A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Great Organ

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GREAT ORGAN. This name is given, in modern instruments, to the department that generally has the greater number of stops, and those of the greater power, although occasional exceptions are met with as to one or other of these particulars; as when a Swell of more than proportionate completeness, or a Solo organ, composed of stops of more than the average strength of tone, forms part of the instrument.

The use of the term 'Great Organ' in England can be traced back for upwards of 400 years. In the 'Fabrick Rolls of York Minster' under date 1469, the following entry occurs:— 'To brother John for constructing two pair of bellows for the great organ, and repairing the same, 15s. 2d.' English Organs at that period, and for nearly a century and a half afterwards, were invariably single manual instruments. This is clearly intimated in numerous old documents still in existence. Thus the churchwardens' accounts of St. Mary's, Sandwich, contain the following four memoranda:—'1496. Payd for mending of the lytell organys, iijs. ivd.' 'Item, for shepskyn to mend the grete organyse, iijd.' More clearly still:— '1502. Paid for mending of the gret organ bellowis and the small organ bellowis, vd.' 'Item, for a shepis skyn for both organys, ijd.'

It was no uncommon circumstance before the Reformation for a large or rich church to possess one or even two organs besides the chief one. Thus at Worcester Cathedral there were, besides the 'great organ' in the choir, a 'pair of organs' in the Chapel of St. George, and another 'pair' in that of St. Edmund. At Durham there were two 'great organs,' as well as a smaller one, all in the choir; and an interesting description has been preserved in Davies's 'Ancient Rites and Monuments of the Monastical and Cathedral Church of Durham, 1672', of the position of two, and the separate use to which these several organs were appropriated:—'One of the fairest pair of the three stood over the quire door, and was only opened and play'd upon on principal feasts.' 'The second pair,—a pair of fair large organs, called the Cryers,—stood on the north side of the choir, being never play'd upon but when the four doctors of the church were read.' 'The third pair were daily used at ordinary service.' Reverting to the York records of the 15th century we find express mention of 'the large organ in the choir,' and 'the organ at the altar.'

The 'great' organ was doubtless in all cases a fixture, while the 'small' one was movable; and it is pleasant to notice the authorities of more opulent or fortunate churches helping the custodians of smaller establishments by lending them a 'pair of organs' for use on special anniversaries. An early instance of this good custom is mentioned in the York records of 1485:—'To John Hewe for repairing the organ at the altar of B.V.M. in the Cathedral Church, and for carrying the same to the House of the Minorite Brethren, and for bringing back the same to the Cathedral Church. 13s. 9d.' A 16th-century entry in the old accounts of St. Mary at Hill, London, states the occasion for which the loan of the organ was received:—'1519. For bringing the organs from St. Andrew's Church, against St. Barnabas' eve, and bringing them back again, vd.'

We have seen that some of the large churches had two or even three organs in the choir, located in various convenient positions, and employed separately on special occasions. But the idea of placing the small organ close to the large one,—in front of and a little below it,—with mechanism so adjusted that the two organs could be rendered available for use by the same player and on the same occasion, in fact, of combining them into a two-manual organ,—does not seem to have been conceived in England until about the beginning of the 17th century; and among the earliest artists who effected this important improvement appears to stand Thomas Dallam. This builder made an organ for King's College Chapel, Cambridge, the accounts of which,—entitled, 'The charges about the organs, etc., from the 22nd of June, 1605, to the 7th of August, 1606,'—are still extant. From the manner in which 'the greate Organ' and 'the greate and litel Organs' are mentioned in these entries, it seems clear that the union of the two was a recent device. Seven years later Dallam built an instrument for Worcester Cathedral, the two departments of which were referred to collectively in the following extract:—'A.D. 1613. All the materials and workmanship of the new double-organ in the Cathedral Church of Worcester by Thomas Dalham, organ-maker, came to £211.' The name 'Chayre organ' is also given to the smaller one. At length, in the contract for the York Cathedral Organ, dated 1632, we find the word 'great' applied to an organ as a whole—'touchinge the makeinge of a great organ for the said church,'—although farther on in the agreement a 'great organ' and 'chaire organ' (in front) are specified.

[ E. J. H. ]