16bis The Mighty Organ!

The oddest things sometimes happen. This afternoon I visited the Abbey in St Guilhem and just as I had walked in the organ started playing. Now I’m an absolute sucker for church organ music so I sat down and enjoyed it. I believe it was someone practicing or having a lesson. Anyway very enjoyable.

Fast forward to later this evening and I’m sitting at the Carmel and a young man came and sat at the table so we made polite conversation. Only turns out that he is one of the very few restorers of historic organs in France. And I have an invitation to go and have a look at the organ in the Abbey here tomorrow morning.

OK team, stand by and pay attention while I tell you about the Mighty Organ in the Abbey in St Guilhem. Built in 1782 it is one of the oldest organs in France in mostly original condition and one of the most important.

It has over two thousand pipes, three keyboards, twenty pedals and two banks of stops. In a chamber behind all the ‘mechanicals’ are three enormous hand operated bellows; only to be used these days in the event of a power cut! For normal use there is an electric air pump which I imagine is a relief to the verger.

Have you ever given a moment of though to how an organ works? No, nor had I. I think we all probably know keys/pedals + air + pipes = sound but what are the connections? On your behalf I have been inside the Mighty Machine and was surprised at what I found. It is all done by a system of wooden mechanical linkages, in this case also original and different wood for different applications.

So when a key or pedal is pressed it pulls down a wooden rod which in turn and according to application pulls or presses other rods. Some run in different directions, some turn corners pr operate rockers until, finally, an appropriate puff of air passes through the pipe and a note is released. Not having thought about it before I was surprised, I hadn’t known what to expect. Anyway way it is an elegant solution that works really well.

As the pipes get dirty over time at restoration each pipe is individually cleaned, repaired if necessary and tuned. Once the whole instrument has been reassembled and the mechanism adjusted it is finally balanced for sound.

Some organ facts: English, French, Italian and Spanish organs are all different; they sound and play differently and are not suitable for each other’s music. Apparently you can’t play Scarlatti on a French organ and Bach sounds ‘wrong’ on a Spanish organ. And my own impression that French organs have a more ‘medieval’ sound than the English ones was confirmed although my guide described the French sound as ‘darker’ and who am I to argue.

My sincere thanks go to Michel and his team from Artigiana Formentelli of Camerino in Italy for their time and the trouble they took struggling through language barriers to answer my questions and explain the history and working of this magnificent organ. I have had what is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity which is really appreciated.

Finally a quick commercial. Artigiana Formentelli restore old and build new organs. They also collect historic instruments and have a museum of working instruments at their headquarters at Camerino in northern Italy near Assisi. I’m sure it would be worth a visit if you are in the area. See their website at:

25 September 2013

One thought on “16bis The Mighty Organ!

  1. Fascinating to hear about the mighty organ. As a small choir boy in Carlisle I had the occasional job of pumping the church organ, a job that tought me how important the correct rhythm is where organs are concerned. Safe journey home.

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