Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Positive 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 pipe organ piece, 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 positive is a small, usually one manual (a keyboard played with the hands), pipe organ built to be mobile. It was commonly used for both sacred and secular music between the 10th and the 18th century, and it was also popular as a chamber organ, used to play the basso continuo in ensemble works. The smallest positive is little more than keyboard-height, and is also called a chest or box organ. These are still popular for basso continuo work because you can move them into the suitable spot in a suitable chamber. Positives that were meant to be the center of attention were usually taller.

Despite its similarity to an ordinary English word, it’s actually French and is pronounced pos-ih-teev. It’s also called the  positiv, positif, portable organ, and chair organ. It comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to place.”

The positive is also a name for a large organ that had the pipes behind the organist’s back. This type is also known as a chair organ or Rūckpositive. Modern organs (after the Romantic era) often call a whole division of pipes the chair organ because they’re the most likely to be in the portable positive. The pipe organ came in many forms between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (see the Church Organ biography for more about those). By the Baroque, even processional and tabletop organs existed, although they were less popular than the larger positives. The Orgelbewegung (the guiding treatise to the 20th century revival of historical instruments) didn’t emphasize them much in the 20th century, though.

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. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century is monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (because of the bellows) just as there’s an obvious connection between the panpipe and both the organ and the bagpipe (wind, passing through or across the pipes, makes them sound).

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE and the instrument features prominently in musical life by medieval times. Small portative organs, with bellows operated by one of the player’s hands, are commonly depicted in the iconography of the period. By the 15th century, larger positive organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and had their bellows operated by a second person. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged.

Positive 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. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum. It was probably a domestic instrument as well, and was thought to have been played by Nero.

The hydraulis’ 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.

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 in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

An early positive is visible on a carving of Theodosius, commemorating his death, in the 4th century.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation, playing lower notes than could be sung, and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England, but the decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reign of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th century. This organ wasn’t the hydraulis of history, because that didn’t really make it out of the first century CE. Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from the diocese of Friesing to build an organ for him in Rome.

Monastic churches had early organs by 1100, probably portatives and positives, and by 1300, positives were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, substantial improvements were made. After that, proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

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 keys 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). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud, mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

With the refinement of the keyboard and development of finger techniques in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small movable positive was devised, suitable for church or secular surroundings. In contrast with the church organ, it required only one person to work the bellows. The secular version later became the chamber organ found in English homes and used in consort music.

The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and a great number of keys, and because the combination would have needed more space for this, it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century.

There are many miniatures that include positive images among the illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum from the Middle Ages, especially from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Because a second person was necessary to work the bellows, and because it was neither super portable like the portative nor grand like the Great Organ, the positive organ’s popularity also dwindled during the 16th century.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, positives were used at many civil and religious functions. They were used in the homes and chapels of the rich, at banquets and court events, in choirs and music schools, and in the small orchestras of composers as conspicuous as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (biography to come) at the beginning of musical drama (which would later become opera).

According to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the two middle manuals of the Halberstadt organ were designed for two-part playing. The two outer ones, the Descant manual, in which each key sounded as many as 32, 43, or even 56 pipes, and the pedal board, where each pedal key controlled 16, 20, or 24 pipes, were provided for powerful effects. Praetorius said it was quite loud.

Less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque, the positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. Both the portative and the positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the church organ remained in general use.

The positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless during the Classical period than the Baroque,. Both portative and positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Church organ remained in general use.

Positive Organ Structure

The positive organ was sized somewhere between the tiny portative and the huge church organ. You might think of it as about the same size as a spinet piano, although it would have been less wide and a little deeper, and possibly taller behind the keyboard.

The instrument is portable, but unlike the portative, it isn’t meant to be played while moving. It has a larger keyboard than the portative, usually having 49 notes or more (older instruments have slightly fewer), and a portative might have as few as 12 or 13 notes.

Many positives, both of the box and cupboard types, can be thought of as upper and lower parts that can be moved separately. The lower part contains the bellows, blower and treadle, and perhaps the largest of the pipes. The upper part contains the pipes and the manuals. Wheeled casters or a custom-made hand truck are used to move them.

