The Organ – An Unmusical Monster?

The Organ. 350 (2009): 33.


“I dislike [...] the fact that the monster never breathes.” – Stravinsky made no effort to conceal his opinion of the organ. And he is not alone in the musical world: After the Baroque era, major composers have either neglected this instrument entirely, or, like Schumann and Brahms, they “devoted just some pieces to it, which are far from being their most significant.” Even Mozart, who referred to the organ as “king of instruments”, not only “left behind no large-scale compositions for the organ apart from a few counterpoint exercises”, but also disdained the idea of employ- ment as an organist. Those who devoted a large part of their output to the organ were “organist-composers” in nineteenth-century France and Germany, e.g. C.M.Widor, L.Vierne, M.Reger and J.G.Rheinberger (although Harvey Grace probably goes too far when he states that Rheinberger’s organ sonatas have greater artistic value than Beethoven’s piano sonatas). We have to wait until the 20th century to find a major composer – Olivier Messiaen – writing substantial music for it.


For this essay, I will study two pianists (Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns) who made significant performances on the organ, as well as three organ trans- criptions of major piano pieces by Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninov and Sergei Prokoviev in order to prove that it is possible to make up for the performer’s lack of control over the instrument’s sound with small changes in the texture of the music; moreover, these limitations can even be used to the pieces’ advantage and the organ can add a new dimension to a well-known piano-piece.

The Organ. 350 (2009): 33-39.