The Cambridge Companion to the Organ

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Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber, eds The Cambridge Companion to the Organ. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xiv, 340 pp. ISBN 0-521-57309-2 (hardcover), 0-521-57584-2 (paperback).

In contrast to other instruments treated in the Cambridge Companions to Music series, the organ is by far the most complex and diverse, and has a repertoire with the longest history, of any present-day instrument. The amount of information surveyed here is prodigious. The twenty chapters are by sixteen specialists (British, American, and Australian) on subjects relating to the instrument (six chapters), the player (three chapters), and selected repertoires (eleven chapters). Other one- vol urne guides to the organ and its repertoire are currently available, but none attempts to treat its subject with the comprehensiveness, nor the scholarly expertise, of the Cambridge Companion) Adding to the quality of their collected work, each author brings a fresh point of view to his or her specific topic. In whole or in part, the book will be of interest to performers, musicologists, students, and aficionados of the organ. What follows focuses on four features of the book that particularly caught my attention.

First, at the end of a century in which controversy has surrounded coexisting extremes in organ design principles and multiple fashions in organ recital programming, the Cambridge Companion to the Organ manages to strike a balance by adopting an unusually keen historical perspective. By focusing on historical context in its relation to the present day, the authors are able to thematicize the interdependence of musical style and organ design, and of organ repertories and their geneses, in ways that mediate between the extremes. Some examples will illustrate.

One controversy surrounds the aims of studying organ performance practice. Nicholas Thistlethwaite (in the preface and in chapter 1, "Origins and Development of the Organ") immediately demonstrates a judicious attitude by stressing that historical knowledge - of national musical styles, shifts in aesthetic aim, and organ building practices linked to chronological periods and geographic locations - is not meant to limit a repertoire to one, narrowly described instrument, but to assist in making the decisions necessary to achieve an artistically successful performance on an available instrument (pp. xiv, 1-2). The reader-performer is thus freed to explore all of the organ music to be described but, at the same time, charged with applying the book's information wisely.

The larger and more basic controversy concerns the very nature of the instrument. Much literature on the organ written since mid-century assumes the historic and present-day artistic superiority of the mechanical action instrument - particularly mechanical action with classical tonal design - over organs having pneumatic- or electro-pneumatic-assisted action.2 Stephen Bicknell, the contributor of three chapters in Part I, repeatedly demonstrates that this bias is historically and technologically unaware. For instance, in his description of mechanisms for engaging or silencing particular ranks of pipes, he touches upon the nineteenth-century replacement of the slider chest (characteristic of mechanical-action instruments), in which sliders open one channel per note to the wind stored in the wind chest, by the sliderless chest, in which an entire rank is brought into play by admitting wind to a channel (and each note for that rank is accessed by a separate valve). He arbitrates between the two mechanisms thus:

The slider chest is difficult to design and make and, until the use of manmade materials in its construction became practical and widespread after c1950, it was not well suited to extremes of temperature and humidity. However, the provision of one channel per note is considered to assist blend and, of course, automatically gives absolute unanimity of speech. …