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What exactly are the differences between, say, a German organ and a French organ?

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  • What exactly are the differences between, say, a German organ and a French organ?

    I don't really know much about organs. Really, in general, I'm interested in differences between organs across countries and eras. What sorts of distinguishing features would an organ have that would make you say "this is a French organ" or something like that?

  • #2
    What is typically considered a French organ is what we call a "French Romantic Organ" or "French Symphonic Organ." This was a style developed by Aristide Cavaille-Coll in the 1830s. The German Baroque organs usually ran on low wind pressure and were designed for contrapuntal music. They also used direct mechanical linkage from the keyboard to the windchest (tracker action.) This limited the size of the instrument.
    Cavaille-Coll recognized the importance of different air pressures needed for different registers. He divided the airchest in 2 sections: one for labial and wide mouth pipe voices (jeux de fonds), and the other one for narrow mouth pipe voices, mutations, mixtures and reeds (jeux de combinaison). Each section had a separate air supply with its specific air pressure. In this way, “air stealing” phenomenon between these two groups was avoided. A simple foot lever (appels) above the pedalboard enabled joining the windchests. Also, with the help of Charles Barker, he employed pneumatic motors to amplify the action of the the keyboard press which allowed for the development of larger, more powerful organs.
    The French Symphonic organ literature is exemplified by the composers Franck, Widor, Vierne and Dupre.


    • #3
      There are significant tonal differences between typical English, German, French, and Spanish organs, but I'm not sure how to describe them. Spanish reeds will peel your scalp off. English diapasons are very "plump" and solid. German principals are fairly thin and bright. French organs are brash. (My characterizations, YMMV)



      • #4
        If you go to the Sonus Paradisi virtual organ site you can hear samples of organs from different eras and different countries. Each sampled instrument has a group of demo pieces played on the instrument. It will give you a good idea of the type of literature that is typical to the style of organ.


        • #5
          I'm reminded of the organ serviceman who specialized in "tuning French organs and repairing Spanish organs." He said that allowed him to do pretty much nothing at all because "the French don't tune their organs and the Spanish don't repair theirs."
          *** 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!


          • Organkeys Jones
            Organkeys Jones commented
            Editing a comment
            That is funny!

          • Philip Powell
            Philip Powell commented
            Editing a comment
            That is super accurate as well.

        • #6
          Perhaps one of the best resources is Colin Pykett's articles on various organ topics. What you've asked, someguy12345 has been the topic of many books. We probably can't replicate the content of those books here, but I'll link to one of Colin Pykett's web articles here:

          I hope that helps you begin to understand the enormity of your question.

          Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
          • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
          • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
          • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos


          • #7
            Originally posted by someguy12345 View Post
            I'm interested in differences between organs across countries and eras. What sorts of distinguishing features would an organ have that would make you say "this is a French organ" or something like that?
            You have asked an interesting question that has different answers depending on the period of time, predominant religion and area even within one country. If you would like to explore this topic, I suggest that you read Barbara Owen's excellent book The Registration of Baroque Organ Music. This book is really much broader than the title suggests. She covers the 16th through 18th centuries and discusses the characteristics of the organ and how it was used by composers in different places and periods of time.

            Organs in Northern, Central and Southern Germany were different. The French romantic organ developed from the French Classic organ that preceded it. Barbara Owen helps the modern performer on a modern instrument who wants to make sense of it all. You can find her book at a library or purchase it either new or used online.

            My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk


            • #8
              Originally posted by someguy12345 View Post
              What sorts of distinguishing features would an organ have that would make you say "this is a French organ" or something like that?
              As others have noted, the answer is too complex. You could also ask, "What's the difference between French organs built in 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, and 2000?"

              May I ask you, "Once you have this information, what was your next question going to be?"


              • #9
                In addition to Barbara Owen's book which Bill recommended above, if you really want to dig into it (600 pages worth), I can highly recommend the book "The Organ: Its Evolution, Principles of Construction and Use" by William Leslie Sumner. Originally published in 1952, the author revised and added to it in following editions with the fourth edition prepared shortly before his death in 1973. The fourth edition went through multiple printings; I have the 1981 printing. While not perfect and not updated with the latest & greatest scholarship, it's very useful because he covers the evolution of the organ in the first 250 pages from Pan pipes to the 1960's. Section 2 covers the construction of the organ, everything from pipe scales to console appointments. It has tons of pictures, diagrams and stop lists. It is a fantastic, everything in one place, book. It's not necessarily a book you read from cover to cover, but what interests you.

                Unfortunately, it is out of print but used copies are available on Amazon for only roughly $10 to $30, depending on the seller.

                I haven't kept up with 'books on the organ' publishing for quite a few years and don't know if there is a similar, more up-to-date, all-encompassing book currently in print. I purchased my copy new from The Organ Literature Foundation. I used to drool over their catalog when it came in the mail. Large number of books available and recordings, including vinyl LPs. A google search finds a reference in 1997. It's gone out of business and/or absorbed by the OHS (or some other entity)???