The positive has more than one register, and because it was played with both hands, was satisfactory to play later music that used newfangled chords. The Orgelbewegung treatise (a 20th century revival of historical instruments) has created an interest in small positives that can be played with both hands. These small instruments are occasionally called portatives, especially if their pipes are arranged like those of the true portative.

The positive was usually used as accompaniment rather than as a solo instrument. It had a tender and gentle tone, and was popular during the Baroque period.

The hydraulis used water to determine the note played (see the Church Organ post for more). The positive developed from this ancient concept, where the pipes were sounded by moving air pressure that was maintained by the weight of water, and that could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes along the pipe. The air was moved by a bellows.

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

The number of pipes controlled by individual keys and pedals was possible because of something called register-stops. These weren’t a new development in the Middle Ages but track back to antiquity. The Middle Ages appreciated the mixtures in which every note was accompanied by several fifths and octaves (overtones and harmonics), making the original note sound fuller and richer.

By the Middle Ages, it was understood that pipe structure affected the tone and color of the notes, and whole ranks of pipes were built with differing lengths but similar dimensions—some were wide, some were narrow, some conical, some inversely conical, some stopped, and some open—in order to get a certain uniformity of sound within the rank. In the 15th century, sharper and shriller reed pipes were invented, where the pitch was determined by a simple metal reed and the tone was colored by a belled mouth. All of these various groups of pipes could be connected by register-stops.

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on musical styles of the Italians, French, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and pipes having a particular character and function. The main group, the Hauptwerk (Great Organ), sits high above the player. Other groups include Ruckpositive, mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, a Brustwerk, directly above the music rack in front of the player, the Oberwerk, high above the Great, and the pedal organ, whose pipes are usually arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Great.

Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Yet even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone (the fundamental is the note you mean to sound and the harmonics and overtones are the other notes that make up that note).

The pipes were usually flue pipes in 4’ and 2’ and occasionally a 1’ tone. Positive organs with reed pipe registers were rare.

Innovators made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) 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 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, not reeds). The player would have used both hands, the left hand for changing the drone note, and the right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

The introduction of pedals was probably because the largest pipes were hard to sound—great pressure was needed to overcome the air-pressure and make the wind move in the pipes. The feet were simply stronger, and so a keyboard for the feet developed. Most positives offer only one keyboard and no foot pedals, although some use pedals to control stops.

In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp). The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and also a great number of keys, and it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century when they were making other renovations.

The wind was supplied by a second person operating the bellows, but modern positives have electric blowers. In the Baroque period, they developed a reservoir to store air so that the bellows didn’t have to be pumped constantly. Air pumped from bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and goes from there into the soundboard, where the keyboard uses it to sound a note through the associated pipe.

The larger the organ, the more stops they can offer; some are specifically treble and some are divided, allowing each stop to be activated in the treble or bass portions of the keyboard. This makes it possible to play a melody and an accompaniment using different registrations at the same time.

Positives usually have few stops compared to larger organs. There are three that are standard—the 8’ stop, a 4’ flute, and 2’ principal (diapason). Somewhat larger positives might also have 2 2/3’ or other mutation stops and a small mixture of other pipes. Some have an 8’ reed stop, like a regal organ.

In a slider soundboards, the grooves underlying all the pipes are specific to a particular key. The sliders work across the grooves and 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 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 key is depressed. It was less likely to break than the spring version of stops, and was universally adopted in the Baroque period.

Positive Organ Name

I didn’t find anything to explain why the positive is named that way in English or any other language. It’s called a Rūckpositive in German, because the pipes were behind the player.

Positive Organ Players

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style. He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

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 in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at the Duke’s court until he retired in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Positive 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.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented the rapid development of the positive organ by documenting the Halberstadt Cathedral organ, placed on record in 1618. The instrument had been built in 1361 and renovated in 1495. It had three hand-claviers or manuals and one pedal board (for the feet).


“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.


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