Sons of Tubal-Cain


CHESS players, mathematicians, and organists are clannish, as are all workers in mysteries. They may not think much of one another, but are forced nevertheless more or less to flock together, however solitary their natures. There is, for them, no hope of sympathy or understanding from the common herd.

So you will often see, if you watch the back doors of churches, especially after service or during sessions of choir practice, furtive-looking figures, generally tall and thin and dressed more or less decently in black, hanging about, drifting in when others begin to leave, like men intent on stealing the altar plate. But they are only hoping to catch the organist alone and in a fraternal mood, and to be invited to ‘try’ the instrument for a few precious moments before light and water are turned off or the bellows boy goes home.

A gambler may carry his cards or his dice in his pocket. A violinist tucks his instrument under his arm. Even the pianist sometimes owns a fairly decent piano, or can find one at the house of a friend. But the organist, alone of addicts to strange joys, is at the mercy of institutions, churches, or, more rarely, town halls, for the means of gratifying his habit. Only millionaires, not knowing one note from another unless they be bank notes, are the personal possessors of pipe organs.

Do you think that organists therefore envy rich men? As well imagine them envying vocalists, who — unless they have laryngitis — need only air and police protection in order to practise their art. An organist envies nobody, except it be another organist — one with a job.

I made the acquaintance of the king of instruments in the only right and proper way — from the bellows end. Though the uninitiated may never guess it, the bellows is not only the lungs but the soul of the organ, the thing which distinguishes it from a whistle or a set of Pan’s pipes, and the thing, withal, which was by far the most difficult to invent. Without wind, even Bach himself had been a mute, inglorious son of Tubal-Cain.

My appointment was a glaring instance of nepotism, for my father was leader of the choir, and, I am afraid, rather looked for some sin of omission on the part of my predecessor (who was a son of the parish undertaker) to justify the change. Sins of omission are the only sort of which organ blowers are capable, the carving of initials upon the great wooden pipes of the double open pedal diapason being considered a perquisite and prerogative of the calling, not a crime.

If human nature were perfect, anybody could blow an organ. As matters stand, the perfect blower has been wellnigh superseded by mechanical contrivances, ranging all the way from gas and water motors to electric fans, while waiting yet to be born. A long stick, or lever, projects into a small hell-hole behind the choir loft, or is otherwise hidden, and its resistance to upward or downward motion is not difficult to overcome — for a while. And as long as it is overcome with sufficient regularity and in proportion to the organist’s demands, the stub end of a wire showing horizontally through a perpendicular slot in the boarding remains between the two notches which mark the spots where the bellows begins to shake with excess on the one hand and to gasp from scarcity on the other. Eternal vigilance is the price of holding the job. And eternal vigilance is impossible. There comes a day —

But then, I have known even water motors to break down, and fans to cease fanning — right in the midst of the anthem. So why fire the blower for being no more than human? It is worse, of course, if he fails because of a trip to the Sunday-school room or the back steps where, in the enjoyment of fresh air and sunshine, he has overestimated the probable length of the sermon. Nevertheless, I claim that the machine age, abolishing, as it has, the bellows boy, will find itself lacking competent performers at the keyboard, so that in the end we may have to resort to mechanics throughout, and listen to organs played from punctured reels of paper accompanying a choir of voices canned in a phonograph. Who is going to master the instrument, now that there is no way left to learn it from the wind up? And who is going to sing in choirs which have no organists to be met and subdued?

The monetary loss to youth, though serious, perhaps matters less. I received thirty dollars a year for my services at the bellows, and have since learned that I was probably the highest-priced raiser of wind in the United States, which is to say in the world. No wonder I was encouraged to go on and tackle the keyboard. I knew the organist received even more, and did not have to exercise half the strength.

When it was too late, I realized that I had given my heart to a mistress who could never come and live with me, who had many suitors and was permanently attached to none. I say too late as we say too late in any case where a mortal has contracted an incurable passion — call it a complaint, if you will. He may not die for many years, and then may die of something else; but he will die with the malady still about him.

The trouble, of course, was in finding an instrument to practise upon, and finding somebody to blow it. Churches are jealous of their cash balances, and, if they have motors, do not care to see the gas or water bill suddenly jump three hundred per cent even to furnish wind used by their own organists. The incumbent should have learned his art before accepting a position, church trustees seem to argue, and be in no need of further practice. If it be his pupils who use the motor, so much the worse. Thus penury curtails his income as a teacher, but tends to give him a monopoly.

