Get to Know the Organ: 7 Cool Factoids

From its roots in ancient Rome to the large, magnificent examples in churches or theatres, to the electric version in your great aunt’s house, organs have a long and complex history. This is an instrument that’s been around the block a few times and evolved along the way. But how much do you really know about the amazing organ? Here are a few facts you might have missed!

Organs have been around a long, long time.

The first organ was invented in the third century BCE by a Greek engineer named Ctesibius of Alexandria. Called a hydraulis, his invention used water pressure to blow air through a set of pipes. You know how they say Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Well, it’s more likely he was playing a hydraulis.

But not always in churches.

Today we tend of think of organs as appropriate for serious, sober tunes. But organs were originally played at banquets, games and circuses. Historians think organs first started showing up in churches around 900 CE, but they’re not sure why. By the 13th century, monastic churches and cathedrals in Europe were commonly using organs.

Puritans said “no thanks.”

Regardless of the monks’ appreciation of the instrument, the devout Puritans of the 17th century considered organ music to be far from pious. In fact, the Puritan movement back then is blamed for destroying many organs in English churches.

 Simple or complicated?

Early organs were much less complex than today’s versions — they could make just one sound. Later versions had additional mechanisms that allowed for variety. The instrument generally known as the first modern organ was first described in 1511. By the 19th century, the organ was considered one of the most complex mechanical instruments created prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Many famous composers were organists.

Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck, Dvorak are among the famous composers who were talented organists. In a letter to his father, Mozart even called the organ “in my eyes and ears … the king of instruments.”

Getting hot under the collar.

The organ hardly seems likely to cause discord (pun intended), but in 1934 the Hammond Organ caused quite a stir when Hammond claimed his electronic keyboard instrument could match a traditional pipe organ’s range of harmonics and tones. Four years and multiple hearings later, the FTC ordered Hammond to stop his claims.

A local organ celebrity.

The organ at the Washington National Cathedral boasts a whopping 10,647 pipes, making it the largest in the Washington, DC, metro area. You can hear it on the cathedral’s YouTube channel. However, the largest organ in the world that’s still operational lives in Macy’s City Center (see photo) in Philadelphia, not too far away for a musical weekend getaway. That organ has 28,677 pipes and weighs more than 285 tons.

Don’t miss out on the live organ music coming to us soon!