Memling: Angel with Portative

The Organ in the Middle Ages

The Portative Organ | The Positive Organ | The Church Organ
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After the fall of Rome and the subsequent loss of the organ in western Europe, the organ continued to be used in the Eastern Empire. The re-introduction of the organ to western Europe occurred in 757, when an instrument arrived in the Court of Pepin the Short (father of Charlemagne) from Byzantium. Other references to gifts of instruments that included organs are found in the following century, and enough reports survive to make it a safe assumption that, indeed, the organ was after the ninth century a part of the cultural life of western Europe. Although that much can be assumed, we don't really know any reliable details about the organ itself or how it was used in the early years of the Middle Ages.82

During the Middle Ages, the organ in western Europe developed into three different types of instrument. In looking back at the organ of that period, we generally distinguish the three types from one another on the basis of one or both of these elements:

It is the nature of the instrument, of course, that its physical characteristics have a direct effect on its musical uses. We wouldn't use a small instrument with two stops on one manual - - and no pedal division at all - - to lead congregational singing in a church that seats two thousand people. The relationship between the physical nature of the organ and its music is especially strong in organs of the Middle Ages - - even more so then, because they used the organ in a greater variety of ways than we do today.

Although surviving information is particularly weak for the early part of the period, we can draw informed conclusions about both the appearance and use of each type of instrument from the later Middle Ages. We have no surviving instruments from the Middle Ages, although there are some instruments that supposedly incorporate parts of medieval instruments. It is regrettable that before the fourteenth century, we don't even have any surviving keyboard music, because knowing the literature might make it possible for us to fill in some gaps that exist in our knowledge of medieval organs. Even with all that we don't know, with the evidence that does survive - - both written descriptions and iconography, we can make some statements about the instrument and believe we are speaking the truth, even at the distance of some one thousand years.

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The Portative Organ

The smallest of the medieval organs was the Portative. Its name comes from from the Latin verb portare/to carry, and it is called that because it was small enough to be carried easily. The typical portative organ seems to have had

You can see portative organs in many manuscript illustrations and paintings of the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries. Some of the most well-known examples are have been reproduced in music history textbooks, and copies are readily available there.

Boethius DE MUSICA manuscriptThe manuscript illumination to the right is from the fifteenth century. It shows a personification of Musica in the center - - playing a portative organ. This use of the portative - - to symbolize music itself - - is actually fairly common in these paintings. In this case, the portative organ is an example of what art historians call an "object attribute." That means that the portative is used as a type of symbol, and that a figure of a woman holding a portative is meant to be "Musica." To look at it another way, we know that this picture represents "Music" because the woman is holding a portative organ, not a sword or a feather boa. The figure at the top of the page is another example of an object attribute; the psaltery in his hand means that he is King David.85 This use of the portative organ in manuscript illuminations and other paintings is one that is common in late medieval representations of classical concepts, and it indicates a high regard for the instrument.86

Squarcialupi Codex: Landini PortraitAnother use of the portative as a symbol is more generic, because "portraits" of musicians often show the person in question playing a portative organ. In other words, a portative organ might indicate that the person represented is a musician in the general sense, not that the person shown is the veritable personification of all music. For most music students, the illustration of this type that they find most often is a page seen at the left, which contains the score to a famous work ("Musica son," or "I am Music") by Francesco Landini, the most notable Italian composer of the fourteenth century. In this and many other manuscript illuminations that show composers of secular songs of the Middle Ages, the portative organ provides an immediate visual clue: this person is a musician. Many of these manuscripts do not have the visual clue seen here in the musical notation.87 The use of a portative organ in an illumination is also seen in manuscripts without musical notation.

Memling: Angel with PortativeA final symbolic use of the portative organ is seen in painting of "angel consorts," most of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The figure used in the header of this page is reproduced to the right. This is a miniature painting by Hans Memling that is found on the reliquary of St. Ursula. Many other paintings also show an angel playing a portative organ, either as individual figures or as members of a musical ensemble of angels - - an "angel consort."89

From surviving descriptions and images of the portative organ, it is possible to draw several conclusions about the instrument and its use. These are generally accepted as valid statements about the portative organ:

By the end of the Middle Ages, the portative organ no longer held an important place in the performance of secular music, and it is doubtful that it was used with any frequency at all. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become largely a memory, and its use had faded with much of the music of the Middle Ages.