                My instrument: Allen MDS-65 with a New Century Zimbelstern
                Former instruments (RIP): Allen ADC 420; Conn Minuet 542


                • Larrytow
                  Larrytow commented
                  Editing a comment
                  I remember the Organ Literature Foundation - I used to drool over the catalog too ! I got my reprints of the Audsley ( The Art of Organ Building ) and Barnes ( The Contemporary American Organ ) books from them. Others too, but those two I still look at to refresh my memory of various pipe organ details.

              • #10
                If you want to hear the differences and have differences explained, watch Fraser Gartshore's videos. He plays organs around Germany but occasionally plays a French organ. He does a great job describing the organs he plays.
                "I play the notes as they are written (well, I try), but it is God who makes the music." - Johann Sebastian Bach
                Organs I Play:
                - Home: VPO Compiled from Allen 2110 parts
                - Church: M.P. Moller 1951 (Relocated 2015) 3 manual, 56 stop, 38 ranks (Opus 8152)


                • #11
                  In addition to the Sumner book that George references in his post above, there is The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, ed. Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber. This would be another excellent addition to your library. It was published in 1998 and has contributions from eminent scholars at that time. It begins with the origins, development, construction and physics of the organ. There is a chapter on the organ case and current (at that time) trends in organ building. A large portion of the book is an overview of repertoire as it relates to the various national styles of organ building.


                  My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk


                  • #12
                    I won't pretend to be able to cover the subject in depth, but I will write a short introduction of the various schools. If I err, I'm sure some of the other organ experts on this forum will correct me! It's true that there was a lot of variation among all the nations, and across time periods, and a thorough understanding of the differences would require a fair amount of reading.

                    From the time the organ was re-introduced to Europe from the Byzantine empire until the Baroque period, the organ and organ building spread to the major european regions, and each of them developed their own style of organ building. In the baroque period in France, they developed a principal made of tin (which was plentiful there), that had a relatively narrow scale (narrower pipes), and so had quite a lot of harmonic development. They complemented this with stopped flutes they called bourdons, which were wider scale, and usually made of lead, and had a louder fundamental. Used together, the principal chorus had good power from the flutes, and good definition from the principals. French organs were usually tuned in meantone, which has pure thirds, and very reedy fifths. To complement this, they used a lot of mutations at the 1 3/5' level (roughly an octave and a third above speaking pitch), as well as the 2 2/3' level, with characteristic mixtures which include the fourniture and cymbale (similar to the fourniture, but higher pitched at the lower keys). They also employed a special mixture called a cornet (pronounced cornay), which included the 2 2/3 and 1 3/5 mutations along with at least a 2' rank of pipes, and often a 4' and 8' as well. This created a reedy composite that was often used either alone or to bolster French reeds, which tended to be quieter in the high pitches. The favourite French baroque reed was the trompette, which was very loud and reedy, particularly at the bottom end. They also employed cromornes and voix humaines, which compared to some modern stops of the same kind, tended to be quite reedy. The pedal tended to be quite simple, with the most common stops only a 8' flute, a 4' flute, and an 8' trompette. French baroque pieces from the period used a careful balance between this simple pedal line and the manuals, and usually used specific registrations such as the "Plein Jeu" or "Grand Jeu," etc., which usually had a very similar registration even between different organs.

                    In Germany, however, tin was not very plentiful, but lead was. They developed an organ building school where most of the pipes were made of lead. The principals were wider scaled than the french principals, which gave them a "flutier" timbre. Compared to the French, they preferred more variety between different organs, and they liked to employ a wide variety of colour flutes, such as the Gemshorn, spitzflote, Rohrflote (flute with a chimney), Gedackt (covered flute). etc. These would often be built in parallel choruses, so you would often find a principal chorus, and a flute chorus, with their own mixtures to crown each chorus. Compared to the French baroque organ, they had more fully developed pedal divisions that were usually based on stops at the 16' level. The germans thought the reeds should crown the principal chorus, so they added lead to the tongues of the reeds (I believe), to soften them out compared to French reeds. They also employed a number of other colour reeds, such as those in the regal class (which were free reeds).

                    In Italy, they developed their own style where the keyboard was divided, and each end of the keyboard had their own stops (though the French did this in a limited way as well, particularly with the cornet stop). They also tended to divide up the mixture so that each individual stop could be drawn up the compass separately. They also favoured soft colour flutes, and ranks made of two different pipes tuned slightly apart from each other so that there were audible beats when played (what we call today a celeste). Usually Italian organs had very limited pedal division, and the pipes of the higher ranks broke back earlier than on other continental organs, so that the Italian mixture had a preponderance of relatively lower tones, which is what gave the mixtures the characteristic "ripieno" sound. Italian pipes tended to be wider scaled, and voiced on very low wind pressures, so that they had a softer and more rustic sound.

