The Organ

by Camille Saint-Saens

When hairy Pan joined reeds of different lengths and so invented the flute which bears his name, he was, in reality, creating the organ. It needed only to add to this flute a keyboard and bellows to make one of those pretty instruments the first painters used to put in the hands of angels. As it developed and gradually became the most grandiose of the instruments, the organ, with its depth of tone modified and increased tenfold by the resonance of the great cathedrals, took on its religious character.

The organ is more than a single instrument. It is an orchestra, a collection of the pipes of Pan of every size, from those as small as a child’s playthings to those as gigantic as the columns of a temple. Each one corresponds to what is termed an organ-stop. The number is unlimited.

The Romans made organs which must have been simple from the musical standpoint, though they were complicated in their mechanical construction. They were called hydraulic organs. The employment of water in a wind instrument has greatly perplexed the commentators.  Cavaille-Coll studied the question and solved the problem by demonstrating that the water compressed the air. This system was ingenious but imperfect, since it was applicable only to the most primitive instruments. The keys, it seems, were very large, and were struck by blows of the fist.

Let us leave erudition for art and primitive for perfected instruments.  By the time of Sebastian Bach and Rameau the organ had taken on its grandiose character. The stops had multiplied and the organist called them by means of registers which he drew out or pushed back at will. In order to give greater resources, the builder multiplied the keyboards.  Pedals were introduced to help out the keyboards. At that time Germany alone had pedals worthy of the name and worth while in playing an interesting bass part. In France and elsewhere the rudimentary pedals were only used for certain fundamental notes or in prolonged tenutos.  No one outside of Germany could play Sebastian Bach’s compositions.

Playing on the old instruments was tiring and uncomfortable. The touch was heavy and, when one used both the pedals and the keyboards, a real display of strength was necessary. A similar display was necessary to draw out or push back the registers, some of which were beyond the player’s reach. In short, an assistant was necessary, in fact several assistants in playing large organs like those at Harlem or Arnheim in Holland. It was almost impossible to modify the combinations of stops.  All nuances, save the abrupt change from strong to soft and vice versa, were impossible.

It remained for Cavaille-Coll to change all this and open up new fields of usefulness for the organ. He introduced in France keyboards worthy of the name, and he gave to the higher notes, through his invention of harmonic stops, a brilliancy they had lacked. He invented wonderful combinations which allow the organist to change his combinations and to vary the tone, without the aid of an assistant and without leaving the keyboard. Even before his day a scheme had been devised of enclosing certain stops in a box protected by shutters which a pedal opened and closed at will; this permitted the finest shadings. By different processes the touch of the organ was made as delicate as that of the piano.

For some years the Swiss organ-makers have been inventing new facilities which make the organist a sort of magician. The manifold resources of the marvellous instrument are at his command, obedient to his slightest wish.

These resources are prodigious. The compass of the organ far surpasses that of all the instruments of the orchestra. The violin notes alone reach the same height, but with little carrying power. As for the lower tones, there is no competitor of the thirty-two-foot pipes, which go two octaves below the violoncello’s low C. Between the pianissimo which almost reaches the limit where sound ceases and silence begins, down to a range of formidable and terrifying power, every degree of intensity can be obtained from this magical instrument. The variety of its timbre is broad. There are flute stops of various kinds; tonal stops that approximate the timbre of stringed instruments; stops for effecting changes in which each note, formed from several pipes, bring out simultaneously its fundamental and harmonic sounds; stops which serve to imitate the instruments of the orchestra, such as the trumpet, the clarinet, and the cremona (an obsolete instrument with a timbre peculiar to itself) and the bassoon. There are celestial voices of several kinds, produced by combinations of two simultaneous stops which are not tuned in perfect unison. Then we have the famous Vox Humana, a favorite with the public, which is alluring even though it is tremulous and nasal, and we have the innumerable combinations of all these different stops, with the gradations that may be obtained through indefinite commingling of the tones of this marvellous palette.

Add to all this the continual breathing of the monster’s lungs which gives the sounds an incomparable and inimitable steadiness. Human beings were used for a long time to fill these lungs—blowers working away with hands and feet. We do much better now. The great organ in Albert Hall, London, is supplied with air by steam which assures the organist an inexhaustible supply. Other instruments use gas engines which are more manageable. Then, there is the hydraulic system, which is very powerful and easily used, for one has only to pull out a plug to set the bellows in motion.

