History

This tab is written to provide a brief historical account of how the relationship between the pipe organ and choirs has changed over several centuries. While the organ was almost irrelevant to early choral music, it is now an equal partner in some musical contexts. How and when did that happen? When did the organ begin to function as an aid to choirs and how was it used? What type of repertoire was performed in collaboration with choirs?

General

For roughly three hundred years, the organ was used in churches and cathedrals only on feast days.1 Descriptions of the organs themselves are not always clear and leave room for debate on exactly how original sources should be interpreted. It appears, however, that in general organs could be large or “little,” that they contained open metal flue pipes, that some large organs had large pipes set apart from the main case, and that some large organs had a Blockwerk where the keys would play a pre-determined combination of pipes.2 Since the fourteenth century it has been played alongside choirs in some sort of liturgical function and in alternation with choirs.3 This alternation, or “alternatim,” means that the choir would sing certain portions of a liturgical text while the organ would play during alternating portions of unsung text. The listener would hear certain portions of a liturgical text sung by the choir and while other portions were represented by organ music. The organist’s contribution was not haphazard, however. One early source, the Faenza Codex from c. 1400, contains brief pieces where the left hand plays a chant related to a liturgical text, while the right hand plays elaborated material.4 One reason why alternatim practice may have developed is that a medieval organ with a loud Blockwerk, which could not be divided and therefore softened, would have covered up a choir. The only practical way in which the organ could participate in liturgy would be in alternation with other liturgical and musical elements.

Peter Williams suggests that the presence of organs in cathedrals was fairly ubiquitous and their keyboard compass tended to mirror the vocal range of a male singer.5 The organs themselves were changing as they migrated into the liturgy, developing new and separate sections in addition to the previous single block of sound available on medieval instruments. The idea of separating sections may have led to the notion of small, portable organs that became common in the sixteenth century.6 Concerning registration of organ accompaniments, early seventeenth-century Italian sources suggest that the Principale itself is sufficient for accompanying music of four or five voices; as the number of voices increases, one may add the Ottava (4′) or Quintadecima (2′).7 In some cases, the Flauto in ottava may be added to the Principale.8 In England, Peter le Huray argues that cathedral music was of low quality owing in large part to a lack of funding.9 Organs, therefore, would have functioned at least in part as an aid to maintaining the pitch and tuning of choral works.

Renaissance and Tudor Music

This section explores the relationship of instruments to choirs during the sixteenth century through the first quarter of the seventeenth century.

The choral style rooted in music by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594) is often performed unaccompanied today. This may not have been the case in Palestrina’s time.10 Arnoldo Morelli suggests that it is difficult to tell whether sacred polyphonic music in the early to mid-sixteenth century was accompanied by organ,11 yet we have extant organ accompaniments beginning around the 1590s. André de Quadros posits that organ accompaniment remained an option for Renaissance vocal music in Italy well into the eighteenth century.12 Rebecca Herissone concurs, noting that organs would double the vocal parts of motets in Italy and Europe more broadly.13 Indeed, that type of accompaniment dates back even to the fifteenth century.14 Music in the Sistine Chapel was strictly vocal, and remains so during this time.15 No instrumental accompaniments were heard in the chapel itself. But what about other chapels, or homes?

Gregory Johnston suggests that organ accompaniments were so commonplace by the 1600s that composers and theorists did not feel the need to address them in writing.16 This agrees with the contemporaneous source, Il transilvano (1609), in which the author, Girolamo Diruta (c. 1554–1610), encourages organists to play as many of the voice parts as they can.17 In 1587, Alessandro Striggio (ca. 1540–1630) includes instructions for his motet, Ecce beatam, writing that the harmony should be played by “organ, lute and harpsichords or viols.”18 Palestrina himself left basso continuo parts to some of his vocal works beginning in the early seventeenth century.19 

Other examples of composers supplying instrumental accompaniment to vocal works include Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1532–1585), who calls for organ accompaniment of his double-chorus motet, Sacrae symphoniae (1597).20 His nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, regularly included basso continuo parts for the organist in his polychoral compositions.21 Palladio’s mass setting, In illo tempore (1610), contains an organ part.22 Works by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611), published in 1600, contained a bass part intended for the organ that were added by the composer himself.23 Organ accompaniments were therefore not simply a marginal eccentricity, but played an important role in the performance of Renaissance vocal works.

What exactly did the organ play, however? Did the organist play the vocal parts note-for-note, or simply provide harmonies without copying the melodic vocal lines? We know that in the music discussed above and in similar examples, the organ parts double melodic entrances of contrapuntal subjects.24 But what of the remainder of the piece?

