A Brief Look At The French Classical Organ, Its Origins and German Counterpart

by Lawrence Phelps

Although the organ has its origins deep in antiquity and is known to have played an important role in the ceremonial life of the people in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Babylon, the instrument as we know it today - the "modern" organ - took shape in the Gothic period, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries. The organ builders of the lowland countries, especially those of Brabant, made the most significant contribution to the evolution of the instrument during this period and also throughout the next two centuries, as it changed from the ungainly multipipe noisemaker requiring as many as 70 men to maintain its wind supply, with enormous fist sized keys and presided over by "organbeaters" (viz. the 12th century monsters at Winchester and Halberstat), to the precise polyphonic instrument that inspired Bach and the colour-rich instrument that shaped the works of many generations of French Classical masters. Today, the clear polyphonic texture of the North German instruments seems so vastly different from the colour conscious scheme that became virtually a standard for well over 100 years in France, that it is difficult for us to believe that these two schools of organbuilding sprang from the same source. Nevertheless, both these contrasting concepts were evolved by builders from the lowlands working in Northern Germany and in France, particularly Paris.

During the 15th century in the tiny Flemish region known as Brabant, there developed two distinct schools of organbuilders. Conveniently they divided themselves geographically, so if we do not take these titles too literally with reference to the actual political divisions of the Duchy of Brabant, we may refer to them as the North Brabant builders and the South Brabant builders. The northerners were notably slow in introducing innovations. The Gothic organ customarily had a main division (called a "Blockwerk") which usually had 10 to 12 ranks sounding together for each note, but in large instruments the number of pipes per note was 40 to 50 or sometimes more, and these could not be separated into ranks to allow any of the pipes to be sounded individually.

Typical two-manual organ in the low countries of about 1480

16' Blockwerk X-XX

8' Hohlpfeife
4' Mixtur V-X
2' Scharff V-X

32' Bourdon (open pipes)
16' Blockwerk (Hauptwerkcoupled)

Typical composition of Blockwerk of 1480
No. of

VIII - 16, 8,                     4,       2 2/3,               2, 2,    1 1/3, 1 1/3 - F to c#1
XI   - 16, 8,                     4, 4,    2 2/3, 2 2/3,        2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - d1 to e1
XII  - 16, 8,       5 1/3,        4, 4,    2 2/3, 2 2/3,        2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - f1
XIII - 16, 8,       5 1/3,        4, 4,    2 2/3, 2 2/3,        2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - f#1
XIV  - 16, 8, 8,    5 1/3,        4, 4,    2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - g1 to c2
XVI  - 16, 8, 8, 8, 5 1/3,        4, 4, 4, 2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - c#2 to d#2
XVII - 16, 8, 8, 8, 5 1/3, 5 1/3, 4, 4, 4, 2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2 2/3, 2, 2, 2, 1 1/3, 1 1/3 - e2 to a2

This type of construction prevailed until near the end of the 15th century when a system of controlling the ranks of pipes individually was developed and gradually introduced into new and rebuilt instruments. Even at this early date organs frequently had two divisions, each with its own keyboard. The main division - the Hauptwerk or Great organ - was placed high in the case above the organist, and the second division - the Rückwerk or Rückpositiv - placed on the rail of the organ gallery behind the organist. It was the eight foot rank of the second division that was first made available separately, then gradually other ranks of this division were fitted with separate actions. By the middle of the 15th century the South Brabant builders had separated virtually all the ranks, the only compound (or multi-ranked) registers remaining being those of a type we now classify generally as mixtures. They had also added reed ranks to their instruments, and these occasionally were included even on the Great. The North Brabant builders, however, even very late in the century still had not separated more than a rank or two from the Great Blockwerk and it was not until after 1600 that reeds appeared with some regularity in their instruments, especially on the Great.

