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A pipe organ's pedals only play the bass notes: True or False?

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  • A pipe organ's pedals only play the bass notes: True or False?

    Can they play other ranges as well as tenor or treble?

    It seems that every electric organ I've seen has pedals only in the bass range.

    Can a pipe organ's hand-operated keys (manuals) also play the bass range?

  • #2
    A standard organ setup has usually two or more manuals (keyboards for the hands), which have 61 keys in the AGO spec, though some organs have fewer keys per manual. And a set of pedals, 32 of them in the AGO spec, but sometimes just 30, or 27, or 25, or just a single octave.

    Technically, in a standard organ, the lowest key on the manuals (C1) is also the lowest key on the pedals (also C1). So theoretically, you can play the same notes with the hands as with the feet. However, the difference is usually that the pedal has powerful and deep bass stops (or voices) while the stops on the manuals are less powerful in the bass. So in most types of playing, you will see the bass part of a piece played by the feet on the pedals, simply because that produces the desired effect.

    But then there are players in the Hammond world who specifically play a "bass line" on the lowest keys of the manuals. And there are classical organ pieces in which the pedals are called upon to play solo melodies. This is possible on a classical organ because on such an organ there are usually at least one or two higher pitched stops that can be turned on to allow the feet to produce sounds way up on the melody range. An example of such a stop would be the Schalmei 4, which is often found in the pedal division of a well-equipped pipe organ. Another stop sometimes used as a melody stop in the pedals is the Choral Bass 4.

    So, to answer your questions:

    1. False. The organ pedals usually have some higher pitched stops that reach well up into the treble range.

    2. Yes, they can play well up in to the treble range, especially pedals that have all 32 keys present, which brings the note range up to the G above middle C, and if there are 4' stops present, the actual sounds are an octave higher than that. So quite high in pitch if needed.

    3. And yes, you can play the bass part on the hand-operated keyboards if you like. Most organs have at least one 16' stop on one of the keyboard divisions, and you can draw that stop, play in the bottom octave, and get quite a full bass that way, if you can spare a hand for that.

    PS -- Many organs today also have an accessory called a "bass coupler" or "manual bass" or "continuo" function which literally makes it possible to play the pedals with a finger. When this control is engaged, the lowest note that you are playing on the Great or lower keyboard will be automatically transferred to the pedals, and will play whatever stops you have drawn in the pedal division. This is a kind of "cheating" feature that has been put on modern organs to let non-organists play hymns and get a pedal note sounded without having to use their feet on the pedals. It works, though many find it a little quirky. You have to develop a certain tricky technique to get it to play the right bass note every time.
    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!


    • #3
      Plus on some classical organs you can have a selection of couplers that will allow you to couple the keyboard voices to the pedals.
      Until The Next Dimension,
      Admiral Coluch.

      -1929 Wangerin Pipe Organ Historian
      -Owner 1982 Rogers Specification 990


      • #4
        False. Here's an example where the melody is played on the pedals. Virgil Fox's arrangement of Simple Gifts.

        Allen 965
        Zuma Group Midi Keyboard Encoder
        Zuma Group DM Midi Stop Controller
        Hauptwerk 4.2


        • voet
          voet commented
          Editing a comment
          This is such a lovely piece. It has been a favorite of mine ever since I first obtained it in a collection of Fox's organ works many years ago. Ironically, there is nothing simple about this piece but it is a real gem, especially for an organ that can do it justice. Ian Tracey plays it beautifully.

      • #5
        Originally all organs that had pedals played separate pipes only in the 8ft range, whatever the compass. This was to supply the "organum" or plainsong part while the manuals played improvised or written variations upon it while the choir sang. Medieval organs had no mechanism to stop different ranks of pipes off; the 8' 4' 2' Mixtures and Cymbals all played together. This is known today as a "Blockwerk". Gradually a register action developed to "stop off" the lower ranks, eventually only leaving the Mixture and Cymbal to play together. As for the pedal, only a compass of 1 or 1.1/2 octaves was built. This in almost all cases had one single stop, a Trompet 8' to play the required "organum".

        There are details that exist for the main organ in Halberstadt Cathedral which was built in 1361 by Nicolaus Faber. This organ had replaced another built sometime in the 11th century before being rebuilt itself by Gregorius Kleng in 1495. This organ contained three sets of keys, two for the hands (or rather the fists) and one for the feet. The top set played the full organ, the second set below played the Praestant 8 case pipes only (still no separate stop) and the set for the feet played the "Trom" (= Trompet 8').

