The Charlottenburg Organ Reborn

Part 2 of University Organist David Yearsley’s profile of Munetaka Yokota and the Cornell organ.

The shining apogee of technological advance in the pre-industrial world, the organ, was more often likened to the human form than to a “Wondrous Machine,” as it is styled in Henry Purcell’s Ode for St. Cecila’s Day. In such anthropomorphized descriptions, the organ’s keys were teeth and the openings in the pipes where the sound was generated were mouths. Continuing the analogy, the bellows were lungs to be filled by the bellows treader, and made to sing by the movements of the organist’s body. The trackers, and rollers (the mechanisms connecting the console to the wind chests on which the pipes were arrayed) were like nerves, tendons and muscles of the organ’s body. The basic organ sound the Principal stop strove to match the quality of the human voice, a sonority mimicked more explicitly by the reedy Vox humana.

The sheer size of the instrument and the timbral range of the thousands of pipes housed within its case promised infinite variety. Hoping to impress readers with a glimpse of the sublime, many writers calculated the sonic permutations that the organ offered: an instrument with 40 registers could generate 1,201,911,627,775 combinations, outnumbering even the fixed stars. Even though not all of these combinations were usable according to the dictates of either tradition or common sense, the possibilities were in effect endless. Full Story