The fame of the Brabant builders brought them much work in the neighbouring regions throughout this period. Those of the North worked throughout North Germany, and they continued to use Blockwerks in their new instruments as well as in the old organs they rebuilt. In fact the great polyphonic instruments of the organ's golden age - those archetypes of what we now call the North German style - were the direct descendants of the work of the North Brabant builders, and the essential features of the organ concept brought so brilliantly to its culmination by the incomparable Arp Schnitger actually represented further development of the precepts and innovations of these earlier builders.

The South Brabant builders worked in France, especially Paris, and also in Spain. Having developed mechanisms for playing single ranks alone or in selected combinations at a much earlier date than their northern brothers, they were free to experiment with the colour creating possibilities inherent in their more flexible system, so they concentrated on colour creating, rather than on developing a transparent ensemble texture and working out the principles of tonal contrast and clarity as the northern workers were forced to do. They discovered the tierce, a third-sounding rank used as an independent rank only rarely in the North, and through their travels and work in Spain they became aware of the ensemble potential in certain types of reed registers virtually unknown in the North. So in their hands, and impelled by their more active curiosity, the French Classical organ took shape - a shape very different in its essentials from that of the organ in the North. The enthusiasm with which they successfully pursued the separation of the ranks of the Blockwerk into individually controlled registers (called "stops" since that time, because the new controls stopped off the wind supply to the ranks which previously sounded all the time when a key was depressed) betrayed their deeper interest in the colour of individual ranks and the mixing of ranks of pipes of various pitches and tone qualities to produce a variety of colour effects and different types of ensemble. It is not surprising then that this colour consciousness eventually became the distinguishing characteristic of the French Classical organ, and consequently of the music created for it. This trend was already clearly visible in instruments built in the late 1500's. By then the northern builders had also developed a stop action for individual ranks and the nature of the divergence in tonal practices of the two schools was already predictable.

Throughout the first half of the 17th century the tonal design of the northern instruments followed a rather loose pattern, with only occasional highlights foreshadowing in detail the clearcut logical schemes that became typical of the work of the master builders at the close of the baroque era about 100 years later. However, even in the hands of the outstanding builders such as Arp Schnitger and those of his school, tonal design became only moderately stereotyped in the North and there was always room for innovation within a certain framework which we now call the werkprinzip. Among other things, this required that the pitch of each division (werk) of the organ be successively higher (Hauptwerk principal 8', Rückpositiv 4', Brustwerk 2', with the Pedal at 16', for example) and that the individuality of each section be as completely developed as possible. The pitches and type of construction used for the pipes were calculated to give maximum homogeneity within and maximum contrast between the divisions. In the North the goal in this period was clarity and transparency of tone, and contrast and balance in the ensemble effects. The polyphonic texture of the music of the period and the transparent tonal texture of the organs for which it was written were ideally suited to each other. While polyphony reigned, the organ was King. With the waning of the interest in polyphony among composers the organ went into a state of decline in Germany from which it has only recently recovered, and this as an eventual result of the revival of interest in the music of Bach and other Baroque polyphonists pioneered by Albert Schweitzer and others since early in this century. Although it made itself felt in the 20's and 30's, the organ revival made no meaningful progress until after World War II. Now much new music is again being written for organ, a considerable amount of which is of a polyphonic nature.

Although the evolving organ in France shared some of the principles so well established in Germany, the differences between the two styles are more obvious and more important than the similarities. The octave separation in the basic pitch of the two main divisions was usually observed, but in the early instruments the second division was usually not so well developed in number of stops as in the German counterparts. This probably was a result of the northern builders' applying individual stop action first to the secondary division rather than to the Great Blockwerk. However, since the southern builders applied stop action first to the Great it was only natural that they should have taken the lead in the development of this division, and even in the largest instruments at the close of the 18th century the Great often had nearly twice as many stops as the Positiv, the second division.

