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Organ blowers and metronome speeds

Colin Pykett

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One frequently comes across differing opinions about the speed at which organ music should be played.  Bach is a case in point, with some players exceeding any reasonable speed limit in my humble opinion, whereas at the opposite pole are those who prefer the 'slow Bach' style.  It struck me that perhaps one aspect of the matter concerns contemporary organ blowing practice at the time the composer put pen to paper.  Prior to the 19th century when hydraulic, steam, town gas, oil and finally electric blowing entered the arena, everything depended on human muscle power and the relative awkwardness or otherwise of the organ blowers one happened to have.  Frequently these would hang around in churchyards while waiting for an organist to appear, who would then toss them a few coins in the hope of having enough wind for the duration of her/his practice session.  They would often be village boys or old men with few other employment opportunities (my late father was one such in his youth in the 1920s and he told some amusing tales about pompous and irascible organists), and Elvin's book on organ blowing has some similarly delightful anecdotes about the touchy relationship between the performer and the blower(s).  There is also a popular (fictional?) song written apparently in a Somerset-like vernacular bemoaning the arrival of electric blowing at the singer's church and his consequential loss of employment (lyrics in another post below).  Then there is that wonderful photograph of the motley collection of blowers at Notre Dame in Paris who were not pensioned off until the 1920s when electric blowing arrived (paid for at least partly by public subscription here in the UK).

Against this background, would it be unreasonable to suggest that composer-organists in those days automatically bore in mind the problems they might face if they wrote music which would either be beyond the physical capabilities of their local blowing community, or at least might annoy them?  And as part of this, would they (perhaps unconsciously) play at a speed and with relatively economical registrations (defined in terms of wind demand) intended not to arouse too many skirmishes or objections?  A possible example of music which could have verged on the unacceptable from the blower's perspective might be Bach's Piece d'Orgue (BWV 572).  Its extended allabreve section is usually played loudly today, and sometimes very slowly and ponderously.  But I really do wonder whether the poor organ blowers would, or could, have put up with it very often if rendered in this manner!  A recording exists of Gottfried Preller playing this piece on the restored 'Bach' organ at Arnstadt where, although played loudly, he takes it at a fair lick.  Although today's Arnstadt organ has its manual blowing apparatus, it also has an electric blower, and on Preller's recording I suspect the latter was used as there is no audible vestige of the 'live' winding which one might otherwise have expected to detect (even though he begins and ends the CD with the calcant bell to the blowers!).

The bottom line of these musings is this: might an appreciation of contemporary blowing practice shed some light on likely metronome speeds and perhaps registrations also?

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Yes surely, though Bach must have been in a vindictive mood when he wrote the F major prelude!

I have a vague memory of Nigel Allcoat saying that none of the classic registrations at St-Antoine l'Abbaye needed more than about six stops simultaneously for this reason.

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Wender's little 2/21 Arnstadt organ has no less than five 8 foot flue stops on the Oberwerk (the main division); there were only 6 manual flue unisons on the entire instrument.  It would probably be pretty pointless using more than a couple of them in the pleno because any more would add next to nothing to the loudness while at the same time run the risk of annoying the organ blowers because of the substantially greater wind demand.  And they would probably get even more annoyed if you played too slowly using too many unisons ...

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Here's the music hall song about an organ blower displaced by electricity which I alluded to above.  Music and author unknown (at least to me) but c. 1920.  Apparently it was supposed to have been sung in a west country accent (e.g. Somerset).  It's an interesting perspective on social history that the church organ was still so much part of everyday life then that it could figure in a popular show.  How things have changed.


When I blows the organ for our mister Morgan

Who plays at our church every Sunday so grand!

The wind in the bellows makes music like ‘cellos

And fiddles and trumpets – it’s just like a band!



At weddings I pumps while the other chap thumps

And the choir sings a hymn if they knows it.

The organ’s a treat but without me it’s beat

‘Cos I am the fellow what blows it!


But now times are changing,  at least that’s what they say

For things are all done in a new-fangled way.

And yesterday Vicar he says to me “Joe,

At the end of the year I’m a-feared you must go!”



I asked him what for, and he said with a sigh,

“’Cos the new organ’s blowed by electriciteye”.

But p’r’aps when I’m gone all the folks will say “No,

It don’t sound the same now without poor old Joe!”


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I once gave a public recital on a delightful one manual (no note pedals) organ with foot operated bellows, an early English instrument that belongs to another forum member here. It proved quite an feat trying not to forget to blow and inevitably I learned to pump on the bellows pedal in time to the music I was playing.

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