ASK FATHER: Pipe organs, being expensive, how about manually pumped reed organs?

From a reader…


Pipe organs being too expensive for most parishes, and many electronic organs being used instead sound terrible and turn people off from the organ, what are your thoughts on bringing back reed (pump) organs to church?

I never really appreciated just what one was capable until I heard it played by competent people who knew how to get the most out of it.

Take, for example, Widor’s Toccata played on this rather large pump organ that even has a peddle board:
Or Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor:
Or for hymns, Hyfrydol:

This was the standard instrument in many churches prior to Vatican II, and many of our beloved female saints who were musically competent played it during Mass.

You never know what sort of question will come up. Let’s sample…

My first impulse is to say, hey!, it’s hard enough to find organists to play any organ, much less a manually pumped reed organ. Have at!    And I’d be concerned about keeping it tuned in widely shifting seasons.  Even worse than a badly tuned instrument is an almost tuned instrument.

My second impulse is to say, hey!, that’s going to be handy after the massive CME creates a grid killing sequel to the Carrington Event. Hang on to that organ along with your horse tack and plow, ammo, and the transceivers stored in your Faraday cages.  The EMP will wipe out the other organs for sure.

My third impulse is to say, hey!, that’s pretty darn cool and, in lieu of a greater instrument, it sounds pretty darn good. I think it would sound even better used for music scaled a bit more for its capacity. Widor? Wow. He was the organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris with its mighty Cavaillé-Coll. Gutsy!

By way of contrast.

Look. In the right space with a good fist at the manuals and an healthy helper at the bellows, it could be just the right thing.  Why not?  In a smaller church, why not?

That was fun. Thanks.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Having restored two nineteenth-century, and one early-twentieth-century, reed organ, I have to say there are reed organs and reed organs. Some are very large, with ranks equaling a medium-sized pipe organ. These larger reed organs (especially when they have a peddleboard) must have an extra person pumping them or an electric air pump installed. And the latter to be very noisy (personal experience).

    The smaller versions are (and sound) often like a big harmonic—thus the more common old name “harmonium.” In my order, they were used mostly for accompanying the chant of the Office. In that case, what really mattered was keeping the choir on pitch on any musical virtuosity. I don’t like the electric appliances that serve as “organs” in many churches, but I don’t think the average harmonium is usually an improvement. They don’t have the volume to support large congregations nor the complex variety and number of stops to produce interesting instrumentals.

  2. Charivari Rob says:

    I don’t think most or even many electronic organs sound terrible or put people off organ music. The talent/formation has to be there for any type of organ – pipe, electric/electronic, pump. Another part of it is the will/means/opportunity (money and priorities) to make it happen. Even a good electronic keyboard/synthesizer (plugged into a sensible and modestly-sized amplifier) is fine. It’s really a “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” thing.

    That being said… I recall my childhood suburban parish had a retired Mason & Hamlin pump organ in the “tower” room at the top of the stairs used to access the choir loft. Disused for at least a couple of decades, I’d guess. I often wondered if it was in anything close to working condition and what it would sound like.
    If I recall, it was similar to one of the ones in the videos Father linked. A bit bigger than a parlor organ (the building holds 400+ when packed, was the biggest building in the then-little then-rural town when built around 1890), wider than tall, a stand at either end for kerosene lamps. A bit like this one, though I remember it being matte black:
    I made a point of visiting that loft on a visit home a couple of years ago, after a renovation of that building (now the chapel for weekday Mass and some devotions, weddings & funerals – they built a beautiful church for 1200 several years ago). My first time upstairs in a couple of decades, and the old pump organ had been removed sometime (perhaps previous to that, probably sometime when they had staging in to move the main organ console (they had a phase where console/choir had been moved down to a corner of the sanctuary, eventually moved back to loft))

  3. Dear Charivari Rob,

    YES! One of the harmonium’s I restored (a Cable Company product) looks just like that, except the lamp stands are above the keyboard. And it is one of those that sounds like a large harmonica. But still fun.

