Brief History of the Organ

History of the organ

Considered by Bach, Mozart and many others as “the king of instruments”, the pipe organ, usually thought of as a church instrument, has been around longer than Christianity.

It was invented between 300-200 BC by Ctesibius of Alexandrea, who is recorded as an engineer and a musician. His invention functioned through a hydraulics mechanism, where the pressurized wind supply that creates the music was crafted via a system of increasing and decreasing water pressures. This was a complex set-up but it worked well, so the organ was not redesigned until nearly a 1000 years later.

When organ architects began looking into more convenient ways of building the instrument, the water supply was replaced by bellows that produced strong gusts of wind. The pipe organ became increasingly popular from that point on, as it became considerably easier to transport, and rulers would gift elaborate organs to their allies.

By the time electricity was discovered and harnessed, most conventional organs were abandoned, because they required the wind to be supplied by either windmills, or human blowers operating hand pumps. The new organs built adapted to modern technology, and by the late 19th century, electricity was being used to connect the organ console to the pipes using an electro-pneumatic action.

The organ was used for large events because the pipe system created a louder sound than an ordinary piano. It was used in sporting events, large theatre performances, and grand celebrations. However, since it was massive and complicated, it was not a household instrument like a piano, or guitar, and remained in very public places like churches and entertainment centers. While the piano was still being used in small theatres, with the introduction of the film, the organ replaced the piano as the theatres were expanded to include more people. The film was new and popular and attracted greater crowds, and the pianos were not loud enough to cater to such large numbers.

Organs today

Today, the organs are primarily used in churches, but some are still being used for mainstream pop and rock music. There are many variations of the organ now, including electric organs that are smaller, and lighter.

The organ repertoire contains many priceless masterpieces such as works from J.S. Bach and Charles-Marie Widor to Canadian composers Raymond Daveluy and Rachel Laurin.

Did You Know? Montreal: Organ Capital

The rich musical tradition in the city, the long history of organ building, and the quality of the city's organists – many of them very well-known teachers – creates a most favourable opportunity for great concerts, and the development of exceptional careers. Each year Montrealers are able to attend over 200 organ recitals, and their numbers are said to be about 30 000. In some churches the organs have been restored, as is the case at Saint-Anges Church in Lachine where the community has rediscovered the joys of organ music.

In 1998, John Grew, Organist of McGill University, founded an Organ Academy to which every two years he welcomes some of the top organ music specialists, internationally renowned performers and organists of cathedrals such as Notre Dame de Paris. Mr. Grew himself participates in international competitions as a jury member.

The rich and diverse organ heritage of Montreal, his own passion for developing the talents of young organists, and the disappearance of the Calgary International Organ Competition, led him to gather interested businessmen in a planning committee. From this group, the idea was born to create the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC), a large-scale event, whose first edition took place from October 8 – 19, 2008.

Under the chairmanship of E. Noël Spinelli, C.M., the CIOC was the only international organ competition in the Americas in 2008. Three Honorary Patrons are associated with this first edition: Kent Nagano, Musical Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Père Lindsay, founder of the Festival de Lanaudière; and the late Richard Bradshaw, who was the director of the Canadian Opera Company from 1998 until 2007. A jury of nine renowned organists awarded prizes totalling $72,000 to a carefully selected group of the world's finest young organists. The CIOC confirms Montreal as the North American organ capital.