                    In Spain, they adopted a similar keyboard splitting arrangement to the Italians, but rather than separating out the higher stops in the mixtures, they tended to lump them all together in a mixture called a "Lleno." The pipe sounds were similar to the Italians, but since they employed a wind chest ("secreto") with relatively small chambers and had a narrower scale, they had a slightly stringier and softer tone. To complement the principal chorus, they often had a similarly soft and sweet flute stop they called a "tapadillo." For power, they employed powerful reed stops that were often mounted "en chamade" on the front of the case, but that had very narrow resonators with a huge flare at the end. This produced a very thin and piercing reed tone that are very enriched in the higher harmonics. They were split at the middle of the keyboard, and the reeds at the top half were often an octave higher than their counterparts on the bottom half, to give more power in the upper octaves. They also employed free reeds with very short resonators on the front of the case that had interesting names such as the "orlas" "viejas" or "dulzaina," which were often voiced very reedy and loud.

                    English Baroque organs were usually designed to sit on the choir screen (or rood screen) that separated the congregation from the celebrant at the church and the choir. As a result, they usually had a complete set of pipes on the front and back of the organ for balance. The principals were built and voiced to have a naturally reedier tone. They usually had no or very limited pedal divisions, which was compensated by the fact that the keyboard went down to the G below the lowest C usually on keyboards in the continent (particularly in Germany).

                    After the Baroque period, there was gradual change in each national style along different lines that culminated in the Romantic period with each national style having evolved along certain lines.

                    In France, the mixtures, cornets, and mutations of yesteryear were gradually abandoned (After the manner of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll), and replaced by more colour flutes and strings such as the flute harmonique (which in the upper octaves had pipes that were double length and overblown to speak the octave), the salicional, the Viole de gambe, the flute traversiere, etc. The principals and bourdons of the past were retained, but they were built with higher wind pressures and modifications to amplify certain harmonics, and to give more power in the upper octaves. The reeds were greatly increased in power, particularly at the upper octaves, with higher wind pressures and more aggressive scaling. The pedal was expanded so that there were more 16' stops, and more stops of different tone colours including flutes, principals and strings. Most organs had an enclosed division, usually called the Recit, where the loudness of the pipes could be varied by opening and closing the swell shades.

                    In Germany, rather than use a swell division to add expression, instead they included even more colour flutes of various different kinds, and at very different loudness levels, so that by changing registration, changes in loudness could be obtained. Most organs continued to have mixtures, but they were usually a lot less in number than their baroque counterparts.

                    In Italy, the traditional stops were usually retained, but adding onto them started to be a wider variety of colour stops, including colour reeds, which were also split at the middle of the keyboard.

                    In Spain, there never ended up being much development on the original baroque style, since not a lot of new organs were built during the romantic period. When new organs were built, they often incorporated new ideas being developed in other areas of the continent.

                    In England, the unrest from the reformation and the civil war ended up almost totally destroying the English organ style, and so they were forced to import German builders, who created a synthesis between the evolving German style, and what remained of the English baroque style. This culminated in the romantic period with principals that had lost almost all of their original reediness, but had very highly developed fundamentals, and therefore a lot of power, particularly in the lower octaves. Mixtures were retained, but primarily as a way to help combine the now more powerful reeds to the principal chorus. They also started incorporating a lot more colour flutes, however the English had their own favourites, and there tended to be fads where certain stops were very desired, then later abandoned, like the viol d'amour, the keraulophone, the lieblich gedact, etc. The extension down to G was abandoned, and romantic era English organs obtained a full pedal board and a full pedal division. Many English organs also had an enclosed division, originally controlled with a lever, later with a swell pedal. Later in the Romantic, many larger English organs started to incorporate a tuba, which was a very loud and high pressure reed division with very flared resonator that gave it a characteristic "hollow" sound. In England was also developed new ways of making reed shallots that enabled them to have a "smoother" sound, and a gentler power curve, which became characteristic of English reeds.

                    In the United states, in the classical period, many English organs started to be imported to the USA, and then later built there, which tended to blend English and French, and German characteristics in the beginning. During the romantic, however, a characteristic national style was developed where the principal chorus was altered to give it more fundamental and smoothness, and a relatively quiet mixture used to crown the principal chorus. The smooth English reeds were retained and developed, and colour flutes also modified to give them different colour and smoothness from their counterparts on the continent.

                    Now in the post romantic period, there has been a fair amount of mixing between different national styles and incorporating a mix of techniques and styles from all the different period. This started with the "organ reform" movement, where many organs were built that tried to bring back many elements of baroque organ building, while often still maintaining some romantic style improvements, like colour stops and swell chests. More recently, many organs are built in a more "eclectic" style, that often combines stops from many different eras and national styles.

                    Current: Allen 225 RTC, W. Bell reed organ, Lowrey TGS, Singer upright grand
                    Former: Yamaha E3R