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Posts Tagged ‘Music: Baroque

Composer Biography: Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

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Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a French composer and harpsichordist, considered the first female composer of instrumental music. She certainly had a very long name!

Jacquet de la Guerre’s precocious talent as a musician was first mentioned in 1677 in the Paris newspaper Mercure Gallant, where she was described as a “wonder.” She sight-read difficult music, accompanied herself and other singers on the harpsichord, composed pieces and transposed at the whim of onlookers, and, according to the newspaper, she had already been doing this for four years when she was 10 years old. (My math has her at age 12 in 1677, but it’s still quite an accomplishment.) The next year, the same newspaper declared her “the marvel of the century.” (Mozart wouldn’t appear on the scene to be called such things until the 1750s.)

Her accomplishment is representative of the rise of amateur musicians among the French aristocracy. Previously, noblemen and noblewomen played only for each other’s pleasure, and hired professionals for more formal entertainments. The few women who succeeded as professionals were usually the daughters of prominent musicians, as was Jacquet de la Guerre.

She was the daughter of organ builder Claude Jacquet (dates unknown) and his wife Anne de la Touche (b.1632), also a musician from a musical family. She grew up in the Saint-Louis-en-I’lle, in Paris with three siblings, all of whom received an excellent musical education. It was unusual, at the time, to give daughters the same high-quality musical education as boys, so we are fortunate that her parents had foresight and the intellect to recognize that girls could accomplish as much as boys if given the chance.

Because of her evident talent, Jacquet de la Guerre was singled out for special favor by King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who placed her in the care of his mistress, Francoise Athenais de Rochechouart de Montemart (1640-1707), the marquise de Montespan. She was possibly tutored by Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), the governess of Madame de Montespan’s children and later the king’s secret wife. She moved into the castle in 1673 and stayed there until she married. Louis XIV encouraged her career, providing audiences and allowing her to dedicate publications to him.

When she married, she stayed true to her family origins. She married organist and harpsichord teacher Marin de la Guerre (d. before 1704) in 1684 and moved back to Paris. Marin was son of Michel de La Guerre (c.1605-1679), who’d been the organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. Once back in Paris, Jacquet de la Guerre maintained her connections with the court without having to live there.

In 1687, she published a book of harpsichord pieces that included several suites of French dances, unmeasured preludes, chaconnes, and toccatas. She united the French and Italian styles, much as her contemporary Francois Couperin (1668-1733) did. In the same year, she published a ballet, Les jeux a l’honneur de la victoire (1685), which is lost.

She later wrote an opera, Cephale et Procris, which was a tragedy in five acts. It was performed in Paris at the Acadamie Royale de Musique in 1694. After its disappointing reception, or perhaps because she didn’t receive further commissions, she limited herself afterward to the cantata form. The opera was revived in 1989 by Jean-Claude Malgoire (b.1940) and Daniel Ogier (dates unavailable) in Saint-Etienne.

Several manuscripts from the 1690s have survived, including solo and trio sonatas. In 1695, she wrote solo and trio violin sonatas within five years of the first of those styles appearing in France. She published more music, including another volume of harpsichord piece and a set of solo violin sonatas (both in 1707).

Both her son (name and dates unknown) and her husband had died by 1704. Her son was thought to be quite talented on the harpsichord too, and made his debut at age eight. He was dead by age ten. After the deaths of her husband and son, Jacquet de la Guerre stayed in Paris giving concerts in her home, and at the Theatre de la Foire, for which she composed a few songs and at least one comic scene. All the great musicians and local music fans went to hear her. She was famous for her gift at improvisation and extemporaneous fantasias.

She found a champion in Sebastien de Brossard (1655-1730), a Paris-loving provincial ecclesiastic who collected and composed music. He performed her opera with the addition of a few of his own compositions at the Strasbourg Academie de la Musique.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment, she published three volumes of cantatas as part of the first wave of cantata production. The first cantata collection in France appeared in 1706 (published by Jean-Baptiste Morin, 1677-1745, Nicolas Bernier, 1664-1734, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, 1667-1737), and Jacquet de la Guerre’s appeared in 1707, 1708, and 1711. Uniquely, her cantatas have texts from the Old Testament, and three of them tell stories of Biblical women (Esther, Susannah and the Elders, and Judith). The third volume of cantatas reflected French tastes and used mythology as its subject. One is written for soloist and symphony (violin or violins in unison and an optional flute in the second aire) in addition to the basso continuo.

She never left France but her music was known in Germany. She performed for Maximilian Emanuel II (1662-1726), Elector of Bavaria in 1712 when he visited Paris and he brought her works home with him. She dedicated her mythological cantatas to him.

She retired from public performance in 1717 and moved a little further out of the center of town. In 1721, she wrote a Te Deum to celebrate the recovery of Louis XV (1710-1774) from smallpox, a commission of real significance. Sadly, the music is lost.

Walther’s German Lexicon of 1732 includes a longer article on her than on François Couperin (1668-1733), her much more famous—at least into our times—contemporary. Although her rediscovery took longer than Francois Couperin’s, today, she is the most likely female composer from the period to be known to modern audiences.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s parents and her brother Nicolas died in the early 1710s. After her own death in 1729, a commemorative medal was struck in her honor. She was also included in the listing by Titon du Tillet (1677-1762) in his Parnasse francais of 1732, one of only seven musicians listed, and the only woman.