I settled the question of practice, as I thought, by going to a music conservatory up along the Hudson, where there was a students’ organ — which means a one-manual affair with only a single octave of pedals. But, as there was no motor, I fancied that it would be easy to hire some fellow student to keep the lever moving. It was. An impecunious violinist named Jones applied for and obtained the situation, and I became an employer of labor.

Unfortunately, Jones was interested in literature and philosophy, and discovered that if he could only get me into an argument the practice period would pass with little exertion on his part. He was better at keeping up his end of a dispute than at keeping the wind gauge at full. So I never caused Guilmant to look to his laurels, or Samuel P. Warren, the greatest American organist of my student days, to weep with chagrin. After years, I even suffered myself to be lured away after strange gods. But can I now pass an open church door without pausing to listen? And if I hear the far-carrying soft thunder of a thirty-two-foot stop, can I go my way? I cannot.


Some say that Æolus, King of the Winds, made the first organ by sighing sadly over a field of frostbitten Bambusa one evening late in the fall. Others claim the invention for a musical goat, name of Pan, who took five hollow stalks, tied them together in a row, and tooted a tune by blowing across the open ends. This was the syrinx, or Pan’s pipes. But long acquaintance with the peculiarities of the organ convinces me that it has Chinese blood in its veins.

The Chinese call their syrinx the sung, which is the reason, no doubt, why Occidental writers always spell it sang, or sheng, or cheng. It is an organ of a sort, since it boasts one pipe for each note and has a wind chest in the form of a gourd fitted with a mouthpiece. The Chinese are the people who had the genius to invent gunpowder, and the sense never to use it for anything but fireworks. So naturally they left the sung where it was, with no bellows other than the human lungs.

The real harm was done by Ctesibius, a white living in the city of Alexandria three hundred years before Christ, who unscrupulously attached his pipes to a half-submerged diving bell, or inverted kettle, into which a number of contemporary Africanders were hired, or otherwise persuaded, to pump air by alternately dilating and squeezing leather bags between hinged boards. It was a right jocund arrangement. And when the water about the kettle (a heavy kettle, so as to keep the air under pressure) began to boil with escaping bubbles, the music was ready to be served.

It was good music, too, or at least good enough to win praises from Cicero. Anyway, it was fourteen hundred years before the hydraulic pot was equaled, let alone surpassed. And this notwithstanding the fact that in northern Europe the water could be kept from freezing only during summer, making organ playing a strictly seasonable sport.

One would think it would be easy enough to furnish a steady draft of air for an organ, but the mediæval men of science did not find it so. They tried a big square storage bellows into which little feeders delivered their respective puffs, but the result was a bad case of hiccoughs. For the organ does not present a steady market for air. The treble pipes are poor consumers; the bass pipes are gluttons. If all goes well while the organist performs upon the upper registers, there is disaster the instant he touches the pedals. If arrangements are made to suit the pedals, the bellows is likely to burst when the music turns shrill. Here are the well-known phenomena of alternate booms and panics, business cycles of uncertain duration, troublesome then as now. And strange as it may seem, it was hundreds of years before anybody thought of equalizing the pressure by weighting the storage bellows with stones; and many hundreds more before the bright light of human intellect hit upon springs.

The golden days of the organ player’s art were in this stone age, when it finally came. Blind Francesco Landino, of fourteenth-century Florence; then Squarcialupi, his successor, in the fifteenth; Konrad Paumann, of Germany; Claudio Merulo, who died in 1604; Girolamo Frescobaldi, 1583 to 1644; Johann Jacob Froberger, who died in 1667; Dietrich Buxtehude, who died in 1707; Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685 to 1750 — do these names mean anything to you? If not, you have missed one of the thrills of life.

Bach (descendant of a famous zither player and baker of Thuringia) once walked one hundred and fifty miles, from Arnstadt to Lübeck, just to hear Buxtehude. And before that he had walked almost as far to hear Reinken, who, when he had listened to the youngster improvise upon the choral, ‘By the waters of Babylon,’ exclaimed, ‘ I feared this art was to die with me, but you will carry it on!’ No wonder that Bach became proficient on the pedals. Is there any such devotion nowadays? I have yet to hear of it. Even at the age of eighteen Bach could provoke the church authorities at Arnstadt into officially complaining, ‘He hath heretofore made sundry and perplexing variations and imported various strange harmonies, in such wise that the congregation was thereby confounded.’ Our organists hardly excel Mendelssohn, save for the fact that most of them can play congregations — all unconfounded — out of church, while Mendelssohn never could. Why this falling off?

The secret probably lies in the history of the organ itself — a history which still awaits a competent hand to write it. The instrument, as Europe first knew it, was incredibly clumsy — a mere crutch for singers to lean upon — and played nothing but the melody, there being in those days nothing but the melody to play. Nevertheless, it was the soul of dignity, and had a quality all its own.

