King's College, Cambridge

The Seventeenth Century

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photograph | Review Quiz


The history of the organ in England is a long one, dating back to the tenth century at least. Sources from the late middle ages through the Renaissance give ample evidence of organs in the British Isles, particularly in association with monastic institutions, larger churches and cathedrals, and the royal chapel. Yet, several major events of the sixteenth century leave us with very little evidence in terms of surviving instruments. In fact, from the early sixteenth century through the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a succession of political upheavals and changes in relationship between church and state, and even a major disaster contribute to the failure of many early organs to survive.
  • Beginning in 1534, the force of the English Reformation lead to the dismantling of monasteries, and the removal or destruction of organs in many religious institutions as relics of the Roman church.
  • Later in the sixteenth century, although under Elizabeth I many open hostilities ceased, the organ was not restored to common use in English churches.
  • Under James I (r. 1603-1625) churches re-instituted the use of organs in Divine Worship, and organ-building resumed.
  • During the Commonwealth (1642-1660), organs were once again removed from churches, this time under Puritan influence.
  • Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, organ-building resumed once again.
  • The Great Fire in 1666 destroyed much of London, and many organs - - as well as the the churches that housed them - - had to be replaced.
If you look at the list above, you will see that the seventeenth century included two separate periods of organ-building in England, separated by an entire generation. Before 1650 builders were working along lines that seem to have been traditional in England for some time. The most obvious relationship to instruments from other traditions is found in the use of individual ranks as single stops (i.e., no mixtures) and the absence of reeds. These characteristics were also seen in Italian organs, a parallel that is perhaps a reflection of other musical influences from Italy on English tastes around 1600. The success of Musica transalpina (1588) and the subsequent adoption of the madrigal as the favored genre of secular vocal music in England was not so long in the past at the turn of the century. A similarity in organ stoplists could be only one more sign of the respect the English had for Italian music.

As pointed out below, the second period of organ-building in seventeenth-century England allowed the absorption of two other schools of influence: French and North European.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photograph | Review Quiz

The Organ in England before 1650

From all evidence that remains in written descriptions and fragmentary sources, the organs that were built in the early part of the seventeenth century continued the practices of earlier English builders. In summary, we may say that the typical English organ before about 1650 129

  • had only a few stops,
  • most often had only one division, although some larger instruments had two:
    • Great - the main organ.
    • Chair - a division located behind the organist as he faced the main division.
  • was used primarily to accompany voices. 130
Compared to instruments being built on the continent in the early seventeenth century, these were small indeed, but they were sufficient to fill the needs of the churches and chapels in which they were used. It is not that the buildings themselves were small, for they often were not, but that in the liturgy the organ was not called on to accompany large congregations singing chorale tunes in unison (as was becoming the case in northern Germany) nor was it expected to provide stunning and awe-inspiring sounds in a solo role (as it was in France).

The most important builder of organs in England in the first half of the seventeenth century was Thomas Dallam and his son Robert, who provided instruments in such diverse locations as King's College, Cambridge, Westminster Abbey, and Durham Cathedral. Although no complete instrument survives, records indicate that their organs were well-made, well-respected, and consistent in disposition.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photograph | Review Quiz

Dispositions before 1650

The organ Robert Dallam built for York Minster in 1632 may be seen as typical of an English organ before 1650. 131

Great Organ Chair Organ
Open Diapason 8 Diapason 8
Open Diapason 8 Principal 4
Stopped Diapason 8 Flute 4
Principal 4 Small Principal 2
Principal 4 Recorder 8? 2?
Twelfth 2 2/3
Small Principal 2
Recorder 2
Two and Twentieth 1

It is not uncommon to encounter ambiguities in early organ contracts, and the Recorder on the Chair organ is one of those cases in which it is difficult to determine what actual pitch level is described. The notation in the contract reads "... one recorder of tynn, unison to the voice."132 This might refer to a different pitch level for the stop (as in 8' Choir pitch, instead of organ pitch) or indicate unison pitch to the preceding stop or "voice" in the list - - a 2' Principal. Regardless of the intent of this one item, we see an instrument that

  • is small in comparison to continental instruments of the time.
  • is similar to Italian instruments in the absence of compound stops (chorus mixtures).
  • is similar to instruments of the lowlands in its inclusion of a second division.
The appearance of two 8' Open Diapasons on the Great is explained by the typical placement of an English organ on the Choir Screen. The diagram to the right shows the broad outlines of the floor plan of a typical English organ placement. The red rectangle is the outline of the choir screen, which effectively separated the Choir from the Nave. The organ was placed above the screen, from which position it actually had two façades: one facing the Nave, one facing the Choir. The Chair Organ was normally on the side of the screen that faced the Choir.
King's College Organ, from the Nave The photograph to the left is of the organ in King's College, Chapel, Cambridge. This is a view of the organ from the side of the nave, where one of the Open Diapasons is used in the pipe display of the façade. 134

King's College Organ, from the ChoirThis view is of the same organ as seen from the choir. The other Open Diapason appears in the façade of the main case, while the "Chair organ" has its own Diapason and Principal ranks used in its façade.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | | Photograph | Review Quiz

Appearance before 1650

The photographs above also bring up the matter of the visual design of the English organ. From surviving sources, including some drawings and paintings of instruments built before 1700, the preferred façade design and pipe layout is best described by the term "receding perspective." 133 The diagram to the right shows the most common form of this arrangement:

  • Two tall towers at the impost level of the extremes of the facade,
  • a smaller tower in the center, with its pipe feet standing on a higher level than those of the outer towers,
  • and pipe flats whose feet and tops form lines that coincide with the lines used to give the illusion of depth by artists working with flat canvases.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photographs | Review Quiz

Builders and Influences after 1660

You might have to look at the list in the introduction to be reminded, but it is important to remember that organ building came to a halt in England from 1642 until 1660. During that time, many builders - - including Robert Harris - - left for the continent. It is not surprising, then, that not long after the monarchy was restored these builders and their descendants returned to England with new ideas for instruments.
  • One such builder didn't actually return, but was a newcomer to Britain in the 1660's. This was "Father" Bernard Smith (c. 1630-1708), arguably the best-known of late seventeenth-century organ builders in England.
  • One builder who did return, in a sense, was Renatus Harris, a grandson of Thomas Dallam, who brought ideas to London from France, where his family had lived during the Commonwealth.

