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32 Foot Manual Stops

Colin Harvey

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Dear board


I read with interest the comments about 32' manual stops. I wonder how many of us have experienced a manual 32' stop? And I wonder how many of us have experienced a really effective manual 32' stop?


My own experience of manual 32' stops is based on just one, historically significant, organ - that of the Dom Bedos organ of Sainte Croix in Bordeaux. This is an organ built on the grandest possible French Classical scale - a five manual organ (in order: Positif de dos, Grande Orgue, Bombarde, Recit, Echo) with a Pedal division with a ravellement in the pedal reeds to an earth-shattering 24' F.


One gets an idea of the size and scale of the organ as one walks through to the console: the visitor passes though a corridor of 8 wedge bellows, all at ground level, through another room behind the console (with stop action rollers running from floor to ceiling), through a green door onto the balcony. The idea of a spacious organ is reinforced at impost level. Behind the organ case, there is a room the width of the organ (approximately 25 feet wide) by about 15 feet deep. The front of this room is taken up with the rear of the organ case, with doors that open to every part for maintenance and tuning. There is a sense of scale and spaciousness about this organ a visitor from the UK would find extraordinary.


I cannot but help think Dom Bedos built this as an exemplar organ – a demonstration, if you like. One literally walks through the pictures from his book in this organ, as a lesson for organ builders and students to learn about the construction and operation of the organ. One cannot help but feel this organ has been laid out so the visitor can see every part of the organ’s action and operation with relative ease – instead of walking around the organ case to the console, on this organ, one walks through the organ case. Its very completeness, complete with such extraordinary stops like the 32 Bourdon, explore the furthest tonal possibilities and potentials the French had considered at this time and it is the most complete archetypal French Classical organ of the period. Its experiments acts as a lesson for other builders considering their own designs and creations.


Tonally, this organ is extraordinary. The Plein Jeu on the Grande orgue runs from 32' Bourdon, 16' Montre and Bourdon, through the Montre 8', Prestant and Doublette to no less than 21 ranks of mixture in the Grand Plein Jeu. This mixture certainly reaches the 16' series and quite possible the 32' series as well. This stunning mixture chorus is foiled to a similarly extensive reed and cornet battery. The Trompettes are doubled on the Grande Orgue, there is a Positif Trompette and Clairon and a Grande Cornet of seven ranks. Not forgetting the huge Bombarde which couples through to the Grande orgue and the shattering Pedal Bombardes that reach into the 32 Octave. The Grand Jeu of this organ, complete with Bombardes and Pedal, is strangely reminiscent of Notre Dame de Paris at full tilt. The church is not that huge - this is an organ of truly colossal scale in a church that seats maybe 850. The acoustic is gracious and generous but not excessively so for the size of building and the stone vaulted ceiling. One cannot help but feel a less ambitious 4 manual 16’ organ would have been more than adequate for this church, reinforcing the idea that this organ is Dom Bedos’s showpiece.


So what of the 32 Bourdon on the Grande orgue? What of its effect? To start off with, we have documentary evidence that the builder intended it to be used as standard in the Plein Jeu and the Grand Cornet Decomposse (which is 1/3.4.3 1/5.2 2/3.2.1 3/5). The Grand Cornet is a sound of immense richness, boldness and grandeur - but is really at its best in the treble region, above middle C. The Plein Jeu with the 32' is like nothing else I've heard. There is gravity and depth in spades – almost psychedelically so - but also enormous brilliancy. The basses in the bottom half of the keyboard are really quite mild, and, in comparison to the foundations, the upperwork is relatively larger scaled and more determined than most English organists would be used to on their Victorian Hills and Walkers - although nothing like the wild and relatively uncontrolled utterances from neo-classical instruments. The mixtures break frequently - at least twice an octave - and the listener is left with the impression of harmony magnified more by the brilliance and gravity of the sound than the impression of clarity of following any melody and counterpoint. One very quickly loses the idea of pitch in this chorus – there is so much grandeur and brilliance in every region of the compass of this Plein Jeu. Taking into account the nature of this mixturework and chorus, one is left with the impression that the 32' is an integral part of this chorus and the nature of the chorus is inclined towards harmony and scale of effect than polyphonic clarity. It is a truly monumental chorus which is almost beyond the comprehension of most mortals’ hearing – this is a chorus for Gods and Giants.


