Pipe organ stops
Periods and styles  

Alsacian organ builders

Organs in Alsace


French version Version française

Pipe organ tonal design

To the consecutive steps in organ the building evolution correspond major trends in the tonal design of the instrument. The scope being France and above all Alsace, the following will be reduced to :

Of course, there a many other styles (Nordic, Spanish, the Italian "ripieno", only to quote some of them).



More information about divisions can be found on the "architecture" page.

 The French Classical tonal design

The French "Classical" organ is a generally medium size (25-35 stops) instrument, with mechanical action (tracker), with a disposition driven by the sound synthesis according to overtones :

These stops are distributed over the divisions is a characteristic way  :

  • if there is only one division, the organ is called "positif";
  • when there are two divisions, one is in a separate case, behind the back of the organist, and called "Positif de dos" (choir organ). The other division, which are gathered the louder (and lowest in pitch) stops, is the great organ, and is placed in the great case.
    The choir is designed to complement the great organ.
  • if there is a third manual division, it is often called "écho". The echo generally lacks the lowest octave (or two). It is then called "dessus d'écho" ("Echo discant").
    The echo is designed to be opposed to the great organ.
  • the pedal organ is not very developed. It does not have the lowest stops, nor the "montre" (principal with front pipes). The pedalboard is often small and limited in compass.

The French Classical organ (studied by André Silbermann during the two years he spend in Paris, working for Thierry) is in fact an "evolution" of the Flemish organ in the 16 th century. This is especially true for the divisions disposition (great / choir / echo).
Silbermann has done another evolution of that style, by adding the German pedal, "independent" (i.e. whose pipes are placed behind the great case, in a separate enclosure), and founded on one or more 16' stops. These independent pedals are sometimes called "à la Silbermann".
The Alsacian organ style is typically of French Classical tonal design, completed with an independent pedal. There are however less reed stops (and the "bombarde" division is not used). The resulting organ is :

  • ideal for accompanying the people singing (the aim of the French Classical organ was to "comment" the liturgy, and is thus a soloist instrument)
  • ideal for the performance of polyphonic music
    • the bass being played at the pedal
    • and the Plein-Jeu enabling to keep the distinction between the voices.

The keydesk of such instruments is integrated in the great case, and closed by two shutters. It is called "Console en fenêtre". A major advantage is that is the best place to put the keyboards when using a mechanical, direct, suspended action, i.e. with trackers and rollers directly linking the pallets to the keys..

The repartition of the stops on the various divisions is done in the following way :

  • Medium sized instrument :
    the great organ receives the 8' principal, and is founded on it. The pipes of this stop are generally the front pipes or the great case (montre 8')
    the pedal organ is founded on a stopped 16' flue stop (soubasse 16')
    the choir organ is founded on a stopped 8' flue stop (bourdon 8')
  • Large instrument :
    the great organ is founded on a stopped 16' flue stop (bourdon 16')
    the pedal organ is founded on an open 16' flue stop (flute 16', or principal 16', or "contrebasse")
    the choir organ is founded on an open 8' flue stop (montre 8')
    an echo division receives a 5 ranks cornet, and usually a trumpet, both designed to respond to the corresponding stops in the great organ.
  • Small instrument :
    the manual division is founded on a stopped 8' flue stop (bourdon 8')
    the pedal organ is founded on a stopped 16' flue stop (soubasse 16')
    there is no second manual division.
These instrument are obviously more dedicated top French Classical literature (Couperin, Grigny, Clérambault...) and to the polyphonic Classical music (Bach, Buxtehude...)


 The Romantic organ
or/and/and_not Symphonic

It is the organ in the 19 th century. Marked by Cavaillé-Coll in France and Walcker in Germany. If the word "Romanitc" has a strong meaning in literature, it was used in music for its convenience more than for its precise meaning. In comparison with the Classical organ, an instrument of the "Romantic" period will be characterized by :

  • "orchestral" soloist stops : clarinet, flûte traversière
  • "harmonic" stops, designed by Cavaillé-Coll (harmonic flutes, harmonic trumpets)
  • The lack of mutation stops, and the relative weakness of the mixtures.
    Tierces, Cymbals...
  • ...were abandoned, and the overtone generation was left to strings (gamba, salicional, voix céleste)
  • The increase in the number of 8' flue stops
  • The presence of one (or more) expressive divisions, i.e. divisions for with the sound volume can be controlled by the means of an expression pedal.
  • The presence of a "Récit" division, almost always expressive, and placed at the read of the great division. This generally involved that :
  • the choir organ was abandoned.

The "symphonic" organ is sometimes considered as comparable, or precisely opposed to the romantic type. Its characteristics are :

  • a choice and a disposition of the stops enabling the imitation of an orchestra
  • they are generally large instruments, with a lot of stops (50-100)

The keyboards console is generally independent, and equipped with devices facilitating "concert" performances :

  • pre-sets (p, pp, f, ff, tutti) and combinations
  • calling / cancellation reeds and mixtures
  • couplers commands are doubled (both by tilting tabs and toe studs)
  • expression pedal(s)
  • sometimes a crescendo roll or pedal, calling (or canceling) the stops one by one, in a given order
  • and often, lots of knobs, pistons, lights and dials (voltage, crescendo position...) above designed to give a "Jules Vernes" look to the console.