“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Traditions, 11-50-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“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, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

Composer Biography: Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

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Hans Leo Hassler was responsible for bringing Italian innovation to Germany during the somewhat dry spell that preceded Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). If it hadn’t been for his lieder and his interest in polychoral music, there would have been no B minor Mass. Does that seem too strong? Read on!

Like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and others of the 17th century, Hassler wrote biblical motets of a rather large scale, which was a definite nod to the Venetian fashion. So much so, in fact, that one source said that Hassler out-Italianed the Italians. Not only that, but Hassler was considered the last great Lied composer of his century, a sound that remains distinctly German to this day.

Hassler was born in Nürnberg. His father was famous organist Isaak Hassler (c1530-1591), and he had two brothers who were also composers, Jakob (1569-1622) and Kaspar (1562-1618). Isaak taught all three of his sons to play the organ, and all would go on to make names for themselves. The three siblings were ennobled by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) as a result of their awesomeness.

He worked for a time at the church or St. Moritz in Nürnberg and in 1600, became head of the town band. (In those days, important towns had their own bands that performed for state events as well as in the public squares and parks on the weekends.)

Hassler was the first German to study in Italy, and his style is tinged strongly by the Venetian element.

Hassler had heard the polychoral music that was popular in Venice through Leonhard Lechner (c1553-1606), who was an associate of Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594, biography to come) in Munich. These songs in multiple choirs intrigued him, and he visited Venice in 1585. While he was there, he studied with Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1586). Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554-1612), Andrea’s nephew, became Hassler’s friend and colleague.

After Andrea Gabrieli died in 1586, Hassler returned to Germany and was appointed court organist to Octavian II Fugger, of the great Augsburg banking family. Hassler’s fame spread rapidly and in 1602, he returned to Nürnberg as chief Kapellmeister of the town and with the reputation of a composer “whose like has not been found among the Germans up to this time.” In that same year, he was given the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in Prague, so he must have visited there periodically, although records are vague.

He was a Protestant, but he directed the Catholic music services in Augsburg and wrote a number of Masses for them. Some the texts of his Latin motets are of a Catholic nature, some are more Protestant in tone, and many were usable by both faiths.

His secular music was set to German words, and his sacred music is mostly Latin motets and Masses. At the time, Latin motets, particularly those by Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594) and Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl, 1550-1591), were used in the Lutheran church. It was these works that paved the way to his connection with the Protestant court of Dresden, when he began writing Lutheran hymns. By 1608, he’d become chamber organist and music librarian to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden.

Hassler was a teacher to Melchior Franck (c1580-1639, Protestant composer), and when it was time to move on, he was succeeded as organist at Augsburg by Christian Erbach (c1570-1635, organist and composer). Hassler was a composer, organist, and a consultant to organ builders. In 1596, with 53 other organists, he examined a new instrument with 59 stops at the Schlosskirche, in Groningen. He used his fame as an organ-construction expert to develop a clockwork organ that was later sold to Emperor Rudlolf II (1552-1612).

In 1600, with his old friend Giovanni Gabrieli, Hassler composed a wedding motet for Georg Gruber, a Nürnberg merchant living in Venice. Hassler was the chief town musician for Nürnberg from 1601-1608, and achieved the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in 1602. While there, he was appointed to Emperor Rudolf II’s court.

In 1604, Hassler took a leave of absence and went to Ulm, where he married Cordula Claus. I didn’t find any family information about her nor did I find her dates. He seems to have been a businessman with many interests in addition to his music, and perhaps he met Cordula through his business dealings.

Hassler composed sacred music, including Masses, motets, psalms, and Lutheran chorales, and he composed secular music, including madrigals, canzonettes, instrumental dances, and keyboard ricercars. He was most famous for his German Lieder, which were often in the Italian style, and about which there will be more in a minute.

Hassler’s work is distinctive in that he borrowed from every conceivable source. He set two Italian texts into Italian-style motets, and he borrowed from such notable predecessors as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594). He let the qualities of the languages of the texts he chose influence and affect his melodies—German is weightier than lithe and limber Italian. (For more on this, consider reading The Sound of a Culture.)

His early works show the influence of Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and his later ones reveal the deep impression made upon him by his studies in Italy. Like Michael Praetorius, he was a prolific composer of Latin and German sacred music, as well as secular and instrumental music. He was no innovator, but he coordinated and developed current styles and earned a lofty reputation for his practical approach and craftsmanship.

As the first German to go to Italy, it was his influence that made Italian music much more popular than German music in Germany, and started a trend for German musicians to finish their education in Italy. Italian musicians like Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594), had been working in Germany for years, but represented an older style of music, the refined Renaissance style of Italian polyphony. By Hassler’s time, new trends were emerging in Italy that would ultimately define the Baroque era. Hassler, and later Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), brought the concertato style, the polychoral idea, and the freely emotional expression of the Venetians to the German culture, representing the first non-German Baroque development of any importance.

Hassler’s secular music, including madrigals, canzonette, and songs for voices, ricercars, canzonas, introits, and toccatas for instruments show the character of the Gabrielis, but with more restraint.

