small, slender or wide, from booming diapasons to lilting flutes to brilliant trumpets - "families" of pipes. Organ pipes are a metaphor for humanity. Pipes in a newly-constructed organ must "settle in" and "make their own community" - large organs in large cities, smaller organs in towns and villages. While great organs - as great cities - offer rich and extensive opportunities for both player and listener, less elaborate instruments suggest the limitations of small towns everywhere.

More importantly, each pipe organ is a metaphor of the particular society and culture in which it is created. From the hydraulii of ancient Greek and Roman times, through the Neo-Classic instruments of a retrospective twentieth century, to the electronic and digital imitations rife in our own generation, the pipe organ embodies cultural history. Designs of pipe organs are analogous to those cultures in which they are built and are therefore paradigms of the societies which produce them. Thus each instrument is a representation of the society or segment of society in which and for which it is created. What is there about a French pipe organ that is inherently French? What do the brilliant trumpets on classic Spanish organs represent? Why are certain theatre organ timbres so distinctively different from the tones typical of church organs? In each period of time, in each society, each culture, each pipe organ is a reflection of the people who created it and the people for whom it was created.

European traditions of organ building are very old, and through centuries of evolution their individual styles have been distilled and refined. Diversities of organbuilding traditions mirror the diversities of indigenous European and European-derived societies historically as well as geographically. Every musical instrument represents the technology of its time. Pipe organs have survived through centuries of change, of being adapted to every current style and taste, every new technology. Yet the organ is the organ. It has changed, grown, accommodated, and still retained its character - the mark, I submit, of a true classic.

Perhaps it will be easier for most readers of this essay to see the point of cultural relevance by looking at organs built in America. In the development of structural principles, some consistency of design seems to have been considered a desirable trait. The great drive toward standardization in an increasingly mechanized society since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in such phenomena as the adoption of the AGO console standards. We often hear criticism of American builders' naïveté in the choice of stop names, even in the spelling (misspelling) of names taken from European sources. It's not at all unusual to find within one American organ an assortment of stops with French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English names. Yet, what is more typically American than such eclecticism? If America is truly "the great melting pot" of cultures, isn't it appropriate that her pipe organs reflect that point?

Pipe organ builders are not mass-production industrialists. They are artists, architects of sound, dreamers, creators. In medieval times, a builder would move his workers and often his entire family to the site of his next organ. They might even take up residence inside the cathedral being built around them, sometimes for a year or more. There they would be devotedly occupied with building the organ, constructing "a kind of building within a building" (H. Heathcote Statham, The Organ and Its Position in Musical Art, London 1909).

Pipe organ players are artists, too. Moved by the power of great sounds and the visceral sense of the surrounding acoustic, with all the resources of the instrument at their finger- (and toe-)tips, they create order out of chaos, eloquence out of uproar, music out of noise. Awesome or unassuming, vigorous or delicate, organ music is capable of affecting its listeners in countless ways.

Consider the semiotics (the study of signs and symbols, what they mean, and how they relate to the things or ideas to which they refer) of religious institutions endowed with grand pipe organs, instruments which speak often unseen from above and behind, diffusing loud booming tones into vast acoustic spaces, and producing palpable vibrations designed to transport the listener beyond everyday indifference into the realms of time and place. Such impressions are mystical, indeed. A valued musical instrument with potent spiritual connotations, the pipe organ carries strong references, conveying messages and meaning to its beholders.

Pipe organs are complicated and expensive machines. At the same time, throughout their long history they have been considered highly desirable possessions. Inexpensive alternatives to the costly custom-built pipe organ have not always been easily realized. In the nineteenth century it was the harmonium and the American reed organ which warmed the heart of every underfunded vestryman. Even the poorest parish could have one or two of these in chancels and choir lofts, in rooms far too small to house large pipe organs. Although recognized as substitutes, these instruments didn't pretend to be the same thing as pipe organs, but viable substitutes. In the twentieth century, with the expansion of electrical and electronic applications, the advent of recording and digital sampling technologies coincided with the communications explosion. The increasingly slick advertising by which manufacturers of electronic instruments now make inflated claims to sell their wares cause the traditionalists among us to cringe in horror.

Yet for good or evil, this too, is a mark of the society in which musical instruments are produced. Consider the twentieth-century development of man-made materials - especially plastics - which enabled the mass production and distribution of goods: but at what price? Many would argue that such mass dissemination of mediocre merchandise is done at the sacrifice of quality and æsthetics. A Tupperware™ container is inexpensive, durable, and useful. Every home can have one - more than one. It's not beautiful - but then, it's really not pretending to be. It doesn't have the same feel in your hands as an exquisite handmade porcelain Limoges tureen. A plastic container is utilitarian, not decorative.

From this point of view, it is hardly surprising that cheap imitations of art objects abound - "knock-offs" we call them - those inferior replications of highly-priced designer jewelry, scarves, leather goods appearing for sale on the corner of the very street where the exclusive department store carrying the originals is located. So we should not be astonished at the proliferation of electronic instruments which call themselves "organs" but which are in fact nothing more than imitations of pipe organs. Even though the digital revolution which employs sampling of actual pipe sounds has brought the two genres closer and closer together, the fact remains that electronic instruments are merely imitations, just as the "genuine Bolex watch" being sold on the street corner is an imitation of the high-priced one from the famous Rolex company being sold inside the fashionable department store.