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The Portative Organ | The Positive Organ | The Church Organ
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The Positive Organ

The Positive organ of the Middle Ages was a larger instrument than the portative. From the surviving evidence, we can safely assume that a positive organ at the end of the Middle Ages

The positive organ appears to have had two primary uses:

Unlike the portative organ, which faded from use without leaving a substantive legacy in the form of literature or an impact on later instruments, the positive organ of the Middle Ages provided the workplace for at least one development that became a standard element of the organ: a chest mechanism that allowed the use of different stops. By the middle of the fifteenth century, such stop controls were typical of positive organs and were in fact being found on some larger organs in churches.

Because some form of the positive remained in use after the fifteenth century, there is more information available about it than about the portative organ. Representations of positive organs can be found in manuscript illuminations, painting, stained glass, and other forms of visual representation.83 Furthermore, the evolution of the instrument provides a line of continuity to surviving instruments that is not found in the history of the portative.

van Meckenem woodcutThe illustration to the right is a reproduction of a woodcut by Israel van Meckenem, an artist active in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Several things can be seen in this print:

17th-century Italian PositiveThe organ in the photograph to the left is an Italian instrument of the late seventeenth century.92 Organs similar to this one, which has one manual and six stops, represent the other common type of positive organ.

  1. It is a church instrument.
  2. It is a free-standing instrument with a small pedalboard. The pedals which pull down the lower keys of the manual by means of the fabric ties which are visible in the photograph.
  3. The extension at the base of the rear of the case houses two bellows, which function as the ones in the woodcut above.
  4. There is a stop mechanism, whose controls can be seen to the right of the manual keyboard.

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The Church Organ

The organ in the medieval church presents something of a puzzle, first of all through its very association with the western European church. The church had taken a dim view of the organ, and it was not a part of Christian worship from the early years until some time during the tenth century, and then not in the Eastern Church but only in the West.93 Just how the organ came to be not only an accepted but a respected part of the church in the West is a question that does not have a clear answer. Perhaps the best explanation is that as a part of the Carolingian Renaissance, the instrument was a useful tool for both ecclesiastical and political purposes. Certainly the medieval organ produced the lowest-pitched and most powerful musical sounds of the period. The thought that it could have been used to impress the faithful with its power (found only in the church) and to reflect the glory of the ruler (who provided the means of obtaining such a wonder) is not without some basis, but it is not a point that is likely to be proved or disproved.

For the present, it is important to realize that regardless of the decisions by church and court that placed it there, the organ became associated with the church during the Middle Ages. Descriptions of the organ in churches date from the tenth century and later. There it went through a process of development that ultimately is responsible for all the great instruments that have appeared since that time. Without the encouragement of the church, it is probable that the organ would never have developed beyond the scope seen in the positive organs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

By the end of the Middle Ages, very large organs were being built in both abbey churches and cathedrals, and the organ appears to have been an expected part of any such new building. These instruments are most often referred to now as Blockwerk organs, and the term is used to denote

The most detailed information we have about the late medieval Blockwerk organ comes from two sources:

In both cases, however, the authors were describing instruments of an earlier time. They knew the instruments -- or knew of them, but they recognized them as "old-fashioned" for their times. From their descriptions of this type of instrument, and from scattered builders notes and contracts that have survived, we can state that in general the Blockwerk organ 94

Unfortunately, no medieval Blockwerk organ remains intact. There are several extant instruments that date from the late Middle Ages, at least in part, but not one of them exists today as an undivided Blockwerk. Furthermore, there are no reliable representations of these instruments in manuscript illuminations or in paintings. For the most part, we must rely on the descriptions of contemporary and later writers (Arnaut of Zwolle and Praetorius, for example) to know how these large instruments sounded or looked. We can, however, think about the impact these large instruments had on the listener: The medieval church organ produced the lowest- pitched, loudest sounds produced by man in the medieval West; surely the strength and their sound -- a sound heard only in a large church -- had an impact that could not be duplicated in the secular world of the time.

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The Portative Organ | The Positive Organ | The Church Organ
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© 1998, 1999 James H. Cook