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February 16, 2015, 11:00 AM

History of the Pipe Organ: Beginnings

The flush toilet and the pipe organ have many similarities. Crazy as that sounds...hear me out!

They both use “plumbing” made up of pipes to channel water or air, they both use valves to regulate flow, and they both were components of Roman society. In Roman culture, the hydraulis provided music for festivals, games, and circuses, and was loud enough to be used outdoors.

The forerunner to the modern pipe organ was invented when the Ptolemies ruled Egypt (between the Greek and Roman kingdoms.) In the 3rd century BC, Ctesibius of Alexandria, source history suggests, built the first musical instrument composed of winded pipes activated by a keyboard. Described as a “syrinx (‘set of pipes’) played by the hands,” this ancestor of the pipe organ was called the “hydraulis” because it relied on water pressure to regulate the amount of air entering each pipe.

It might have looked something like this photo to the right.

Compare the graduated pipes of the hydraulis with the syrinx (panpipes), which is played by blowing air across a hole in the end of each pipe (below).

Both the panpipes and the hydraulis require pressurized air to sound the pipe. When a person plays the panpipes, he pressurizes the air with his lips, akin to how we whistle. When we whistle higher tones, we purse our lips together tightly and form a smaller opening. Lower tones are made by relaxing our lips and opening them up slightly.

The hydraulis uses water to pressurize air. First, air is manually pumped into a domed chamber (C) via levers (K, L) and pistons (M, N). When it reaches the chamber, it is pressurized by the water (D). Playing a key opens a valve to the pipe, and the air escapes, making a sound. The water rises as the air leaves the chamber and maintains a constant pressure inside the dome, which keeps the air at a constant pressure and stabilizes the musical tone. Were there no water to stabilize the pressure, the musical pitch would rise and fall with the fluctuating air pressure.


Here is a short clip featuring a performance upon a table-top hydraulis in Bath, England. There is a gentleman pumping the bellows on the back side of the instrument. Below the keyboard, the chamber filled is built with plexi-glass so that we can see the water bubbling inside.

The hydraulis was equally lauded as a mechanical feat and a musical accomplishment; its descendant, the pipe organ, is “together with the clock, the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution,” according to the Grove Dictionary of Music. The hydraulis provided the essential mechanics of the modern pipe organ; since its invention, organ-building continued to evolve, but at a glacial pace.

Later in this blog, we'll delve into other historical aspects of the pipe organ as our congregation's pipe organ restoration project continues its progress.

Jaime Carini
Organ Scholar

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January 6, 2015, 9:00 AM

Taking the pipe organ for a spin (Part I)

Although this process of building a pipe organ at PUMC has been quite protracted (we've just passed the 10-year milestone from when conversations first began), it's given many of us - myself included - the chance to experience a number of vastly different pipe organs over this period of discernment and planning.

With today's snowfall around Central Indiana, I think it is fair and accurate to say no two pipe organs are exactly alike - just like snowflakes. Not only are the exact materials from which an organ is built likely to vary (i.e., wood, metal alloys, etc), but so too do organ builders, voicers, designers all having unique traits, gifts and artistic signatures. Beyond that, the room in which the organ sings plays a monumental role in what the instrument sounds like of course. (Think about the difference between a huge cathedral built of stone and a smaller chapel with ample carpeting.)

And so, with this pipe organ restoration project really starting to take shape over the last 3 years, I took a little extra time to really observe and make note of a number of unique pipe organs that I had the chance to play during that time. Although many of the instruments in this blog entry (Part II coming soon) are vastly different than what will be PUMC's refurbished instrument, I'd be willing to wager that the experiences we encounter over time shape our tastes, preferences, vision and musical ear.


Wesley Chapel (London) was a special visit, and I played the sanctuary organ and the smaller (historic) pipe organ in the side chapel as well. Somehow I failed to take pictures of those instruments. All good Methodist photo displays should begin with a visit to Wesley Chapel, right?




A valued friend set-up the chance for me to play the noted instrument at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. The 141-rank instrument contains over 7,500 pipes and is among the largest in the metro D.C. area.


The organ console to the 141-rank, 5-manual instrument in at National City was a joy to play. It was 'logical' in its layout, and the sounds produced in that historic space were warm and rich. To read more about the National City instrument, click here.


Closer to home, I celebrated New Year's Eve 2014 at Culver Academy in Culver, Indiana and enjoyed time on their 59-rank, 3-manual pipe organ in the school's chapel. John Gouwens serves as the Organist and Carillonneur at the Academy and also was my carillon professor while I was a student at Ball State University. To learn more about the organ and carillon at Culver, click here.

The organ at Culver provides the musician with a full toolbox with which he can work. The technology available today (the CPU/brains of the Culver organ is the Peterson ICS 4000 - the same as what PUMC's refreshed organ will use) exponentially expands the colors and textures available to the modern organist. This 59-rank instrument plays like an 80- or 90-rank instrument thanks to its creative use of technology made available to the organist.



