We all have heard a pipe organ played in a church. And, when played well, we can understand this quote attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “To my eyes and ears, the organ will ever be the King of Instruments.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2011) also speaks highly of the church pipe organ, saying it “is to be accorded pride of place,” (n. 393) ahead of other accepted musical instruments at liturgical services.
However, pipe organs are relatively rare — including modern electronic or digital organs that replicate well the pipe sounds of traditional organs. The same applies to musicians who play such instruments, and composers who can write music for an instrument that can imitate an entire orchestra. All are rare. So hearing an organ in church may become as uncommon as in the early days of the church.
Given its place of importance and fabled past in great churches, it might surprise people to learn that the organ did not enter houses of worship until rather late in recorded history. In fact, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, objections to the organ’s use in churches continued until the 12th century.
Why this was so makes an interesting tale. The original organ — an instrument using air to push sound through pipes — was invented in ancient Egypt. This first organ is credited to Ctesibius, a mechanic who lived in Alexandria in the third century, B.C., who used water to make music through the organ’s pipes.
Sometimes called a hydraulis, this organ became popular for theatrical entertainment and even ancient circuses. Both could become very rowdy. Also, no one could imitate the perfection of Ctesibius’ mechanical creation until the 19th century, when a way to regulate an even flow of air through pipes was invented. These things combined to decrease the popularity of the organ as a church instrument for centuries.
However, the organ, in less perfect forms, gained popularity in Europe with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire. In the middle of the eighth century, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V sent a portable organ to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Pepin was the father of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Before long, construction of organs — with improvements and the additions of bellows, pipes and keyboards — flourished across Europe, especially in Germany. In fact, also according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a pope even built a hydraulic version himself: Sylvester II (999-1003).
The organ, even an imperfect one, had the ability to sound like many instruments — most especially the human voice. This made it the perfect accompaniment to Gregorian chant, which became popular around the time of St. Gregory I (who was pope from 590 to 604). For centuries, only Gregorian chant was used in Catholic churches. However, the organ eventually joined it, reaching a height of popularity under such composers as George Frederic Handel in England and Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany. One of the early great organs was that of Winchester Cathedral in England. Installed in the middle of the 10th century, it had 400 pipes and required two people to operate it. The current cathedral organ dates to 1851.
(The largest pipe organ on record, with 33,114 pipes and seven keyboards, was the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City. Constructed in 1929, it was damaged in 1944 and remains not yet fully restored.)
Of course, not everyone liked church organs. The Puritans of 17th century England destroyed organs — partially because of their link to the Catholic Church, but also because of their mistrust of all musical instruments. This — given our Protestant history — is why church organs were not common in the United States in its early days, either.
Even the Vatican did not see an organ installed in St. Peter’s Basilica until 1962. And this organ (still located near the Altar of the Chair) was never popular, because its sound could only be heard through the use of microphones around the church. This changed in 2017, when a state of the art digital organ, built by the Allen Organ Company of the United States, was installed in the basilica. Its first performance happened at Christmas Eve Mass in 2017.
The Sistine Chapel also has an organ, but this Swiss-made instrument was not installed until 2002 — and first used for a Jan. 12, 2003 Mass celebrated by St. John Paul II.
As Advent and Christmas approach, various churches will host organ concerts. These can offer an opportunity to understand Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s comments at the blessing of the organ at the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lady in Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006: “The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation . . . and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. … It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.”
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; boardwalkhall.com; vaticannews.va; Catholic World Report; Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies at Cornell University at westfield.org; theatreorgans.com; the American Guild of Organists at agohq.org; Catholic News Service; The Baltimore Sun; The Deacon’s Bench at patheos.org; praytellblog.com; catholicherald.co.uk; swissinfo.ch; and classichistory.net