The Baroque Church Organ in Italy and Germany: The Instrument and its Music

 | 4554 words

No other instrument emanates the same aura of majesty as the Church organ. It is an incredibly complex instrument with an equally complex history. Beginning with the simple hydraulis of the ancient Romans, the organ has had a long and varied history. During the early modern period, the diverse regional organ-building traditions developed simultaneously as did distinct regional musical traditions, until Napoleon1 and the Romantic era.2 As cultural movements spread across Europe, Italian musical innovations especially influenced German composition. Organ building and composition were inextricably linked and new developments in each field affected the other, and cultural and religious values significantly influenced the development of the organ and its music.

The ancient history of the organ is murky. Peter Williams makes this quite clear. The organ was initially used in a secular context and often only as a mechanical curiosity.3 Even how the organ came to be used in churches is quite difficult to understand.4 This is compounded by the loss of historical instruments and the difficulty of interpreting primary sources.5 While the organ in some form was invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria and organs performed at gladiatorial shows, many questions remain of the exact form of the instrument and how it was used. The organ continued in the Byzantine empire and emperors used it for diplomatic gifts to European kings Pepin and Charlemagne.6 The organ came to be used in churches in the tenth century, but how this transition of purpose occurred is a mystery.7 Disputes within the church also hindered the adoption of the instrument, particularly the dispute between the Benedictines who favored the instrument for liturgical use and the Cistercians who opposed it.8

While the organ was used widely in churches in northern Italy and northern Europe by the early fifteenth century, both the nature of the instrument and when it would be used is difficult to ascertain. This is largely because of the highly poetic or theoretical nature of the primary sources. For example, Wulfstan, a monk, wrote a poem about the organ at Winchester, using extremely hyperbolic and improbable language. Theophilus wrote an encyclopedia on the manufacture of objects for churches, describing a basic organ with slider keys instead of modern keys which return to their original position after being pushed. The anonymous Berne Codex described an organ with rudimentary keys. However, all of these primary sources were primary theoretical and give little insight into the true nature and use of the Medieval organ. How they fit into liturgy is also unclear.9 Regardless, in the fourteenth century, the mechanisms within the instrument started to resemble modern forms, particularly with the invention of the tracker action, which allows the complex arrangements of pipes associated with the modern organ.10

Italy produced its own variation of the organ. This sort of organ was largely developed by 1575. Italian organs featured large, shallow cases with decorative, non-sounding pipes higher up. Italian organs rarely had more than one manual and few had pedals aside from, occasionally, a few pedals which pulled down the keys of the great organs. This style remained dominant until the mid-nineteenth century, as did the practice of relatively standardized registrations linked to certain parts of the liturgy. As the Baroque era progressed, mixtures increasingly became important, and stopped pipes were added to some second manuals. As any people group wishes to prove their own cultural sophistication, the Italians desired to compete with their northern neighbors and eventually began to build instruments with a somewhat excess of special effects. The traditional style remained common and popular, however, for both builders and players.11

Italian organ music was also a unique style. Italy produced several genres of music for the organ, such as the toccata, ricercare, canzone, and fantasia.12 The toccata emphasized virtuosic performance, alternating many different types of writing in an artistic, in a "stilo fantastico".13 The ricercare and canzone was adapted from the French chanson and the motet. The ricercare, with a fugal structure, and canzone, with its repetitive structure, later developed into the fugue.14 The canzone was fast compared to the slower ricercare.15 Frescobaldi seems to have considered the ricercare and fantasia to be similar.16 The canzone often had both repetitive themes and great variation within a piece.17 The nature of the Italian organ certainly influenced these pieces: a distinct but well-balanced sound fostered intricate counterpoint and the usual lack of pedals caused music to generally lack pedal parts.18

Since the organ is an instrument designed for the church, it follows that its music develops in accordance with the needs of the liturgy. Organ music was often used between the chants in the mass. Frescobaldi’s Fiori Musicali brought secular genres into a religions context, as evidenced by the terms “Toccata avanti la Mess” ("Toccata before the Mass), “Toccata per l’Elevazione” ("Toccata for the Elevation), “Ricercare dopo il Credo” (“Ricercare after the Creed”), and “Canzone dopo l’Epistola” and “dopo il Post Comune” (“Canzone after the Epistle” and “after the Postcommunion”).19 By using these titles, Frescobaldi signaled what each piece could be used for, fulfilling his desire to “help organists…so that they will be able to respond at Mass and Vespers.”20

Little development in Italian organ composition occurred after Frescobaldi, as orchestral and vocal music became more important. Bernard Sonnaillon notes that there may be a correlation between the stagnation of the organ and the lack of later innovation in genres specific to the music.21 This seems correct, as Frescobaldi lived from 1583 to 1643, and published his Fiori musicali in 1635;22 thus, the chronological correlation seems quite strong. It seems possible, though, that the gradually increasing importance of orchestral and vocal music may have also been to blame for the lack of new development in the organ. Thus, many entangled factors working together caused Italian organs and their music to lose importance and innovation for the remainder of the Baroque period. Even the harpsichord with its crisp sound began to influence organ music towards its own idiom in the early 1700s, manifest in the works of composers such as Pasquini, Zipoli, and others who wrote pieces suitable for either instrument.23

