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 On the Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
A Few Words about Organ Actions
Some Basics of Notation
Extended Techniques
A Few Final Truths

On the Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe:
A Composer's-Eye View of Writing for the Organ


It is nearly impossible to write an organ work that will be equally effective on all organs--a work that uses all the resources of a very small organ will not begin to use the available resources of a large organ, and a work that systematically exploits the resources of a large instrument would prove highly problematic on a small organ. Furthermore, the organ has undergone more changes in character across history and geography than any other instrument: the organs one found in eastern Germany in the 18th century were quite different than contemporaneous organs in northwestern Germany, both of which were quite different than contemporaneous organs found in southern Germany, all of which were extremely different than German organs of the 19th century or French organs of any period et cetera ad nauseum. This is not to say that it is impossible to compose a piece that will fully exploit the resources of any organ, no matter the size or style of the organ; this means that a composer must understand that these differences exist if one wants to attempt such a work.

One of the first things I would suggest to a composer attempting such a work is to visit several organs of differing sizes and styles, preferably in the company of a knowledgeable organist. The purpose of such a tour is to formulate some ideas as to what these various organs have in common and how one could use these similarities in writing the piece. I would also caution against composers being too explicit in their registration suggestions; it is possible for composers, in their zeal to precisely notate their timbral intentions, to lose themselves in a maze of words that are nearly synonymous in their meanings as far as timbre is concerned.

I provide the following for those composers who cannot undertake such a tour or who wish another opinion on writing for the organ. I have attempted to boil down as much information about the organ as a musical instrument as possible, and has endeavored to do so in a manner that will be useful to a composer. Admittedly, some areas of discussion (such as types of organ stops) may seem too condensed or simplified, while other topics, which typically get little attention in texts on organ, are covered in greater detail. Examples of the former are the discussions of organ actions and categories of stops; while there is a significant difference between a "Principal" and a "Montre" or between the pitman-type and ventil-type electropneumatic windchests as far as organ builders or organists are concerned, these differences are of minimal importance to the composer. Examples of the latter include matters of notation and extended techniques, which are topics that clearly concern composers.

On The Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
[Introduction] [A Few Words about Organ Actions] [Some Basics of Notation]
[Registrations] [Extended Techniques] [A Few Final Truths] [Appendixes]

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Copyright © 2000 David Bohn. All rights reserved.
Last updated 12 November 2000. Contact information.