That concludes Part I of this voyage to visit various pipe organs. Check back in late-January for Part II of this musical pilgrimage which will include a visit to the world's largest church pipe organ, an encounter across the pond to Cambridge (England), and a peek at an Indianapolis-based pipe organ as well.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting this energizing project in the life of Plainfield United Methodist Church.

Michael Pettry
Director of Music


01-09-2015 at 2:11 PM
Michael Pettry
Thanks, Kelly. It was a lot of fun (no surprise!) playing these instruments over the past year or two. But what was surprising to me was what consistently 'rose to the top' as being attractive or useful with these instruments.

I think the PUMC instrument will make use of a number of these features to have a lasting, well-equipped instrument for the generations.

Now, it's time your young organist in the Rodarmel house starts thinking about what repertoire he'll be interested in playing on the new instrument.

01-06-2015 at 12:35 PM
Kelly Rodarmel
Thank you so much for sharing, Michael! What a privilege and honor your had playing those beautiful instruments. I can't wait for ours!!
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December 30, 2014, 7:00 PM

Organ donors: Over 50% of goal reached

Thank you to the many persons who already have given so generously toward the Pipe Organ Restoration Project. As of these final days in 2014, we have already crossed the 50% mark and are well on our way to reaching the fundraising goal. Thank you!

If you have not yet made a pledge or a donation toward the organ campaign, please consider doing so in the early weeks of the new year. The church office (317-839-2319) can direct you to the church treasurer so that you can make your pledge or donation. And if you prefer to budget on a weekly basis, consider this: a gift of just $27 per week between now and the organ's dedication in September 2015 means you will support the project at the $1,000 level.

Thank you for your support of restoring this musical legacy at PUMC. The future of worship is even brighter thanks to your generosity.

Michael Pettry
Director of Music

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December 18, 2014, 2:14 PM

Organ Postlude on Christmas Eve 2014

For those many of you who will worship at PUMC this Christmas Eve, here's a quick preview of the postlude for the 7:00, 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. services.

"I Saw Three Ships" was arranged by/for Mormon Tabernacle Organist Richard Elliott and is a tour-de-force conclusion for a stunning evening of worship in Plainfield. Although it won't shimmer quite as much this December as it will on our new pipe organ one year from now, this arrangement is laden with crescendo after crescendo for a triumphant final note to the evening.

Click here to hear a preview of the postlude.

With five worship services at Plainfield UMC this Christmas Eve, I look forward to seeing you there.

Michael Pettry
Director of Music

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November 29, 2014, 5:00 PM

The pipe organ in Advent

This Sunday (November 30) marks the first Sunday of Advent - a time of preparation in the Christian calendar in anticipation of Christmas. The pipe organ plays a central role in worship at all times of the year as it provides an opportunity for communal involvement in worship - namely through singing - but its role is particularly unique during Advent given the rich tradition of favorite Christmas carols and hymns.

Some congregations elect to remove sung "Alleluias" during Advent (and during Lent), and a few congregations even retire their pipe organ for those periods of preparation. (Insert a 'gasp' here!) At Plainfield United Methodist Church, the organ continues to lead our worship services' music from this first Sunday of Advent through Christmastide and Epiphany.

The United Methodist Hymnal is rich with hymns for the season that you might consider referencing as periodic devotional use over these next four weeks including:

  • #196 "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" which is text by Charles Wesley most often sung to the hymn tune "Hyfrydol."
  • #211 "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" which features text written in the 9th century and 20th century alike, set to the chant-like tune "Veni Emmanuel."
  • #215 "To a Maid Engaged to Joseph" is a refreshing opportunity to sing in a minor key - the key of G Minor
  • #216 "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is based on German text from the 15th century and set to, again, chant-like music by Michael Praetorius.

Beyond these hymns of preparation - or "promised coming" as they are labeled in the United Methodist Hymnal - we are certain to pepper-in a healthy seasoning of traditional Christmas hymnody as well. Such a rich tradition of congregational singing has the United Methodist Church, that we surely mustn't relegate these favorite Christmas hymns and carols to post-December 24th worship.

We move forward with these next days of Advent prior to Christmas's arrival with hope, love, joy and peace.

Michael Pettry
Director of Music


12-15-2014 at 10:17 AM
Michael Pettry
Great point, Paul. I can sure see both sides of that train of thought. (Really, it's probably more like "many sides," rather than just "A" and "B"....)

I do find that musical period of waiting is so powerful, and especially poignant this time of year. Then again, we do have so many Christmas hymns and carols that it's a struggle to pack them all in post-Advent, isn't it?

No matter, the UMC hymnal is quite the anthology no matter Advent, Christmas, Lent, and the whole year through.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paul!
12-13-2014 at 1:01 AM
Paul Fulp
Michael, I am SO glad you are not among the "purists", or whatever they are, that will not sing "Christmas Songs" until the Christmastide season, i.e. not until after the 24th. And boy they are out there in our denomination. Thank you again.
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