There are other distinctive features :

  • the tuning of open flue pipes is done by cuttings and scrolls (the pipes are not "cut-to-pitch" like in the Classical organ)
  • the tuning of stopped flue pipes is done by moving a mobile cap or shopper (cap or interlocking part with the chimney on it).
  • the flue pipes are often longer than needed for the played notes. A (long) cuttings is done in the upper part, this time not to tune the pipe, but so that it does not affect the pitch (note) determination (there is a tuning scroll lower in the pipe), but only apply on the timbre of the produced note. Timbre cuttings were not much appreciated in the sixties, but a lot of people have know changed their mind. the symphonic organs being larger, the mechanical (tracker) action has been abandoned, because the keys were too hard to play (especially with the couplers engaged). This stiffness was increased by the fact that consoles had to be independent, implying complicated mechanical action, with square beams for example.
    Moreover, mechanical action was just not "up-to-date", so that event small instruments were built with pneumatic, then électro-pneumatic or later electric action.

In Germany, the Romantic organ is often characterized by loud stops, and high pressure.

These instruments are obviously designed to play the symphonic pieces by César Franck, Louis Vierne, Robert Schumann.


 The Neo-classical organ

The period corresponding to this tonal design is the first half of the 20 th century. In reaction against some Romantic organs, sometimes not of the best workmanship (but obviously fitting to the industrial ages), and because of the re-discovery of the Baroque literature (above all Bach's) new instruments were wanted, characterized by :

  • the coming back from the excess of Romanticism (it was the come-back of cornets, tierces, cymbals, and choir organs)
  • the ability to play just the same the symphonic literature of the 19 th century

As a consequence, these instruments must have a lot of stops, and thus mechanical action is almost impossible.
For that, the "experts" of the beginning of the century recommended to deeply alter the Classical organs (i.e. to change for pneumatic action, change the wind pressure, the tuning, the voicing and to add all sorts of "soloist" stops, unknown to their original design).

The "universal" organ, able to play "anything" does not exist, can cannot be built. Designing organs able to play any style resulting in building instruments without any style.

It is obviously illusive to think that an organ case designed to shelter 3à stops can contain 60 of them (with larger compasses), with bulky action devices and a lot of additional accessories. Cavaillé-Coll said that "one must be able to turn around each pipe", meaning that the organ has to "breathe".

Neo-classicism lead the Silbermann organ in Strasbourg, St-Thomas to a 60 stops, completely re-voiced instrument, playing one half-tone higher (this had been achieved by cutting the top of the pipes).

See : the famous fight between RUPP and GESSNER.


 The Neo-Baroque and contemporary organ

When, in 1948, the organ in Strasbourg, St-Pierre-le-jeune had to be re-built, Ernest Muhleisen and Alfred Kern, were both working together at this time, were in front of a work by Jean-André Silbermann, 1780 / Jean-Conrad Sauer, 1820, which had been very much altered (by Wetzel, Roethinger).

This instrument was moved (in year 1900) to a 15 th century jube. Of course, the organ, (in its original cases, 1780 / 1820) had been "pneumatized" and "Romantized".

For Ernest Muhleisen and Alfred Kern, trying to bring together the tonal design of the organ and its prestigious surroundings (building with parts built in the 13 th century, Roman tower) was a major concern.
Thus, between 1948 and 1950, they re-built the organ with mechanical action, using the (re-discovered) principles of the Classical organ-building (beginning with the disposition).

Voiced by Alfred Kern, the instrument marked a real revolution in organ building, soon spreading to the whole France, support by the well-known organist Michel Chapuis, and by other organ-builders.

Ernest Muhleisen had already built a mechanical action instrument (his first work, in fact his masterpiece), in Pfulgriesheim, 1943, in an age when this type of action was completely outdated. Later, this organ-builder took the opportunity to buy the Wetzel stock, rich of many 18 th century stops. This did maybe participate to his decision in St Pierre-le-jeune.

Alfred Kern, once having taken up his own business, built his first organ in Strasbourg, Notre-Dame des Mineurs, 1957, with mechanical action. It is a rather bad instrument, which does not hint that Kern would become the so successful re-builder of the Silbermann in Strasbourg, St-Thomas (1979), but also the builder of the magnificent organs in Paris, St-Séverin (1963) and Strasbourg, Cathedral (1981).

This "Neo-Baroque" style is a bit difficult to characterize. Because the organs in that style are not "Baroque". It was not a come-back to Silbermann's organs, above all not to Gottfried's. These instrument much nearer to Nordic organs. But the great principles were progressively re-discovered and applied.

Then, the organs by Curt SCHWENKEDEL, who was for sure resourceful and inventive, are somewhere between the "Neo-Baroque" and the Italian style.