        While all this was going on, a separate, far smaller instrument was being developed which had one manual (no pedals yet) containing quieter ranks to provide accompaniment for the choir who were now beginning to sing madrigals and anthems instead of just plainsong. There were also small hand held organs called portatives that were used in processions etc. Therefore, the small organ that stood in the choir, because it wasn't able to move was known as a Positiv. Gradually over time after the mediaeval main organ had more of it's ranks stopped off the Positiv adopted a new position up on the west gallery in front of the main organ and behind the organist. Add to that the development of finger keys the organ was becoming to look like the familiar design of a two-manual organ today.

        The development of the Pedal organ as a department to play the bass notes didn't develop for another two hundred years. By the time of the first flowering of the Baroque Period, this department was still underdeveloped. The keyboard works of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) demand no work for the pedals, except for supplying the plainsong theme in the 8ft tenor register when constructing Toccatas and Fantasias, either as original compositions or on pieces based on chorale tunes. His three-manual organ in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam possessed only three 8ft Pedal stops, Praestant, Octaav, Trompet with a Hoofdwerk-Pedaal coupler. However, by the turn of the 17th century things began to rapidly change. By the time of Sweelinck's most famous German pupils e.g. Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654) and Heinrich Scheidemann (c.1595-1663), more independent demands were being written for the feet, since this was the time when the singing of chorales or hymns by the community was first allowed. So too the sound of the organ was changing. Now it was being used for the first time to accompany a large number of people and not just the choir. This is also the time when organ music came of age: not only was it to lead the music just for choir, but for the full compliment of people. It's not surprising then that from this time onwards, the organist was also expected to improvise (hardly any keyboard music was written down, let alone published) to display his formidable performing skills. This led to compositions which could only be played on the organ alone (for two hands and feet), culminating in the high and late Baroque with the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1636-1707) Nikolaus Bruhns (1665-1695), Vincent Lubeck (1654-1740) and Georg Bohm (1661-1733) whose music would inspire and serve as models for Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). This kind of music, known in its day as the "Stylus Fantasticus" originated in Italy but was adopted and perfected by composers such as the ones above.

        Organs in England, however. developed on far more conservative lines. Originally conceived as in mainland Europe as an instrument to accompany the choir, it would appear that it's continued growth and development had been severely stunted by the intervention of the English Civil War. Even after that, the only buildings furnished with organs were in Cathedrals or large important town churches. One particular difference because of this was that the pedal organ never developed at all. The compass of English organs were aligned more to the harpsichord. Even the large three-manual organ in the newly built St Pauls Cathedral in London by Bernhard Smith in 1708 had no pedals. This was remedied in 1720 at the request of Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) when the instrument was supplied with a set of pedals attached the Great manual so he was able to play the music of his homeland. The organ in Birmingham Town Hall (Hill, 1834) was probably the first instrument in the country to have a separate Pedal organ, but this too could also be played by a set of small finger keys below the Choir manual should the organist who was playing was unfamiliar with a pedalboard. William Hill also built a separate Pedal organ with four stops (Open Diapason 16, Bourdon 16', Octave 8' Trombone 16') at the parish church in Shoreditch in 1840, after which the then organist said to him "Well, you may put them there, but I will never use them!" .


        • regeron
          regeron commented
          Editing a comment
          Arnold Schlick "Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten" (1511) includes a specification for a two-manual (F-a2) and pedal (F-c1) organ. The pedal division includes:
          Principaln 16'
          Principaln 8'
          Octaff 4'
          Trommetten or Bassaun

      • #6
        I'm curious to know what prompted the original post. Why has this question become important at this time?
        Since it appears to come from a non-organist, was there a conversation or experience that caused the question to arise?


        Most trained musicians can tell you that "bass notes" could be defined as the lowest notes of a series of chords, or the lowest line of notes in a composition. So that even it a piece were written for 3 sopranos, the lowest could harmonically/technically be called a "bass line" because it would function as such.

        Most keyboard musicians can tell you that notes in the "bass range" could be available on any keyboard (and in the case of an organ, on any division, whether it's manual or pedal.) This range is normally understood to start about a fifth or more below middle C and continuing downward.

        Most trained organists can tell you that what is often called the 'bass range', ie, stops sounding one or more octaves below the unison, can potentially be found on any division, manual or pedal. If this octave displacement is what you have in mind, then the bass range will be wherever you find a 16', 32', or 64' stop.

        Most trained organists can tell you that, depending on the stops and couplers available on an instrument, the pedals can play in any range, from the lowest notes of a composition to the highest.


        • Tertia
          Tertia commented
          Editing a comment
          Sadly you are very wrong concerning Arnolt Schlick and I will give a few reasons why.

          Arnolt Schlick (c.1455-1460 - after 1521) was a German organist, lutenist and composer during the Renaissance. He was most likely born in Heidelberg and in 1482 he gained employment as the court organist to the Electorate of the Palatinate.