  4. Elizzabeth says:

    Now that’s what I call active participation; and the best thing to do with betrousered women!!!

  5. The Masked Chicken says:

    Well, a harmonium is, basically, an upright accordion. They go back to the late Baroque era, about 1720, when single reed instruments really got underway (double reeds have a much older history). They are similar to the Renaissance regal. They have slightly different acoustics than a pipe organ, where air is, essentially, the, “reed,” and they have different tuning properties. The reeds are, usually, metal, although I suspect ivory might have been used. The threshold blowing pressure depends on the density of the reed material, so metal is a very poor choice, although it is durable. Wood would be far better, but is subject to breaking, warping, etc. if one were to be constructed, today, the reeds should be made of plastics, as these have the best trade-off between ease of air resistance and durability. Apparently, unlike the piano, no one has studied the acoustics of the reed-sounding chamber (i.e., the case or wooden box) coupling (a nice project for a musical acoustician). Of course, no one, to my knowledge, has created a hybrid manual-electric harmonium where the bellows are pushed by hand, but each reed chamber has a small microphone attached to it so that the output can be plugged into an amplifier. That would give the harmonium the power of a pipe organ.
    Alas, the harmonium is the slide rule, the electric organ is the calculator.

    The Chicken

  6. dbonneville says:

    Electonic organs sound bad when someone uses a super-mega pipe organ sound in a small room where the illusion is completely broken and you can tell that what you are hearing is impossible. The sound very convincing when used modestly to fit a modest size church. It’s like unobtrusive CGI in movies that you don’t even see on still shots (buildings, cars, extras, signs) compared to obviously impossible swooping camera views, thousands of sword wielding monsters climbing a building like ants, etc. There is way to do it and way not to do it with electronics. Unfortunately, at many NO masses in parishes with electronic organs, the shiny button syndrome wins the day and the organist tries out all kinds of sounds that come these models as standards. “Organ + Strings + Choir” sound, stuff like that. Eeewwww!

    Fake organ used incorrectly…or piano used at all…I’d rather have NOTHING. Go a cappella or go home :)

  7. Hidden One says:

    If your parish needs an inexpensive pipe organ, look for a (preferably Protestant) church closing, or an Anglican church that has recently hired a guitarist as its permanent music director, etc. A good organ technician or two and some dedicated volunteers (KofC, Juventutem, the local Catholic homeschooling association’s male teenagers and their friends/fathers, a work crew of seminarians…) and you have a ‘new’ pipe organ.

    If your parish needs a good organist, try offering to pay for one with real money. It’s amazing how often good musicians don’t care to work long hours in under-grateful environments for free, especially when the (Anglican) church down the street has a music endowment fund that pays out every Sunday morning. Also, you might be surprised at the donors that pop out of the woodwork at the prospect of good music in church and potential *sacred* music concerts forthcoming…

  8. Andreas says:

    Medium-sized Harmoniums are especially well suited for smaller field chapels where space is extremely limited and there is no electricity available. Those that I have played have been operated using foot pedals. There are several to be found here throughout the Tirol, especially in the so-called ‘Pest’ (plague) chapels which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, were located some distance from each town. Unlike the grand instrument used for the Widor recording. the smaller chapel harmonium,s were generally not meant to provide a lovely sound, but rather as a means to guide those few in the chapel in solemn song.

    By the way, Father Z. is spot on when he recommends holding onto these instruments as well as pipe organs with manual pump bellows capabilities. Here in Pinswang we have twice had electrical failures hit our village during Sunday Mass. Happily our church pipe organ (built in 1899 but boasting an electric motor – installed in the 1960s – which operates the leather bellows) is one of the few in this region that still can function by using the large foot pump located on the side of the case. Before the motor was installed, this task was commonly assigned to one of the altar boys. However, as our altar boys were occupied with their duties far below by the altar when we last lost electricity, as organist I was compelled to ask one of our beyond middle aged male choristers to take on this task. I fear that the poor fellow was thoroughly exhausted and perspired away a couple of kilos by the final chords of the Recessional. The pair of beers to which I invited him afterwards at the traditional after-Mass ‘Frühschoppen’ (when several men of the village meet at the local inn and discuss the ills of the world over a coffee or beer or two) seemed to hydrate him nicely, but I suspect I will have to find another bellows operator should the need again arise in the future.

