Talk Like an Organist (Part One)

If you fire up your internet and look at you'll see a picture of Wesley! Hopefully soon that will be replaced by a picture of the model of our Grace. You'll read that we have contracted with CB Fisk Organbuilders to build a “3 manual tracker instrument of 39 stops in an eclectic tonal style” (as you know). But you may wonder what that might mean.  With just a few terms defined you can be talking like an organist! Let's break this down.

Three manual.  A manual is a set of keys to be played with your hands, like a piano. Organs usually have at least two. The piano has 88 keys while the organ has 61. I'll explain later why the organ still has a much greater pitch range.

Each manual represents a division, or group of sounds. On our instrument they are called Great, Swell and Choir.  Each division has a particular character. The Great is the foundation of the instrument. Most of the hymn-playing will be done on this manual. The Swell is a little softer with more colorful sounds. The Choir has even more solo sounds. Sometimes both hands are on one manual playing like you would a piano.  Sometimes one hand is on a manual with solo sounds and the other hand on another manual playing back up harmony or a contrasting melody. In other music both hands move from one manual to another to create an echo or contrast. Having multiple manuals makes it possible for organ music to have structure with a variety of sounds.

When you look at the front of our instrument, the pipes that you are able to see are of the Great division. The other two divisions however are enclosed. That means that each division is in a box with shutters on three sides. The organist is able to control how open or closed those shutters are, thereby controlling the dynamics (how loud or soft the sound is). Most builders would have shutters on only one side, but the fact that Fisk builds in this way will give a far greater range from loud, when the shutters are open, to very soft, when they are closed, and everything in between!

The other division is the Pedal division, the set of keys (just like a manual) to be played by the feet. The pedal division has 32 notes. They are arranged just like the keys on a piano, but sized for the feet. The pedal board is slightly concave to make reaching the keys on each end a little more convenient.

As I shared earlier, I was able to be at the dedication weekend for Fisk, Op 150. I thought it was interesting when in a discussion with people of Christ Church, Philadelphia David Pike, Tonal Director at Fisk, related the three divisions of their instrument to the three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The Great could represent the strong foundational voice of the Father. Their new division was placed behind the organist on the balcony rail, closer to the people of the congregation, as the Son, Emmanuel, God with us, is close to us. The ethereal sounds coming from the upper part of the instrument could be related to the Holy Ghost. Three expressions of one. I won't try to push the theological relevance any further, but I did find it interesting!

In the next article we can look at the next part of the organ description “tracker”.

You are part way to “talking like an organist.”

Sally Potter
Organist, Wesley UMC

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