About the organ

Olli Porthan, organist and professor of organ music at the Sibelius Academy

Weddings, funerals, church services—organ music is everywhere. Yet, the organ is not only a church music instrument. Modern organ music is an artistic and musical form in its own right and cannot easily be defined.

The history of organ music goes back about one thousand years. Organs were first played at gladiator fights in Ancient Greece. The ancient organ was hydraulic, and its pipes were not adjustable—all the pipes sounded simultaneously or not at all. Compared with the current organs, it was an extremely simple instrument but, nevertheless, a remarkable invention. Technically, the organ—intrinsically an object of art—has always been challenging. Throughout the ages, it has represented extremely complex technology compared with other technical solutions of the era in question.

The church and the organ

Organ music has always been highly appreciated, not least because of its position in the Western church since the 13th and 14th centuries. Before the rise of concert music in the 19th century, music—excluding folk music—was mainly heard in courts and churches. For ordinary people, the church was somewhere they could hear music. The world was relatively silent at that time, and the powerful sound of the organ must have been a highly impressive experience.

Always considered at least a partial replacement for an orchestra, the organ with its different registers can imitate musical instruments and choral music.

Finnish organists

In Finland, the first organ compositions were written in the 19th and 20th centuries, which also saw the development of organ-playing skills among Finnish musicians. Richard Faltin and Oskar Merikanto are two of the best-known Finnish organists. In Finland, the status of organ music is high, and new organ music is being written morning, noon, and night. Enthusiastic organ music composers abound.

Finland is a fruitful environment for organ music compared to, for example, some Roman Catholic countries, in which churches do not employ professional organists. The magnificent churches of Paris, for example, employ excellent organists only in part-time jobs. In Finland, each parish has an organist of its own, and organists are trained professionally. The parishes also maintain their organs, which is customary in other Lutheran countries and in Germany as well.

Music for secular and sacred occasions

In Holland, the Calvinist church does not favour artistic music, and, during the Reformation, it almost demolished the instruments of the Catholic era. Public, secular administration, however, intervened and bought the instruments. This led to a situation in which, up to the present day, many churches in Holland are owned by the parish but the church organs are owned by towns or cities, which also hire organists. Public administration may also organise organ concerts in churches, but the location does not make the occasions sacred—the church is merely a concert hall on these occasions and can involve a bar with drinks, for example. In Finland, a church is always a sacred environment.

Finnish organs

The biggest organ in Finland is housed in the Lapua Cathedral. In the 1950s and 1960s, many instruments were modernised, not always successfully, and some old instruments were even demolished. Most of the best-known organs are located in the Metropolitan Helsinki area churches and in big churches in general, for example, in the Turku Cathedral. A middle-sized church organ usually has 30–40 registers. The Helsinki Cathedral organ has 50 registers.

The structure of the organ
The organ consists of one or more keyboards and a wind system. The organist operates the organ from the console with a keyboard and pedals. The pipes stand on a windchest with valves. When a key is pressed, wind passes through the windchest and is transported to the pipes by a pair of bellows.
The organ console can include one or more keyboards. One keyboard can include, for example, 60 keys. This set of 60 keys is a register. Each key is connected to an individual pipe. Each register involves another row of pipes. Pipes are measured in feet.
The Helsinki Music Centre organ, with its 90-100 registers, will be Finland’s largest ever organ. The largest pipe will be approximately 5 metres long.
All instruments are different. They are individually designed for their location, space, and use. All pipes are handmade.
Each era and region has had its own style of organ building and organ music writing. Different organ models include the Renaissance organ, the Baroque organ (German, French, late Baroque), and the Romantic organ (various models). Throughout history, the organ has been used to play the music of its era, region, and style. With the rise of concert music, older works began to be performed instead of writing more and more new music. However, concert programmes involving music from different eras posed the problem of eclectic or clashing styles. An attempt to solve this problem was the creation of a “universal” organ; however, a generic solution like this is seldom an ideal solution to anything. As a result, the dilemma of the difference between organ models and the universal organ remains and characterizes the Helsinki Music Centre organ project as well.
Discussions about the required style of the new instrument are continuing: the instrument should represent a particular style but should provide various possibilities for producing different styles of organ music. It should also represent a chosen orientation, which can then be complemented with organs representing the most essential styles. To this effect, the project team will research the best international practices and instruments on a wide scale.