What about the organ, ‘the king of instruments’ ?

The organ rising from the primaeval swamp

When we think about church music in the west, we think of choirs and we think of the organ, but the organ is not an instrument mentioned in the psalms, unless you include the wonderful prophetic reference in Psalm 41 (42) : ‘Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of thy waterspouts’.  Sadly even this doesn’t survive into more modern translations; The Grail has ‘…in the roar of waters’, new Grail ‘…in the roar of your torrents’, which are powerful and frankly make better sense, but I regret losing the organ reference. The Anglican psalter has ‘ One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the waterpipes’, which is definitely prophetic, but perhaps the translation then was influenced by knowing that organs started that way, rather than the other way round.   Still, it delights any organist.

First water pressure then air

The organ is the first keyboard instrument (press not plink) and the biggest of all the instruments, according to my trusty Ladybird book.  The Greeks thought of it first, as so often; possibly  it was Ctesibius of Alexandria .  It was indeed water pipes, and about the third century BC (so about 700 years after the psalms).  Bellows instead of water power came in around the fourth century AD.  It was always a large instrument, because each note needs a separate pipe to sound, so it tended to be built into large buildings.  Deep notes need very long pipes.

Great cathedrals and great organs

It was Guillaume de Machaut who called it ‘the king of instruments’.  He was born in 1300, went off to work for the King of Bohemia in 1323 and that’s another place that has fine historical organs.  We remember also that at this stage, kings tended to be much bigger than other people because of a better diet. The great mediaeval cathedrals had big beautiful organs built into them (Machaut went on to work in Rheims), and this style of organ just kept getting bigger, as ingenious musical engineers developed new stops and more potential volume.  (I know of an organ builder who puts a special local stop into any organ he builds.  The last one was bagpipes.)  But these organs were built in and so fixed in position, so later developments are the portative organ, small and portable as the name suggests, and the positive organ (not easily portable, but which could be moved, maybe standing on a table).  Bach had pedals, and so did the other Europeans, but they were not part of English organ building until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, and then the cunning French worked out how to use electricity in 1867 to power the organ, so it was all debugged and fully operational in time for Messiaen (born in 1908).

Getting bigger, getting smaller

Until the telephone exchange was invented, the organ was the biggest and most complicated machine in existence.  Now we have computers, and they just keep shrinking.  So do the telephones.  Now we have electronic organs and keyboards, which are portable, but they don’t make the same noise as those wonderful enormous church organs.  However, those do need to be sensitively played when accompanying, or they can easily swamp  any number of voices, but when they are playing solo, there is nothing comparable.  Except possibly the voice of the Almighty, which is also preceded by the rushing of a mighty wind.

Saint Cecilia sadly not involved

I am really sorry to have to admit that Saint Cecilia was not involved in the invention of the organ.  I had a woolly idea of her inventing the organ on the sea shore because of the inspiration of the wind and the waves, but alas, no.  I think it’s partly confusion between Britten’s Ode to Saint Cecilia and Britten’s own memorial on the beach at Aldeburgh.

Cecilia is an early martyr (died around 167 AD), and she’s the patron saint of music because when her parents decided to marry her against her will to a pagan husband, she sang in her heart to the Lord during the wedding, not in gladness but in supplication.  The Lord sorts everything out, the husband converts and his brother also, and eventually after many other converts, including all the soldiers sent to arrest this most persuaive lady, all the Christians are killed on the orders of Marcus Aurelius (presumably in one of his less humane moments).  Chaucer’s Second Nun in the Canterbury Tales tells the story of St Cecilia, but interestingly it’s all about vows of virginity and converting lots of people on the way to death, so the music angle evidently became more important later.  We really know almost nothing about her, but I think her popularity is grounded in the natural desire to honour a patron saint of something so important to so many people.

Patron saints and tactless iconography

It’s good to find a positive patron saint (especially a female one).  Often they are special because of their method of martyrdom (teeth for St Apollonia, eyes for Lucy), even using them as namebadges in mediaeval portraits (Catherine and the wheel, Lawrence and the grill), so it’s good to find St Cecilia accompanied by various instruments, harps, lyres, trumpets, other instruments; but very often a portative organ.  Any sort of organ except the original hydraulis is going to be of far later date than the saint; and what I think we have here is evidence of the idea that because organs are in churches, they are uniquely suitable to music on sacred themes.  I think this is wrong.  I think any musical instrument, like any language, can be just as appropriate as any other for singing to or about God.

All are welcome, not just organists

People have preferences, and that’s good.  It keeps things varied and interesting.  What I don’t like is when someone insists that ‘only’ one specific instrument is the right one, whatever it is.  Church musicians are a band, like any other band.  Just like in so many films, you assemble the band, and then you play the gig.  So on a Sunday, or hopefully at the rehearsal beforehand, you work with the musicians who present themselves.  One of the most encouraging psalms says,’ Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’.  Not a refined noise, or a performance with no errors, or a gloomy little whisper, just a joyful noise.  And we can all manage that.


Thank you to Mary who first asked the question, to wikipaedia, to various reference books I happen to have (Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford Companion ditto), to Geoffrey Chaucer, and my old Ladybird book.  This has been a fascinating distraction from all the other things I should have been doing!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Musical instruments (for holy purposes)

Angels playing musical instruments

I suspect we get most of our ideas about holy musical instruments from pictures rather than from the Bible or devotional literature. Christmas card pictures show trumpeting angels, sometimes angels with lyres, occasionally a shepherd with a pipe in the crowd scenes. Scenes of heaven in altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts show orchestras of angels as well as the usual choirs, and some angels clearly have very good flying muscles, as they are supporting little organs which must be quite heavy (perhaps there are a couple of cherubs round the back helping, like the organ blowers in Victorian church pictures).

Real angels, real instruments

There are a couple of really encouraging things about this. One is that music is seen as such an integral part of the Kingdom. Another is that they are using real instruments most of the time. The lyres can look a bit ethereal, but the trumpets and the lutes, trombones and serpents must be drawn from life and they aren’t instruments to make quiet little polite noises but a group that would make you pay attention.  And a third thing is that singing is an integral part of all this, which is very encouraging for all singers.  It should be encouraging for non-singers too : just as I look forward to eyes and ears that work properly when I get to heaven, so someone who has always been afraid or ashamed to sing will be given a most beautiful voice so that they will really enjoy using it to praise God.

Instruments in the psalms

There aren’t any illustrations in the Bible, so where do painters and illuminators get their information from?  The answer of course is mostly the Psalms, the original hymn book for the people of God.  We have a different musical culture from that of the countries where the Bible was written, so we don’t sing them the way they were originally sung, but we do have many of the same instruments.

Some time ago I started keeping a list of instruments in the psalms as they were mentioned. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is quite extensive.  I’m not going to give the references because they come up repeatedly, and also it varies between Bible translations, but we have mentions of harps, lyres, ten-stringed lutes, ordinary lutes, trumpets, horn, pipe, viols, psaltery, tambourines and cymbals (those are in the Judith Canticle, but I’m including it because we sing it as a psalm), timbrels and tabrets.  I had to look the last two up, but as you might expect they are percussion, versions of mini-drums and tambourines.  One of the sources of information says sniffily ‘popular with women’, which I think means light enough to play while dancing.  I am slightly sorry to have to let go of my mental image of a timbrel as a small musical cart, but there you are, sometimes knowledge comes at a price.

Human voices ever singing

As well as all these, the psalms give pride of place to the human voice. ‘Melodious song’ is an expression used as another instrument, and quite right too.  Singing a new song was the way to celebrate a victory or an achievement, and that’s why so many psalm start with a call to ‘sing a new song’, and feel so fresh.  There are shouts of victory included as part of the musical offering, and if they were rhythmic like the British three cheers, you can see how that would work.

More unusual instruments

There isn’t a mention of drums as such in the Bible (not in the King James version, anyway; I was so surprised that I checked in Cruden’s Concordance and it’s not there).  I still think they are probably the oldest instrument, but I think they don’t qualify as a holy instrument because big drums sound bellicose and/or were used in other cultures for worship of idols or for orgies.  They aren’t seen as a desirable accompaniment to the psalms!  But you do need rhythm instruments, especially if you are dancing, and we know David danced and sang at the same time, so we can think of his psalm tunes as also dances.  So this is why we have the tabrets and the timbrels: they are rhythm instruments, but smaller ones with no martial overtones.

However, there’s no shortage of big instruments with a deep sound.  ‘The mountains and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ and the rivers too, and it’s wonderful to think what that would sound like if we had ears to hear.  The Lord can send out thunder and the mighty winds from his treasuries whenever he needs them as part of the chorus.  It’s not just in the psalms, too;  you can hear, in the account of God coming to talk to Elijah in his still small voice, that the whole sequence is built up like a film score.  God knows how deeply music affects our nature because he made us to be like him; and music would not be so fundamental to us if it were not to him.  We can’t hear the music of the spheres (one of the great disappointments of my life when some scientist pointed out that there’s no atmosphere to transmit the sound), but I bet God can.

What about harps?

I don’t think any instrument is intrinsically holy, any more than any language, but most people would reckon on the harp as the quintessential instrument for holy purposes.  I think we can blame St John for the emphasis on harps and heaven, because it’s in Revelation, but I’m not sure how musical he was because the songs he offers us (also in Revelation) would be extremely difficult actually to sing (which is why Handel only took little bits of them for Messiah).   These would be small hand-held harps, so a bit more like ukuleles, really, rather than those enormous concert harps that you see in nineteenth-century orchestras (usually women playing those too, but you absolutely couldn’t dance carrying one of those!).

I think it’s interesting that the picture of utter desolation involves hanging up your harps and refusing to sing (Psalm 136/137) ; this would be unthinkable unless all hope were gone, and that is why it is so poignant.  I’ve never been that keen on harps myself, so I’m hoping there will actually be a choice in Heaven.  If we have a choice of a stringed instrument,  I’d like a theorbo (and the ability to play it).

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.