In 1599 the English organ builder Thomas Dallam personally accompanied to Istanbul an instrument he had built for the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III at the behest of Queen Elizabeth. The gift was intended to smooth relations in the hope of gaining access to Ottoman caravan routes.
The instrument, which could sound a fanfare, chime the hours, and play several pieces by itself due to controlled wind release, delighted the Sultan, who declared a festive occasion with amnesty for over 300 prisoners.
Dallam himself made a highly favorable impression, and was offered many luxuries in exchange for staying in Istanbul. He respectfully declined, however, citing his responsibilities toward his family. Dallam’s success assured his prosperity back home, and soon the trade routes to India were opened to the British.
This according to “A gift for the Sultan” by Peter English (Saudi Aramco world XXXIV/6 [November–December 1983]).
Related article: The Nawāb’s musical bed
Capable of producing sounds beyond the range of human hearing, the pipe organ presents the ultimate challenge for sound recording. The first known attempt was the Columbia Records recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from late August and early September 1910, which included two organ solos played by John J. McClellan.
Probably the very first pipe organ recording was a test made on 30 August 1910, with McClellan playing Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. Two enormous acoustic recording horns, five feet long and two feet wide, were suspended on a rope strung across the Tabernacle. Although the engineer deemed the recordings successful, apparently they were never approved for release.
This according to “The first recordings of organ music ever made” by John W. Landon (Theatre organ: Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society LIII/4 [July–August 2011] pp. 22–28). Above, the Mormon Tabernacle organ as it appeared at the time of the recording (two 15-foot wings were added in 1915).
The heyday of the mortuary pipe organ was the 1920s and 1930s; only a few have been built since World War II. A uniquely American product, the instrument’s characteristics departed significantly from those of the conventional church organ, despite its quasi-liturgical setting and function.
U.S. organ builders, long known for their innovations, met the stringent tonal, space, and cost requirements of funeral homes, cemetery chapels, and mausoleums so successfully that their instruments displaced the reed organ and piano. Over 600 mortuary organs were sold during this period, contributing significantly to the industry’s survival during the Great Depression.
This according to “The mortuary pipe organ: A neglected chapter in the history of organbuilding in America” by Robert E. Coleberd (The diapason XCV/7:1136, pp. 16–19). Above, the Estey Upright Minuette, front and back; containing 231 pipes, including a 16-foot open stop, the organ measures only 7’0″ x 4’8″ x 5’7½”.
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In 1950 a pipe organ built to the specifications of Adriaan Fokker (1887–1972) with octaves divided into 31 steps was inaugurated at Teylers Museum in Haarlem. The instrument originally enjoyed considerable fame, and a lively circle of composers and performers developed around it.
Since 1942 Fokker, a physicist who had studied with Einstein, had been occupied almost exclusively with music-theoretical subjects. His interest was particularly captured by the writings of Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), who advocated the adoption of just intonation. This theme became the backbone of nearly all Fokker’s music-theoretical publications.
To turn his theories into sounds, Fokker had a small organ built in 1943. This instrument was the prelude to the realization of his greatest dream: a pipe organ with 31 tones per octave. This instrument was built starting in 1945 in close cooperation between Fokker and the organ builder Bernard J.A. Pels (1921–96).
Then for years the organ was forgotten; it was even dismantled and placed in storage. But since 2009 the instrument sounds again, in the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam. And again composers are inspired by the Fokker organ and its intriguing microtonal system.
This according to “Microtonaliteit van het Spaarne naar ’t IJ. Zestig jaar 31-toons orgel” by Cees van der Poel (Het orgel, 107/3  pp. 4–10). Above, Anton de Beer (1924–2000) plays the organ. Inset, the reassembled organ and a schematic of the keyboard (click to enlarge). You can hear excerpts from works performed on the Fokker organ here.
