History Of The Organ

By J. H. Cook (originally posted at bsc.edu/jhcook/orghist/history/hist001.htm) and preserved at archive.org

The discussion below covers approximately 1000 years in the history of the organ. Under the best circumstances, this would be a long enough time to be confusing, and that is particularly the case here, when not all the facts are clear to begin with. This list of the major points in the development of the organ over this time period should be used as a framework to help remember the information you will find below.

3rd century BC Organ (Hydraulos) invented
2nd century AD Bellows organ invented
5th century AD Knowledge of the organ lost in the west with the fall of the Roman Empire
8th century AD Return of the organ to the west


The Origin of the Organ

Music is such an all-pervasive characteristic of human culture that it seems inevitable that most of us eventually come around to wondering about its origins:

  • Who was the first musician? Where?
  • Why did music develop with seeming independence in virtually every culture on the planet?
  • Just how old is music as a human endeavor?
  • What were the first musical instruments?
  • When did they originate?

No one knows how most musical instruments were “invented.” The name of the first person to blow across a hollow tube is lost forever, but we understand that someone must have done it first. Developments after that time led to the different forms of the flute that exist throughout the many musical cultures of the world. Variations in detail from one culture’s flute to another’s certainly exist, but the principle by which they produce sounds for musical purposes is the same in all of them, and the first use of that principle was so long ago that we can never pinpoint it in history.

The pipe organ presents a different picture, however. The instrument itself is a composite machine, and to be considered an “organ” it must have four basic components: 77

  • pipes that produce sound
  • are placed on a chamber that stores wind
  • under pressure that has been mechanically generated,
  • and access of wind to pipes controlled by a keyboard

Historians generally recognize that the first instrument that has all these components was the hydraulis, and that it was the invention of Ktesibios (or Ctesibius, to use the Latinized form of his name), a Greek engineer working in Alexandria in the third century BC. 78 Surviving accounts indicate that he did not think he was inventing a new instrument, but was solving a problem in mechanics or engineering: How can one person play more than one wind instrument at a time? Certainly he had some models at hand that permitted something similar: the syrinx or pan-pipes. These instruments were known in the ancient world, to both Greek and Hebrew cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. He could have even had some knowledge of the so-called mouth organ, which is sometimes cited as a precursor to the development of the organ. He must have wanted to accomplish more, however, than simply bundling end-blown flutes together. His solution to the challenge was

  • to place several existing wind instruments (perhaps the aulos) of different sizes
  • above a chamber containing air under pressure – –
  • pressure that was generated by simple hand-operated pumps and controlled by the weight of water,
  • and to control access to the individual wind instruments through a simple system of keys and valves to admit the air.

This machine invented by an engineer eventually developed into the musical instrument we know as the “pipe organ,” and today all instruments that bear the name have the same four basic characteristics found in the hydraulis of Ktesibios. The mechanical realizations of the four basic requirements are certainly different, reflecting developments in both society and technology in the last 2200 years. But all pipe organs have their origin in this relatively simple instrument that was invented first as a solution to an engineering problem.

The Hydraulis

During the centuries following Ktesibios’s invention, the hydraulis became a wide-spread and – – we assume – – widely used musical instrument throughout Greece and then within the culture of the Roman Empire. What we know about the instrument comes from some interesting types of surviving evidence:

  • Descriptions of the instrument are found in writings from the first century BC through the end of the Greco-Roman period. Some of these sources are technical, in that they actually describe the instrument and how it worked. Others are passing references to the organ in sources whose main topic is actually something else entirely.
  • Iconographical evidence includes any pictorial representation of an object, and in the case of the hydraulis, this is a particularly interesting source of information. Depictions of the early organ exist in many forms, from graffiti, to images on medallions, to a terra cotta lamp in the shape of a hydraulis.79

Descriptions of the hydraulis and its action were sometimes given in detail, and historians have been able to build copies of the instrument with some reliability. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of the type of pipes used originally – – whether they were flues or reeds, although there are some of later instruments of the Greco-Roman period. From the iconographical evidence, however, one convention appears to have appeared early in the history of the instrument: larger pipes appear on the left of the instrument and higher pipes on the right. The convention of building all keyboard instruments so that the bass is to the player’s left and the treble to the right dates back to the early years of the hydraulis. The convention is so common that to make a keyboard instrument in any other way now seems to somehow be against the natural order of things.

