Author Topic: Understanding the French Organ  (Read 10849 times)

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Understanding the French Organ
« on: December 03, 2010, 12:04:00 AM »


The French organ conjures up many sounds in our minds. Perhaps it is the sound of the Cavaillé-Coll organ that is the most common: splashy reeds, seductive flutes, spicy mutations, and sparkling mixtures…and that essential out-of –tuneness (or is it?)

 But to understand the French organ we must go back to basics. The French organ is a reflection of France itself over the ages: a collection of separate dukedoms seemingly united under one king, only that each dukedom, as today each Département, jealously guarded its identity, its saints, its cheeses, its wines, its spécialités. The organ was no different.

In medieval times there were two main influences on organ building and design. They came from Italy in the south and from Burgundy and the Netherlands in the north. This latter influence was most influential as Paris became the official seat of government, but the Italian influence, not least because of the independence of the southern states and the seat of the “other” papacy at Avignon was considerable in the south.

What were the characteristics of the north Burgundian organ? The organ that moulded the style of Jehan Titelouze (1563-1633) was based on the Renaissance concept of a “blockwerk” comprising of a fulsome principal chorus complete with tierce and full scaled trompettes and cromhorne as described by Mersenne in book six of his Musicum Syntagma of 1619, published in Wolfenbuettel. Titelouze was in correspondence with Mersenne at the time of his appointment at Rouen, but sadly we have no details of the organ at the cathedral rebuilt by Carlier on which he played.

We know that at the time of Titelouze the organ was developing to the extent that different colours were available simultaneously by setting different registrations on each keyboard. This sounds pretty obvious to us today, but the concept of being able to bring out a solo voice played either on a different manual or the pedals was still in its infancy. Yes, it was possible on some of the instruments in the south with their split keyboards to do this, but in comparison these organs were little more than chamber organs in size.

Standard registrations fell into the following categories which can be followed through to the time of the romantic-symphonic organ:

a.   Plein Jeu
b.   Grand Jeu
c.   Fond d’orgue
d.   Récit (de Nasard, Cornet, Trompette, Cromorne)
e.   Basse de Trompette, Cromorne or Tierce
f.   (later) Tierce or Cromorne en Taille
g.   Voix Humaine

Unlike the North German organ which owed much of its success to its important accompanimental role in the Lutheran service and therefore in post-Reformation years, the French organ was considered as a voice in its own right “singing” verses in alternatim with the choir in the stalls. Originally the instrument was located in the choir stalls on the north side next to the “jubé” or rood screen, and would have been an instrument of relatively few stops but generously winded to make itself heard in a building full of ambient noise, fabric hangings and tapestries. In this context, short versets by early Renaissance composers suddenly make sense because they give the choir a chance to regain their breath between verses. They also require resources that enable the variety of colours to be used: short stanzas like the decorative line endings in medieval manuscripts.


So what is the Plein Jeu and can I re-create it on my English Parish church organ? Let us examine the Plein Jeu first. Even in the Middle Ages (an age which I consider to be much fuller of enlightenment than the “high Renaissance”) organ builders had a standard concept based on the “blockwerk” principle. All pipes in the plein jeu were of metal, open and were either made to stand on one slider or on several, depending on the scale of the instrument. They consisted of all the naturally occurring primary harmonics, principally octaves and fifths (quints) and even tierces. They were often similar to the English “Sesquialtera” of the 18th and 19th centuries, which would not be out of place in the music of Titelouze. By the end of the 16th century the blockwerk had evolved into a far more formal arrangement which separated the “fonds” the fundamental stops of 8 feet 4 feet and 2 feet from the full splash of higher harmonics contained in the Furniture (seldom less than 3 ranks) and the Cymbal with is many repeats. The standard components were:
   Montre (Principal) 16 and 8
   Prestant 4
   Doublette 2
Note the absence of any separate twelfth-sounding stop. Normally on the French organ this was a Nasard or a Larigot and was designed to be used with other flute-sounding stops.   Its fluty characteristics do not allow it to blend well with the principals.
It was common to couple the Plein Jeu of the Positif organ to the Grand Orgue. This was done by pushing the entire lower keyboard about an inch in towards the Grand Orgue thereby engaging the “dogs,” small blocks of wood that pushed the lower keys down when the upper keys were played (as in many classical harpsichords).

It is likely from the texture of Titelouze’s music that his plein jeu was based on an 8 foot Montre. After his time it was far more common to have at least a 16 foot Bourdon stop on the Grand orgue and this would be used as part of the plein jeu to give gravitas.

The composition of the furnitures and cymbales is worth study. The fundamental pitch of the two main keyboards of the organ, the Grand Orgue and the Positif was an octave apart, so if the organ had only an 8 foot Montre the Positif mixures would be focused an octave higher at 4 feet. Such an organ would also be referred to as an “8 foot organ” (orgue de huit pieds) even if it had a Bourdon 16’.