  9. APX says:

    A sudden stop in airflow to the pipes mid-playing is an “interesting” sound in and of itself.

  10. exsquid says:

    I’m sure Gather Us In played on a giant accordian will bring back a huge number of lapsed Catholics and “Nones”. Sorry for the sarcasm but the typical church of today seats 750 to 1,500 so a wimpy reed organ just is not going to be effective. As much as I dislike pianos in church they are at least audible clear to the rear of the nave and likely more cost effective. [They aren’t, however, suitable for a large space, unless it is acoustically fine or… shudder… the piano is mic’d, quod Deus avertat. Piano is NOT A LITURGICAL INSTRUMENT.]

  11. Charivari Rob says:

    I will add commentary from one of my old teachers on certain electronic/electric instruments.
    Our college glee club was on a short trip to Montreal, with one singing engagement being Saint Joseph’s Oratory. Our director had been looking forward to the visit, touting to us the size/acoustics of the Oratory and massive organ. Unfortunately, shortly before our trip, they had a small electrical fire and there was a little smoke damage or water damage or something in the loft. We were redirected to an area on the main floor of the large space with a small console. Her anguished comment, evocative of those little electric, screw-in-leg, electric fan, 36-key parlor organs: “I came expecting THAT (distraught wave up in the direction of the choir loft) and wound up playing on a Hoover!!!”

  12. mercy2013 says:

    I would rather see churches look for used pipe organs. They are available in all sizes. Often you can get them for free. You have to provide transportation and refurbish them at the new location, but much less expensive than purchasing a new one, plus, you will be saving history. The key to all of this, really, is not the instrument at all, but fostering students to truly learn to play the organ. It is hard work, and because most of us these days have grown up not really knowing what an organ should sound like, few people want to take on that endeavor. I challenge parishes to set up a foundation to pay for organ lessons from a true professional organist. Start with grade schoolers. Provide incentive for them to learn. They should have recitals and be rewarded at the end of the year banquet just like the parish school’s basketball team is. Yes, organs can be expensive, but just like all things, humans are willing to spend the money when they desire the outcome that investment will achieve. Build a good sacred music program, inspire the next generation, and finding the money for an organ will not be a problem.

  13. APX says:

    I challenge parishes to set up a foundation to pay for organ lessons from a true professional organist.

    I like this idea, but they also need to be willing to hire them and pay them adequately for their education so they can live comfortably and raise a family if they so choose.

  14. Mercy2013 is right. It is often possible to get a used pipe organ for a modest expense. The cost will come in the renovation and installation. Believe it or not, the original pipe organ of our Priory Chapel at St. Albert’s in Oakland was a used number from a ROLLER RINK!

    The musicians used to pour scorn on it, but as far as I am concerned, it served our needs. Happily, our new organ is a fine Fritts tracker. See pic and specs here:

    It took a few years of fund-raising, and we got a bargain (the organ was a twin), but even a small parish could probably raise the funds we needed.

  15. Dismas says:

    1. Electric/digital equipment quality scales with price no differently with anything else. You want a $1500 organ, you’ll produce no less vomitus than from a similarly priced electronic system. You want a $3-5M pipe organ, that same amount can make a really, really good electronic system that will simulate the same well beyond the human ability to hear any difference. Of course, nobody spends (okay, outside maybe the recording industry) that kind of cash on electronic acoustics besides some particularly wealthy megachurches, and they have neither the personnel or the music to make use of such technology to its fullest.