          Schlick was blind, either by birth or for most of his life, but that didn't stop him from publishing several important works. His most famous work was entitled "Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten" which was published in 1511, the first German treatise on building and playing organs. The surviving organ music of Arnolt Schlick is extremely important historically as it features sophisticated cantus firmus techniques, truly independent bass lines between five to ten voices and extensive imitation, which predated the Baroque Period by nearly one hundred years, which makes Schlick one of the most important composers in keyboard musical history.

          During his career, Schlick travelled widely, most notably in the low countries and to other places throughout Germany. He was also in high demand to inspect organs that had been newly built. The earliest record of this activity was in 1491 when he inspected the new organ in Strasbourg Cathedral. The very last reference to Schlick was when he examined the organ at St Georg in Hagenau which was carried out between December 1520 - January 1521.

          Schlick's book first acknowledges his patrons and briefly discusses the nature of music before describing the purpose of the book. It was never intended to be for either organists or organ builders but for those within a monastery of church or for church authorities who wanted to buy a new organ, or for those who already had one entrusted to their care.

          The preface is followed by no less than ten chapters which cover almost every aspect of organ building, including the construction of windchests and bellows, keyboard construction and tuning. Even the instrument's position and its case ornaments are discussed.

          Now, to the relevance of this post. The most important subject to be discussed in Schlick's book describes the tonal specification for his "ideal" organ, i.e. not one that is yet built. The instrument he describes is a two-manual organ with eight to ten stops for the Hauptwerk, four for the Ruckpositiv and four for the Pedal;


          Principal, of two ranks, either of 8 x 2 or 16 + 8 (separate or not?)
          a "long Octav" (= 4'?)
          a wide Gemshorn, an octave above the Principals (2?)
          Flageolet (2?)
          Mixtur, gross
          Zimbel (? ranks)
          Zink or Cornett (? ranks)
          Regal (reed, either 16' or 8')


          Principal 8 (wood)
          Gemshorn 4 (small)
          Mixtur 3-4 ranks
          Zimbel (? ranks) without third sounding rank


          Principal (16?) derived (= transmitted) from Hauptwerk
          Octaff (8')
          Octaff (4) and Mixtur derived (transmitted)from Hauptwerk
          Posaune 16' or Trompete *' (most likely the latter).

          This then is the plan for Schlick's ideal organ, which at the time wasn't yet built.
          Actually, it doesn't hold any significant changes to others already built.
          However, the most discussed chapter concerns the pitch and temperament of the organ.

          The compass of the organ in Schlick's day conformed with every other keyboard instrument,
          with the lowest note being Contra F, which has been found to be at a pitch one whole note lower than our present day pitch.
          As to the question of temperament, Schick advocated an irregular one, close to 1/5th comma meantone,
          with the major thirds being slightly wider than pure.

          I hope this clears up any misconceptions that may have arisen.

      • #7
        Thanks for the clarification. I was simply quoting from Corliss Arnold's "Organ Literature," second edition 1984. I see now that it doesn't indicate whether this was an existing stoplist or an imagined one.

        In spite of our little tangent, I'm still curious to know from the original poster why the question came up in the first place.
        Last edited by regeron; 03-20-2019, 05:34 AM.


        • #8
          Originally posted by Tertia View Post
          Organs in England, however. developed on far more conservative lines. ......... William Hill also built a separate Pedal organ with four stops (Open Diapason 16, Bourdon 16', Octave 8' Trombone 16') at the parish church in Shoreditch in 1840, after which the then organist said to him "Well, you may put them there, but I will never use them!" .
          I wonder where that came from? I'm a bit sceptical. Samuel Spofforth said exactly this to the organ builder Holdich with reference to the massive organ he built in Lichfield Cathedral in 1861 - Spofforth being the cathedral organist. Shoreditch parish church never had an organ by Hill, I think.

          Some English organists were certainly very reluctant to use the "new-fangled" pedals. By the end of Sir George Smart's career his inability to play the pedals was out-dated: when invited to try a pedal organ at the Great Exhibition in 1851 his famous reply was, ‘My dear Sir, I never in my life played upon a gridiron'. (A cooking griddle - nothing to do with any American sport).

          It's worth pointing out that English organs then had long-compass manuals, going down to at least low F), which enabled noble bass effects and which the best organists could play very quickly. The adoption of full pedalboards with independent pipes was driven by the influence of Mendelssohn and the discovery of Bach's organ music.

          The organ I play was built in 1865 and had a full pedalboard with one rank of pipes - the "Grand Open Diapason"!
          Last edited by Peterboroughdiapason; 04-19-2019, 01:43 PM.