Ah, yes. Now that the tumult and hubbub are done and we can wait for April 13th to have the Mets disappoint us again, and the leaves brown and sere crunch beneath the feet of costumed children while the long night is lit by sacrificial gourds, it is time to resume my musical whimseys.
This morning we shall start with one of the oldest instruments in common use, the Organ.
If you watch that purveyor of speculative fiction and conspiracy theories laughably called The History Channel I’m sure you’ve been subjected to many, many hours of Ancient Discoveries where the slack jawed narrators marvel at the fact that our ancestors were more than feral brutes wearing animal skins, stabbing and slashing at each other with crudely made implements with none of the sophistication and subtlety of a Maxim or Thermonuclear warhead.
Hah, the reason they didn’t fix up the Iowa after the turret explosion is we no longer have the tools or skills to do it and that was only WW II. We can’t build Space Shuttles or iPods anymore either. We have facebook and Twitter instead and I think it’s a fair trade, even 140 characters seems tl;dr.
So anyway it should come as no surprise the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, etc., ect. were capable of stunning feats of engineering and craftsmanship based on a deep understanding of Math, Physics, and Chemistry. Curse you Dark Ages.
Such an item is the Organ. It basically operates according to the principles invented (as far as we know) by Ctesibius of Alexandria for the hydraulis between 285 – 222 BCE (about 2200 years ago). He was an expert in pneumatics, the science of compressed air, and water had little to do with the mechanism except to provide a motive force to the bellows. He did make other advances in hydraulics like the the world’s most accurate clock (a water clock) and is said by most to have been the first head of the Museum of Alexandria.
He is also reputed to have been notoriously poor. So much for genius.
Now believe it or not music was just as important to non-contemporary culture as it is to ours, maybe more. ‘Oral’ history in non-literate societies (those without a written language) is frequently conveyed by song where the beat and melody remind the performer of the correct wording and sequence of events in the story. The Iliad and the Odyssey are nothing more than long songs. We don’t have a record of most of these because musical notation, the written language of music, was not yet invented and ideas about the difference between what is called music and what is called noise change quite frequently (those damn kids).
There is some evidence that even the earliest western instruments used either a chromatic or diatonic scale so most can produce sounds we would recognize as music even if they weren’t actually used that way and the same would be true of the Organs of Ctesibius. The problem is that they used big old pipes to create the resonant tones and are expensive and not so easily moved. Thus they were usually installed in Houses of Worship, be they Pagan Temples or Christian Cathedrals and their purpose was to establish the proper awe and respect a major religion deserved.
And so things stood until 1517 (ironically, this very day the 95 theses were posted by Martin Luther) and the Protestant Reformation when the sects that split away from the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox one for that matter) were basically poor and despised (on theological principles anyway) the ritual and ceremony. If they captured an Organ in battle they were as likely to melt down the pipes for musket balls (most of them were made of lead, or even more valuable brass and bronze which could be re-cast as cannons) as to use it to make music.
In time the Protestants developed their own musical tradition and Organs evolved more secular purposes especially the relatively portable ones that used Reeds or electronics to develop their tones.
However, since a large number of early “Art” composers were employed by the Catholic Church which maintained its tradition of musical accompaniment there is a substantial body of work intended for the Organ of which arguably the most famous is Toccata and Fugue in D Minor attributed (wasn’t published until 1833 and was promoted by Mendelssohn) to Bach.
This particular recording (Columbia Masterworks ML 5032) is E. Power Biggs, one of the most noted organists of the 20th Century, playing the piece on 14 different Organs in Europe.
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Weingarten, Germany
- Lubeck, Germany
- Luneburg, Germany
- Hamburg, Germany
- Steinkirchen, Germany
- Neuenfelde, Germany
- Heidelberg, Germany
- Sor, Denmark
- Gouda, Holland
- Amsterdam, Holland
- Amstelveen, Holland
- Westminster Abbey, England
- Royal Festival Hall, England
Since Organs were, in the tradition of Ctesibius and the ancient engineers, hand crafted individually, I’d like you to pay attention to the very different acoustics of each individual instrument as the same piece is played by the same artist.
But you’ll be forgiven if you just want it as background music while you answer the door.
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