We live in a time when widespread distribution of merchandise to consumers is a commendable enterprise. It is a time of egalitarian merchandising on a broad scale. Everyone must be provided an opportunity to own everything. Quality seems not to matter so much as quantity. We want more for our money, not better. Is it any surprise then, that relatively inexpensive substitutes for musical instruments are so prevalent?

It is not only the pipe organ whose very existence is threatened. Symphony orchestras are slowly being replaced in film and theatrical productions by synthesizers and previously-recorded sound. Cheap electronic toy keyboards kept in a child's bedroom (so as not to disturb anyone else) are replacing yesterday's familiar piano of the living room. Modern families gather around television sets and DVD players or home computers, not pianos or parlor reed organs.

How many churches have cast-bell carillons in their towers? How many thousands more have machines from one of several companies which manufacture specialized tape players with sophisticated timing mechanisms that cause "bells" to play at certain hours? Recorded on-site at some of the world's most famous carillon towers, hymns and other tunes ring out from the even the most modest of steeples. For only a few hundred dollars, any little village church can deluge its neighborhood with the sounds of carillons containing 25 bells and more. Few passersby ever stop to think that these bells cannot possibly exist in that tiny spire.

Not so long ago, the "carillons" produced by such firms as Schulmerich consisted of cast metal tone bars struck by tiny hammers. The resulting sounds - amplified by microphone pick-ups - were broadcast through speaker systems into sanctuaries and out into the street. Attached keyboards allowed players to perform hymns and other tunes in real time. If today's digitally recorded tapes are carillon substitutes, the bell sounds emanating from them are illusions of carillons. In much the same way, where analogue systems once produced imitations of pipe organs, digitally-sampled organs now produce illusions of pipe organs.

Do we not live in an age of virtual reality? The public's ability to differentiate - or even it's interest in doing so - is being constantly challenged by clever imitations of familiar objects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the music world. To many folks more occupied with the other aspects of their busy daily lives, it matters little whether the instrument is authentic or electronic, or whether the sound is acoustically or digitally produced. In our time we are bombarded by sound from every side, constant and continual sounds of every kind. Much of it is considered noise. Only when sounds are organized in particular ways is music the end result. How sound - or even music - is produced is of minor interest to most of the population. We have become numb to sounds and insensitive to the sources of them. Our language has even developed a vocabulary to describe the phenomenon. We say we have "tuned out."

All this brings us to the larger question: whither goes the pipe organ?

  1. From the point of view of the listener, by what values are we judging our music and the instruments on which it is produced? By what values do we judge the musicians who perform the music? What is the "magic mix" that says to a critic, to a listener, to a performer, to a composer that the music is "good" - that it has value? What makes the musician good - the composition good - the musical instrument good?
  2. From the point of view of the musician, how can we effectively communicate to an audience what we have learned to feel - what we have accomplished intellectually, spiritually - in living with the music we play and living closely with our instruments day-to-day?
  3. From the point of view of the organbuilder, how can we keep our work relevant in a constantly-changing society? How can we design and construct instruments for the future, and not only reproduce relics of the historical past?
All these things are judged by those values considered most worthy by that society in that time and in that place in which they are being judged. Such problems are not unlike those experienced by some earnest clergyman who studies in depth the sacred scriptures, who lives close to his God on a daily basis, but who must come down off the mountaintop on Sunday mornings to speak to those who don't. Philosophers and scholars know the problem, too. Our attempt to put answers to these questions, to understand the undercurrent, is expanded by the use of metaphor.

In our time, music is an omnipresent commodity in ways that it has never been before in the entire history of the world. If music is truly food for the millions, how can those millions possibly understand what musicians feel, what musicians know? How can they know what musicians or organbuilders are doing - why or even how they are doing it? These are problems on which many musicians reflect, and to which few know an answer. For most of us, the only solution seems to be to keep on doing what we are doing, to keep on feeling what we are feeling, to keep on knowing what we are knowing, and hope that a few crumbs will drop by the wayside and be picked up by those souls hungry enough to want to be part of the experience.

Whither goes the pipe organ? We might as well ask, whither goes the world?

About the author: Agnes Armstrong holds advanced degrees in music from the State University of New York, the College of Saint Rose, and New York University, where her dissertation explores historical performance practice. Known for her research on nineteenth-century organists and organ music, she has published a commemorative calendar of the life of Alexandre Guilmant, an edition of the organ works of Ernest Chausson, a bilingual book on organist Joseph Bonnet, and numerous articles. She concertizes on famous pipe organs and lectures at symposia throughout the United States and in Europe, and performs at conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society. Her compact discs are available from the Organ Historical Society. She has taught at five Pipe Organ Encounters for young organ students. She was elected President of the International Reed Organ Society in 1995, continuing for three terms. She is presently organist and choir director at both Saint John's Lutheran Church in Altamont and Helderberg Reformed Church in Guilderland, New York.