Both schools used reeds to establish colour contrasts between the divisions of the organ. While in the North they were slower to use reeds, particularly on the Great, they made up for their tardiness by exploiting more fully the many possibilities offered by the numerous useable shapes for the resonators of reed pipes. Families of shortlength reeds known as regals or schnarrwerk were at first used in great profusion and were a special characteristic of Renaissance organs in the North by the beginning of the 17th century. The two main families of reeds, however, are the Trompettes (German: Trompete) and the Cromornes (German: Krummhorn), and both schools by the 17th century had established the practice of assigning the Trompette essentially to the Great and the Cromorne to the Positiv. While this practice was somewhat flexibly applied in the North, there being countless exceptions, it was applied as a rigid rule in the work of South Brabant builders working in Paris, and even before 1600 the 8' Trompette had been joined on the Great by a stop of similar construction and character an octave higher in pitch - the 4' Clairon. One of the earliest instances of this practice of having an 8' Trompette and 4' Clairon on the Great and an 8' Cromorne on the Positiv occurred in the organ built in 1601 by the South Brabant builder Matthijs Langhedul for St. Gervais in Paris (the church where the Couperin family were successively organists for many generations), and it was an essential characteristic of the organ in France for the following 200 years, virtually without exception.

The organ in St-Gervais. Paris, by Mathijs Langhedul 1601
    GRAND ORGUE (45 notes)         POSITIF (45 notes)
    16' Montre                     8' Bourdon
     8' Montre                     4' Montre
     8' Bourdon                    2' Doublette
     4' Flûte ouverte              1' Flageolet
     4' Flûte bouchée                 Fourniture III
     2' Doublette                     Cymbale III
     2' Flute a neuf trous         8' Cromorne
 2 2/3' Nazard
     1' Flageolet                  PEDALE (9 notes)
        Fourniture III             8' Flûte
        Cymbale III                   Fixed coupler to
        Cornet V (25 notes)           Grand Orgue
     8' Trompette
     4' Clairon

In France, however, the regals so popular in North Germany were never much used, the only reed of this type to enter the French organ being the Voix Humaine (German: Menschenstimme or Vox Humana). This stop found its place on the Great division as early as 1580 and after that was seldom absent from a French organ of any size, although the St. Gervais organ of 1601 did not have one. In spite of the profusion of different types of reeds available in German organs throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, only the Trompette, Cromorne and Voix Humaine were used in France until rather late in the 18th century when two or three derivatives of these basic types made their appearance, the 8' Basson-Clarinette of the Positif and the 8' Hautbois of the Récit in the St. Gervais Clicquot organ of 1768 being typical examples.

Another point of similarity in the German and French instruments of the beginning of the 17th century was the composition of the German organo pleno and the French plein jeu. In both schools the "Full Organ" consisted chiefly of a chorus of "principal" pipes - the pipes of clear bright character which produce the tone colour most typical of the organ - which included all of the separate ranks of this type at pitches from 16' to 2' together with the compound stops composed of several ranks of pipes - the mixtures and scharffs in Germany and the fournitures and cymbales in France. Although a well-developed principal chorus is common to the two schools, there has been since before the 17th century a rather striking difference between the sound of the organo pleno and that of the plein jeu, even though the pipes used in the chorus are generally similar. This difference cannot be accounted for by quite minor variants that occur in the voicing of the pipes in different geographical areas. Rather it comes mainly from the composition of the compound stops, for regardless of appearances the German mixtur particularly in Baroque times was not the same thing as a French fourniture. The former, because of its more recent derivation from the Blockwerk, usually had more ranks and was of higher pitch, and, in the high Baroque period especially, it was constructed of pipes of relatively smaller diameter which thus have a brighter, clearer, thinner tone. This is all to the good when used in polyphony, and tends to give a characteristic lightness and shimmer to the ensemble which contrasts with the fuller and stronger effect of the lower pitched, fewer ranks of the fourniture, with its pipes of larger scale (diameter) and less silvery tone. The German Scharff and the French Cymbale may be similarly compared. While from the late 16th century onwards the South Brabant (French) builders developed two pleins jeux whenever the size of the instrument permitted - the plein jeu of the Grand Orgue (Great) and the plein jeu of the Positif - this is as far as the concept of contrasting principal choruses at different pitches ever went in France, no matter how many keyboards were added to the basic two. In Germany the concept of the principal chorus was really all powerful in tonal design practice, and is again today, so that each added keyboard gets its more or less complete chorus with complementary compound stops in homage to the ancient origins of the instrument in the historic Blockwerk, even although with the possible exception of Buxtehude no "German" composer of the Renaissance and Baroque periods has left us any music that we can justify as requiring more than three plenos in addition to the pedal. The pedal of the French organ was never given its own chorus; until well into the 18th century it remained a means of providing only a reticent bass or a solo cantus firmus.

