The King of Instruments

Pipe organ
Pipe organs give new meaning to the expression "the whole is more than the sum of its parts."

As Eugenia Zuckerman reported on CBS News Sunday Morning in January 2004, some 20,000 or so parts come together to produce soaring melodies, like those of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The incredibly complex combination of wood, metal, ebony, cowbones and more makes music that enables the pipe organ to claim the title, "King of Instruments."

Edward Stout, curator of the organ at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco says, "Really, an organ is just a collection of whistles of different tones and colors and pitches."

That's thousands of whistles, varying in length from a few inches to as long as 32 feet. But, like all whistles, they need air.

Stout showed Zuckerman how the 8000-pipe organ at Grace Cathedral works. Its various components are located all over the church.

Considering how complex a contraption a pipe organ is, it's surprising to learn they're one of the earliest instruments, dating back to the third century B.C.

"Nero apparently played an instrument called a hyrdaulis, because the of the way they used water to create pressure," notes Craig Whitney, an editor The New York Times and himself an amateur organist. He wrote a book called "All the Stops."

"They developed the technology in the Middle Ages," Whitney says, "and they became quite big and complex, and could make a lot of noise. In fact, we think probably the main purpose of a large pipe organ in a medieval cathedral was just to make a noise loud enough to get everyone to be quiet, because now it was time to listen to the service or sermon or whatever."

Just "making noise", of course, doesn't warrant the title, "King of Instruments."

Enter Johann Sebastian Bach, who not only made that noise joyful –but gave it majesty.

World-renowned organ soloist Anthony Newman tells Zuckerman you have to play the pipe organ to write for it, so Bach was "perhaps the greatest of all organists.

"It always gives me goose bumps to play the big Bach works on a big sounding instrument. The harmonies are so grand, and Bach of course felt that…the organ has an unmatched intensity and dynamic possibility, from a double piano to an immense forte, and the possibility of holding chords -- there's no other instrument that can hold that kind of intensity. Even a full orchestra can't hold it."

Zuckerman noticed that Newman's feet "are dancing" as he played a pipe organ. All pipe organs have independent pedal parts, Newman says. "It's very challenging. The pedal parts are very independent. I theorize that if you didn't study pedals before you were 10 or 12, you cannot find the coordination to properly align the two together."

Then, consider that no two pipe organs are exactly the same, Zuckerman observes. Each instrument has different configurations of pipes, pedals, and keyboards, and a unique assortment of knobs, called stops, which control the volume and quality of sounds.

"That's the problem with the organ," Newman points out. "You can get bogged down, especially in an organ of that size, with the mechanical qualities. …The issue with the instrument is to overcome the mechanics of it and make it sound like music."

Add to that complexity, Zuckerman suggests, the fact that most pipe organs are in public spaces, meaning there's very little opportunity to practice.

Asked by Zuckerman why all organists are "crazy" – "flamboyant" – Newman said he prefers "eccentric."

"No question, you have to be a little crazy" to play a pipe organ, Newman admitted. "Here I am with this immense amount of power in front of me. Alone. Aloof. With only the birds and God, you know what I mean?"

"Alone and aloof," Zuckerman concluded. "Holding court -- with the king of instruments."