The Pipe Organ Keyboards
Posted on Mar 04, 2020 by William Canady
No matter where you are in the world, a pipe organ will have a keyboard of some sort. Whether it has black keys with white flats and sharps or white keys with black flats and sharps, it will have a keyboard. Some organs can have as many keyboards as can possibly be reached. For example, the pipe organ used at the Boardwalk Hall auditorium in Atlantic City has seven keyboards.
Pipe organ keyboards are commonly referred to as manuals in the organ world. In America and England, we label our manuals by Great, Swell, Solo, Orchestral, Echo, Antiphonal, and so on. Every organ will have one manual referred to as "The Great manual." The Great is used as the home base in most organs, and typically featured a standard set of sounds (This will be talked about in later weeks). Our organ at Salem only has two manuals, the Great and the manual above it, called the Swell. Typically in sheet music for the organ, the various manuals will be labeled with Roman numerals to indicate the keyboard to be played. Roman numeral I is for the Great, and II represents the Swell.
So what do the manuals do? Well, they are a critical part of the organ. Each manual controls a portion of the organ's sound, texture, and timbre. For example, the Great manual will typically feature the louder sounds of the organ, and display a broader range than the Swell manual division. The Swell is used for softer sounds than the Great. The Swell is labeled this because of its unique position as a division of pipe. Typically the Swell is enclosed so that the organist is able to quickly crescendo and decrescendo the sound of the organ to fit the occasion. With the Great, for example, this is not always the case. In most auditoriums that house pipe organs, the pipes that correspond with the Great will typically be unenclosed and visibly exposed. This results in a louder sound that fills the entire auditorium or sanctuary.
Lastly, the keyboard that makes the organ different from a piano is the keyboard on the floor. This is known as the pedalboard. There is only one pedalboard at Salem, as we only have one set of feet that are already busy controlling parts of the organ. The organist incorporates the pedaled notes by playing them, producing various sounds. Most American Guild of Organists (AGO) standard pedalboards will have a standard size, curvature, and placement. The AGO requires a concave/radiating pedalboard; this is similar in the United Kingdom. In Germany, you will find the pedalboard keys side by side in a parallel layout identical to the manuals themselves, only larger. In fact, Bach played an organ in this historical and similar style. But I must confess, a concave pedalboard is much easier to play and navigate.
All in all, the manual and pedalboards are essential parts of the pipe organ. Next time, we will talk about how I play the organ using my feet.
Salem’s organist has written a series of articles about the organ for Staff Trax this year. This is part 2 of 7.