Arnolt Schlick in Spiegel der Orgelmacher laid out the principles of organ building which would become predominant at the beginning of the modern period, particularly the construction and contrast of the manuals in pedals. In some ways, Schlick’s music anticipated the organ chorales that would become common in the Baroque period. Near the end of the fourteenth century, Werkprinzip (“system of independent chests”), became a dominant force in German organ-building. All of these organs were, as Williams says, “full of color,”24 or, in other words, with large numbers of exotic stops in a Brustwerk and Rückpositiv.25 Arp Schnitger’s large organs were considered to be the best model of organ-building through the mid-nineteenth century.26 A typical example of his work was his organ in the Jakobikirche in Hamburg. This organ had four manuals and a pedal, each contrasting with each other in accordance with Werkprinzip. The Pedal was the heaviest rank, while the heaviest manual was the Hauptwerk (Great Organ); the organ also included a Brustwerk (where swell stops were sometimes included), the Oberwerk, and the Rückpositiv.27

German organ music is quite diverse. Early manuscripts such as the tablature Buxheimer Orgelbuch show an emphasis on the pedal as more than mere accompaniment. Arnolt Schlick noted that this type of importance on the pedal usually precluded the use of 16’ stops.28 The extent to which the pedal became integral to the harmony and structure of composition is evident.29 The development of organ music seems to have interrupted by the events in Europe following the reformation, as the early sixteenth century witnessed a dearth in composition. There were two primary schools of German organ composition: the northern and the southern. Composers from central Germany formed somewhat of a middle ground between these two schools.30

The southern German composers were greatly influenced by Italians. Many musicians, such as Froberger studied in Italy with important figures such as Frescobaldi,31 carrying musical ideas and composition techniques into the region. The influence of Italian tradition upon their style is quite evident; the style and genres Froberger used, for example, parallel the style and forms of his teacher Frescobaldi.32 Additionally, the liturgy of the region affected the development of the region’s music. Cantus firmus33 music as in Italy was dominant in composition rather than the Choral of Northern Germany.34

Similarly to in Italy, the southern German organ competed with solo instrumentalists and even the harpsichord, weakening its importance; many of these musicians were not specialist performers on the organ and had more general duties. For example, Froberger did not particularly favor the organ over the harpsichord, and, while distinct genres did develop for each instrument, the harpsichord still dominated the efforts of composers.35

With Frescobaldi’s influence continuing in southern Germany, southern German composers Pachelbel influenced central German composers. Thus, Italian influence percolated through Germany. While Pachelbel was a southern German, he was notably a protestant in a generally Catholic region. He certainly fell within the influence of the Italian tradition and wrote in its forms, but nevertheless developed the protestant chorale.36 His works make this synthesis quite clear; even his chorales display stylistic inheritance from the Italians, even using Italian forms in the chorale genre while adapting to and embracing the advantages of the German instrument.37

In the north, however, the organ dominated the musical scene. Under the influence of Jan Pieterzoon Sweelink and the rich Lutheran hymnody tradition, northern German music blossomed into its own unique regional variation.38 These hymns often were arranged in the organ choral genre.39 The northern German organ also influenced the style of composition. Because of the size of instruments, including the pedals, and the organization of the instrument in accordance with the Werkprinzip, composers such as Buxtehude to effectively use the pedals as an integral part of composition.40 This resulted in a unique set of forms of chorale: the *Choralvorspiel (*chorale prelude), the chorale fantasia, and the chorale variation or fugue. The prelude relied on straightforward cantus firmus composition; the fantasia expounded extensively on each portion of the melody using many techniques; the chorale fugue used a fugal introduction to cantus firmus composition and was influenced by the Italian stilo fantastico toccatas.41

Central German composers held somewhat of a middle ground between the south and the north. They had more diverse duties than the northern organists, but they also were not taken away from the organ by other duties. Central German organ music was slow to develop, perhaps because of the difficulties of the Thirty-Years war, but soon Michael Praetorius in his Musae Sioniae was writing cantus firmus music suited for the local instrument and liturgy.42 Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, influenced by Pachelbel, wrote chorales which pointed towards Bach.43 Johann Kuhnau wrote various keyboard works, including toccatas influenced by Froberger which used the pedals in a northern style and chaconnes influenced by Pachelbel.44 Johann Gottfried Walther, a cousin and friend of J. S. Bach, wrote fantasias in a northern style and chorale preludes with the melody in long treble or bass notes; some of his chorales could be played on instruments without pedals, possibly a concession to the Italian influence on the area. He also wrote transcriptions of both Italian and German violin concertos, displaying a methodical amalgamation of styles.45 The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach stand out as “a kind apotheosis” of organ composition; indeed, he combined the various areas and genres of music in such a fashion that he both sums up and completes the German Baroque organ composition tradition.46 Bach agreed with Werckmeister that music was the “reflection and foretaste of a heavenly harmony”47 and certainly seems to have achieved this in his compositions, especially his organ chorales.48

