Commentary

By Mardirosian, Haig | The American Organist, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Commentary


Mardirosian, Haig, The American Organist


VOX HUMANA

Octave and Sub Octave

A FEW MONTHS ago around the dates of his centenary, I programmed Messiaen's Chants d'oiseaux for a couple of recitals. It had been some years and the last time out with this score was at a fairly large instrument. Then, registration had been no problem. The birds sang as notated. This time around on two smaller organs, it took moving nearly every passage an octave in one direction or another to approximate the colors that Messiaen had in mind. But, as in the case of many, perhaps the majority of his scores, nothing ran off the manual compass. It worked. While it took a few fast manual changes with an octave displacement (and that always challenges the muscles before an authence), the music came out right.

But this experience also aroused a little thinking about this phenomenon. Do pianists, flutists, or tenors ever need to transpose things an octave in every which direction to make them work?

Being a piston voyeur, I cannot resist peeking at what colleagues do for registration. Somewhere back in the heyday of the Rückpositiv, it became obvious that one of the professional trade secrets was the sub-octave coupler. It certainly made sense and made Positivs far more useful. Furthermore, it had not been all that long before, during the Skinner heyday, that octave couplers and 73-note manual ranks ruled. What was one to make of this? Perhaps there is a natural phenomenon that moderates the otherwise ideological pendulum swing of organbuilding. That phenomenon is the natural dictate of the ear for centered moderation.

The question is why? Why are 4' flutes so seemingly creamier in solos than the unisons? Why are mixtures [especially highpitched Scharfs, Zimbels, Acutas) so much better in ensembles pitched down an octave? Why is Messiaen so hard to register on American instruments that lack all the doubles on a secondary division? Nothing here that a few sub octaves, playing the Choir on the Swell and the Swell on the Choir, the Great an octave up, and some fast hands cannot put right.

Organbuilders of a certain ilk pride themselves (legitimately) on long and careful study of the literature as a basis for their designs. How else could we account for such a range of "informed" instruments that borrow stylistic influences from every imaginable historical progenitor? English, French, North German, Dutch, Spanish, Skinner, HopeJones, G. Donald Harrison-the list goes on. The organ is probably the consumer product most closely tweaked to customer specifications and demands ("I want the Great on the bottom, ten general pistons, the Cromorne voiced like a Trumpet, and a Harmonic Flute louder than the rest of the Great. …

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