Composing for the Organ: the Basics

“I played the organ when I went to military school, when I was 10. They had a huge organ, the second-largest pipe organ in New York State. I loved all the buttons and the gadgets. I’ve always been a gadget man.”

Stephen Sondheim

Yes, the organ is a giant (and sometimes a rather loud) machine made of wires, gadgets, whistles, levers, cranks, and occasionally some very pretty woodwork. For composers, the convergence of all this design and material and tonal pallette into one place can be a little off-putting. “How am I going to write for this beast…”, they say. A piano seems a whole lot simpler. My purpose here is to offer that composing for the organ shouldn’t be all that scary. It’s basically just a keyboard instrument, with a couple quirks.

First, consider the ways a piano and an organ are distinctive from one another (and bear with me as these are somewhat rank generalizations):

88 keys on the piano, black and white distinguish naturals and sharps/flats
60 keys on the organ (sometimes less) and there is a separate ‘keyboard’ for the feet

piano pedals can sustain notes or soften them
organ pedals actually play notes

the piano is a string instrument
the organ is a wind instrument

pianos are mostly tuned to A440 and in equal temperament
organs may be pitched higher or lower and many are tempered unequally

an Imperial sized Bösendorfer may fit in a house
an 80 stop Flentrop organ with a 32’ pedal division will not

the piano as an idea has been around since circa 1700 (Bartolomeo Cristofori)
the organ as an idea has been around since the 3rd century BC (hydraulus)

OK, enough of that. If you are going to write seriously for the organ, here are a couple basics to keep in mind:

Piano music depends on how you hit the keys;
Organ music depends on how you let go of them.

An organ teacher from long ago…

Organ music is just keyboard music. Really good organists can pretty much make anything happen on their instrument. If you can write idiomatically for the keyboard, you’ll succeed. Within that framework there is, of course, much variety. Bach and Messiaen have much in common, but their approach is different. So, before you start, check out a score. You’ll see that distant ledger lines aren’t all that common, and neither are extended passages for octaves. You’ll note that organ music is scored on three staves, the top two are for the right and left hands, the bottom for the feet. Where the pianist may sustain a tone over another by use of a pedal, sustained tones at the organ can only be achieved by physically holding those notes down. Where an organist can vastly re-color a passage by means of registration (stops pulled) and expression (opening and closing swell shades), dynamic control at the piano is subtly achieved by the varied weight and velocity at the performer’s thoughtful discretion.

Tamburini Organ console at the 16th century Church of St. Stephen the Cavalier, Pisa, Italy

The organ pedals are not an option. Yes, there is a host of really good organ music for manuals (finger keyboards only), but in general it’s best to think of the organ as a hands and feet instrument. The pedal division adds depth to the sound in the same way that double basses, tubas, trombones, and bass clarinets add to the fullness of orchestral music. A second pointer: the pedals are not places for you to store leftover chords. Sure, most organists have two feet with both toes and heels and could possibly even play a four-note chord, but don’t ask. Keep it in your head that the pedal division is for one note at a time.

Choosing stops for your organ music is the scariest part. If you are writing for a specific instrument and you know it well, great! Otherwise, really, let your performer deal with it. Tell them to be loud, soft, full, or spare, but leave the specifics to them. Why? No two organs that are alike. Stop names and characters vary significantly between instruments. What you want in terms of color may not exist on one organ where it may exist in spades on another. Organists know this, they live with it, and they are typically ingenious as ‘orchestrators’. Put simply, if you make good keyboard music, they’ll make it work.

Next article: Organ stops, numbers & names

Frederick Frahm
organist, composer, publisher

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