Organ Music: Pulling Out All the Stops The organ has been described, along with the clock, as the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Miles Hoffman unravels the complexities and the mysteries of the musical giant.

Organ Music: Pulling Out All the Stops

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(Soundbite of organ music)


The organ has been described, along with the clock, as the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Mozart called it the king of instruments. We're listening now to the largest concert-hall organ in the United States. That organ weighs 32 tons and recently made its debut at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

Music commentator Miles Hoffman is here to unravel the complexities and the mysteries of the organ. He's the author of the NPR Classical Music Companion. And good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us some basics. Most people have a picture of what an organ is like, and it's quite dramatic.

HOFFMAN: That's what I think is so interesting, Renee. You know, millions of people hear the organ every weekend whether in church or wherever, but how the thing works does remain kind of mysterious.

An organ is, fundamentally, a wind instrument. It's a wind instrument played with a keyboard, but it is a wind instrument. And the basic principle is that you're forcing air into the bottoms of pipes. All organs have a means of blowing air: blowers. The air is blown into a reservoir that keeps the air at constant pressure. From the reservoir, the air goes into a wind chest, and all the pipes sit on this wind chest.

Now, then what happens, Renee, is just as with a flute, say, or an oboe, you blow air at one end to create a vibration and the air inside the instrument then vibrates; it's a sympathetic vibration. What you're doing is you're creating a vibration with this forced air at the bottom of the organ pipes, and that's what creates the sound. And the keyboard is just a system to operate valves.

When you press down a key, you're essentially opening up a valve at the bottom of an organ pipe.

MONTAGNE: So with those pipes - say, you're on the flute end of things, and it would probably be one of those tinier, narrower, shorter pipes.

HOFFMAN: Well, right, and that's the point. The quality of the sound and the pitch - the actual note - is determined by the size and the design of the pipe. So the shorter the pipe, the higher the pitch, in other words, the higher the note. The longer the pipe, and bigger and wider, the lower the note. And some organs have pipes that are 32 feet long or 64 feet long, and then the smallest pipe, for example, on this new organ at the Kimmel Center, is the size of a drinking straw. And, actually, I don't know, do you have your ears primed here, Renee? We have a recording of the sound of the smallest pipe on this new organ. Listen to this. This is quite something. Make sure there are no dogs in the studio.

(Soundbite of silence)


(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Miles! That would, of course, be part of a larger sound.

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't think you want to hear that - we also have -listen to this. This is one of the low notes on the organ. This is one of the low sounds.

(Soundbite of low organ note)

MONTAGNE: Bon voyage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: Yeah, exactly. Imagine the range of this instrument. It's all determined by the size and the design of the pipes. That's how you get different sounds with an organ. That's what the organist does. He or she chooses what's called a registration - chooses which ranks - which stops to open up - which valves to open up so that you get all these different sounds.

MONTAGNE: Here's sort of an astonishing thought. That expression, pull out all the stops...


MONTAGNE: comes from - could you pull out all the stops on this Kimmel Center organ.

HOFFMAN: I asked Lynn Dobson, who is the maker of the organ - the builder of the organ, Dobson Organs - if you could pull out all the stops and he said, yes, I think you could.

MONTAGNE: Would you want to?

HOFFMAN: Well, that was his next point, would you want to, because it would be an absolutely overwhelming sound. And I should mention that when you say, pull out all the stops, first of all, that expression is associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, because he was not only a great organist, he was an organ tester. And when he went to a different city, he was much in demand to test organs. When he went around testing an organ, the first thing he would do would be to pull out all the stops to get all the pipes sounding at once so that he could see, in his words, what kind of lungs the instrument had.

(Soundbite of song "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor")

HOFFMAN: Well, Renee, that organ sounds like it's got plenty of lungs. That is from a famous piece by Bach, the D Minor Toccata and Fugue. That was played by Michael Murray on the Skinner-Schlicker organ - say that three times fast - the Skinner-Schlicker organ at the First Congregational Church right down the street from you in Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: Right, here in Los Angeles.

HOFFMAN: That's right.

MONTAGNE: Could anybody who plays the piano well, play the organ?

HOFFMAN: Yes, but not necessarily well. It's a very different skill. First of all, you have multiple keyboards - multiple manuals. And sometimes, organists have to actually put one finger on one manual and hold a note down and then play notes on another manual. Plus, there's no decay. If you hold the key down on the organ, the note just keeps sounding and organists have to get used to that.

They also have to know how to use their feet to play the pedal keyboard. As a matter of fact, they have to wear - they usually do - professional organists wear special shoes so that they can feel the keys with their feet - this pedal keyboard.

It's much more complicated, plus they have to know which stops to pull in and push out and which buttons to push. Plus, an organist has to learn each different organ and know what it sounds like and know what the different stops on that particular organ sound like.

It's incredibly complicated; but I've had one organist, Renee, say to me that when it's all going right, that when it feels right, it feels like you're flying.

MONTAGNE: Miles, let me just ask you, as I usually do, what would you have us listen to to end this conversation?

HOFFMAN: Well, Renee, on the opening concert in the Kimmel Center - the very first concert that was played with this grand, brand-new organ - the Philadelphia Orchestra, the organist is Olivier Latry, and these are the final moments of the Toccata Festiva by Samuel Barber for organ and orchestra.

MONTAGNE: Miles, thanks very much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Music commentator Miles Hoffman is author of the NPR Classical Music Companion.

(Soundbite of Toccata Festiva)

MONTAGNE: Get a look at the Kimmel Center's magnificent new organ, which looks like it's floating, and read more about what makes pipe organs work, from the NPR Musical Companion at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of Toccata Festiva)

(Soundbite of applause)

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