A Concise History of Organ Development


Organ music today is an essential part of every church service world wide and has become almost synonymous for sacred music. Become? Hasn't it been like this forever?
No. Looking at organ history you will notice that the church has become the home of the organ rather unintentionally:

  • The organ was not invented by a musician but by an engineer named Ktesbios in Alexandria / Egypt in the 3rd century B.C. He built several rows of pipes that could produce different timbres. The air pressure needed for this was produced by reprocicating pumps driven by foot.

  • The organ saw its first heyday in the 1st century B.C. when there were even held public organ playing competitions.

  • It was the Roman emperor and persecutor of the Christians, Nero, who, in 67 A.D. introduced the organ to Rome, an instrument he knew from his Greek teachers. Soon it became a status symbol of Roman upper class.

  • Emperor Constantine later brought the organ to the Byzantine Empire. While the Western Roman Empire was lost and with it the organ in Europe as well it still remained a status symbol at the imperial palace in the Byzantine Empire (they even had organs with golden pipes ornamented with precious stones) until its fall in 1453. So the organ was the essential instrument in emperor worship for about a thousand years.

  • In the Western World it only reappeared in 757 A.D. when King Pippin the Smaller was presented an organ by Byzantine Emperor Constantine V. A century later the first European organ was built in Aachen.

  • The church fathers and popes disapproved of musical instruments during church service. This applied especially to the organ being the utmost symbol of worldliness by "imitating the sensually exciting sound of the Aulos" (an ancient double-reed woodwind instrument).

  • Still, after the turn of the millennium organs turned up in monasteries, and, from the 13th century more and more in church buildings as well. So, far away from Rome, the organ, due to the special opportunities it offered for teaching music, slowly but surely found its way into the churches.

  • As a matter of fact in the 14th century most of the main town churches had an organ. After the council of Milan had agreed to accept the organ as "the only musical instrument that may be used in church services" in 1287 the chapter general of Ferrara in 1290 decided to "ban the playing of the organ during services".
Drawing by Gerard Hoffnung, "The Organ Player"
  • Between the 14th and the 16th century many improvements were introduced in organ construction, amongst others the pedal. After this time of glory the Reformation brought a new crisis. While Martin Luther supported the use of the organ John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli firmly rejected it. Many organs were destroyed or had to be closed down during church service.

  • In the last few centuries the organ advanced to be the main accompanying instrument for church services, mainly through the influence of great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Interestingly organs have never been employed in the Eastern churches.
So the organ is not necessarily the Christian musical instrument even if it has grown to be so in our cultural environment in the last centuries.