In the Masses and motets of his maturity, his natural propensity for writing light, almost poplar, melodies (like the Lieder) and for very careful workmanship is coupled with a grace and fluidity derived from the madrigalian dance songs and a fondness for polychoral structures. The result is a sacred style that makes up in charm and sonority for what it lacks in profundity. Hassler incorporated polychoral techniques, textural contrast, and occasional chromaticism in his works.

Polychoral writing appeared in Italy as early as 1544—by the end of the century, writing for double and even triple choirs was common in Italy, and unlike his earlier pieces, Hassler’s later works attempt to capture the splendor and richness of the Venetian style. The Protestant composers who wrote in this German-Venetian style include Hassler, and Johannes Eccard (1563-1611), Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), Georgius Otto (c1550-1618), Andreas Raselus (c1563-1602), Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559-1625), and Philippus Dulichius (1562-1631). Giovanni Gabrieli was a real trend setter in this arena, and of course, no one topped Englishman Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

In his Italian secular music, Hassler shows his thorough familiarity with the up-to-date style of Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Luca Marenzio (c1553-1599). The specifically Venetian influence is felt most in Hassler’s double-choir madrigals and Lieder.

His “simpliciter” works are in four parts with the melody in the highest voice, but his “fugue-wise” pieces treat the successive phrases of the hymn in the motet style that would be followed throughout the 17th century and beyond. Hassler would be surpassed in both variety and probably in artistic achievement by Michael Praetorius, but Praetorius wouldn’t have done it—nor would Bach—without Hassler’s influence.

Hassler’s Lieder, however, were a different story, and not as derivative. In them, he incorporates the Italian madrigal elements, but for the most part, he put the melody in the top voice—not polyphony, but distinctly chordal music. (For more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony.) His melodies are distinctive and easily memorized. One love song that was popular was “Mein gmüth ist mir verwirret,” which he later adapted to the Passion chorale “O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden.”

His compositions were first published in 1590: a set of 24 four-part canzonette. His 1596 “New German Songs in the Manner of Madrigals” includes music in four to eight voices, all of it too chordal to be truly madrigalian and using his own texts. His collection of choral and instrumental works of 1601, “A Pleasure Garden of New German Songs, Ballets, Galliards, and Intradas” is also strongly chordal. This latter collection is thought to be his best work and contains 39 vocal and 11 instrumental pieces.

Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) borrowed one of Hassler’s pieces. It was his five-part Mein gmüth is mire verwirret (My Mind is Confounded), which has a religious text only in the superius (highest) voice. Bach used it in his St. Matthew’s Passion.

Hassler’s style of writing the melody in the highest voice profoundly influenced his younger German colleagues. The affect is clearly evident in the Lieder of such men as Melchior Franck (c1579-1539), Valentin Haussmann (c1560-1613), Christoph Demantiums (1567-1643), Johann Staden (1581-1634), and Hermann Schein (1586-1630). The last two belong to the Baroque period more than to the Renaissance, partially because of this Lieder influence.

Despite his Protestantism, Hassler wrote many Catholic Masses and directed the music for Catholic services in Augsburg. Hassler dedicated both his Cantiones sacrae and a book of Masses for four to eight voices to Octavio Fugger, his long-time Catholic patron. Due to the constancy of Catholic patrons and his own Protestant beliefs, Hassler’s compositions represent a blend of both religions’ musical styles and could often work in either church.

Hassler only wrote two pieces specifically meant for Lutheran services while in Augsburg, the Psalmen simpliciter, written in 1608, which was dedicated to the city of Augsburg. Psalmen und christliche Gesange was written in 1607 and dedicated to Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611).

Hassler is considered, like Bach and Praetorius, to be one of the most important German composers. His works sounded fresh and unaffected, combining vocal and instrumental literature without continuo (an improvised bass line), or with continuo as an option. His sacred music introduced the Italian polychoral structures that would later influence many German composers, including Bach.

In 1608, Hassler moved to Dresden to be the chamber organist to the Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611) and eventually became Kapellmeister there too. By this time, he had already contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1612. After he died, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) were appointed to fill his spot as organist in Dresden.


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

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & CO., New York, 1994.

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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

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

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.


“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Mineola, 2006.

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

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

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

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Wigston, 2012.

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

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

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Oboe

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The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.

The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.

Oboe History

Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.

The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.

The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).

In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).

The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.

The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.

The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.

The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”

The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.

In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.

Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).

Oboe Structure

The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.

Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.

The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.

The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.

Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.

The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.

The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.

During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).

In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.

But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.

Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.

When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.

Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.

The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.

Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).

Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.

The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.

The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.

Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.

Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.

As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.

Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.

The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.

The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.

Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.

The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.

The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.

Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both the oboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.

Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.

Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.

Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.

The Name

In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.

Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.

Famous Oboe Composers

There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.

     Italians: Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

     Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.

     Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

     English: Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).

     French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),

     Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.

     Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     Czech: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)

Famous Oboe Players

There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).

     Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.

     Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924-   ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947-  ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.

     Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician  Karl Jenkins (1944-  ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.

     Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.

     Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.


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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Guistave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.


German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.


“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.

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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

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

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.

Instrument Biography: The Pipe 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, 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 organ is an instrument of one or more rows (called ranks) of multiple pipes, organized by the quality of sounds they produce (called divisions), each played with its own keyboard. The keyboards are called manuals when played with the hands and pedals when played with the feet. Organs can be played by a single player with both hands and both feet, or by two or more players.

