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What Is a Baroque Organ?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Baroque organ is a pipe organ built in a particular style and to certain specifications during the Baroque era. This period lasted from about 1685 to 1750. There were many innovations in art, music, and architecture during this time, and the design of the pipe organ changed dramatically, increasing its size, power, and musical range. Well known Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany collaborated with master organ builders to produce what are considered to be some of the finest organs ever made.

Baroque music was highly ornate and richly textured. Associated most often with religious music, the Baroque organ was much more powerful than its predecessors from the Renaissance. It was often used as a solo instrument, or part of a “concerto grosso,” two or more solo instruments accompanied by an orchestra. Bach’s St. Matthews Passion, using two organs in the composition, was written in 1727 and is considered one of the masterworks of Western sacred music.

As developed during the Baroque period, the organ came to be a “pleno,” or full organ. A full size Italian pipe organ, for instance, might have as many as 600 pipes and contain over 2000 parts. Some of the largest organs created during the period have thousands of pipes and as many as seven manuals, or keyboards, connected to the organ pipes. In exterior design, the organs tend to resemble the baroque cathedrals in which they were often used. A pipe organ of the period was intended to be a work of art as well as an instrument.

Along with its increase in size, the Baroque organ underwent many technical innovations. Collaborations like that between Bach and master organ builder Gottfried Silbermann helped to bring about some of the changes. Silbermann built organs for use throughout Europe.

A significant change was an increase in the number and design of organ stops and the arrangement of manuals and pipes. Organ “stops” let in the pressurized air to the pipes, and could be turned on or off by the organist. Stops began to be designed that could imitate the sounds of other instruments. They were also increased in number, allowing for a huge variety of sounds.

Separate keyboards for the feet, composed of pedals, were expanded to allow for greater regulation of sounds. Pipes were organized into racks. Each rack corresponded to a different pitch, timber, and volume.

Many of the innovations of the Baroque organ design are still in use today. Organs surviving from the period are considered works of art and many are on display in museums. Some of the designs have been recreated for modern use.

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