Other than for the fact that both schools provided a full complement of stops of appropriate flute tone in both the Great and Positiv, and that they both held more or less strictly to the idea that in general flutes and principals should not be used together in ensemble combinations and the points mentioned earlier these schools had little in common. They differed most markedly in the use of the tierce, a rank of pipes sounding at the pitch of a major third above the 2' stop, or, more exactly, sounding the pitch of the 5th partial of the 8' harmonic series - the interval of a 17th above the 8' rank. Throughout the 17th century the only non unison ranks that were available as independent voices were those sounding various octaves of the quint (5th) pitch. This is natural enough since the original Blockwerk consisted only of unison and quint ranks and their octaves, ranging from 16' or 8' to 1 1/3' usually doubled or trebled. The tierce was not a part of the Blockwerk ensemble, which might be expected since the Blockwerk came into being in a period when organum was the most complicated form of music harmony known. It found its way into the work of the northern builders very slowly, perhaps not at all until after 1610 and then only in compound stops of two or three ranks such as terzzimbel, sesquialtera, and terzian, all stops employing the narrow scaled principal pipes. Of these the terzzimbel seems to have been the oldest use of a third-sounding rank. It did not appear as an independent rank capable of being mixed with other stops at the organist's discretion until well into the 18th century. In the work of the South Brabant builders also the tierce appeared first as a rank in a compound stop, but this as early as the 1580's, in a five rank treble solo stop called a Cornet. The tierce was the uppermost of the five ranks, the others being of 8', 4', 2 2/3' and 2' pitch. Shortly after 1600 the tierce had made its debut in France as an independent register. The archives of St. Gervais show that the 1' flageolet of the Great in the Langhedul organ of 1601 was moved to 1 3/5' pitch (perhaps by the builder himself) not long after the organ was built, and from about this time onwards, certainly by 1620, the stop was an indispensable member of the Grand organ in France and of the Positif also in large enough instruments. Although the early tierces in France were of narrow scale (pipes of principal tone), as they were in the North throughout the Baroque period, by the middle of the 17th century the French tierce had joined the family of flutes - which as well as those at 16', 8' and 4' pitch already included the 2 2/3' nasard, the 2' quarte de nasard, and the 1 1/3' quintflûte or larigot - and the instrument we now know as the Classical French organ stems from that time.

During the century or more before this, conventions had grown up in combining the stops, and theoreticians, organbuilders and organists had begun to give names to the most common, and regularly to associate certain combinations with certain moods or musical forms in their (mostly improvised) music-making. These stereotyped combinations, or jeux composés as they were called, were so well known that they were used in organ contracts instead of the names of the specific stops to indicate the tonal components of an instrument. By about 1650 the tonal concept of the French organ became stable enough to bring about an almost complete systematization of tonal design, and composers for the organ in France began to write for specific tonal effects and to give titles to their works referring directly to the combinations of stops that produced these effects. By this time, virtually all of the tonal material that would be used in the French organ for the next 150 years was developed, and each large instrument contained nearly all of it, so there was comparatively little difference between instruments. This was in sharp contrast with the situation in Germany and the North (Holland and Scandinavia), where tonal design concepts continued to develop with considerable freedom, even when reaching culmination in the works of builders of the Schnitger school, whose instruments while remaining within the broad confines of the "werk" principle continued to demonstrate wide variation in tonal content. Although there were doubtless conventions in the North governing the use of stops for certain types of musical forms, there is no evidence of a clearcut system, and registration was very rarely indicated on the music. So we have no way of knowing in other than a very general way what sounds in the organ were intended by those who composed the vast bulk of the finest of the organ's literature, including Bach and all the outstanding polyphonists of the period.

