Composing for the Organ

“Now that you’ve completed your comp degree, some advice: really, write for whatever you want. Except, well, for the organ. Don’t write for that… it’s impossible to figure it out.”

T. C. Lewis organ at Southwark Cathedral in London, UK

A friend once told me his comp professor (at a mid-west school that will remain unnamed…) rather unceremoniously offered this as advice. Being an organist, I was perplexed. Sure, being a classically trained organist will get you a long way towards writing well for the instrument. But it seemed to me that if you’re going to learn composition, making an awesome new piece to be played on European Cathedral instrument would be a cool project. So, to understand better, I asked my colleague to elaborate. He groused about the complexity of the stop names and registers, the fact that given instruments are quite unpredictable between builders and venues, and that many orchestras don’t even play in a hall where an organ might be available.

On the surface, I thought that was a reasonable reply, but what surprised me was how little he was taught about the instrument. He would not be the first non-organist composer to struggle with working out a new score with some degree of confidence. Even Arnold Schoenberg, for all his orchestral mastery, found that composing his ‘Variations on a Recitative’ (opus 40) turned into a daunting project. In fact, this piece was pretty much his first and last completed piece for organ.

“I’m basically writing as I would for orchestra, keeping in mind the playability of the piece as a keyboard work… but there might still be problems about that, and the colors.”
(from a letter to Mark Brunswick on 13 February 1944).

Schoenberg composed his work with assistance from the great virtuoso Alexander Schreiner (chief organist at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City) who fortunately was most sympathetic. In a similar way, being an organist myself and of some experience, I’d like to offer the same assistance to composers coming to the instrument today. Rest assured, there is new music being written for the organ daily, and some of it really is spectacular and essential music making. In fact, the catalog of new organ music taking shape right now at Firehead Editions of London includes mostly works composed in the last few years. Granted all of it is written by organists, but here is evidence that the instrument continues to inspire outstanding music making.

For all you composers thinking about a new work for organ, consider these items before getting out the pen and paper:

How many stops or ranks are on the instrument (and what’s the difference)?

How many manuals are there?

Are there any short octaves?

Is this an 8’ or a 16’ instrument, or in the case of some 19th century English or 16th century Italian organs, is this a 12’ instrument?

What is the difference between a 32’, 16’, 8’, 4’, 3’, 2’, and a mutation stop?

Is the organ tuned to equal temperament like a piano, or to something else like fifth comma mean tone or Kellner/Bach?

Does is speak at A440 or lower or higher in the case of historic organs?

Is the case standing in a reverberant acoustic or a dead room?

Is it a mechanical action pipe organ, or is it all digital?

Does it have a flat or radiated pedal board, and does it go to top G’?

Is there a wind stabilizer?

Is it under expression?

Is it voiced in the French, German, Italian, English, Spanish or American style?

Is it a Baroque, Romantic, or Symphonic instrument?

Are there pistons and memory levels?

Can I please hear it played before I write for it?

Moller organ console at First Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, NM

Have no fear. Helping you to know what to ask and what not to worry about (leaving some of those decisions to the performer) is my purpose here. It’s a big topic. For example, Handel thought the perfect instrument would have only 7 stops, Bach required a few more but certainly not as many as the Crystal Cathedral organ which has 302 stops. To qualify just a bit, I’ll offer advice in a series of blogs more about what not to do from the scoring perspective and I’ll leave the organology discussions to the true scholars like Orpha Ochse and George Ashdown Audsley. But you can plan on helpful hints, sample scores, pictures, and recordings where they might be useful.

First topic: stops, manuals, divisions, and technique 101

Frederick Frahm
organist, composer, publisher

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