Organ History


Introduction to organ history; from the ancient Greeks to the 21st century

One could say the Pipes of Pan was the beginning of the organ,
since the flute is the basis of its sound.


But the organ as we might recognise it − pipes on a box of wind activated by keys – dates from 230 BC.  A Greek engineer in Alexandria named Ctesibius placed rows of pipes of different lengths on a chest of wind which sounded when keys were pressed. The air was supplied by a water operated pump.  This was the hydraulis which rapidly became a status symbol and an essential part of festivals, feasts, entertainments and great occasions throughout the Middle East. Emperor Nero had one brought from Greece to Rome and became a noted player.


After the decline of the Greek and Roman civilisations, the organ continued its development in the Eastern Empire based on Constantinople (Istanbul). Over time, water power to produce the wind was replaced by bellows similar to those used by a blacksmith.

In 700AD monks slowly introduced the organ to the church but because there was no way to make the organ soft or loud, two organs were eventually provided – a small one and large one.




The next major advance was the invention of the STOP – a way to stop some of the pipes from sounding.  Prior to this invention all pipes of one note sounded at once!

Often the two organs were placed next to each other so the player could move from one to the other easily.  If the organs were in a gallery, the small one was usually placed behind the organist’s back so he could swivel around on his seat to play it.  This awkward situation ended with the invention of a system of levers that passed beneath the organist’s feet to a second keyboard on the main organ.  Thus the chaire organ (English) and rückpositiv  (German) became playable from the main organ – an arrangement that still exists in many organs, especially in Germany.



With stops and levers it was inevitable that the organ began to grow. The demand for wind also grew, so in a room behind the organ, teams of organ blowers were employed to ‘raise the wind’ in the largest organs.


German  Influence

08 Schnitger

From the 1500s Northern Germany led developments and soon builders such as Schnitger and Silbermann were building organs with three or four keyboards and comprehensive pedal organs played with the feet with pipes up to 10 metres tall.

09 17thCentOrganThe organ became a great work of art, second only to the altar in importance, with a tonal style that suited the era’s polyphonic music written by JS Bach and his contemporaries.

It took more than 200 years for the rest of the world to catch up with the Germans and even today Germany, especially the Hanseatic North, is still considered by many to be the organ’s heartland.




French Influence10 NotreDame

While each country developed the organ in its own way, it was France that caused the major shift in organ design.

Early in the 19th century the Baroque era’s polyphonic music, with its strict rules and interweaving melodies, was giving way to romantic ideals. French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was at the forefront of a new kind of instrument, the symphonic organ. These impressive instruments, characterised by their powerful trumpet pipes and colourful sounds, inspired a whole generation of French composers. Soon his organs were in many of France’s cathedrals, on the orders of Napoleon III. Today, music of this French school, along with that of J.S. Bach, forms the core of the organ’s repertoire.

Essential to the symphonic organ is expression, made possible by swell boxes – another important invention.  Some sections of the organ are enclosed in rooms with louvered fronts the organist can open and close with pedals for crescendo or decrescendo effects.  Such things were never seen in the organs of Bach’s time.


 The Organ in Great Britain

12 SydneyTownHall

By 1658 most existing organs had been destroyed by Cromwell and the Puritans, often melted down for bullets and pewter plates. German composer Mendelssohn refused to play in London because it was impossible to play Bach on most British organs of the time.However, in the mid-1800s the industrial revolution, imperialism and civic pride resulted in the United Kingdom taking centre stage. Not only were churches and cathedrals furnished with impressive instruments but opulent town halls rose throughout the country, complete with a new version of the king of instruments, the town hall organ. Grand town halls with organs to match were built all over the Empire.

14 AtlanticCityConsole

The British town hall organ evolved into the modern concert hall organ, and today throughout the world no major concert hall is considered complete without its organ.  It’s easy to see why. More than 200 composers have written significant works for organ solo, many orchestral and choral works call for the organ, and there are organ concertos. A recent survey showed there are at least 158 orchestral works with a major organ component and a further 115 with organ included in the orchestration. Its use for orchestral transcriptions is well established.

The advent of electricity was of major benefit to the organ.  Electrically-driven blowers ensured there was never a shortage of wind, while electrical connection between keys and pipes meant the organ’s layout was limited only by the imagination. In the 1920s, especially in the United States, some organs were gigantic with the one in Convention Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey – 33,000 pipes and seven keyboards – being the largest ever built.  Maintaining such a gargantuan instrument has proved impossible and today only about one quarter of this organ is in working order.


New Zealand

Most of the organs in New Zealand are products of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and reflect the British experience; the French and German traditions are almost unknown here. 
Initially, small English-built organs were shipped to the new colony’s churches.


But like the rest of the Empire, it wasn’t long before New Zealand embraced the romantic symphonic organ. The grandest examples were erected in the town halls of Wellington (1906), Auckland (1911) and Dunedin (1930). These instruments were built by the London and Norwich firm Norman and Beard whose 200 organ builders were turning out a new organ every week.
Organ building in New Zealand has never been on a large scale. Augmentation, rebuilding or restoring existing imported instruments, is the mainstay of the industry today. However, there have been two periods of major activity. In the 1930s, many of the original small mechanical-action organs were enlarged, re-arranged and converted to electric or pneumatic action, and some new instruments were built, notably by Auckland’s George Croft and Son.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the worldwide organ reform movement (see below) swept New Zealand, resulting in many organs being altered, including the organ in Auckland’s Town Hall. A number of new instruments were also built locally at this time using imported pipes and other parts.

18 Napier

Today, apart from historic restorations, organs built or rebuilt tend to include the best of all periods without the excesses of any. One of the largest rebuilds in recent times was undertaken by the South Island Organ Company in Napier’s cathedral.

New Zealand’s largest new organ, built by Orgelbau Klais in 2010, is in the Auckland Town Hall.