Skip to main content

An instrument played with four limbs

In Western music, there are very few instruments that are played with both hands and feet. There is the harp and the drumkit, but the pipe organ is arguably the prime example. When the pipe organ is mentioned, we often think of European cathedrals. If you get to travel to Europe, try and visit one of those magnificent buildings and admire the gorgeous pipe organs inside. It would be a huge bonus if you could attend a pipe organ concert.


The history of the pipe organ can be traced back to ancient Greece in the third century BC. At that time, the design of the pipe organ was relatively simple. Pipes of various lengths were blown by air, where the power source was usually a manual pump or water. After improvements for over two thousand years, the modern pipe organ generally uses electricity to provide air for the pipes. Each row of pipes is controlled by its own “stop”, and they produce a huge variety of sounds; the organ can produce the lowest and highest pitches of any musical instrument and can produce the loudest and softest sounds too. No wonder it is regarded as “the king of instruments”.

Since the pipe organs were usually funded by the church to be built inside the churches, it was natural that early pipe organ music was largely of a religious nature. Under the full support of the church, many famous composers had written wonderful musical pieces for this instrument. Among them, the accomplished composers-and-pipe organists Handel and J. S. Bach of the Baroque Period (1600-1750) are the most critically acclaimed. Besides writing sacred music, these masters also wrote numerous secular works for the pipe organ. Take the examples of toccata, prelude and fugue. Though often featured before and after masses, toccata and prelude have largely been used by players to display their remarkable skills, that is not much related to religion. These works often require the player to perform with all four limbs; thus it is sometimes physically demanding to give a successful performance. As for the fugue, which is famous for its complex voices, the organ is well suited to play this form because it can play many parts simultaneously. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is perhaps the most popular of this genre.


Due to a change in social trends since the Classical Period (1750-1820), the pipe organ had been “frozen” for some time, until it became active on stage again in the nineteenth century. Composers of the Romantic Period (1820-1900) tried to bring the pipe organ out of the churches. Not only did they write musical pieces with a major romantic element, they also included organ to play along with other instruments. Some composers even treated the pipe organ as part of the orchestra and created music featuring both the loud sounding pipe organ and the orchestra. One such example is Saint-Saëns's Symphony no. 3 in C minor, Organ.


As an eminent pianist and pipe organist, Saint-Saëns wrote this Organ Symphony in 1886 and dedicated it to the legendary piano master Franz Liszt. Unlike a traditional symphony, this musical piece does not have four movements, but comprises two major parts, with each part made up of two continuous movements. The symphony, a collaboration of “the king of instruments” and the versatile orchestra, is truly a novel experience that all music lovers cannot afford to miss in a live performance.