The ‘Machine’

Opus Osm

It's no wonder that organists have always called an organ 'the machine'

Which instrument often played today was first found in the villas of ancient, rich Romans? Read on to find out.

The audience at the latest lecture-concert in the Prague Spring International Music Festival’s “Rozkvět” series was perched in the choir loft of St. Salvador church in Old Town Feb. 25. We had come to see an instrument found in churches all over the world: the organ. This same instrument will be featured in the Prague Spring’s International Music Competition, scheduled to take place on May 14.

Lukáš Vendl, an organist and graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts, provided the expert knowledge about the history and theory of the organ. He even let us in on some internal lingo.

For example, would you expect that organists call their instrument the “machine”? It makes sense if you consider that the apparatus takes up more than one room and sometimes requires operation by two people.

But there were other facts to learn. For example, the organ originally started out as a secular instrument and could be found in the villas of the rich Romans. It didn’t become part of the church liturgy until the 9th century.

This Instrument Comes with Manuals
Mr. Vendl showed us the practical part of operating the organ. First, the organ is not just simple pipes, but a complex system. As a wind instrument it needs air, which is nowadays blown into the pipes electrically. In the past it was the job of the calcant to push the organ bellows with his feet.

Though organs are often very unique, custom-designed for their buyers, an organ instrument is typically controlled by three separate sets of keyboards, called manuals, and pedals. Each key is connected to a pipe, which plays a specific note. Most importantly, there are knob-like objects on the sides of the keyboard, called stops, which regulate the airflow by opening and closing different sets of pipes, allowing the organist to create different timbres of sound. These different timbres, when working together, allow the organ to re-create the sounds of different instruments, from a Baroque violoncello to a Glockenspiel and accordion.

Naturally, this “Rozkvět” lecture also focused on the peak of organ music, during the Baroque era in Germany, and Mr.Vendl performed several works of the most famous organists, Johann Sebastian Bach and his teacher Dietrich Buxtehude.

If you think the organ is a relic of musical history, have no fear. In addition to its deep ties to a Christian tradition in which nearly every Czech church has its own varhanik, or organist, the organ clearly has a secular appeal as well — to which the number of Prague Spring organ competition contestants attests. — oo

The next “Flowering” of Prague Spring (Rozkvět) will be on Mar 18 at 6 pm at the Czech Museum of Music, and will feature works by French composers.

– Zuzana Sklenková

Photo Credits: Top: Jan Hora, for the Prague Spring International Music Festival; bottom, Jaroslav Tůma, for Prague Spring

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