Organ History, with Strings Attached

By Libin, Laurence | The Tracker, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Organ History, with Strings Attached

Libin, Laurence, The Tracker

Musicologists outside our field commonly regard organ historical studies as insular, if not irrelevant. Fair or not, such criticism needs to be taken seriously because this perception infects students and contributes to a general lack of interest in old organs and their music. Too often, in fact, nearsighted organ historians do overlook connections that could spark wider attention while enlightening our own endeavors.

One blind spot in our vision is the once intimate relationship of organ building to the design and construction of stringed keyboard instruments. By the late nineteenth century industrial specialization had largely divorced these occupations, although even after 1900 a few firms such as Estey and Kimball produced both organs and pianos; but those companies employed separate strategies, technologies, and personnel in the two branches. However, until the second quarter of the nineteenth century (when the introduction of cast iron frames distanced piano construction from the domain of woodworkers) and occasionally later, individual organ builders routinely also made stringed keyboards, if only to fill time between organ commissions (Emilius Nicolai Scherr produced guitars as well). Some builders such as John Geib evidently found piano manufacture more lucrative in the long run and quit the organ business. Others sometimes worked for piano makers, as when Alpheus Babcock, the inventor of a metal frame, employed Thomas Appleton.

The oldest known work of the pioneer German-American organ builder Johann Gottlob Clemm is a spinet dated 1739. It is no coincidence that many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German clavichords bear inscriptions identifying their makers as "Orgel- und Instrumentenbauer" or "Orgel- und Claviermacher" Instrument and Clavier both meaning primarily the clavichord, but by extension any stringed keyboard type. This traditional and universal conjunction of crafts, illustrated explicitly in Dom Bedos's L'art du facteur d'orgues (Paris, 1766-78), should alert us to the insights we can gain from examining the entire output, not just the organs, of such multifaceted figures as Gottfried Silbermann.

For all his accomplishments as an organ builder, Silbermann was arguably more inventive as a Claviermacher. Among other things, he originated the cembal d'amour, a particularly resonant clavichord with double-length strings struck in the middle. More importantly, he took on the challenge of developing Bartolomeo Cristofori's (or more likely, Giovanni Ferrini's) newfangled grand piano, which he first encountered in the early 1730s. As is well known, J. S. Bach eventually acted as Silbermann's agent in selling one of his pianos, and Bach's interest in this tonally colorful, dynamically flexible but intimate medium should be enough to engage our attention. The so-called Pantaleon (a versatile hammer dulcimer that Silbermann elaborated for the virtuoso Pantaleon Hebenstreit) further shows the great organbuilder cultivating a fashionable chamber instrument. Listeners as astute as Frederick the Great were enraptured by these new struck-string sounds, which might have influenced trends in pipe voicing in ways we have not yet fully grasped.

The long list of influential organ and clavier makers includes Mozart's favorite, Johann Andreas Stein, few of whose organs survive. Mozart's Stein clavichord, dated 1762, now belongs to the Hungarian national museum in Budapest; it shows the refinement of a builder who was by all accounts also a sensitive performer. Stein's remarkable combination organ and grand piano (claveçin organisé], built about 1781 and currently on loan from Göteborg to The Hague's municipal museum, offers rare insight to his tonal goals, as least as concerns chamber music, but its organ apparatus awaits thorough scrutiny.

"Organized" pianos by builders active from Russia to Mexico testify to the once widespread appeal and commercial viability of these hybrids. The Puerto Rican artist and organist José Campeche depicted one in a portrait he painted in San Juan about 1792. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Organ History, with Strings Attached


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.