In 1609, Andriano Banchieri (1568–1634)distinguished between two types of organ accompaniment: the first type is played by reading the voice parts in open score, the second by supplying harmonies just from reading the bass line.25 Banchieri went on to say that organists who played only from basso continuo parts were “overcome by sheer laziness.”26 Praetorius defended continuo-style accompaniments against such accusations, arguing that in certain cases they were indispensable; a basso continuo part would sometimes fill out incomplete harmonies such as omitted thirds, or supply the root of the chord in successive first-inversion chords.27 Le Huray notes that these two categories result in accompaniments that are linearly conceived as in the case of vocal score reading, and vertically conceived in the case of basso continuo.28

One result of imposing vertical harmonies onto counterpoint is that some of the polyphonic relationships may be less noticeable.29 In 1619, Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) discussed these two approaches in his Syntagma musicum. It appears, however, that Praetorius intended for the basso continuo part to be a fairly comprehensive realization of the contrapuntal parts.30 For example, the continuo part he supplies for a three-voice composition contains so much detail that it would sound more like an intabulation than a realized bass part.31

Thomas Culley proffers three possibilities: that organs supplied a basso continuo part, that they doubled one or more of the voice parts, or that the organ replaced one or more of the voice parts.32 Culley’s categories remind us that there was a fluidity in regard to instrumentation during this period that we don’t see as often in modern works. Although written slightly later than the time period I am considering now, Christoph Kittel’s following remarks are enlightening. In the preface to Zwölf geistliche Gesänge (1657) by Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), he declares that the works therein may be performed “vocally or instrumentally, with or without organ accompaniment.”33

David Willcocks suggests that anthems of the Tudor period were probably accompanied. 34 The most popular composers in England during this time were William Byrd (1543–1623), Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656).35 Of those, William Byrd was one of the earliest composers to specify that the organ should be played simultaneously in works known as verse anthems.36 Verse anthems included one or more solo singers alternating with a larger chorus and accompanied by either organ or other instruments such as the viol.37 However, viols were used primarily in homes while the organ was utilized primarily in church.38 The Chapel Royal was the exception to this, as it was the only institution to use strings during services.39 In Teach me, O Lord, Byrd composes an organ accompaniment for the solo sections. In the full-choir sections, he supplies only the bass and soprano notes, leaving the organist to fill in the harmonies. English composers were quick to adopt Byrd’s practice of combining organ and choral resources.40

In England, singers and organists would copy and compile their own books that included only their part.41 Organists, therefore, would be reading from a book in which they copied their own parts. In one example from St. John’s College, Oxford, the manuscript contains both melodies and figured bass numbers; it includes accompaniments to choral services, verse anthems, and full anthems.42 At times, organists were content with merely providing the treble and bass parts of certain chants and Psalm tunes.43 The first published organ book in England, Musica Deo sacra by Thomas Tomkins, contained all of the voice parts rather than just the treble and bass.44 In Germany, rather than writing notes on a staff, organists would write letters to indicate the polyphonic melodies.45

The Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries

Innovations in solo organ repertoire and in organ building influence the organ accompanist. Both areas are documented well in dozens of books that are either still in publication or readily available to purchase used online. Providing a comprehensive history of these subjects is beyond the scope of my current project, but I have included several resources below for those who wish to investigate further.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, organists continued to accompany some anthems that today are often sung unaccompanied, often reading from a bass line supplied with numbers. The resulting organ part contained the same harmonies as the vocal parts, but did not always correspond identically to the voice parts.46

Counterpoint was not ignored, however. Giuseppe Paolucci (1570–1607)wrote in 1766 that polyphonic entrances would be bolstered by including the organ.47 Johnston proffers that compositional style indicates which of the two primary forms of accompaniment would be used: basso continuo or some type of score reduction.48 He refers to Francesco Bianciardi’s position that “ancient fugal compositions” could be ruined by some organists who chose to accompany from a bass part rather than read the counterpoint from the score.49

Publishers, too, were aware that certain compositions lent themselves better to different types of accompaniment. Heinrich Schütz wrote certain pieces with basso continuo because the publisher of his Cantiones sacrae (1625) requested as much.50 Indeed, Schütz found basso continuo parts “clumsy” and preferred not to include them with his compositions.51 We can ascertain that just because some pieces were published with a basso continuo part does not necessarily mean that the organist would have played from figures.52

Perhaps one reason why organs would double vocal parts so regularly is that choirs were small and the organ was used to buttress the voices. For instance, the Coronation of George II in 1727 in Westminster Abbey numbered only 40 singers in combination with over a hundred instrumentalists.53 Moreover, the first performance of Messiah by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) in 1742 likely included fewer than fifteen singers.54

Amidst the increasing complexities of idiomatic organ writing and the fervor of new hymnody in churches and cathedrals, however, organ accompaniments were slow to take on a character of their own. When did the written organ parts begin to diverge from the choral parts and take on their own musical ideas and techniques? A confluence of several factors led to increased independence of organ accompaniments: anthem introductions, organ transcriptions, and the location of organs.

