Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Portative Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main article on pipe organs, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The portative organ, also called the portativ or portatif, from the Latin portare (“to carry”), is a small pipe organ that consists of a single rank of flue pipes, sometimes arranged in two rows. It’s played while strapped to the player at a right angle, like a peanut vendor’s wares. The performer manipulates the bellows with one hand and the keys with the other. The portative has no reservoir to retain a supply of wind and only produces sound when the bellows are operated.

Although it took 1600 years, the portative organ went from being the only instrument sanctioned by religious, educational, musical, and engineering organizations, to relative ignominy. It was commonly used in secular music from the 12th through the 16th centuries, and it was used as an educational tool in church and monastic settings for that same period. Even so, by the end of its popularity, this attractive little instrument had been relegated to a conversation starter in private homes.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes and they probably knew a lot of chant. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century seems to be monophonic (melody only) dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of scores and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player. That’s where the two-line piano-style score comes from.

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE but it wasn’t until a millennium had passed that the instrument featured prominently in musical life. During that time, portative organs were commonly depicted in the iconography, even though they weren’t front and center like harps or psalteries. By the 15th century, organs had became quite popular and larger organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person. These larger portable instruments were called positive organs (there’s a separate post about them).

Portative Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. It was probably a domestic instrument as well. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum.

The hydraulis enjoyed popularity during the Roman Empire; Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) proclaimed himself to be an aficionado of organ music and notorious Roman emperor Nero (37-68 CE) was known to play one. But the instrument’s popularity waned, and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

In 187, a Roman specimen was excavated at Pompeii that is about 14.5 inches by 9.5 inches and contains nine pipes, of which the largest is only 10 inches long. Six of the pipes have oblong holes near the top, similar to those made in the gamba pipes of modern organs, making them sound reedy, like the Chinese cheng, which is  a reed organ (a blog post on reed organs is in the works).

In the 1st century, the ptera and the pteron were ancient Roman organs similar in appearance to the portative organ. In the 2nd century, the Magrepha was a Hebrew organ with 10 pipes that was played by a keyboard. In the 3rd century, the hydraulis was played in southern Europe, Byzantium, and the Middle East. This organ wasn’t the same hydraulis of history, though, because that didn’t really survive until the first century CE.

In the late 8th century, a notable Arab singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman portative.

In the 10th century, two portable pneumatic (portative) organs were used in the Hippodrome, one accompanying each of the two choirs. The organs for the Emperor’s choirs were covered with gold, and those of the Green and Blue choirs were covered with silver. There was a kind of circus, with chariot races, games, and fights. There were laudes (praise poems) for Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Trajan that were shouted by the senators and accompanied by portative organs.

These early organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were hard to tune, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player pulled and pushed the sliders one at a time to achieve a note. A melody could be played only very slowly with one hand, and more than two notes at a time was impossibly complex.

Monastic churches throughout Europe had these early organs by 1100, and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, the organ was getting larger and less portable, and substantial improvements were made. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

The first record of portative organs in England is from the 12th century, but they were all over Europe by the 13th century, and soon became one of the most important instruments in both chamber and orchestral settings. The portative became the instrument of secular music, and the positive (a portable but full-sized organ) became the instrument of the church; the organ soon established itself as the sound of Christian worship. By the end of the Middle Ages, the organ was inextricably established in the church.

Toward the middle of the 13th century, miniatures of illuminated manuscripts depict portatives with balanced-action keyboards. Such instruments were used extensively during the 14th and 15th centuries as part of an interest reviving all things classical and Roman.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 notes of the octave are already required—remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this).

Once they developed a keyboard, portatives were lithe and easy to play, and they produced a clear, mellow tone, somewhat like a flute. They were technologically interesting, and along with their sweet sound and portability, they became popular during the Renaissance when mechanical instruments and inventions were all the rage. (See Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy for more on this rage.)

The portative was pretty much gone from the music scene by 1500. Before it went, though, it developed a chromatic keyboard with two ranks of keys. It was too small and too quiet to contribute to popular music—polyphony was all the rage by then—because it had to be played with one hand.

The portative was even less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque; by then, it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. In fact, both portative and positive organs gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Great Church organ remained in general use.

Portative Organ Structure

The syrinx was a piped instrument that was part of the hydraulis, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air, and maintained at a fairly stable pressure by the weight of the water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device (a plug on the end of a lever) rather than by finger holes.

The first invention to improve the action of the stops was a series of slides that were pulled out and pushed back in. The next improvement was to make it easier to move the slides by pressing on keys that returned to their original stopping positions by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s (c10-70 CE) “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary Vitruvius (c80 BCE- after 15 CE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The portative’s construction was fairly simple. The pipes were arranged on a small rectangular wind chest and supplied with wind by one or two bellows placed at the back, in front, or at the right side of the instrument. The row of pipes is supported by posts at either end and a supportive crossbar. The simplest style of keyboard consists of one slider for each pipe. When the slider is pushed in, the corresponding pipe sounds. The slider is restored to its normal position by a spring. Some instruments use the reverse action, with keys featuring knobs or handles that are pulled out to sound the pipe.