Pipe organs use wind moving through pipes to produce sounds. The wind is moved by bellows, water, steam, or electricity. Most organs have pipes of some sort although some reed organs don’t. After some introductory remarks, this blog addresses the large church organs that add fabulousness to any ordinary cathedral.

There are many varieties of organs. The one you think of right away is probably at or near the top of this list. But organ development has been hot and heavy for two full millenniums, so be prepared to learn about some new types. These are some of the larger categories:

  • Church organs are the largest and grandest organs with as many as four or five manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. Pipes can fill a whole cathedral wall and the individual pipes can be from a few inches high to many feet high. Pipes are made from reeds, wood, metal, precious metal, and semi-precious stone.
  • Positive organs are small organs, meant to be portable. The pipes are contained in a box the size of a large trunk, and they have only one or two manuals. Positives are usually in two pieces (the pipes and the keyboard) to facilitate being moved.
  • Portative organs are not only portable, it’s possible to play one while walking. About the size of a peanut vendor’s box, they hang from one shoulder. The player pumps the bellows with one hand and plays a single keyboard with the other.
  • Regal organs are portable in much the same way that positive organs are—they can be pushed around, and they had a limited number of keyboards and pipes. In the 16th century, the resonance pipes were removed and the regal became a beating-reed organ, which is the ancestor of the harmonium and other squeezeboxes. The regal’s sound was characterized as “snarling” and loud.
  • A chamber organ is small, often with only one manual, and sometimes without separate pipes for the pedals. These are for small rooms, and are confined to chamber organ repertoire, as they’re too quiet for larger halls. Music from before Beethoven could be played on a chamber organ, just as it might have been on a piano or harpsichord, and it’s occasionally considered preferable to a harpsichord for continuo playing because it can sustain tones. (The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, so the decay of sound begins immediately.)
  • Reed organs are also called harmoniums. They’re quite small and are a relative of the accordion in that the box containing the keyboard also contains the bellows. Concertinas, shruti boxes and accordions are all reed organs. It’s also (vaguely) the ancestor of the harmonica, which sometimes gets called the mouth organ.
  • Theater organs are large and ornate, like church organs, but have a different variety of sounds, such as percussion and special effects, suitable for accompanying silent movies and ball games. They are smaller than church organs, but use higher wind pressures to provide the variety of tone and more volume with fewer pipes.
  • Electric organs have sound produced by electricity instead of a bellows and the sounds are digitally altered to produce the various divisions. Some have pipes and others simply produce the sound through speakers.
  • Mechanical organs include the barrel organ, water organ, and orchestrion (that’s a fancy term for a music box). These are controlled by mechanical means, such as pinned barrels or book music (like a player piano). Small barrel organs dispense with the organist altogether by being wound up like a toy, and bigger barrel organs are powered by a crank that’s turned by an organ grinder or by an electric motor. Barrel organs are mechanical organs made famous by organ grinders. There are also orchestra organs, fairground organs, band organs, Dutch street organs, and dance organs that use a piano roll player or other mechanical means instead of a keyboard to play a prepared song.
  • Steam organs, or calliopes, were invented in the 19th century. They have a loud and clean sound, and are usually used outdoors. Many were built on wheeled platforms, making them portable.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably meant the church organ when he called the organ the “king of instruments.”

The church organ is the grandest of the musical instruments in size and scope and has existed in its current form since the 14th century. Like the clock, it was considered one of the most complex manmade mechanical creations before the Industrial Revolution. Pipe organs range in size from a single short keyboard to huge instruments with over 10,000 pipes. A large modern organ usually has three or four manual keyboards with five octaves each (five octaves is 61 notes), and a 2.5 octave (32-note) pedal keyboard.

Really grand organs have pipes as large as 64’ (foot here means sonic foot, which is not exactly the same, but nearly, as an English foot). Church organs with pipes like that have an extremely diverse range of sounds. In fact, that’s the most distinctive feature of an organ; the range and quality of sounds goes from barely audible to hair-blown-back almost intolerably loud, from sounding like grass blowing in the breeze to a locomotive passing through your living room.

Because of the multiple keyboards, the organ has a polyphonic effect built right into it—all of the keyboards can be played at the same time as the others, if you can get your friends to join you on the bench. In addition, the sounds of each keyboard can be mixed and interspersed with the others, creating the effect of a whole orchestra from a single instrument.

Most organs in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia can be found in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, with some in concert halls and private homes. The harmonium is a staple of Indian music, especially as part of the Hindu and Sikh celebrations. Muslims do not include music in their worship services.

Organs are also used for concerts and recitals. In the early 20th century, symphonic organs flourished in secular venues in the US and the UK, designed to replace symphony orchestras by playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Using organs in concert with symphonies fell out of favor in the 20th century as a reformation movement took hold (called the Orgelbewegung, and having a particular interest in historically accurate focus on performance) and builders began to look to historical models for inspiration rather than creating something new.

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 seems to be 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.

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. The panpipe is also an ancestor of the organ, as it toyed with various lengths of pipe and the effect of blowing air across or through them.

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’ 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.

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 by 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.

By the 8th century, the organ was no longer associated with gladiators and combat and had assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the Catholic church. It soon also became a secular and recital instrument. In that same century in the Middle East, a notable singer called ‘Ulaiya al-Mausilki played an “urgan rumi” which was a Byzantine or Roman version of the organ.