"Father" Smith (known by that nickname during his lifetime) was of Dutch or German descent, and appears to have been active in Holland before coming to England. He and Renatus Harris were in competition for some years, each of them striving for the better contracts, occasionally indulging in some underhanded practices. Their rivalry culminated in the "Battle of Organs" in the 1680's, in effect a competition for winning a contract for a new organ to be built in the Temple Church, London. (Just so you'll know, Father Smith won the "battle" and got the contract.) Although little remains of their work today, reports from contemporaries and even from writers in the nineteenth century indicate a high degree of success on the part of both men.

With the work of these two men, and of others less well known today, changes began to be made in the construction of the organ in England, including

  • Building organs with three manual divisions, disposed in the French manner (Great, Chair, Echo being analogous to the French Grand orgue, Positif and Echo).
  • The introduction of mixtures and full choruses in the French or continental manner.
  • The introduction of reed stops.
With the introduction of these characteristics, the English organ was changed, so that it thereafter had many characteristics in common with organs in northern Europe, including those in France Germany. The older pitch levels and keyboard compass were not revived, although the absence of a pedal division continued in English organs. 137

As an aside, you might find it interesting that some English organs of the period, especially some by Smith, had more than twelve pipes to the octave. The additional pipes were included so that, for example, both d-sharp and e-flat would be available and in tune for use in different keys. Providing alternate accidentals for two or three keys in each octave implies an untempered tuning system and an attempt on the part of the builder to give the instrument the ability to play in the more "modern" keys that were perhaps less used in the past. Smith did so with a lever that allowed the player to select which accidentals would be used, so that only a single key would be required. If the lever were in one position, d-sharp played (to use the example above), if it were in the other position, e-flat played.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photograph | Review Quiz

Appearance after 1660

There are no surviving intact organs by either Renatus Harris or Father Smith. Although some pipework is intact in smaller instruments, we must often rely on later reports, even from the nineteenth century, to have an idea about how their larger organs sounded. In contrast to the situation with pipework from the late seventeenth century, some cases survive, so we do have an idea about the apearance of these organs.

The organ in St. James Piccadilly (London) was built by Renatus Harris and completed in 1688. As you can see in the photograph to the right, it has been altered since its completion. A nineteenth-century Swell box seems to grow out of the top of the case, making the whole instrument look a little top heavy. If you look at the original case and its façade, you can find some characteristics which might be continental, others English in origin.

  • The line at the top of the Chair organ is reminiscent of the receding perspective of older English organs, even though the pipes all stand on the same level, as in French organs.
  • Another interesting point can be found in the arrangement within the flats in the main case. The line formed by the pipe mouths in one of the flats is a "V" shape, and that shape is mirrored above the the line of the pipe tops. The effect is the opposite of the receding perspective, in that it gives the illusion of flats that extend forward. This symmetrical arrangement within a flat can be seen in some organs by French builders, but in England it is new in the works of Renatus Harris.


The organs of Father Smith have several identifying characteristics, some of which derive from cases built in the Lowlands and northern Germany. One of the more common of these elements of visual design can be seen in his case for the organ at Great St. Mary's (St. Mary the Great, The University Church) in Cambridge. The organ was completed in the 1690's and was placed in this deep gallery about a century later. The most noticeable characteristic in the façade is the two tall central towers. Organs from northern Europe had been built with a single central tower for two centuries when Smith built this case. Two towers in the center of the façade are found in cases built by other people during this time, but they are most noticeable and successful in cases built by Father Smith. Another point to notice is the extension of the case to the sides at the impost level, another characteristic derived from practices in northern Europe.

By the way, the organ now in the case was completed by Hill, Norman & Beard in 1964. It contains pipes from the Smith organ in seven stops of the principal chorus of the Great and four stops of the Choir.

A few years later Smith started a new instrument for Trinity College, Cambridge, the organ in the photograph to the right. The Chair case is from an earlier instrument, and you can see that Smith did not try to match it. The central towers are separated here by single-story flats, just as they are in the case for Great St. Mary's, shown above. The extra width of the case at the impost level is even more prominent here than in the Great St. Mary's case, while the double central towers distinguish it from cases being built in northern Europe about this time.

Smith died in 1708, before the organ for Trinity College was finished. It was completed by Christopher Schrider, Smith's son-in-law and successor in the business. Schrider also added a swell division to the instrument in 1715, but that's an innovation in English organs that you'll read about on another page.

This case now houses a 1976 organ by Metzler incorporating Smith pipes in seven of its stops.

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Smith's Organ for St. Paul's | Photographs | Review Quiz

Introduction | The Organ before 1650 | Dispositions before 1650 | Cases before 1650
After 1660 | Cases after 1660 | Photograph | Review Quiz


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© 1999 James H. Cook