This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Music for Monks

29 September 2017

It's called
the King of Musical Instruments.
And like a king,
it is all powerful.
From ethereal flutes of angels
to thundering blasts of great winds,
it c
ommands our attention
with majestic authority.
It is the pipe organ,
the most complex musical instrument
ever devised by man.

This example has four manuals or keyboards
each with 5 octaves of 60 pitches.
Dozens of smaller buttons
control the mixtures and stops.

On the right side are 80 large tabs called stops
which control which rank of pipes will be
activated by the four keyboards.
In between are 280 smaller buttons
that determine different combinations
for the organ sound colors.
Which goes better with the Rohrflöte?
Klein-Spitzflöte, the Fernflöte,
or the Hohlflöte

The left side has another 80 stops
with 260 smaller buttons.
A piano is a percussive keyboard instrument
that uses felt hammers to strike metal wire strings.
The pipe organ however is a wind keyboard instrument
because all the sounds are made by air
vibrating through a collection
of tubes, pipes, reeds, and flutes.
That air is triggered
by thousands of switch mechanisms,
each activated by the organist
for every pitch.

Beneath the main keyboard is the pedalboard
with 36 levers played by the organist's feet.
This three octave chromatic range
covers the bass notes in organ music
which are written on a third music staff
below the two staves used for the right and left hand.
Above the pedalboard are
27 more organ stops triggered 
by levers instead of buttons.
On the right are seven foot pedals
that operate swells and shades
that open and shut
the enclosure around the organ pipes
giving the organist
more musical expression and dynamics
for the various organ timbres.

The intricate construction
necessary to manage
such a complicated machine,
using carefully calculated systems
for acoustic, pneumatic, and mechanical engineering,
made organ building
the supreme technology
of earlier centuries.

This organ keyboard resides
in a country well known
for manufacturing precision devices,


One the back of the postcard is a caption:
Spieltisch der grossen Orgel
in der Stiftskirche Engelberg erbaut 1926

Keydesk of the great organ
in the church of St. Engelberg built in 1926

The organ occupies one wall of the chapel of the Engelberg Abbey (German: Kloster Engelberg), a Benedictine monastery in Engelberg, Switzerland. It is the largest pipe organ in Switzerland with 137 registers and 9,097 pipes. The first version of the great organ was completed in 1877 by Friedrich Goll, and had only 50 registers and three manuals (keyboards). In 1926 the console shown on this photograph was installed when the organ underwent a major modification that expanded the organ stops to 134 registers. A restoration in 1993 added three more sets of registers. The longest organ pipe is 9.06 meters (29' 8") while the smallest measures only 5 mm (3/16").

The organ pipes are arranged in a balcony above the western doorway of the chapel nave, with the organ console hidden behind a screen.

Engelberg Abbey grosse Orgel
Source: Wikimedia

The Engelberg Abbey was founded in 1120 by Blessed Konrad von Sellenbüren. The interior of the abbey's church is decorated in a brilliant white Rococo style. 

Engelberg Abbey
Source: Wikimedia

The Engelberg Abbey is still maintained as a Benedictine monastery and a boarding school. Though pillaged by the French in 1798, the abbey's library ironically contains a complete set of the writings of Martin Luther.

In recent times it also the base of the Academia Engelberg Foundation, a Swiss foundation in the Canton of Obwalden that promotes international dialogue on how scientific, technological and ecological knowledge influence the values of society.

Engelberg Abbey
Source: Wikimedia

Google Maps provides a 360° interior view
of the Engelberg Abbey Chapel
so that we can see the altar
and splendid ceiling.



Situated nearly in the center of Switzerland, the town's name translates directly as Angel Mountain. The principal industry of Engelberg's 4,134 citizens is tourism, as the elevation of the Engelberg Abbey chapel is 1,013 m (3,323 ft) while to the south is Mount Titlis at 3,238 m (10,623 ft). However the better vista is northeast with the snow covered Lauchernstock in center, the Ruchstock to the left, and the Gross Gemsispil to the right.