The hydraulis appears to have been at first a curiosity, but it became an instrument used in the competitions that characterized both Greek and Roman cultural life. Its use as an instrument for solo performance, as well as for providing accompaniments to other games and even combat is well-documented. As the largest, most highly developed – – even the most complicated musical instrument in use, the hydraulis held a position in the ancient world that the organ would maintain in modern times even to the end of the twentieth century.

The Bellows Organ

The inclusion of Greek elements in the Roman Empire is a well-documented characteristic of the later culture. The hydraulis, as indicated above, was very much a part of the musical life of ancient Rome, even though the precise nature of its use and its music is unknown. One particular development in the organ did take place during the Roman period: replacement of the pumps and water regulator of the hydraulis with a bellows. By the second century AD descriptions of the bellows organ begin to appear. The bellows replaced two parts of the hydraulis:

  • It provided the source of wind to the organ, replacing the pumps of the hydraulis.
  • It provided a means of controlling the wind pressure, replacing the water regulator that defines the hydraulis.

In the 1950’s, the remains of an organ of the third century AD were uncovered at Aquincum, Hungary, buried under the rubble when a disaster struck the Roman community there centuries ago.81 Perishable parts of the organ (including leather and wood) were of course lost, but metal parts had survived and were complete enough to permit some reliable surmises as to the form of the instrument. It appears to have been a hydraulis, not a bellows organ, even though the bellows organ is described in earlier sources. Apparently, the bellows organ did not replace the hydraulis entirely in the Roman Empire, at least not immediately.

The bellows organ, then, is a later development in the history of the instrument, appearing first in the Roman Empire some four centuries after the invention of the hydraulis. Although there is evidence that the bellows organ did not replace the hydraulis, this technical change actually defined the instrument as it was to exist from that time forward. From the late Roman Empire until the late twentieth century, the history of the organ is the history of the bellows organ and its descendants.

After the Fall of Rome

From the perspective of the present day, it is possible to make the false assumption that Rome was a unified empire until the late fifth century, and that this unified political body somehow lived its course and disappeared during the fifth century AD. In fact the empire had effectively become two separate entities around 300 AD, and that division was made permanent in 395 AD, with the establishment of:

  • The Western Empire, centered at Rome.
  • The Eastern Empire, centered at Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople and now Istanbul).

As the Eastern Empire continued to flourish, the Western Empire gradually declined, and the end of the Roman Empire in the west is usually considered to be 476 AD, when the last Roman emperor (Romulus Augustus) was deposed. With the disappearance of the empire, Greco-Roman culture was also lost, and the inhabitants of western Europe gradually lost all knowledge of its achievements. For the purposes of this study, one of the most important losses would have to be disappearance of any knowledge of the organ: From the end of the fifth century until the middle of the eighth century AD, the organ appears to have been unknown in the west.The Eastern Roman Empire, however, flourished and became the Byzantine Empire, and a new culture developed there, firmly rooted in Greco-Roman traditions, but gradually evolving a life of its own. For the musician, it is important to realize that the Byzantine Empire preserved several important aspects of its parent culture:

  • Greek theoretical treatises on music were kept, and they later provided the basis for much of western Europe’s thoughts about music.
  • Greco-Roman musical instruments – – including the organ – – were kept and developed further.

The organ — along with the greater part of Greco-Roman culture — was then lost in Western Europe until the middle of the Eighth Century AD, when the instrument returned to the West as a gift from a ruler of the East.The discussion above covers approximately 1000 years in the history of the organ. Under the best circumstances, this would be a long enough time to be confusing, and that is particularly the case here, when not all the facts are clear to begin with. Look again at the list of major events in the early history of the organ:

3rd century BC Organ (Hydraulos) invented
2nd century AD Bellows organ invented
5th century AD Knowledge of the organ lost in the west with the fall of the Roman Empire
8th century AD Return of the organ to the west


Another way of looking at this thousand-year period is to plot the extents of the Greek and Roman civilizations through the split into Western and Eastern Roman territories. If you will pause your mouse pointer over the card below, you will see a series of maps that show the Mediterranean Sea and most of Europe. The maps show those areas in which the organ was known in red, beginning in the Nile delta region around Alexandria and ending with a return to the West in the region of Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen. Notice just how much area is colored red when Rome was at its height. Remembering just how widespread the organ was at this time is important to understanding not only the history of the instrument, but also of modern European civilizations. Before they could be gin to form and develop, the old Greco-Roman world had splintered and faded.

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