The organ was introduced to France through Constantinople in the latter half of the 8th century and the simultaneous sound of different notes on the organ by two players might have inspired imitation with the beginning of sung polyphony, organum (chant with a second voice—see? It might have gotten its name from the organ!), and conductus (which didn’t really pop up until the 12th century, but is two or three voices, usually in the form of chant, and used to musically conduct the holy books from the back of the church to the front during Mass). Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England and can be seen in museums there.

The decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reigns of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the 9th century, an automatic flute player, which was possibly hydro-powered, was a mechanical organ made by the Banu Musa brothers, Islamic scholars in Baghdad who wrote a book called “The Book of Ingenious Devices” that reported on automatic and mechanical devices of the time. Look these guys up—they’re the stuff fiction is made of! One was a highwayman and the other was an astrophysicist (or the 9th-century version of such a thing).

By then, the organ started taking the form that you might recognize today, 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 there to come and build an organ for him in Rome.

The largest instrument of the Middle Ages of any kind was an organ built in the 10th century—in 980 CE, an instrument was installed at Winchester Cathedral in England that possessed 400 pipes, 26 bellows, and two manuals, each furnished with 20 sliders (stops). A single one of those sliders could cause 10 pipes to sound simultaneously.

In the 12th century, substantial design improvements were made. Even monastic churches had early organs by 1100 and by 1300, they were common in cathedrals as well. Proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them, like a carillon’s keys.

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.

The organ of the church of Notre Dame de Valiere, in Sion Switzerland had 4’ pipes in the 14th century, and lower pipes had been added since it was originally built. There were three high ranks, their metal cast in sand, dating from around 1390. It was probably used to play the Faenza Codex in the 15th century. By then, larger organs were commonly placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and with the bellows operated by a second person (positive organs).

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 (on the positive) 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.

Praetorius gave specifications for an organ in “Syntagma Musicum” in 1618, some of which were built in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement. There’s one at Harvard University and another at the Westminster Choir School in Princeton New Jersey.

Protestant German countries used the organ as accompaniment to choral singing and paid particular attention to the softer registers by using flue pipes. Roman Catholic countries used the organ as more of a solo instrument and favored the sharper reed registers.

Around this same time (the early 16th century), the number of pipes within a register also increased, increasing the range of the keyboards. As early as 1519, Anthony Doddington wrote of an English organ with a range of four octaves, and in 1523, Pietro Aron wrote about a Venetian organ that also had a four-octave range. Germany didn’t expand the range of their organs until the close of the 16th century.

Great pains were taken in Italy to develop the manuals, but the pedals lagged behind. Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591) speaks of the pedals disapprovingly, and his is the only Italian mention of pedals. But in Germany, where polyphony was king, the pedals were an essential part.

The organ was particularly well-suited to polyphonic music by the 17th century. By then, it had clearly distinguishable registers that didn’t merge into one another, although dynamic contrasts were still limited and could be achieved only within very restricted limits—neither thunder nor whispers. Crescendos and decrescendos were impossible. The tone was clear and unromantic, as the taste of the late Renaissance for unemotional and classic art demanded.

During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th, the organ was modified to produce more expression, and to have a more flexible and variable tone. Things like tremolo, string registers, Vox Humana, couplers and transmissions, swell, and equal temperament were invented. (See the structure section for more on these topics.)

During the Baroque period (1600-1750), the organ became increasingly important as vocal accompaniment and as a participant in orchestral music. During this era, organs were used to provide continuo (where the bass line or chords were left to the creative powers of the player but the other lines were written out. Other continuo instruments were harpsichord, lute, theorbo and chitaronne).

Organ music enjoyed a golden age in the Lutheran areas of Germany between 1650 and 1750. It was greatly aided by famous (and reportedly astonishing) organists such as Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707), several members of the Bach family, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), and a tradition that had been established earlier by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on the musical styles of Italy, France, 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 the pipes having a particular character and function.

The main group, the Hauptwerk, sits high above the player. Other groups include the Rūckpositive that was mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, the Brustwerk that was directly above the music rack in front of the player, and the Oberwerk that was high above the Hauptwerk. The pedal organ had pipes that were arranged symmetrically on the sides of the Hauptwerk. Only the largest German organs had all of these components. 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 early 18th century was musically focused on dynamic range, and even the somewhat unsuited organ was affected. The organ had grown less appreciated during the Classical period (1730-1820) because it was regarded as too rigid and lifeless, so a contrivance was made to vary the volume. Both portative and positive organ styles gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the great church organ remained in general use.

Abt Vogler (1749-1814), a German organist of some renown, replaced the large and expensive pipes of the church organ with smaller ones, which produced the deepest low note by sounding only part of the harmonics of the note (the octave and the twelfth). He got rid of any registers that he didn’t think were essential and enclosed the rest in a chamber that could be closed with the Venetian Swell that had been invented by Burkat Shudi in 1769. Vogler also rearranged the pipes and introduced “free” reeds, borrowed from the Chinese mouth-organ (that also later became part of the harmonium). Vogler’s efforts made the organ less expensive and easier to manufacture, repair, and maintain, and in addition, made the tones clearer, which suited the tastes of the Classical period. But they also made the instrument sound thin and ordinary. The early Romantic period opposed his reforms and they soon disappeared.

