The Organ and its evolution

I have started this blog by discussing the beginning of the string instruments. The string instrument: how it all started

  • A hammered string instrument: the dulcimer
  • A plucked string instrument: the epigonion
  • The first string keyboard: the chekker

Hydraulis 2.jpeg

The first pipe keyboard instrument was  the hydraulis.  It was an ancient Greek water organ, invented in the 3rd century BC by the Alexandrian engineer Ctesibius, the ‘Father of the Organ’, and it used water pressure to pump air through the pipes. To be performed it needed two people, one person for the hand-pump, which maintained the pressure of air and another one to press the keys. The reservoir of water was under the bronze pipes. The pipes, were closed underneath and when the keys were pressed, they would open and the pressed air would travel through the pipe. Firstly, there was only one row of pipes but they increased throughout the years.               Video: Hydraulis

hydraulis of dion.jpg


The oldest surviving hydraulis was found in Dion in Greece and its held at its Archaeological Museum. It is dated from 1 BC. In the 2nd century AD the water and the pumps were replaced by bellows and inflated leather bags. By the 7th-8th AD the hydraulis was called organ and it became very popular in Constantinople.

Video: Organ, Bach, BWV 565 Toccata and Fugue

In 757 AD the Emperor Constantine V of Constantinople sent, as a gift, a pipe organ to Rome, to the King Pippin of the Franks. About the 10th century the organ was established as a church instrument. At the time, the bellows were operated by foot, and in the 13th century the sliders were replaced by keys.  Until the 14th-15th century, the organ could only produce one sound. By designing specific mechanisms, with different stops at the pipes they could then produce different combinations of other instrument sounds. Organs have a pedalboard played by feet and several keyboards. In this way, different sounds can be combined and mixed up on the different keyboards and then be performed together. The oldest playable organ is in the Cathedral Valère Basilica in Sion, Switzerland. It was built circa 1430 and restored in 1954.

Video: Organ at Sion, Switzerland 


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Portative Organ by Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece c.1490/95


The portative organ (also called organetto) was a small portable organ, around the 12th-15th centuries. It had one manual with less than two octaves, and one or two ranks of pipes. The performers would hold it on their right side, play the keys with their right hand and use the bellows with the left hand. It was mostly used for secular music and sometimes in religious processions.

Video: Portative Organ 


The medieval positive organ was larger than the portative. It had more ranks of pipes, one manual and no pedal. It was built either as a small instrument that would be placed on a table or stand (and needed a second person to operate the bellows) or as a free-standing instrument.  By the 15th century, the positive organ had stops in order to control the sound. It was used for secular and sacred music, as a chamber organ, as a basso continuo in ensembles as well as in small churches and chapels.   Video: Positive Organ


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Regal, c. 1525, possibly by Georg Voll, at the Met Museum, NY

The regal was also a small portable organ, circa 1450, and was mostly used during the 16th and 17th  centuries. One person would play the keys, whilst another one would pump the two bellows to supply air. The pipes are made of brass; thus, the sound is more nasal.  The regal can be considered the ancestor of instruments such as the harmonium, accordion, concertina.         Video: Regal



Coming next: The clavichord! ♪ ♫


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