Its proportions were very humble, so that it could be carried about from one part of the church edifice to another. It had but one manual, and nothing at all resembling our modern keys, or digitals. A key — I am speaking, of course, of times preceding the golden age — was the projecting end of a horizontal slider, a slider which, instead of being arranged so as to connect or disconnect a family of pipes of the same quality, was in control of a number of pipes of the same pitch. The only way you could stop a stop was to turn a stopcock in the end of a wind chest. So mostly you did n’t, but contented yourself with pulling out and pushing in the ends of the sliders, thus unlocking the tones you wished to hear—hence the term ‘ keys,’ which has come down as the popular name of the later-invented digitals.

‘Working your alphabet,’ it was called, the slider-ends being lettered for identification purposes.

When keys in the form of levers were first introduced, they were manly affairs three inches wide that had to be struck with a fist protected by the forerunner of the boxing glove. Strenuous, but simple and precluding all frivolity. The lever was reduced in size and resistance in the interests of labor-saving. One player could now reach several keys at the same time, with the result that a number of organs were combined; the keyboards ranked in terraces one above the other. But to this day these banks reveal their separate origins in the names ‘great, swell, choir, solo, and echo organ manual’ still applied to them.

Composers were quick to take advantage of the new situation, and in the ninth century began writing music in parts, several melodies to be played at the same time. No wonder the organ became the king of instruments. It had created harmony, descant, counterpoint, polyphony — call it what you like — quite a new musical world. And, as nobody but the organist could at first cope with these passages, they were marked in Latin, ‘Organum,’from the Greek organon, or ‘instrument,’ derived appropriately enough from ergon, meaning ‘work.’

In the first half of the twelfth century, this development produced the wonderful organs of Albert Van Os, and the golden days began. An organ then was considered a fitting gift from an emperor to a Pope. The great Silbermann family of organ builders, flourishing from 1359 to 1780, maintained the wave at its height — even added to it. This was the period of the master players already mentioned. Never, I fancy, shall be heard their like again.


The organ still resembled no other instrument under heaven, and still had a tone all its own — the diapason, a word which originally meant merely that a certain family of pipes was carried through the entire range of the keyboard. This tone came from straight , honest pipes of wood or metal, flue pipes, the most prized metal being tin. And as tin was even then expensive, it was usually to be found in combination with baser zinc and lead. Yet, if the mixture were rich enough to cause the tin to form in silvery crystal flakes upon the surface, it did well enough. The poet who wrote, ‘While the majestic organ rolled contrition from its mouths of gold,’ was either ignorant of his subject, rhyme-bound, or thinking of the money involved. Golden tones are rolled only from pipes of ‘spotted metal.’ Then the French invented the reed pipe, and the long decline of the organ began.

It had already been discovered that by driving a plug, or tampion, into the end of a pipe, not only was the pitch lowered an octave, but the quality was altered so that it resembled more or less the tone of a flute. With reeds, three qualities of tone were attained — diapason, flute, and reed. Pipes were then slit down their sides, making them sound stringy — and what remained to prevent the imitation of a full orchestra? Unfortunately, nothing. An imitation orchestra the organ became; an imitation orchestra it has continued.

But so long as the old tracker action was retained, little harm was done. For the tracker action was not to be trifled with. Its mechanical principle was very simple. When a digital was pressed down, its farther end naturally flew up. This pushed upon a stiff strip of wood, called a sticker, which pushed upon one end of an angle iron — a small bit of metal resembling a carpenter’s square. And when one arm of an angle iron went up, the other arm moved horizontally. The horizontal motion was continued by another sticker, which pushed, or by a tracker, which pulled. This might be a flexible wooden strip, a wire, or even a shoestring. Other stickers, trackers, angle irons, roller boards, backfalls, deadfalls, and similar contrivances conveyed the movement backward or forward, to right or to left, from one level to another, or around corners, until finally a valve was opened beneath a pipe. If all went well, wind was thus introduced, and a note sounded.

But the same pipe could not be called upon to speak too frequently, or the tracker action tangled itself up. So C. S. Barker, an Englishman (1806 to 1879), invented the pneumatic action in the interests of repeated notes and to enable weaklings to preside at the keyboard. The trackers and their fearful companions were now set in motion by a tiny bellows, one at the end of each digital, and all the organist’s fingers had to do was to admit compressed air into these little helpers, and let it out again.

