The History of the Organ - Part 1

Anecdotes and stories about the queen of instruments

Stone Age musicians in the Lonetal
The love of humans for the music is as old as the hills. Already during Stone Age people played flute. The proofs for it are near to Augsburg: In the valley of the creek Ach, 20 kilometers of the west of Ulm (Bavaria, Germany), archaeologists found in the cave "Hohle Fels" (hollow rock) an almost complete bone flute and individual fragments of three ivory flutes, which are older than 35,000 years! In the cave "Vogelherd" (bird stove) in the Lonetal, 25 kilometers northwest from Ulm, they discovered further fragments of another ivory flute. These important finds gave the oldest proofs for music instruments and make clear that music already played an important role in the life of Aurignacienmen in the Ach- and Lonetal in southwest Germany.

Ktesibios invents the water organ
The making of organs looks back to a far over 2000 years old history and belongs therefore to one of the oldest branches in arts and crafts. The three basic elements of the pipe organ remained nevertheless unchanged from its invention in the Hellenistic Alexandria until today: The sound generation by pipes, producing an adjustable wind pressure by means of bellows and/or pumps and the mechanical controlling of the wind supply. The pipes were developed from flutes and in such a way close the circle back to the Stone Age people living in our homeland 35 millennia ago!
It is said that it happened in the 3rd century B.C. in Alexandria (Egypt) that the technician, inventor and mathematician Ktesibios invented the prototype of all organs in the year 246 before Christ. In his water organ (organon hydraulikon) a pump produced compressed air to make sound with pipes. Also the fire-brigade pump and the water clock were his inventions.
When Ktesibios lived in Alexandria, it was governed by Ptolemaios I. (305-285 B.C.) and Ptolemaios II. (285-246 B.C.) and the city was already on its best way to become the economical, mental and political center of the Roman-Hellenistic world, which should take however still some hundred years. The city at the mouth of the Nile was however already the largest commercial town of the antiquity. Whether wheat from rich Egypt, ivory and gold from the southern Africa, tin and amber from far England or silk and spices from Asia: Whatever the ancient world required at luxury goods was traded and sold in Alexandria. Later the whole Greek speaking intelligence resided in Alexandria: Philosophers, historians, scientists, technicians, sculptors, painters and poets, and there was also the largest library of the antiquity, which is famous to this very day and counted over one million scrolls. The Romans had the administrative sovereignty, while Greeks formed the cultural upper class. Everyday's life work was done by North African and Coptic craftsmen and businessmen, supported by slaves who had been imported from the border areas of the Roman realm.
In this melting pot of history, at a time, when pyramids and sphinx were only about half as old as today (!), the engineer Ktesibios came to the idea to mechanize the Greek double flute (Aulos) that one could play not only in two voices, but also polyphonic with several voices. To do this he needed 1st) a controllable wind, 2nd) different pitches and 3rd) play mechanics.
In order to produce the wind pressure, he built a waterproof pox and put a bowl into upside down. Into this bowl he could pump air now, which was compressed by the weight of the water resting on and was able to blow therefore. Over this bowl he built something like a flat bureau with two floors. Into the lower he led compressed air (it corresponds to the today's wind chests); onto the upper he placed a row of pipes arranged by their lengths. In between he put the play mechanics: Like a row of small drawers for each pipe a wooden bolt was there. Pulling it out released the air to pipe, by pushing it back the air flow was terminated and so the toe stopped.
Regarding to the legend already Pythagoras has recognized that strings of different length result in different pitches. True or not: Ktesibios must have observed that with the aulos flute the tone becomes lower, if the holes are closed and finally had the idea to build for each pitch an individual pipe and to assemble all of it on a machine - what an ingenious achievement! Ktesibios called his invention "Water Aulos", on Greek "Hydraulos", of which the word "hydraulic" is derived.
How did this first pipe organ in world's history probably sound? The "Aulos" was a double reed instrument like the modern oboe. The first organs thus had probably a strong, close, very direct sound like our current tongue pipe stops (e.g. "Trumpet", "Crumhorn", and "Shawm"). Later flute-like stops were added with open and covered pipes, sounding one octave lower. From the in the first century B.C. living Roman architect and writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (Vitruv) we know the description of such an improved instrument. It contained up to eight pipe rows (stops), which could be switched on separately or together alternatively. Because more wind was necessary, the instrument had now two piston pumps. These were already operated alternating, in order to keep the wind pressure stable. The intake valves formed an attractive detail: As counterweight served a piece metal in form of a dolphin. The dolphin was the mythological companion of the goddess Athena, the goddess of weaving, the handicraft and arts and crafts, the beautiful arts, the ingenuity and the sciences. The ancient proverb "If the organ plays, the dolphins jump", is thus meant not literally, but refers to these valves.