First, in nineteenth-century England, organists would extemporise a stylistically similar introduction to a choral anthem.55 Organists were taught to elaborate on a specific musical idea from the subsequent anthem, keeping the same meter of the anthem, and ending on either the tonic or dominant keys.56 

Second, composers such as John Blow (1649–1708) made organ arrangements of symphony anthems so they could be heard without the expense of hiring an orchestra.57 The first performance of Henry Purcell’s (ca. 1659–1695) Rejoice in the Lord Alway, though composed as a symphony anthem, was performed with organ accompaniment in Dublin.58 Further, organ is the accompanying instrument in a score from Durham Cathedral (1796–1814) and a set of partbooks from Canterbury Cathedral (mid-nineteenth century).59 In the Durham score, the organ part was not a direct orchestral transcription; the organ replaced the strings throughout, although the opening symphony was omitted and the instrumental ritornellos were shortened.60 The organ part was, therefore, a truncated transcription of the original orchestral score. 

Third, these nineteenth-century musical developments came at a time when some began to argue that the proper place for a choir and its accompanying instruments was not in West-end galleries of previous generations, but in East-end chancels. One publication from 1843 by the Cambridge Camden Society suggests that roughly 90% of pipe organs in England were located in west-end galleries.61 In it, the author laments the state of affairs: the congregation turns around to watch the choir during hymns and Psalms, the stairs to the loft were noisy, people passed notes, the singers were proud and independent, and in places where women were allowed to sing, they attracted too much attention.62 Thus began the organ’s migration to a more central location in buildings and their music. Further, the organ-builder Henry Willis (1821–1901)began to include separate Solo divisions replete with orchestral stops.63 See the resources in Further Reading for more information on changes in organ building.

Two English composers stand out for their departure from previous styles of organ accompaniments; Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814–1856) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876) began to write more independent organ parts than their predecessors.64

In The Wilderness, Wesley’s first important church work, he abandons the rhythmic and notational styles of his esteemed church-based colleagues and instead supplies an orchestral-like accompaniment across three staves.65 Similarly, in Blessed be the God and Father, Wesley writes an accompaniment that is more idiomatic to the piano than the organ during the treble solo beginning with “Love one another.”66 The example below shows an organ interlude followed by the section relating to idiomatic piano accompaniment.

Wesley_Blessed be the God_mm61-73
Samuel Sebastian Wesley, “Blessed be the God and Father,” (Brooklyn: Arista Music Co., 1986), mm. 61–73.

Rather than playing a supportive role for the choir, the organ part is essential to the piece as a whole as it links vocal sections together, provides specific registrational colors, and at one point plays a fortissimo dominant seventh chord.67 The organ plays by itself in other anthems as well; in O Lord, Thou Art My God, the organist plays a solo introduction, an interlude, and a solo conclusion to the work.68 The organ not only linked sections, as above, it linked repetitions of vocal phrases with organ flourishes.69 At times, Wesley used the organ to lend variety as he wrote other combinations of voices in unison; Edward Holmes suggested that this was, in some cases, “to supply the interest and variety which his choir lacked.”70 Wesley “drew on the organ to enrich the vocal texture, which enabled him to write five- or six-part chords without the necessity of dividing the voice parts–a technique later favoured by Stanford.”71 In this case, the organ was playing harmonies independently of the choir; it was not substituting notes that would otherwise be sung by a more competent choir. At other times, variety was added by omitting the organ for certain periods within a work.72

Conclusion

I have attempted to sketch a few salient moments in the long and complex story of how the pipe organ interacts with choirs throughout the previous four centuries. My intent is not to be comprehensive, but to provide a framework within which to view the organ accompanist’s interacting with, supporting, and inspiring singers.

For those who wish to learn more, consult the texts listed below and in the Bibliography section of this website.