The 18th century in the New World meant an effort to adhere to Old World sentiment and aesthetics. Anglican churches in large cities presented music that differed little from their English cousins. French Canadian and Spanish colonies emulated the Catholic music of France and Spain. They used organs and choirs of men and boys, just as they had in the Old World. Two groups were especially notable regarding these efforts: the Puritans of New England and the Moravians of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Puritans were Calvinists and their music centered on metrical psalm singing—congregations were taught to read music, not to depend on rote learning like in the Catholic tradition. The Moravians embellished their church services with concerted arias and motets using organs, strings, and other instruments.

The Reform movement in Judaism during the early 19th century brought many Protestant-style practices into the synagogue, one of which included singing congregational hymns (often borrowing melodies from Lutheran hymns) and introducing organs and choirs. The first influential composer of the movement was Solomon Salzer (1804-1890), who was a Reform cantor at a synagogue in Vienna. He updated traditional chants and wrote service music in modern styles for soloists and for the choir. He also commissioned music from other composers, including Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) choral setting of Psalm 92 (written in 1828) that used the Hebrew text.

Soap operas popularized organ music when they were created for the radio in the 1930s and later for television in the 1970s. They played in the background to enhance the mood and performed the theme songs before and after the show. In the early 1970s, the organ was phased out in favor of full-blown orchestral music, which, more recently, have been replaced with pop-style compositions.

Sporting events, particularly in the US and Canada, often have organs punctuating occurrences during the games, especially baseball and ice hockey. The Chicago Cubs were the first to use an organ before, during, and after games at Wrigley Field in 1941. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired the first full-time organist (Gladys Gooding) in 1942. The trend caught on. In the 1990s, several teams replaced their organist with recorded music and sound effects, but many fans appreciate the presence of a live organist, considering it traditional. In an ultra-modern move, the organist for the Atlanta Braves uses his Twitter account to take requests from fans during games at Turner Field.

Pipe organs continue to be common in church services and electronic organs are available for those with a lower budget. And as the repertoire developed for the pipe organ and affected its development, church and concert organs became increasingly similar.

But pipe organs are not limited to classical or traditional uses. Rock music has been known to employ church organs and occasionally synthesizers that sound like pipe organs. The artists record in cathedrals, and enjoy the lovely slow decay (like a long echo) that is to be found in such huge buildings.

Organ Structure

Predecessors to the organ include panpipes, pan flutes, syrinx (the reeds out of which panpipes are made), and the ney (an end-blown flute, like a recorder). The aulos, an ancient double reed instrument with two pipes is where we get the the word hydra-aulis (water aerophone).

The hydraulis was a piped instrument, where levels of water determined the note played. The concept of the pipe, sounded by air maintained at a fairly stable pressure by weight of water, could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes. It was played with a series of sliders that were pulled out and pushed in to affect the water levels (and therefore the amount of air movement).

Next, they 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 a keyboard 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 of 18 pipes each. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, and the balance are reeds. The player would have used both hands, his left hand for changing the drone note, and his 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.)

Older organs had two to four manuals, but modern instruments might have five or six, depending on what the instrument was used for.

  • The Great organ used in cathedrals operates the greatest number of registers and the largest stops.
  • The pipes of the keyboard on the Choir organ was usually situated behind the player.
  • The Solo organ has stops specifically designed for playing solos.
  • The Echo organ has soft-toned stops that are at some distance from the majority of the other pipes.
  • The pipes of the Swell organ are enclosed in a wooden box that can be opened and shut by means of a “Venetian swell,” producing a crescendo (getting gradually louder) and decrescendo (getting gradually quieter).

The solo, echo and choir organs are often fitted into swell boxes with shutters. Some instruments also have a tuba organ with stops that are played by unusually high wind pressure.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, the double-touch keyboard was invented in England. These are especially sensitive keys that produce the normal amount of sound when barely touched and get super loud with a firmer pressure.

Older organs sometimes had two levels of pedals, but this was thought to be both uncomfortable and unnecessary. Combination pistons make a single tier sufficient, and the player can prepare combinations of registers in advance so they’re all activated with a single touch. In the 19th century, J.F. Schultz made the pedals slightly concave on the organ in St. Peter’s church in Harrogate (England), making it easier to reach the highest and lowest notes.

A crescendo pedal was added in the 19th century. This is a pedal that, when depressed, sets a cylinder spinning that activates additional stops and makes the sound louder.

Since the 16th century, pipe organs have used various materials for the pipes, each with a different timbre and volume. Pipes are distributed into ranks (rows) and controlled by the use of hand stops or combination pistons on the console (near the keyboard).

A clever invention is called “unification,” where an extension is added to a pipe. Instead of one pipe per key for each pitch, the higher octaves (and some lower octaves) are achieved by adding 12 pipes (one octave) to the top or bottom of a specific rank. In a church organ, for every 61 keys on a single keyboard, there are 183 pipes (three times 61). In a theater organ, there might be only 85 pipes (61 plus two octaves of 12 each). Unification gives the smaller instrument the capability of a much larger sound that is thicker and more homogenous than a classically designed organ. They often rely on something called tremulant, which varies the air pressure passing through the pipe, lending a wavering to the sound much like human breath does in singing or playing a wind instrument. It provides a complexity of sound greater than that usually found on a classical organ. Unification also allows pipe ranks to be played from more than one keyboard (rather than one key per pipe).