I do wonder, with organs that have to work very hard in very large spaces, whether there might be more scope to build real 32' manual choruses? By this, I mean a chorus based on the 32 foot series, with mixtures and upperwork designed to work with the 32 – not an 8 foot chorus with a 16 and 32 grafted on the bottom like an afterthought. Cavaillé-Coll proposed a 32’ organ for St. Peter’s, Rome. I wonder if there is similar scope for a proper 32’ chorus at the biggest venues, like the Royal Albert Hall and the main spaces of St Paul’s Cathedral?

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There is a 32' Contra Gedackt on the Great Primary of Norwich Cathedral. As you put it though it is 'tacked on' rather than having its own mutation system


The necessity of such a stop is part of the design of the instrument and the chorus above it using 32ft as the fundamental for the harmonic structure. Stopped ranks (like a Bourdon 16ft) which often is the fundamental of the French Plein jeu can seem like musical silt as it can growl away and have no binding power to the ranks above it. Those Bourdons that are stopped in the first octave and then become gentle Montres at Tenor C (or even G) are perfect for being a proper basis for the chorus. When you see them as part of the Romantic design, I doubt that they are scaled to be the foundation with the mixtures designed for the same and proper octave. The simplicity of each keyboard being a complete entity and also a part of the whole ( i.e. coupled) is where such stops would come into their own. To just pick out organs with 32ft manual stops and not say where it figures (or not!) in the complete scheme, is only telling a fraction of the story and gives little of the true identity surely of its presence in the overall scheme. As stated - it's not to be 'tacked on' perhaps because it will look good on paper and hardly anyone else has got one!

All the best,


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S. Eustache in Paris is an interesting example of a 32 based GO chorus with a 32' reed on the Recit. I heard these demonstrated recently - the GO chorus has a very nice depth to it and worked nicely in classical contexts while the Recit plus reeds functioned just like a 'super' full swell. OK, that instrument does have many 'hidden agendas' but all the same these two elements quite impressed me at least.



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The Lausanne Fisk has a all-but-true 32-foot chorus. The open 32' is taken down to CCCC (ten old wooden pipes, another two in the front) but, from TC up, is an extension of the 16'. The two 4' are Prestant and Octave, and with them the chorus spreads into a German and French branch, so to speak. The chorus consists of the following ranks: 2/3.2.1 3/5.VIIFour.VCy.VI-IXMx


This adds up to 26 to 29 ranks of chorus -- in a Fisk, this is a sound to remember, for "our organs are never shy", as Greg Bover, vice president to the company, put it.


The organ has what David Pike, tonal director, called "blind features" concerning the 32' chorus in the Great. The Fourniture VII starts on 2 2/3', and the 5 1/3' comes in fairly early. There is a 10 2/3' rank as well which is activated only if the open 32' is drawn. Likewise, the Mixtur VI-IX has a 5 1/3' rank that only comes in if the 16' Montre is drawn.


Many Schulzes, even if only of moderate size, had a 32' Bourdon from TC up. These stops appear to have worked quite effectively in their tonal concept.




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I recently heard the large Ladegast of Schwerin Cathedral (Scroll down for spec and image. I think, the Man. 32' starts but from TC).

The 32' added - uhh... sort of dark majesty. But it was on the edge to get tiring, even if the piece was not too long (and in a somewhat pleno registration).

For the trained listener, it was always audible, when the pedal paused. Try the effect yourself, if you have a soft bourdon 16' (not the Ped Subbass!) at hand, and play a chord in the bass octave and together the same chord in a full registration on another manual an octave higher.

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