The Fourniture.

The rule was that the fourniture would have two main breaks of an octave, the first at Tenor F and the second an octave higher at treble f.  This rule was not held as hard and fast, and there is evidence of more frequent breaks and breaks of a fifth (quinte et quarte) rather than an octave. A lot depended on the acoustic of the building and the preferences of the builder.
The Grand Orgue Fourniture was usually of 4 ranks and started (inversely) at ½ foot (6 inches). With only two breaks it would be as follows:

Pitch   CC to Ten E   Ten F to e   Treble f - top
2/3’   x      
1’   x   x   
1 1/3’   x   x   
2’      x   
2 2/3’      x   x
4’         x
5 1/3’         x

Note that by the time the middle of the keyboard has been reached there is already harmonic support for a 16 foot stop (the 5 1/3’ rank) and this continues to the top of the keyboard.
In larger organs the furniture may be extended downwards. Dom Bedos towards the end of the eighteenth century proposes the following:

For a 32’ organ (i.e. manual Montre of 32’ on the Grand Orgue):
   Grand Orgue
Grosse Fourniture III ranks from 4’ (i.e. 4’, 2 2/3’, 2’) – 2 breaks
   Fourniture IV ranks from 1 1/3’ (1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’) – 2 breaks
   Grosse Cymbale III from 4’ (4’, 2 2/3’, 2’) – 6 breaks
   Cymbale VI ranks from 1 1/3’ (1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’, 1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks

   Fourniture V ranks from 2’ (2’, 1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’) – 2 breaks
   Cymbale IV ranks from 2/3’ (2/3’, ½’, 1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks

For a “grand 16’ organ” (Montre of 16’ on the Grand Orgue)
   Grand Orgue
Fourniture V ranks from 2’ (2’, 1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’) - 2 breaks
   Cymbale V ranks from 1’ (1’, 2/3’, ½’, 1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks

   Fourniture IV ranks from 1 1/3’ (1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’) – 2 breaks
   Cymbale III ranks from ½’ (½’, 1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks

Unfortunately Dom Bedos does not specify the composition of his mixtures for an 8’ organ, merely citing the number of ranks:
   Grand Orgue
Fourniture IV ranks
Cymbale IV ranks

Fourniture III ranks
Cymbale III ranks.

Here is a good example of the composition of mixtures on an 8’organ (Scherrer 1748 – Aubertin 1992) at Saint Antoine l’Abbaye:
   Grand Orgue
   Fourniture IV from 2’ (2’,1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’) – 3 breaks (C, c, c1)
   Cymbale IV from 2/3’ (2/3’, ½’, 1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks (C, F, c, f, c1, f1)

   Fourniture III ranks from 1’ (1’, 2/3’, ½’)   - 2 breaks (F, f)
   Cymbale II ranks from 1/3’ (1/3’, ¼’) – 6 breaks (C, F, c, f, c1, f1)

This may seem a lot of detail if you regularly play on an English Romantic organ with perhaps only one mixture, probably containing a tierce in part of its compass. The point is that in the lower part of the keyboard there is as much brilliance as there is in the upper part, which gives the effect of reinforcing the pitch at which lower voices (men) sing. Unlike the north European organ, the mixtures do not give predominance to the highest voice, and for that reason it is very difficult to execute the larger works of Bach on a French classical or neo-classical organ. In Britain we must aim to coax the ear of our audience into thinking that there is a lot more brightness than our registrations would suggest: use of octave couplers, if we have them, and 2’ stops. The English Twelfth 2 2/3 is perfectly admissible because it is principal-toned. But to try and replicate the French Plein Jeu stop for stop on a British organ will seldom be convincing. It is perhaps better to play “à la manière anglaise” (in an English manner) than to try and coax garlic out of our English Diapasons.

My next article will deal with the French Grand Jeu.

Peter Sheehan 
December 2010

David Pinnegar

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Re: Understanding the French Organ
« Reply #1 on: January 21, 2011, 08:31:58 PM »
Dear Peter

Your articles are so very very interesting and important to all and we very much hope that you will be continuing this series . . .

Best wishes

David P


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Re: Understanding the French Organ
« Reply #2 on: May 03, 2012, 10:25:24 PM »
In Britain we must aim to coax the ear of our audience into thinking that there is a lot more brightness than our registrations would suggest: use of octave couplers, if we have them, and 2’ stops.

 What comes to mind here is the way one of the 2' stops on Tewkesbury Abbey's 1887 Michell & Thynne was voiced, giving enough sparkle to act as a substitute for a mixture.  Some 2' stops on early Austins have this sound as well.  Austins, then, had strong English influence, since John T. Austin and his brother, Basil, came from England.

Your three-part article is great!  I learned quite a bit.  I voted "just right", then later wanting to retract and vote "want to learn more", which I do.

Thanks for all this.
« Last Edit: May 03, 2012, 10:30:27 PM by flared_ophicleide »


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