Organs of the middle ages required a lot of wind. As late as the 14th century, there could be as many as 24 bellows, operated in pairs by the feet of the bellows workers, with one player to each pair of bellows. The enormous organ at Winchester Cathedral (England) was one of these.

In Germany in 1667, Christian Förner (1609-1678) invented the wind gauge, which is a manometer-like device, making it possible to measure the pressure of the air inside the bellows.

In older organs, there were many folds of leather in the bellows, but in the middle of the 16th century, a new kind of bellows was introduced that was made of wood with only a single fold. This simple and stronger construction made a more regular supply of wind possible and a more equal tone. The wind still reached the interior of the organ in puffs, which was remedied by drawing the air into a reservoir (like a bagpipe’s) before it was conveyed to the pipes.

This reservoir of air was called a wind chest. Air pumped from bellows passed through conduits into the wind-chest and from there into the soundboard. The soundboard contained a number of grooves for each individual pipe that affected volume. Spring soundboards had a special valve fitted into the grooves to interrupt or admit wind. But this was complicated and expensive.

The tremolo  device was invented around 1600. It operated in the wind-channel, giving the notes a tremulous, plaintive tone.

Around the end of the 17th century, they invented a slider soundboard, which was more efficient than the spring soundboards. Slider soundboards had grooves underlying all the pipes that were specific to a particular key on the keyboard. The sliders working across the grooves are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off, depending on its position. The solid portions of the sliders closed the pipes. When the register was to be included, the slider was pulled out until the holes were situated at the bottom of the pipes so that the wind could enter unimpeded when the key was depressed. The slider was less likely to break than the spring version, and was universally adopted during the Baroque period.

At the beginning of the 19th century, bellows were still operated by manpower. As the century unfolded, steam, hydraulic power, gas, and electricity were used to provide the necessary wind. To even out the wind, the single feeder (as the outer part of the bellows is called) was replaced by several smaller feeders that work alternately. There are even special devices to put a feeder out of action as soon as the necessary pressure is reached in the reservoirs.

Wind pressure makes it hard to connect a single key with several pipes. To depress several of the valves (or pallets) that allow the wind to enter the pipes, considerable effort was required, so much so that organists of the 19th century used to strip to their skivvies in preparation for hard physical labor before concerts. English inventor Joseph Booth (d.1797) had invented puff valves, or little bellows, to improve this situation and they were improved further by the pneumatic lever that was invented in 1832 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879) and used for the first time in 1841 by the famous French organ maker Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899) for the organ of St. Denis, in Paris France.

With the pneumatic lever, the depression of a key opened the valve of a small auxiliary bellows, which opened the valve on the pipe. In 1867, Henry Willis (1821-1901) constructed tubular pneumatic keyboard action in which the wind activating the tiny auxiliary bellows was led through tubes of sometimes considerable length. The tubular pneumatic action was used successfully in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England in 1874.

Almost simultaneously with this device, the electro-pneumatic action was invented in 1868 by Charles Spackman Barker (1804-1879), which was an attempt to operate the pneumatic lever using electricity instead of air. This system was improved by Schmöle & Mols of Philadelphia, USA, a system that was put into the organ at Paris’ famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1890. Even more recently, all-electric organ actions have been built.

Stops were invented around 1500. These are sliding pulls that alter the length or width of the associated pipe or its flue and affected the quality of the sound, making it louder or softer. They could also make the pipes sound like various instruments, such as flutes, strings, bassoons, and so on. As far back as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), little bells were affixed to the organ along with other things that imitated percussion instruments, like the triangle, xylophone, timpani, and drums—even cuckoo birds!

Organs of the 19th and 20th centuries have devices for controlling the wind pressure. Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899), the same man who used the pneumatic levers at St. Denis in Paris) introduced over-blowing flue pipes, such as the Flute-Harmonique, which sounds a harmonic instead of a fundamental note. (Notes are actually an accumulation of sounds. The note you intend to play is called the fundamental, and the higher—and lower—sounds that make it up are called overtones and harmonics. The other sounds that comprise a note are the ones that sound prettiest when you play them too, as it happens.)

The church organ had a huge number of registers—scales—from enormous 32’ pipes to tiny 1’ pipes. Each register was named for how long the pipes were, and the longer pipes produced lower notes. The most important register of the organ is called the Open Diapason (“diapason” means full and rich sound from the full range of the instrument) which were powerful mid-range flue-pipes, usually in 8’.

In an effort to create new registers, the pipes changed shape. One way to save both space and materials was closing the 8’ and 16’ stopped registers at the top and using only half the length of open pipes to achieve the same pitch. Even though they weren’t quite as bright in tone color as the open pipes, they have been quite popular. There are also half-stopped pipes with a narrow tube inserted at the top for the wind to exit through. And there were pipes with an inverted conical bore that tapered toward the top. Reed pipes include powerful 16’ trombones that are operated by the pedals, 8’ trumpets with inverted conical tops, 4’ shawms and a nasal sounding fagotte (the Baroque name for bassoon). There are also ways to get harmonics to sound—these are only a few of the dozens of registers that had been invented by the end of the 16th century.

String registers came about because of the increased interest in stringed instruments in the 17th century. The narrow flue pipes had colorful names like viola da gamba or violin.