The organ was affected by many cultural factors, political, religious, and geographic. These factors resulted in many regional and temporal variations of the instrument, including the large German organ and the simpler Italian organ. Since each region also produced its own music, it follows that music is often quite tied to the nature of the organ, and the nature of the organ to the music. Additionally, music was also affected by cultural factors; thus, the instrument itself could in turn be affected. This has special implications for performers of organ music, as one must be careful to play with an appropriate style of instrument and combination of stops if the performer desires to play in a historically accurate manner and, presumably, in accord with the composer’s intentions. It also has great importance to modern organ builders, who must consider what types of music will be played on their instruments to make the instruments suitable for their purpose. A sort of organ revival which focused on German models began to occur in the early twentieth century, incorporating historical research to produce a historically accurate instrument which would accurately represent the music of the time.49This is a complex topic which deserves treatment so that the music of the great Baroque composers can truly be appreciated.



  1. Peter Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 77.

  2. Alison Latham, ed., The Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), s.v. Organ.

  3. Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day, 23, 25, 29.

  4. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Organ.

  5. Peter Williams demonstrates in the first five chapters of his book (pages 19-54) by compiling quite a few primary sources and explaining how they are generally unconclusive except for a consensus that some instrument of that nature existed, as well as mentioning numerous historical examples which are not extant.

  6. Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day, 22, 25, 26–28, 30.

  7. Williams, 34; Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Organ.

  8. Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day, 36–37.

  9. Williams, 38–42, 45, 47–48, 49.

  10. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Organ.

  11. Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day, 126–28.

  12. Bernard. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 72.

  13. Sonnaillon, 73; Manfred F Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1947), 47.

  14. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 48–50.

  15. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 73.

  16. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 49.

  17. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 73; Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 48; Richard Lester, Frescobaldi, G.: Harpsichord and Organ Music, vol. 4, Harpsichord and Organ Music (Nimbus Records, 2011); Sergio Vartolo, Frescobaldi: Fantasie Book 1, Ricercari, Canzoni Francesci (Naxos, 2002).

  18. Alexander Silbiger, “The Solo Instrumentalist,” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music, ed. Tim Carter and John Butt, The Cambridge History of Music (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 141.

  19. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 74.

  20. Silbiger, “The Solo Instrumentalist,” 440.

  21. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 74.

  22. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Frescobaldi, Girolamo.

  23. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 75.

  24. Williams, 74–75, 79, 97.

  25. Functionally their own organs within the organ. The Rückpositiv was behind the player and the Brustwerk was immediately in front, below the Hauptwerk (Great Organ). Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Rückpositiv, Brustwerk.

    The Hauptwerk was a bigger sound, while the Rückpositiv was more distinct and often served as the solo manual. Stanley Sadie, John Tyrrell, and George Grove, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2. ed, vol. 18 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), s.v. Organ.

  26. Williams, A New History of the Organ from the Greeks to the Present Day, 103.

  27. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Organ.

  28. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 82.

  29. Joseph Payne, Kittel, W. H. Pachelbel, Kellner, Kreiger, Krebs and Others, vol. 2, German Organ Music (Naxos, 1994).

  30. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 84, 109.

  31. Sonnaillon, 86.

  32. Sergio Vartolo, Johann Jacob Froberger: Toccatas and Partatis, Meditation, Lamentation of the Death of Ferdinand III (Naxos, 2005).

  33. Cantus firmus is the melody on which counterpoint is written. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. cantus firmus.

  34. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 85.

  35. Sonnaillon, 85–87.

  36. Sonnaillon, 74, 87–88, 110–11.

  37. Simone Stella, Pachelbel: Complete Keyboard Music (Brilliant Classics, 2019); Michael Belotti et al., Johann Pachelbel: Complete Organ Works, vol. 1, Johann Pachelbel: Complete Organ Works (CPO, 2013).

  38. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 86, 89–90.

  39. Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. organ chorale.

  40. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 91; Julia Brown, Praeludia, Chorale Fantasias, Chorale Preludes, vol. 7, Dietrich Buxtehude: Organ Music (Naxos, 2007).

  41. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 90–91.

  42. Sonnaillon, 109; Joerg Breiding et al., Michaelisvesper (Rondeau Production, 2009).

  43. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 97; Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, s.v. Zachow, Friedrich Wilhelm.

  44. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 109–10.

  45. Sonnaillon, 110; Craig Cramer, Johann Gottfried Walther: Concertos after Vivaldi, Manzia, Blamr, Tagletti, & Torelli, vol. 2, The Organ Encyclopedia (Naxos, 2000).

  46. Sonnaillon, King of Instruments: A History of the Organ, 110–11.

  47. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 272.

  48. Daniel Chorzempa, Bach: Orgelbüchlein: 18 Chorales, Leipziger Chorale, Trio Sonatas Nos. 1-6 (Decca, 1977).

  49. Sadie, Tyrrell, and Grove, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 18, s.v. Organ.