But we can know with considerable accuracy the precise sounds the French composers had in mind. First of all we know by the titles, such as those given by Couperin to the sections of his organ Masses, e.g.: Trio à 2 dessus de Chromhorne et la basse de tierce; Offertoire sur les Grands Jeux; Petite fugue sur le Chromhorne; Dialogue sur les Trompettes Clairon et Tierces du Grand Clavier et le Bourdon avec le Larigot du Positif; Récit de Cornet; Tierce en taille. Then by studying the various instructions left by such esteemed exponents of the art as Nivers, LeBègue, Raison, Boyvin, Chaumont, Corrette and Dom Bédos de Celles, which explained the conventions in detail, we discover which stops should be used. We learn for example that a tierce en taille is made up of the bourdon, prestant, nasard, doublette, tierce and larigot of the Positif and is accompanied by the bourdon and montre of the Grand Orgue and the Pedal flûte, or that for the Récit de Chromhorne the 4' prestant of the Positif was usually drawn with the cromorne, and so on. These instructions also included helpful hints on the playing of some of the pieces and the kind of touch to be used for this or that jeu. A few organs of the school survive in a relatively unaltered condition, and from these we can get some idea of the sounds for which these pieces were written. In any case the voicing and construction methods of the old builders have been well studied and documented; a few modern instruments have been built as exact copies, one of which will be heard later in this series.

However, some interesting questions remain concerning authenticity of performance even when old instruments of the approximate period are used. Firstly there is the matter of the voicing of the instrument, which changes greatly with time. The accumulation of dust in the pipes and the natural process of the gradual softening of the pipe metal eventually causes the sound of old pipes to be much less bright and poorer in harmonic content than new pipes. Then there are the actual changes in the mouth parts of the pipes, which take place naturally and which change the speech characteristics - languids fall, larger pipes sag at the mouth, and the edge of the languid becomes worn after wind has passed over it for a century or two. Also through the years repairs and adjustments become necessary that result in alterations in the sound of the pipe, even in the most careful and devoted hands. There seems reason therefore to suggest that a more "authentic" sound may be heard from new pipes, scaled and voiced with a technique resembling as closely as possible that of the old builders.

Secondly, and even more important musically, is the question of the action. The mechanism of the old organs was cumbersome at best, and using an old action it is seldom possible to give to the highly ornate ornamentation of Couperin and his school the extremely refined subtlety of articulation and expressiveness that is considered vital in performance on the harpsichord, stringed instruments or the voice, but which until recently we had largely to forgo on the organ. Now, with a well constructed and beautifully regulated modern mechanical action, it is possible to achieve this level of control and artistic freedom. It is interesting to compare Couperin's harpsichord music with his organ works and to speculate whether the organ music is not rather more sparsely decorated simply because the awkward and heavy mechanism of the old organs (even when they were new) discouraged elaborate ornamentation, rather than because the organ's sustained tone required less, as is sometimes said. Certainly this music - in both gay and expressive mood - takes on new life when freely ornamented using a modern instrument of immediate responsiveness.

The organ Masses of François Couperin were written in 1690, while he was organist at St. Gervais; the stop list of his organ at that date is given here.