Barker’s conservative countrymen would have nothing to do with such a contrivance. The French, less canny, allowed it to be built into the organ of the church of Saint-Denis, Paris, by Cavaillé-Coll, and the great battle for mechanical rather than musical perfection was on. Lead pipes, conveying the air pressure to where it was needed, did away with stickers and trackers altogether. The English could no longer resist. To them had been given that Edison of the organ, Robert Hope-Jones, of London, who was born in 1859 and died in 1914. He began by inventing the electric action, now almost universal. At first it sparked, causing contacts to rust, and kept the organist in continual danger of electrocution — trifles which did not halt the march of progress for a moment.

The organs in Grace Church, New York, have all of these actions — or did have in the happy days when Dr. Warren was trying to initiate the most unworthy of his pupils into their multitudinous mysteries. The result was that response from some of the manuals was more prompt than from some of the others. If you were seated at the four-manual console in the chancel just at the right of the altar, and wanted to play on the great accompanied by the swell, you had to keep one hand about half a beat ahead of the other in order to allow the slow-speaking action to catch up. From the same position you could also play the four-manual organ situated in the ventil gallery in the front of the church; or you could go up into the gallery and from there play upon the organ in the chancel. But now you were confronted by the law of acoustics which says that sound may travel only so many feet per second. You would be playing the second bar before you could hear your own playing of the first. And if you still remained hungry for punishment, you could then hitch on to an echo organ located somewhere up above the ceiling.

Warren himself was never disturbed by these details. He was a master who had not only begun as a bellows boy, but had been born, so to speak, in an organ factory in Canada. He knew the instrument from its initial state in forests and mines until its ultimate avatar in one of his own perfect recitals. But the Grace Church organs were no playthings for lesser men.

That, however, did not stay the hand of Hope-Jones in London. He kept on contriving other arrangements — such as the one which allows the opening and closing of the swell blinds to be controlled by varying the pressure on the keys, making it impossible any longer to cling to the keyboard for support. He invented the double-touch and the pizzicato-touch mechanisms. He invented the diaphone, or pressure equalizer, and other things too numerous to mention and too complicated for description, leaving only the kinetic blower, or fan bellows, to be invented by Cousans. There is now no longer any romance in relation to wind.


Lovers of the picturesque should therefore investigate old organs which have not been brought up to date. In the cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, for example, anyone who will look for a hinged panel which during service usually stands ajar (it is in the woodwork to the left of the chancel) will see a strong man sweating and groaning in a heated cubbyhole as he steps from one huge treadle to another in a fruitless attempt to keep them both down. He is one of the last great organ blowers in existence, a brother to Sisyphus.

But — from a blowing standpoint — what is the organ in Notre Dame compared with the one which was put into the cathedral at Winchester, England, in the year 951? The Winchester monster had but four hundred pipes. But there were twenty-six pairs of bellows, and seventy men were required to raise the wind. Three organists were also needed, each one operating his own alphabet. For the rest, there were ten pipes to each key, and no stops to shut any of them off. It was probably the first attempt to prove the theory, afterward laid down by Shakespeare, that ‘murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.’ Here was at least a prophecy of The Tempest, when ‘the thunder, that deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc’d the name of Prosper.’ Yet it did not justify Milton in declaring, ‘ In an organ, from one blast of wind, to many a row of pipes the sound board breathes.'

No organ ever had a sound board. The poet should have said ‘wind chest.’ Yet now, after the respite of the golden days when noise was abandoned for soft and shining music, it has nearly everything else. Edwin Welte has even given us the philharmonic organ, which photographs the performance for future reproduction — and this says nothing of the unit organ of William Hill and Sons, with its voix céleste with three ranks of pipes, some of them a trifle sharp for a sobbing effect. And what is the result?

The modern organist sits upon the edge of a smooth board tipped forward from the horizontal — so far forward that only long practice keeps him from plunging headfirst into the music rack. He cannot support himself with his hands, even if he can with his salary, for everything he touches produces some ‘effect,’ seldom one conducive to repose. As for his feet, they are engaged — both as to toe and to heel — in playing in the dark upon a keyboard of their own, two and one fifth octaves in compass, with the additional duty of keeping a swell pedal, a crescendo pedal, and a sforzando pedal — things shaped as to their visible parts like the inverted soles of so many boots— in a proper state of subordination. There are also sundry levers for throwing on and off the stops — levers which must be jabbed with desperate precision and in the nick of time, like so many emergency brakes on an automobile approaching an accident. In the Willis organ in the cathedral of Liverpool, which, until the war taught us new standards of frightfulness, was the largest organ in the world, there are twentythree of these ‘combination pedals’ and ‘couplers,’ as they are lightly called, capable of directing or misdirecting the thunderbolts from fourteen thousand pipes.

Some of these mechanisms stop or unstop stops not singly but in flocks, herds, platoons, armies, fleets, and political parties. In many organs (the one in the Church of Saint Thomas, New York, for example) there are also devices which in their ensemble resemble a small-scale piano keyboard broken into sections and jammed in wherever space is available. These enable you to attach what stops you like to any given ‘combination’ while you continue to ‘play.’ The couplers permit you to play on one manual and at the same time in effect upon any other manual, or all of them, either at the same pitch, or an octave higher or lower, or both, or all three, or to do the like from the pedals. With the further aid of stops whose longest pipes are thirty-two feet from keel to masthead, and others but four or but two, rather than the normal ‘foundation’ eight, the compass of the instrument, instead of being but five octaves as the keyboard seems to indicate, is extended to nine and one half.

Furthermore, the unfortunate musician faces, not the one manual which so often floors the mere pianist, but four, sometimes five, each fifty times as efficient for damage as the keyboard of the mightiest concert grand ever built. In fact, each ‘stop’ is a complete instrument in itself — a set of pipes, sixty-one in number, having the same voicing or quality, but tuned so as to make a chromatic scale.

Stops are not only operated indirectly by combinations, but directly, by knobs. Formerly, these were real knobs, attached to wooden pistons subject to swellings in damp weather, so that frequently it took a Hercules to pull one out or to shove it back. Often enough the knob came off when the stop was half drawn; and when a stop is half drawn the pipes belonging to it give out that which is neither silence nor music, but resembles the cry which must have been emitted by the dying gladiator at the most painful moment of his career. Combination contraptions have not abolished them, but nowadays they are transformed into tiltups, ivory levers similar to dominoes, which may be flipped one way or another by the finger tips. I have seen organs with as many as one hundred and sixty-seven of these, and some very modern mammoths can show even more.

To make matters worse, the name upon a tilt-up, while revealing to a mind versed in such genealogies the family to which the stop belongs, says very little about individual character. So if you are a visiting organist and about to perform publicly upon an instrument you have had no opportunity to examine, you are like a man suddenly dropped into the midst of a tropical jungle who does not know a lion from a lemur.

No dependable landmarks are in sight. The pedal keyboard may be flat or concave, semicircular or straight. The manuals may rise above one another in the order to which you are accustomed, or in some other order. Standardization has long been attempted, but practically there is no regular place for anything.

No other instrumentalist would risk such a situation for an instant. Even violinists and pianists, playing instruments that vary less than peas, always strive to carry their own wherever they go. But an organist, being an organist, is made of sterner stuff. He will not only play — he will read at sight, and even try to transpose.

You must, some time or other, have dreamed of yourself as an organist, sitting in the deserted choir loft of a dim and empty church, with your fingers idly straying ‘over the noisy keys.’ But let us suppose that a service is on and you are accompanying the soprano soloist, who is singing ‘Softly Now the Light of Day,’ while a collection is being taken up for foreign missions. You are playing upon the swell, the swell blinds shut to muffle the sound and no stops drawn but a tender dulciana and a stopped diapason. You want no noisy keys, but think it would be a good thing to add a little pianissimo reed tone from the solo manual — and you have forgotten that it is all set to let loose a deafening barrage from a tuba mirabilis standing on fifty inches of wind and comparable only to the ram’s-horn trumpets of Joshua at the sound of which the walls of Jericho crumbled into dust!

Forgetfulness of some other little ’convenience’ may get you into trouble by being off when you think it is on, letting an intended climax extinguish itself suddenly in total silence while an untrustworthy choir is left high and dry upon the fortissimo heights of the Hallelujah Chorus. The fashion of wearing long hair, so prevalent for a time among the world’s Paderewskis, never found favor with organists. Genuine organists are inclined to baldness.

No, the organ is not what it used to be; and having the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music continually within reach is an embarrassment of riches.

Yet one may still occasionally hear it in all its pristine beauty, and be reminded that in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ it was considered the height of gay comparison to say, ‘His vois was merier than the mery orgon.’ Not all organists make the stained-glass windows grit their teeth, nor use continually every appliance which a machine age offers them. Some continue to give us the pure polyphony of the ancient organum, a polyphony in which the individual voices are as distinct as those pipes of Pan heard by Thomas Hood in that land of fancy where ‘an organ breathes in every grove.’ We then cease from saying with Emerson that ‘the silent organ loudest chants the master’s requiem.’ Otherwise —

Go to! If you want to hear an orchestra, hear a real one — at a symphony concert.