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Truly Organic

Some facts about one of the oldest keyboard instruments

Pianos, organs, virginals, harpsichords all belong to the same keyboard family. The very early keyboards had only natural notes (that is, the white keys) which were identified by the first seven letters of the alphabet, A - G. But can you imagine looking at a completely white keyboard? How would you even know which note to sound? How would you even know which was which? In time, the note B-flat was inserted in between the A and B notes, which were slightly cut away for that reason, and this sole black key at least provided a visual point of reference that made identifying the other notes easier. For that reason in Germany the B-flat is known as the note H, as it was the eighth letter to be added.

By the 15th century, however, the keyboard had become fully chromatic and so incorporates all the notes that we see in a modern day piano - the five black keys in an upper row. The Halberstadt Cathedral in Germany contains an organ which has the oldest surviving chromatic keyboard from 1361.

Organs are one of the earliest keyboard instruments. The earliest ones were devised in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, and over the next five years the organ had established itself as one of the main instruments of Rome and was heard in aspects of Roman culture such as the theatre, games, the circus, gladiatorial contests and banquets.

But the earliest version of the organ is nothing as we know it. The hydraulis or water organ was invented by Ctesibius, an Alexandrian engineer who also created the water-pump, water clock, and - believe it or not - water-powered artificial singing birds! You may have the impression now that the hydraulis utilised water to produce sound, but this is not the case. Instead, it was used to maintain a certain level of air pressure, while a hydraulis player pumped air using a hand pump through a set of bronze pipes, which look like today's version of a pan pipe.

The hydraulis proved to be so popular that by the 3rd century AD it had evolved from an instrument with one set of pipes to up to eight ranks of pipes. Ctesibius can truly lay claim to the title "Father of the Organ", for the basic concept of a continuous wind supply to tuned pipes controlled by a keyboard is a fundamental principle adhered to this day.

Have you ever seen the Chinese instrument called the "sheng"? It is a mouth organ, and the smallest versions can be cupped in both hands while air is blown through a mouth piece. The largest ones have a foot pedal to provide a constant air supply. The harmonica also works on a similar concept as the organ, except that the air is not continuous, of course.

The only problem with the hydraulis was that the water, which maintained the air pressure, tended to leave the instrument prone to corrosion and hence it was an instrument that required a fair bit of maintenance. But over the course of nearly two hundred years later, the use of a water tank had been superceded by a windbag that used compressed air and bellows to inflate it.

From AD 200 to about the 10th century the organ gradually faded in importance but underwent a resurgence between the tenth century and the thirteenth century to become the instrument of choice in the churches of Western Europe. A theory exists that the church organs performed the role of the modern church bells in summoning the congregation to the service. The first organ in England was built in Winchester Cathedral around AD 990.

In the years that followed various instruments came to be excluded from church worship in countries such as Spain, Italy and France, because they were seen to have associations with the secular music world. And so by the 13th century there was a rise in organ repertoire in these countries which not only showcased the technical prowess of the instrument, but also resulted in the organ being established as part of the regular fabric of new churches.

Roskilde cathedral in Denmark contains a beautiful organ known as a "swallow nest" type because they were suspended against a church wall.

The organ in Alexandra Palace was built in 1873 by Henry Willis but unfortunately it only had a life span of three weeks before a fire destroyed both the palace named after Princess Alexandra and the fine organ. Despite Henry Willis's attempt to rescue his beloved work, it was to no avail; nevertheless he was at work at its replacement, which he completed before the re-opening of the reconstructed palace in 1875.

Unfortunately this organ was damaged by troops at the end of the war and remained so, until funding was received in 1925. Rebuilt by Henry Willis III, grandson of the builder, it was remarked to be the finest concert organ in Europe by the famous French organ virtuoso Marcel Dupre.

Sadly, its run of bad luck continued when it suffered further damage during World War Two, and some pipes were destroyed in a fire of 1980. The organ is still being restored and there are fundraising concerts on the partly-reconstructed organ.

Just as the form of the instrument evolved from the hydraulis, the evolution did not stop there. Nowadays there are various types of organs like the portative organ (suspended from a strap around the neck), the positive organ (a moveable large organ), a fairground organ and the cinema organ. If you are ever in Priory Park (N8) at the Carters Steam Fair, ride the horses on the merry-go-round and watch the organ play!

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