These mechanical systems, however, are not entirely free from accidents.  I discovered that fact when I was concluding the first part of the Adagio in Liszt’s great Fantaisie in the beautiful Victoria Hall in Geneva. The pipe which brought in the water burst and the organ was mute. I have always thought, perhaps wrongly, that malice had something to do with the accident.

This Liszt Fantaisie is the most extraordinary piece for the organ there is. It lasts forty minutes and the interest is sustained throughout. Just as Mozart in his Fantaisie et Sonate in C minor foresaw the modern piano, so Liszt, writing this Fantaisie more than half a century ago, appears to have foreseen the instrument of a thousand resources which we have to-day.

Let us have the courage to admit, however, that these resources are only partly utilized as they can or should be. To draw from a great instrument all its possibilities, to begin with, one must understand it thoroughly, and that understanding cannot be gained over night. The organ, as we have seen, is a collection of an indefinite number of instruments. It places before the organist extraordinary means of expressing himself. No two of these instruments are precisely alike. The organ is only a theme with innumerable variations, determined by the place in which it is to be installed, by the amount of money at the builder’s disposal, by his inventiveness, and, often, by his personal whims. As a result time is required for the organist to learn his instrument thoroughly. After this he is as free as the fish in the sea, and his only preoccupation is the music. Then, to play freely with the colors on his vast palette, there is but one way—he must plunge boldly into improvisation.

Now improvisation is the particular glory of the French school, but it has been injured seriously of late by the influence of the German school. Under the pretext that an improvisation is not so good as one of Sebastian Bach’s or Mendelssohn’s masterpieces, young organists have stopped improvising.

That point of view is harmful because it is absolutely false; it is simply the negation of eloquence. Consider what the legislative hall, the lecture room and the court would be like if nothing but set pieces were delivered. We are familiar with the fact that many an orator and lawyer, who is brilliant when he talks, becomes dry as dust when he tries to write. The same thing happens in music. Lefebure-Wely was a wonderful improviser (I can say this emphatically, for I heard him) but he left only a few unimportant compositions for the organ. I might also name some of my contemporaries who express themselves completely only through their improvisations. The organ is thought-provoking. As one touches the organ, the imagination is awakened, and the unforeseen rises from the depths of the unconscious. It is a world of its own, ever new, which will never be seen again, and which comes out of the darkness, as an enchanted island comes from the sea.

Instead of this fairyland, we too often see only some of Sebastian Bach’s or Mendelssohn’s pieces repeated continuously. The pieces themselves are very fine, but they belong to concerts and are entirely out of place in church services. Furthermore, they were written for old instruments and they apply either not at all, or badly, to the modern organ. Yet there are those who think this belief spells progress.

I am fully aware of what may be said against improvisation. There are players who improvise badly and their playing is uninteresting. But many preachers speak badly. That, however, has nothing to do with the real issue. A mediocre improvisation is always endurable, if the organist has grasped the idea that church music should harmonize with the service and aid meditation and prayer. If the organ music is played in this spirit and results in harmonious sounds rather than in precise music which is not worth writing out, it still is comparable with the old glass windows in which the individual figures can hardly be distinguished but which are, nevertheless, more charming than the finest modern windows.  Such an improvisation may be better than a fugue by a great master, on the principle that nothing in art is good unless it is in its proper place.

During the twenty years I played the organ at the Madeleine, I improvised constantly, giving my fancy the widest range. That was one of the joys of life.

But there was a tradition that I was a severe, austere musician. The public was led to believe that I played nothing but fugues. So current was this belief that a young woman about to be married begged me to play no fugues at her wedding!

Another young woman asked me to play funeral marches. She wanted to cry at her wedding, and as she had no natural inclination to do so, she counted on the organ to bring tears to her eyes.

But this case was unique. Ordinarily, they were afraid of my severity—although this severity was tempered.

One day one of the parish vicars undertook to instruct me on this point.  He told me that the Madeleine audiences were composed in the main of wealthy people who attended the Opera-Comique frequently, and formed musical tastes which ought to be respected.

“Monsieur l’abbe,” I replied, “when I hear from the pulpit the language of opera-comique, I will play music appropriate to it, and not before!”



Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music