Engelberg, Switzerland
Source: Wikimedia

Once again Google Maps provides
a spectacular 360° exterior view
of Engelberg during a colder season.
The abbey is across the river to the right.



My instrument, the horn, requires only good lips, three fingers and a thumb, and a decent ear to make music, one note at a time. Unfortunately hornists have perpetuated a myth that our instrument is the "most difficult" to play, which is patently false. Every musical instrument can be both hard or easy to play well, as it all depends on what kind of sound you want to make.

But the pipe organ belongs to a special class of difficulty. The technology of organ building is really not much different than it was in the time of Johann Sebastian Bach. It's just that now there are more choices of sound timbres and better electrical actions to replace the old wooden and metal mechanisms. But to play organ music properly, an organist must be as familiar with the organ console as a pilot of a jet airliner. They must be able to juggle musical rhythms and notes across multiple keyboards using 10 fingers and both feet. They can only practice their instrument in one specific acoustical space and then only when it is not being used as a place of worship. And they do this usually while seated with their back to the choir and the audience. What other instrument requires rear view mirrors!

Truly, the pipe organ is the King of Instruments.


As a coda to this story of a postcard,
let's listen to a short piece
played on the grossen Orgel
of the Kloster Engelberg.
It is the Choral Prelude
Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 625
by Johann Sebastian Bach
played by Timur Deininger



This next video of the great organ of the Engelberg Abbey
demonstrates a very different kind of organ music.
It is called Volumina
by the Hungarian avant-garde composer
György Ligeti (1923-2006)
and is performed by Père Patrick Ledergerber.
The music has no melody or counterpoint
but instead is an atonal work
about the soundscape that a pipe organ creates.
The performer is at liberty to improvise
based on the composer's instructions
and diagrammed shapes of effects.
Think of it as a great abstract art form
describing the primal nature of sound.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you never know who is at the controls.


Jo Featherston said...

Very interesting! I'm now in awe of a lady I know who plays the organ for weddings, funerals etc. The second recording is very strange!

Alan Burnett said...

I did wonder before I put the prompt up how you would match it, but I never imagined a contribution as perfectly fitting the prompt as this one. Rich in detail, rich in history, and, as always, fascinating to read.

Little Nell said...

Goodness, just looking at the first pictures made my head spin. Thank you for another fascinating and educational post, but I’m afraid the second piece made my head spin even more. The organist looked.......possessed! Perhaps he was Organ Morgan (in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’) who could think of nothing else - as his exasperated wife says; “Organ Morgan you haven’t been listening to a word I said. It’s organ, organ all the time with you......."

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Masterful. I agree with Nell on the second piece. The bath towel will never be the same, now that I know it can have such a lofty use as an adjunct to the organ. I like the way he tossed it aside when he was done with it. What a gorgeous setting...makes me want to pack up and go to see the instrument in person.

ScotSue said...

I wondered how you would interpret this prompt, but the choice of an organ manual, with keyboards, stops and pedals was inspired. Your Swiss photographs reminded me of a time in Bavaria when we heard the organ being played in a beautiful church. A couple of times I have had a shot at playing an organ, but it is a very different technique from playing a piano - and very daunting if faced with that immense instrument.

Mollys Canopy said...

What an amazing organ you have featured in this post! Makes me proud of my paternal Swiss ancestry :-) And yes, so different from a piano. My mom, a retired music teacher and pianist, left the playing to the organist at her church, where she was active in the choir -- though she was once pressed into service to play a Mississippi River Boat calliope on a vacation trip with my dad. Still, a calliope is a far cry from the work of art you have so ably written of here.

Barbara Rogers said...

Excellent choice for this theme! My friends Rosemary and Brian of Jacksonville FL came to mind. She teaches various kinds of music, but Brian is an organ repairman, and goes all over the world to fix the problems in pipe organs. It is definitely a complex machine of music making, and I wouldn't attempt to play one.

La Nightingail said...

Pipe organs sound wonderful if the right person is playing them. I often had lunch at a place called "Pizza & Pipes" in Fresno, CA on days when I drove down there to shop. Such fun. The pictures of Engleberg,Switzerland are beautiful - especially the first one with all the mountains.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP