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The World’s Most Magnificent Pipe Organs

November 7, 2009
article by M. Christian and A. Abrams

“Pipe Dreams” with Magnificent Sound: Quite Simply, The Blockbusters of Their Time

Some of the most epic and magnificent music masterpieces were created to be played on a large pipe organ – made even better if listened inside soaring gothic cathedrals with pretty much perfect acoustics. The wonder of this music is certainly timeless, and gets even more amazing when you start to investigate the history, science, and simple magnificence that has gone into the creation of some of the world’s most incredible pipe organs.

(on the left, the world’s largest pipe organ console, in Atlantic City – photo via – and on the right: Tokyo pipe organ, built by Marc Garnier from France in 1991, via)

As with a lot of important technological – as well as artistic – achievements, trying to determine who made the first one of these things is a bit fuzzy. Some experts give the ancient Greeks most of the credit – specifically the genius Ctesibius of Alexandria. Those early Greek organs were pretty simplistic, but the basic principle is still the same: force air through a pipe and you get sound. Narrower pipes produce a higher note, wider pipes a lower note. From these simple tubes of metal works of amazing intricacy may be wrought.

(on the left, a pre-organ “instrument”, described by Pretorius in “Syntagma Musicum”, 1615 – on the right: a mobile organ from Maximillian time, 1517)

What’s interesting is that portable organs were not only made in certain parts of Europe during the Middle Ages – they were quite common. They were probably about as mechanically simple as Ctesibius’ early invention, but it’s still remarkable that the technology was transportable by horse and wagon.

The Beer Bottle Organ is an obvious idea, that was realized way back in the 1800s. The right-hand image below is a portable bottle organ from the 1750s:

(images via)

But when you want to talk about size – you have to talk about the permanently installed ones.

Size matters, and does increase with the amount of money invested

As with astronomical clocks (see our article here), large organs quickly became the blockbusters of their time. If yours was a town of any note then you pretty much had to have one – and the bigger the better. The fact that they were used by churches, like the aforementioned fancy clocks, couldn’t hurt either, as they had the deep pockets to afford them.

Fantastic ornamental hanging tubes of the cathedral organ in Trier, Germany (left image below) and a strange horizontal arrangement of tubes in Madrid, Spain:

(images via)

(Helsinki Cathedral’s elegant pipe organ, built by E.F.Walcker, 1832 – image via)

(left: balcony organ in Salzburg, Austria – right: Notre Dame du Finistere, in Brussels, Belgium – image via)

(very elegant organ in Hamburg, Germany – image via)

Here’s a bunch of interesting facts:

The pipe organ created for Halberstadt, Germany was a monster for its time. Its bellows had to be worked ceaselessly by ten men – who were, no doubt, music fans. The technology is impressive today, and was simply astounding when it was created in (ready for this?) 1361. Today it is the instrument and the site for the Slowest Piece of Music Ever Performed

(the bellows of Halberstadt, Germany, pipe organ – via)

Because the technology of a pipe organ is relatively unsophisticated, making them bigger was a simple matter of scale: bigger pipes, bigger air supplies, etc. While there were a lot of monster organs… stop giggling… there are some that took the the musical instrument from noteworthy to astounding.

One of the largest still played today is the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ in Portland, Maine. Built in 1911, it is a beautiful piece of engineering as well as musical artistry. Although much of its technology is hidden from sight, what is visible is simultaneously elegant and powerful, which also perfectly defines the sonorous air of its haunting notes.

(left: Kotzschmar Organ, photo via – right: Wanamaker Organ, photo via)

Another great pipe organ was created in 1904 for the St Louis World’s Fair, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia is a monster among monsters. Everything about the instrument looks like it was designed not just to make sound but a LOT of VERY BIG sounds: it has not one, not two … but, to get to the point, 28,482 pipes set in 461 rows (more info).

(a very small portion of Wanamaker’s 28,482 pipes: strings section – photo via)

(the organ at United States Naval Academy has 522 registers (controls), image via)

Its keyboard looks more like something used to launch a space shuttle rather than underscore an aria… but the organ definitely creates music – on a scale commensurate with its standing as the second largest pipe organ in the world.

Nature Plays Its Own Melody

The Singing Ringing Tree (by Burnleys Panopticon design, architects Tonkin Liu Ltd) is a wind organ sculpture which sings (or moans) with the wind – some say very hauntingly so (watch the video here):

(images via)

Natural “pipe organ” formations can be found in some karst caves – they are eternally silent however, playing “The Sounds of Silence” to an attentive ear. Here is one in Mramornaya cave in Crimea, Ukraine:

(image via)

Which leads us to…

The Great Stalacpipe Organ – the World’s Largest Musical Instrument!

Deep in the Luray Caverns in Virginia… there are sounds that might even rouse the Old Ones if played properly (or if Pippin drops a bunch of stuff down the hole). It is played by striking huge stalactites all around the cavern with felt hammers, producing sombre, sonorous tones… (more info):

(images via 1, 2)

The Loudest Musical Instrument Ever Constructed

How would you like to hear something six times the volume of the loudest train whistle? I’d say you should be warned before the sonic assault commences so that you could cover your ears.

Next time you’re in Atlantic City, swing on by and check it out in the Boardwalk Hall. Built in 1932, the organ makes that beast in Philadelphia look like a sickly kitten. While the Wannamaker Organ boasts those 28,482 pipes, the Boardwalk Hall organ has – ready for this? – about 33,000 pipes. I say ‘about’ because even the owner/operators of the machine aren’t sure. Indeed, the engineering for the organ looks like something that might have been built to power the Muzak in the Tower of Babylon elevators.

(images via)

The Boardwalk organ holds a total of three Guinness World Records: largest pipe organ in the world, largest musical instrument, and – it must have been a literal blast to have been there when this was set – the loudest musical instrument ever constructed. When asked how he felt about winning this last award, the keyboardist was heard, barely, to answer “what?” See more images here.

Trying to play this beast is a life-time job: there are four manuals, and a full list of “stops” (registers, and also controls that operate this mechanism) is published here. See if you can imagine memorizing this, let alone fluently play it.

(images via)

From “Spitz Flute Celeste” (register 217) to “Tuba d’Amour” (register 231) this fantastic instrument can indeed wake up the dead with celestial music, it seems.

“When all of these stops and pitches are played together, the result has been described as a “wall of sound” that can “move men’s souls like no other organ”. The stops are controlled by 1,235 stop-keys on the main seven-manual console (which is permanently located to the right of the stage) and by 673 stop-keys on a portable five-manual console” (source)

You were ready to hear about the world’s largest organ? (well, hello there, YouTube commenters) Unfortunately – as with a lot of big organ claims — you’re likely to be disappointed. The Boardwalk organ, alas, is largely silent: having been damaged by weather, water, budget cuts, and poor attempts at repair, it can still be heard but at only a fraction of its true potential and power.

And there’s nothing funny about an organ that isn’t operating at full capacity.

Something that looks like a giant mobile pipe organ, but is definitely NOT

These are the acoustic locators in Japan in the 1930s, indented to detect and track incoming bombers before the widespread use of radar. Here’s the Japanese emperor Horohito checking out the AA guns intended to be used in conjunction with the sound locators

Posted via web from superbalanced

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