Olympic organ games
Even when this word was still uncommon at that time: The pipe organ must have experienced a true boom, because it soon became approved as an Olympic discipline. In the year 90 B.C. Antipatros from Crete triumphed in the music competition of Delphi. As prize he got a bronze figure, an inscription at the temple of Delphi and got the privilege of preferential treatment to question the oracle. These granted privileges show, how much the organ play was appreciated already!
Perhaps also today the Olympic thought would be served better with disciplines like poetry or music, than with sporty matches, where the more skillful doping or the more efficient High Tech equipment is decisive for victory. At least in the opening celebration still remainders of this ancient Olympic understanding did survive.
Unfortunately already in the antiquity with peaceful matches, all the same whether sporty or musical nature, you could win no flower pot: While the Greeks celebrated and philosophized, the Roman city state developed first to an Italian, then a so a South European regional power, that disputed Greeks rank as the leading trading nation in the Mediterranean area. The republic organized by social status with citizens eligible to vote, the senate and two selected consuls became a monarchy. The emperor was not elected by the people and also not by the senate and did not need to justify his claim to power. He unfolded a splendid court attitude and let himself carve in stone: Emperor and God! The Roman upper class did not want to stay back and surrounded themselves with music and forming art. Greek sculptures were imported and copied, the Greek religion found entrance into the Roman God cult and Greek authors became determining. Thus power had become Roman, but culture had remained Greek however. It became fashionable to travel around the cultural nation Greece. Everybody paying attention to himself learned the Greek language, knew the Greek philosophers and admired besides the Roman Jupiter also God father Zeus.

Nero imports the Greek organ
Thus in the year 66 AD the art-interested emperor Nero, called a Tyrant by injustice, travelled to Greece and brought back to Rome the latest type of the pipe instrument, which had already several stops. Nero was educated in music and announced he would, being successfully with striking down the Gaul Rebellion (67 AD), perform as an organist at the victory celebrations. Unforgotten is "Nero" Peter Ustinov in the feature "Quo vadis"?, as he gave his self-made songs and asked Petronius, the "arbiter elegantiae" , the specialist in taste questions, for his opinion. But unfortunately none of the large historical films ("Ben Hur", "Spartacus", "Quo vadis") does show a pipe organ, neither a small with inlaid work and gold decorated bellows instrument in the houses of the noble families, nor the strong sounding water organ in the Circus Maximus. Nevertheless it is fact that to the sounds of the later church instrument gladiators marched up, tightrope walkers danced and even Christians began to the fight against lions.
"If you see one of your relatives depressed by mourning, do you want then to offer him fine fish or encourage him to hear on the sounds of the water organ? Do you want to place a bouquet before eyes, hold smelling blooms under his nose or wind a garland of roses around his neck? Don't you rather want to give a Socratic book to read and request him to listen on the comforting words from Platon?" Thus asked the Roman lawyer, philosopher and statesman Cicero (106 - 43 B.C.) in its "Third discussion in Tusculum", published 45 before Christ. Marcus Tullius Cicero went 79 to 77 B.C. on an educational trip to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean area and learned there the pipe organ to know and appreciate. So it was a matter of course to him to count its sounds to the eastern luxury goods, like a rare perfume or a meal of exquisite taste.
200 years later church father Justinus (103 - 168) represented a philosophy, that was cleaned of the pagan myths and God cults as well as the cultural habits of the time, in order to give to the truth of the being priority. So the young church with determination said good-bye to this eastern luxury instrument, as it did to all pagan joy of life and voluptuousness. This went so far that Justinus to musicians the baptism permitted only if they changed their occupation. The holy Hieronymus recommended to a distinguished Christian, to grow up her daughter without knowledge of the music instruments; "she is not to know, to which reason tibia, lyra and cithara are made." The council of Arles in the year 314 actually called up, to argue with North Africa's Donatists about their subjectivism of the sacrament, by the way excommunicated all actors and theatre people, to whom also the organists and cytharists were belonging.

Music with the church service?
There's no telling what tomorrow will bring and so church father Augustinus (354 - 430) announced already some decades later: "Who sings prays twice". But again and again religious zealots with a purism, which sought to be limited to the purely mental, the word of the Bible and prayer, tried to eliminate music as something sensuous-godless from the liturgy. One of them was the Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli, who banished all music from the service. What made this man to do this, who on the one hand composed and played more than one dozen instruments, who liked to eat and drink with others, who was even accused not to fast enough, on the other hand to pull down the beautiful medieval large organ of the Zurich Cathedral in the year 1527? Did he fear music as something leading not heaven and salvation, as something disturbing to peace and order within his theocracy? Or were purely economic causes the reason?
When the Roman emperor Constantine raised the Christianity in the year 324 to his state religion and moved the capital of his realm from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed to " Constantinople" (today: Istanbul), no one had any shyness to the organ tunes. It sounded, when the emperor dined, when he held audience, when stepped into public to watch horse race. The pipe organ was the obligatory instrument for the "Acclaims", with which the emperor let himself admire as embodiment of the state. Organ play rang out in honor of the state and the emperor, which had received his dignity out of God's hand and expressed this dignity in a solemn ceremony.
Rome remained still coined by pagan habits, while Byzantium respectively Constantinople grew up to the first Christian center. Language and culture were Greek, and according to the Greek view of life, art and science were maintained intensively. Sculptors and poets, painters, scientists and philosophers worked on the Byzantine court.
The instrument was not technically improved by the east Roman emperors, but more and more splendidly equipped. For example emperor Theophilus (829-842) let build two large organs in gold and occupy with jewels. These organs as well as a golden tree with singing birds were so valuable that the son let them melt and make to coins, in order to pay for officials and soldiers (Michael III., from 842 to 867 emperor, known as "the Drunkard"). Among Emperor Constantine VII. (944-959) there were even four organs at the court, two golden ones for the ruler personally and each a silver one for the "blue" and the "green" party.

2nd part of the organ history