    2. Always have an adequate backup plan. There is only one “Silent Night”, but perhaps thousands of instances of ruined organs.

    3. Pipe organs aren’t expensive because the pipes are particularly hard to make. They are expensive because of the installation and tuning involved. A small change in altitude, temperature, or humidity and disaster looms for many instruments.

    4. Pianos aren’t liturgical instruments because their use has been far outside of what is appropriate for liturgy. Liturgically appropriate musical instruments are meant to augment the voice. The voice produces meaningful words, whereas an instrument provides tones. A piano can produce beautiful tones, and yet it does not work well to emphasize the singing. The pianoforte produces a sharp, sudden, pure tone of variable volume (hence the name “piano”-“forte”). If pipes are not within budget, there is always the organistrum/symphonia/hurdy-gurdy…

  16. APX says:

    A small change in altitude, temperature, or humidity and disaster looms for many instruments.
    Amen to that. My friend’s bassoon shrinks so much in the winter that he has to keep it together by wrapping the joints in dental floss. Don’t even get me started on oboe reeds.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    The metals of most pipe organs are subject to temperature variations – they expand in hot weather and contract in cold weather – but they do not do this completely reversibly, so they tend to gain or lose length and diameter, over time. Metals can, also, oxidize, changing the mass.

    As to the woodwind problems, the bassoon may contract because of lower humidity during the winter (or, more precisely, lower water content), but keeping the bassoon in a temperature/moisture controlled building should eliminate most of this.

    As for oboe reeds – this is a myth. At one time I was the world’s expert on woodwind reed material (I still am one of the top experts, but more people have entered the field). I have given lectures at the International Double Reed Society, The International Clarinet Society, and the Acoustical Society of America on the subject. My research was the cover story in Science News, I have been interviewed for NPR Science Friday by Ira Flatow, and I have been featured on bassoon acoustics websites. Clarinet, oboe, and bassoon reeds do not change during the winter (I keep meaning to write an article on this). They are in a temperature controlled environment during playing (the mouth). Yes, one does have to use harder reeds during the winter and softer reeds during the summer, but that is because the LIP changes. The outermost layer of the lip, the stratum corneum, thickens in the winter, resulting in putting more pressure on the reed (partially because of thickness, but, also, because of decreased lip sensitivity), requiring a harder reed.

    The Chicken

    [Having played the oboe…]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  18. momoften says:

    Organists? Well,we are a small rural parish and have over 12 or so students that took or are taking lessons from a qualified teacher. They become the parish organists for weekend Masses, and are no slouches. One is now a organist at another Church , 2 graduated from college with a minor in organ..
    one heading off to college for organ, another coming back from Rome with a degree in Sacred Music.
    He teaches chant, and has them singing during daily Masses and weekend Masses. He is an amazing priest encouraging these young men and women!

    [That’s how it’s done. Brick by brick.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  19. Andreas says:

    Chicken; If you are who I think you are, then I wanted to let you know that I found your paper of some years ago for the Nantes Conference to be of particular interest. It was my first real foray into this fascinating area of research. Kudos.

  20. kat says:

    In the early days of the SSPX when they were renting buildings for Sunday Masses (early 1970’s), my mother was the organist. We had a Station Wagon, and every Sunday the pump organ was put into the station wagon and taken to the hall where Mass was said. Mom continued playing the organ for more than 40 years, even after there was a permanent church building and a pipe organ installed. It’s quite amazing thinking of how a pump organ has to be played: you can’t just read notes and play with your fingers–but also have to keep the music coming by not stopping the pump action with your feet! Mom is 88 now. She no longer plays the organ, but will play the piano occasionally. Her hands aren’t as strong as they used to be, and her vision isn’t that great. She’s an inspiration and a fervent Catholic. I love her and am very proud to be her daughter.

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  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    Alas, dear Andreas, I have not been to the Nantes Conference, although I can think of several reed researchers who might have been there.

    The Chicken

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