Couplers that connected individual keyboards and their pipes became more common in the Baroque period. Using something called a transmission, one keyboard could connect with another so that multiple registers were accessed through a single keyboard. The combination of stops meant new tonal values that were similar in quality.

In the 17th century, a series of reed pipes was invented to make a register called Vox Humana, which sounded somewhat like a human voice. The Italians invented it, along with other registers that went well with one another. The rest of Europe followed suit, especially in the Baroque era. Because of all the new registers, the rigid tone of the organ that was standard at the beginning of the 17th century was nearly completely gone by the end of the century.

The keyboard of an organ wasn’t expressive like a piano’s. Although some of the special registers with free reed pipes were expressive, most registers weren’t, and every note sounded at the same volume. Specials devices, called swell registers, were added at the end of the 17th century to allow crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer),  through the use of shutters. In 1712, London organ builder Abraham Jordan (c1666-1715/16) created  a pedal attachment that opened and closed the front wall of the echo chamber to create the effect. They even damped tones to produce echo effects.

Tuning and range became an issue. The Baroque taste for extreme contrasts meant that they extended the range of the organ (and the harpsichord) downward, adding low notes until they almost exceed the ability of humans to hear them. Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) declared that the introduction of equal temperament (a particular kind of tuning) was urgently needed, and began modifying individual notes on the “well-tempered” organs of the day.

The organ continued to undergo extensive changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. It now has more volume all by itself than an entire orchestra.


Because the organ has both manual and pedal keyboards, organ music is notated on three staves. The music on the manuals is laid out like music for other keyboard instruments on two connected staves, and the pedals are notated on the lowest staff, or sometimes, to save space, added to the bottom of the second staff. The latter was  how it was done in the early days.

Because music racks are often built quite low to preserve sightlines over the console, organ music is usually published in oblong or landscape format.

The Name

The name “organ” comes from the Greek organon, meaning instrument or tool.

The name Regal comes from “regulare,” because it was meant to regulate the singing in churches.

In Germany, the Rūckpositive is the name for the positive, because the pipes are behind the player.

The portative is called the organetto in Italy.

Organ Builders

You can’t really talk about organs without talking about the builders, who are a special hybrid of obsessed engineers and extreme musicians.

Organ Composers

There are so many composers, it’s impossible to list them all. I have dispensed with my usual courtesy of supplying dates and some sort of comment, but I have instead provided links to articles about these fine folks.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Samuel Barber
John Blow
Georg Böhm
Johannes Brahms
Nicolaus Bruhns
Dieterich Buxtehude
William Byrd
John Cage
Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet   Charpentier
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault
François Couperin
Louis Couperin
Hugo Distler
Maurice Duruflé
Edward Elgar
Johann Caspar Ferdinand   Fischer
César Franck (born in Belgium)
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Johann Jakob Froberger
Andrea Gabrieli
Giovanni Gabrieli
Orlando Gibbons
Philip Glass
George Frideric Handel
Hans Leo Hassler
Jakob Hassler
Paul Hindemith
Johann Kaspar Kerll
Johann Ludwig Krebs
Johann Tobias Krebs
Johann Krieger
Johann Kuhnau
Franz Liszt
Vincent Lubeck
Johann Mattheson
Felix Mendelssohn
Olivier Messiaen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Georg Muffat
Gottlieb Muffat
Johann Pachelbel
Vincent Persichetti
Daniel Pinkham
Alessandro Poglietti
Jacob Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
Henry Purcell
Steve Reich
Johann Adam Reincken
Josef Rheinberger
Ned Rorem
Camille Saint-Saëns
Alessandro Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti
Heinrich Scheidemann
Samuel Scheidt
Heinrich Schütz
Dmitri Shostakovich
Johann Speth
Charles Villiers Stanford
Jan Pieterszoon SweelinckThomas Tallis
Franz Tunder
Johann Gottfried Walther
Matthias Weckmann
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow

Organ Players

Again, there are too many to name, so I’ll tell the stories of just a handful.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) might be the most famous composer of all time. But what you might not realize is that he was also a seriously fierce organist. He was so obsessed with learning all he could that, at age 20, without the permission of his employer, he walked 250 miles to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play in Lūbeck. He stayed there for several months, absorbing what he could from the great master, before returning to fulfill his duties. If he hadn’t been so talented and working for a pittance, he would surely have been fired. Bach would go on to write 225 cantatas, 225 works for other keyboards, 225 organ works, 150 canons and fugues, 100 choral works, 40 pieces for chamber groups, 30 pieces for full orchestra, and five lute pieces. Bach was married twice and had seven children with his first wife and 13 with his second wife, only nine of whom survived into adulthood and outlived him. Five were significant musicians themselves.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) was a German-Danish composer and organist whose works compose the core of the organ repertoire. Sadly, much of his music is lost or was poorly documented, but he wrote over 112 cantatas, about 100 organ
works,  100 choral works, 50 chorale preludes, 50 works for harpsichord, 40 chorale settings, 25 chamber music pieces, 19 preludes, 14 trio sonatas,  a dozen wedding, liturgical, and canon works, a handful of miscellaneous pieces, and another two dozen pieces that may have been falsely attributed to him.

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 court until his retirement in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

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.

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 super famous English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.


“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.