Further Reading

Ritchie, George H., and George B. Stauffer. Organ Technique: Modern and Early. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thistlethwaite, Nicholas, and Geoffrey Webber, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Organ. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Williams, Peter. A New History of the Organ: From the Greeks to the Present Day. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

  1. Peter Williams, A New History of the Organ: From the Greeks to the Present Day (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 48.
  2. Peter Williams, A New History of the Organ: From the Greeks to the Present Day (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 49.
  3. Edward Higginbottom, “Organ Music and the Liturgy,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, ed. Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber, 130–147 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 131.
  4. Edward Higginbottom, “Organ Music and the Liturgy,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, ed. Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber, 130–147 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 131.
  5. Peter Williams, A New History of the Organ: From the Greeks to the Present Day (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 49.
  6. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010), 267.
  7. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 601.
  8. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 603.
  9. Peter le Huray, “The English Anthem 1580–1640,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 86th Session (1959–1960), 4.
  10. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010), 656.
  11. Arnoldo Morelli, “The Role of the Organ in Performance Practices of Italian Sacred Polyphony during the Cinquecento,” Musica Disciplina 50 (1996), 241.
  12. André de Quadros, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 25.
  13. Rebecca Herissone, ‘To Fill, Forbear, or Adorne,’ (Aldershot, UK: Royal Musical Association, 2006), 116–117.
  14. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 53.
  15. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 587.
  16. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 53.
  17. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51.
  18. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 597.
  19. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 587.
  20. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010), 283.
  21. André de Quadros, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 17.
  22. Denis Stevens, “’…the Harmony More Magnificent: How the Organ as Continuo Lost Its Role,” The Musical Times 132, no. 1786 (1991), 627.
  23. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 597–98.
  24. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994),  599.
  25. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  26. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  27. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  28. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  29. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  30. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  31. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 51–52.
  32. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 597–98.
  33. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 57.
  34. David Willcocks, preface to The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, comp. by Christopher Morris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
  35. Peter le Huray, “The English Anthem 1580–1640,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 86th Session (1959–1960), 11.
  36. Alan Mould, The English Chorister (New York: Hambledon Contiuum, 2007), 104.
  37. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010), 223.
  38. Peter le Huray, “The English Anthem 1580–1640,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 86th Session (1959-1960), 10.
  39. Lionel Pike, “Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, All Ways,” Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), 393.
  40. Denis Stevens, Thomas Tomkins 1572–1656, (London: Macmillan & Co.: 1957), 33.
  41. Peter le Huray, “The English Anthem 1580–1640,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 86th Session (1959-1960), 3.
  42. J. Bunker Clark, “A Re-Emerged Seventeenth-Century Organ Accompaniment Book,” Music & Letters 47, no. 2 (1966), 150.
  43. Marmaduke P. Conway, Church Organ Accompaniment (London: The Canterbury Press, 1952), 21.
  44. Edward Tambling, “The Last Elizabethan: Reconsidering Thomas Tomkins,” Church Music Quarterly (June 2018), 30.
  45. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 52.
  46. Dudley Buck, Illustrations in Choir Accompaniment (New York: G. Schirmer, 1888), 152.
  47. Patrizio Barbieri, “On a Continuo Organ Part Attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music 22, no. 4 (1994), 600.
  48. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 53.
  49. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 52.
  50. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 52.
  51. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 52.
  52. Gregory S. Johnston, “Polyphonic Keyboard Accompaniment in the Early Baroque: An Alternative to Basso Continuo,” Early Music 26, no. 1 (1998), 52.
  53. André de Quadros, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 24.
  54. André de Quadros, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 25.
  55. J. Frederick Bridge, Organ Accompaniment of the Choral Service (London: Novello and Co., 1885), 17.
  56. H.W. Richards, The Organ Accompaniment of the Church Services (Boston: G. Schirmer, 1911), 108–112.
  57. Lionel Pike, “Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, All Ways,” Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), 394.
  58. Lionel Pike, “Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, All Ways,” Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), 409.
  59. Lionel Pike, “Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, All Ways,” Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), 415-416.
  60. Lionel Pike, “Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, All Ways,” Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), 418.
  61. Bernarr Rainbow, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church, 1839–1872 (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2001), 319.
  62. Bernarr Rainbow, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church, 1839–1872 (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2001), 320.
  63. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 227.
  64. Bernarr Rainbow, The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church, 1839–1872 (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2001), 292.
  65. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 38–39.
  66. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 52.
  67. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 54.
  68. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 92.
  69. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 246.
  70. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 142.
  71. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 184.
  72. Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 244.