The organ in St-Gervais, Paris 1690
   GRAND ORGUE        POSITIF           ECHO
   16' Montre         8' Bourdon        8' Bourdon
   16' Bourdon        4' Montre         4' Flûte
    8' Montre         4' Flûte      2 2/3' Nazard
    8' Bourdon    2 2/3' Nazard         2' Doublette
    4' Prestant       2' Doublette  1 3/5' Tierce
    4' Flûte      1 3/5' Tierce            Cymbale III
2 2/3' Nazard     1 1/3' Larigot        8' Cromorne
    2' Doublette         Fourniture III
    2' Quarte            Cymbale II      PEDALE
1 3/5' Tierce            8' Cromorne    8' Flûte
       Fourniture V                     4' Flûte
       Cornet V          CORNET SEPARE  8' Trompette
    8' Trompette         Cornet V
    8' Voix Humaine
    4' Clairon

It is an excellent example of a fine organ of the period, despite the fact that it does not have a Grand Jeu de Tierce - it lacks the 3 1/5' Grosse Tierce on the Grand Orgue which was becoming popular just at that time. It does not exist today; none of the instruments that were used regularly by those composers who gave us our French Classical repertoire now survives. Some of the instruments from the following century do exist, and although the integrity of the tonal design of the French Classical organ began its decline during that period, and despite a generally rather larger scale for the pipework and some other minor differences, these organs do indeed contain the stops of the type for which this music was written. However, it is important that organ lovers avoid becoming antiquarians, interested chiefly in venerating the monuments of a past age, however fine, rather than in encouraging and sustaining a living tradition. What really matters is the music itself, and when it is necessary to compromise its effectiveness in purely musical terms in order to accommodate to the mechanical characteristics of an old organ, it becomes necessary to re-examine our priorities. At the start of the organ revival, begun in the 1920's in Germany, the Schnitger type of instrument was the model for the "reformed" organbuilder, quite rightly since the bulk of the literature is polyphonic.

Organ in Neuenfelde, Germany, by Arp Schnitger 1688
   HAUPTWERK           RÜCKPOSITIV           PEDAL
   16' Quintatön       8' Gedackt            16' Principal
    8' Principal       8' Quintatön           8' Octave
    8' Rohrflöte       4' Principal           4' Octave
    4' Octave          4' Blockflöte          4' Flöte
    4' Spitzflöte  2 2/3' Quintflöte          2' Nachthorn
2 2/3' Nasat           2' Octave                 Rauschpfeife II
    2' Octave      1 1/3' Sifflöte               Mixtur V
    2' Spitzflöte         Sesquialtera II    16' Posaune
       Rauschpfeife II    Terzian II          8' Trompete
       Mixtur V-VI        Scharff IV-V        2' Cornett
       Cimbel III      8' Krummhorn
    8' Trompete
    8' Vox Humana

But in recent years the beauty of the French Classical repertoire has been rediscovered and its requirements assessed and met, and there are now organs which have the advantages of a modern organ and also are designed and voiced so as to embrace the particular demands of this literature. The Kuhn organ at the Prediger Kirche, designed by the Swiss musicologist and organbuilder Friedrich Jakob, is one of these.

The organ of the Prediger-Kirche, Zürich by Th. Kuhn A. G., Mannedorf, Switzerland, 1970
   16' Pommer            8' Gedackt            8' Holzgedackt   32' Untersatz (stopped)
    8' Prinzipal         8' Quintatön          8' Salicet       16' Principalbass
    8' Koppelflöte       4' Prinzipal          8' Schwebung     16' Subbass
    8' Gamba             4' Blockflöte         4' Prinzipal      8' Octavbass
    4' Octave            2' Octave             4' Rohrflöte      8' Spillflöte
    4' Spitzflöte    1 1/3' Quinte         2 2/3' Nazard         4' Octav
2 2/3' Quinte            1' Scharf 3f.         2' Waldflöte      4' Nachthorn
    2' Superoctav           Sesquialter II 1 3/5' Terz           2' Mixtur 5f.
1 1/3' Mixtur 4f.        8' Krummhorn      1 1/3' Sifflöte      16' Posaune
  1/2' Zimbel 3f.           Tremulant          1' Mixtur 4f.     8' Zinke
    8' Suavial (from c')                      16' Dulcian        4' Klarine
    8' Cornett 5f. (from f°)                   8' Schalmei
    8' Trompete                                8' Vox humana