Magazine article The Tracker

The King of Instruments: How the Organ Became Part of Western Culture

Magazine article The Tracker

The King of Instruments: How the Organ Became Part of Western Culture

Article excerpt

BOOKS

Peter Williams, The King of Instruments: How the Organ Became Part of Western Culture. Richmond: OHS Press, 2012. Available from www. ohscatalog.org. Peter Williams is no stranger to the library of anyone seriously interested in the organ, its music, and its history. The King of Instruments: How the Organ Became Part of Western Culture does very well what any good book should: it provides an interesting story line, offers new insights into old ideas and assumptions, and gives the reader tremendous food for thought after the book finds its way to the bookshelf.

We clearly live in the "information age," where untold amounts of knowledge, wisdom, and lore are instantly available at one's fingertips. In contrast, Williams explores a world in which information about the organ's origin and early development is sketchy, ambiguous, and cloudy, often based on supposition, and is frequently undependable (ironically, not unlike some information found on today's Internet). In fact, much of the organ's early history wasn't written down at all.

The business of separating fact from fiction about early organs and organbuilding is daunting. Our knowledge of their development survives largely by chance, often at the mercy of subjectivity and assumption. From the start, even the word Organum presents a challenge: was it used as the name of what we know as an organ, or did it refer to vocal polyphony or to a liturgical book of authority, such as a psalter, or to musical instruments in general? Indeed, it was used to describe all these at one time or another, and Williams is generous in offering appropriate Latin texts from important early books and treatises, side by side with their English translations, to help sort out this and other ambiguities. He acknowledges that "to translate is to interpret," and warns that any translation into a vernacular is at best subjective and should not be taken as final authority. Williams laments this as one reason to be suspect and critical of most previous references to the early organ.

The King of Instruments is a fascinating window into the development of "reliable knowledge." For example, were the early drawings of organs based upon any direct knowledge by the artist? …

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