The King of Instruments
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The King of Instruments

Why does nearly every western church have an organ? Why is the organ prevalent in western culture but rare in the east? Who invented it? This book attempts to answer these questions and at the same time demonstrates the difficulty of doing so. It will interest a reader with an enquiring mind, thoughtful about music, engineering or science or who wants to stir up their memories of the classical languages.

To give a definitive answer to how the organ became part of western culture may be impossible. Williams shows the pivotal role of the church, and in particular the importance of Benedictine monastic communities, in the development of the organ in the west and its adoption by the church. The Benedictines' skills in wood and metal working enabled them to build an organ, and their travelling between monasteries spread the knowledge around Europe.

Why make an organ? Such early records as we have suggest that early organs were used outdoors to make impressive sounds on public occasions. One example of this is Romans using them at the circus when Christians were thrown to the lions. The move of the organ from these pagan origins to its strong association with the western church is fascinating and forms the main theme of this book.

A tenth-century poem that describes the organ of Winchester cathedral describes something designed to be impressive. Large in scale, needing a great many men to work it, and heard throughout the city on days of special feasts with their associated processions: the organ was a grand symbol of power. In the centuries that followed the organ became more modest in volume and retreated to being an indoors instrument that could be used in liturgical celebrations alongside the singers.

The shift of technology from the organs of the eleventh century to those of the twenty-first are not so great as the initial steps needed to make the instrument in the first place. The organ that still adorns nearly every church in the country is the present-day expression of a long and venerable tradition. Williams’ The king of instruments will help the reader understand just how interesting that history is.

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The king of instruments: how the organ became part of western culture by Peter Williams is published by OHS Press, Richmond, Virginia, price USD 17.95. Available from