The long-lost pipe organ that belonged to the steamship Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic, was identified in the collection of the Museum für Musikautomaten in Seewen, Switzerland, when restorers in 2007 discovered the inscription Britanik engraved on each beam under the instrument’s windchests.
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914 the British Admiralty requisitioned all large passenger ships as troop transports or hospital ships, so the Britannic was never outfitted for transocean luxury traffic. Around 1920 the organ, built around 1913 by M. Welte & Söhne, was installed in the villa of the camera manufacturer and designer August Nagel (1882–1943) in Stuttgart; around 1935 he returned it to the manufacturer for unknown reasons. In 1937 it was moved to the reception room of the Radium electric light company in Wipperfürth, where it remained in use until the 1960s.
When the Wipperfürth reception room was turned into a storeroom, the organ was offered for sale but attracted no buyers. Eventually it came to the attention of Heinrich Weiss, the founder of the Museum für Musikautomaten, who quickly acquired it for his collection; the instrument was completed and reinaugurated there On 30 May 1970, but its identity and history remained unknown for decades.
This according to “Orgel des gesunkenen Ozeanriesen Britannic entdeckt: 610 Meter über Meer im Museum für Musikautomaten Seewen in der Schweiz” by Christoph E. Hänggi (Das mechanische Musikinstrument: Journal der Gesellschaft für selbstspielende Musikinstrumente XXXIII/99 [August 2007] pp. 65–68; an English translation is here).
A National Historic Landmark valued over $57 million, the Grand Organ of Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia has 465 ranks, six manual keyboards, and hundreds of other mechanical controls. Designed by the renowned organ architect George Ashdown Audsley, it was built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
In 1909 John Wanamaker bought the instrument for his new emporium. Thirteen freight cars were required to ship it, and installation took two years. The Grand Organ was first heard in the seven-story atrium on 22 June 1911; later that year it was prominently featured when President William Howard Taft dedicated the store. During the following 20 years it was continuously enlarged under the direction of William Boone Fleming.
Daily recitals by store employees provided a harmonious environment for shopping, and special performances, such as annual Christmas concerts, provided outreach to the community. Today the store is owned by Macy’s, and the traditions continue.
This according to “The Grand Court organ” by Ralph Blakely (The musical times CXXX/ 1761 [November 1989] pp. 703–707). Below, Virgil Fox discusses and performs on the organ.
More organ-related posts are here.
In 2010 the Organ Historical Society Press launched its series OHS monographs in American organ history with Organbuilding along the Erie and Chenango Canals by Stephen L. Pinel. The book chronicles the careers of the organ builders Alvinza and George N. Andrews of Utica, New York, and their innovative use of the canals to undercut their Boston and New York competition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Sponsored by the Organ Historical Society, the Press also publishes a quarterly journal, an annual study of organs by locale, and CDs featuring historic American instruments.
The Russian-speaking organ community has a new platform for professional information and dialogue on organ culture in Russia and abroad: the quarterly periodical Орган: Журнал об органной культуре (Organ: Journal of organ culture). Launched in 2009 by the Московское Музыкальное Общество (Moscow Musical Society) , the Гocударственный Центральный Музей Музыкальной Культуры им. М.И. Глинки (Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture), and Союз Московских Композиторов (Moscow Composers’ Union), the journal is published by Стейдж-Мастер/Stage Master with assistance from Le chant du monde.
Organ is published in Russian with a collective summary in English; it is edited by the musicologist, organist, and pedagogue Evgeniâ Krivickaâ. Introducing instruments from around the world with specifications and photographs, and providing interviews and reports on organ events, the journal addresses a wide range of readers, from organists and organ builders to students and teachers, and everyone interested in organ music.
Published by the L’Associazione Culturale Giuseppe Serassi, Arte Organaria Italiana was launched in 2009 to provide a forum for research on organs in Italy.
Articles in the first issue include a discussion of pedaling in Frescobaldi’s organ works, a study of organs in the Cattedrale di Mantova during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and an exploration of nineteenth-century organ case aesthetics.