The portative is smaller than the also-portable positive, which has more ranks of pipes than the portative and a larger keyboard. The portative should not be confused with the regal, which is also a small organ, but the regal contains short-length reed pipes instead of flue pipes (there’s a blog in the works on regals and reed pipes).

Since the Orgelbewegung revival movement in the early 20th century, small organs that can be played with both hands and have a bass register have come to be called portatives, especially when their pipe arrangement or general layout resembles that of the actual portative.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, rather than reeds (reeds vibrate in the breeze to sound, rather than whistling through a hollow tube). The player used both hands to play the keyboard. He might have used his left hand for changing the drone note. This might have been the sound that made Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE and 65 CE) refer to consonance (two notes sounding simultaneously and making a pleasant sound). Don’t get confused, though. Polyphony and chords don’t come along for another thousand years (see Chords versus Polyphony for more on that).

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus (208-235 CE) in 228. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, of which, three ranks are stopped, one is open, and there are 13 sliders with keys. Each rank of pipes provides different harmonics, and the largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

Unlike the powerful portable but full-sized positive organ, the portative was intended to be played while moving. It has relatively few pipes, the largest of which could be used to provide a drone. A single person played it, working the bellows with his left hand and playing the keys with his right. The keys were often pushbuttons rather than the keys of a keyboard.

There was a tremendous variation in portative sizes. From six to 30 pipes, usually in two ranks, but occasionally in three or one. Keys might be button or lever keys (like modern instruments) or pull or push stops.

The greatest differences among the various sizes are in the range of notes. Half-steps (like where the black keys live on a modern piano) appear randomly and sometimes even whole steps are eliminated because they simply hadn’t identified the order of things (that wouldn’t happen until the early Middle Ages). Possibly, scales on a portative were customized to the performer. It’s also possible that the pipes were changed for specific performances (like tuning a harp without sharping levers).

The 15th century was the portative’s prime, when the instruments had drone pipes that were larger and separated from the rest of the pipes. For the first time, two rows of keys appeared, done to save space, as the chromatic scale was still not an option on this small instrument. By this point, it was mostly used for secular music and monastic scholarly exploits and training. In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp)—key signatures wouldn’t come into being until the next century and weren’t really standardized until the 17th century.

The portative organ has these some different parts from Great Church organs:

  • Wind-chest: Stores the reservoir of air. Air that’s pumped from a bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard.
  • Soundboard: A table that contains a number of grooves to hold each individual pipe.
  • Spring soundboards: A special valve that is fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind into the pipes.
  • Slider soundboards: The grooves underlying all the pipes on the soundboard are specific to a particular note. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register (tone quality of a group of pipes, like flute or gamba) is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the associated key is depressed. Slider soundboards are less likely to break than the spring versions, and were universally adopted in the Baroque period.

For more on the structure of organs, see my Church Organ post.

By the Baroque period, portatives were used mostly in processions. They had several registers and were heavier and more elaborate than the portatives of the late Middle Ages. Those early instruments could be played by one person, but two were needed for this larger portative.

Portative Organ Name

The original name was the hydraulis, until the Romans took it over and changed it to a more Latin sounding name. By the Renaissance, Italian portatives were called the organetto (little organ).

The Magrepha was a Hebrew version with 10 pipes.

Portative Organ Composers

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612) composed a “Magnificat” that probably used a portative organ, along with trombones, cornettos, and violins.

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397) was a blind master of many instruments, but he was especially known for his skill on the portative organ. He seems to have written no sacred music (that he took credit for, anyway), and was best known for his 140 ballate, 12 madrigals, one caccia, and one virelai. He was the central figure in Giovanni de Prato’s narrative poem “Paradiso degli Alberti” of 1425 that records scdenes and conversations in Florence from the year 1389.

Portative Organ Players

Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). I covered him in the composers section.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was with the English forces occupying France. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians definitely affected the French music that he wrote.

Dolly Collins (1933-1995), who accompanied her sister Shirley Collins (1935-  ) on albums of traditional English folk songs.

Hana Blochova (dates unknown) is a Russian-speaking woman with images on YouTube. She’d chatted for more than four minutes wafting a psaltery around but not playing it, so I didn’t wade through the whole 35 minute recording to see if she played the portative. You let me know if she does, won’t you?


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.


2 Responses

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  1. Psychedelic! Amaz

    June 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

  2. Oops! I failed to know th

    June 10, 2013 at 1:14 pm

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