The Status and Future of the Organ
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  The Status and Future of the Organ 

 

by Colin Pykett

 

"There is no dogma that the organ or harmonium can be used in church, but not the drum"

Cardinal Francis Arinze

 

Posted: 7 October 2011

Last revised: 24 January 2014

Copyright © C E Pykett 2011-2014

 

Abstract.  The current status of both pipe and digital organs are examined in this article in terms of their respective businesses.  In the UK, that for pipe organs is characterised by three well defined groups of organ building firms (‘large’, ‘medium’ and ‘small’) in terms of the number of staff employed.  Most fall into the ‘small’ category in which firms with only two staff are the most common.  Firms in this category undertake mainly tuning and maintenance activities.  The digital organ business largely lacks this category because these products have a shorter life than pipe organs, therefore they tend to be replaced rather than maintained over very long periods.

 

The future of pipe organs is uncertain in the medium to long term because the industry possibly faces a ‘critical mass’ scenario in which it could cease to exist if the number of instruments falls below a certain level.  If this happens it is unlikely the industry could be resurrected because the necessary skills would have been irrecoverably lost.  This is unlike the digital organ, which could be built at will any time in the future using standard techniques and components common across the digital audio industry much as it is today.

 

Therefore the organ in one form or another has a long term future, but it is quite possible that only the digital instrument will be robust enough to survive indefinitely.

 

 

Contents

(click on the headings below to access the desired section)

 

Introduction

 

Does the organ have a future?

 

Pipes versus Electronics

 

The Market

 

The pipe organ business

 

The digital organ business

 

Concluding Remarks

 

Notes and References

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Some years ago I posted an article on this website which seeded a surprising amount of interest and ongoing controversy.  Entitled The End of the Pipe Organ? [1], it was primarily a detailed technical justification of my view (which I still hold) that digital organs will never sound as good as pipe organs into the forseeable future.  However in the interests of balance, it also addressed the shortcomings of pipe organs and concluded that there was nevertheless room for improvement.  This article now looks at the situation anew after a gap of some six years to see if things have changed and if so, how.

 

This time there is much less emphasis on technical issues.  To my mind the most important question today is whether organs of all types might eventually vanish to the point of extinction.  The more one examines it, the more one comes to the view that this Doomsday scenario is not totally improbable and therefore worth discussing.  Among other things, it would mean that authentic performances of the organ works of Bach, for example, would become impossible or at least extremely rare.  When set against this eventuality, other issues such as the pipes versus electronics controversy almost pale into insignificance.  Therefore I do not differentiate as strongly in this article between pipe organs and digital organs as I did in the earlier one.  The consequential issue of whether either type of instrument could be resurrected if lost is also relevant and it is explored in the article.

 

Another reason for sidestepping the pipes versus electronics topic is that similar market forces now seem to be shaping the future for both types of instrument, and in turn these are the product of diverse cultural, economic and social phenomena which have not gone away.  Indeed, if anything, they have become progressively more dominant over the last decade or so.  To most people outside the comfortable world inhabited by us organ devotees, whether they be church or concert goers or not, an organ is an organ and it seems to matter little to them whether it emits its sounds from loudspeakers or pipes.  Whether pipe or digital, organs are just not cool to the public.  Both types are frequently identified with the type of politicised state christianity which accompanied Empire with its overtones of race and social class.  At least in Britain, the church is trying to detach itself from this legacy and many of them appear to think that distancing themselves from the organ will assist.  The situation is well summed up by a recently retired Anglican bishop who said to the incumbent of a church at which I was then the organist “the organ is too intrusive both visually and aurally” after having expressed his desire to do away with robed choirs in his Diocese.  One wonders whether this pressure was applied to his cathedral as well, or were they exempted?

 

Consequently it is an uncomfortable fact that it is solely the future customer base for organs of both types which will eventually determine their fate, rather than what a bunch of more strongly committed individuals, pressure groups or other minorities might wish.  Therefore there is no point hiding one’s head in the sand by analysing the situation in any other way.  In this article I do not address the market forces themselves in much detail but rather their effects on the pipe and digital organ businesses, because it is simpler and more directly relevant to do it that way.

 

 

Does the organ have a future?

 

The question as to whether organs of either type have a future at all is being asked increasingly often, and we need to address this first.  Presumably what is meant is whether the organ will vanish for all practical purposes within a relatively short time.  An implied secondary question then arises, which is whether it would matter.

 

It is possible to take some small comfort from the fact that it is unlikely no organs at all will exist in the forseeable future, which in practice means the next generation or two (i.e. the next fifty years or so).  At least a few will probably continue to be playable and played as long as we have something approaching the number of cathedrals we currently enjoy (nearly 150 across mainland Britain plus Ireland).  In addition there are the prestigious instruments in various schools and other secular venues.  However the frequency of organ recitals might well continue to decline together with the sizes of the audiences.  As far as cathedrals are concerned this means that the organ is progressively less likely to be heard outside its accompanimental role as time goes on, indeed we are not far from this today.  Therefore the instrument may well have to confront an issue of critical mass within a generation or two – how many of them would be required to sustain a vestigial organ building industry, together with the ability to attract a continuing stream of gifted players?  I do not know the answer to this question but it seems one worth asking, because below this critical mass a situation of sudden and complete collapse is not unrealistic to contemplate, a situation analogous to that of the theatre organ today.  In fact it would be worse because a few theatre organs are only able to struggle on thanks to the existence of an organ building and supplier industry upheld by the traditional pipe organ.  Even if total collapse does not occur, 150 organs in cathedrals scattered across the British Isles is not far removed from it.  If the number of trumpets, say, fell to this figure it would probably be concluded that the instrument had to all intents and purposes vanished completely.

 

Below the exalted and rather unrepresentative level of cathedrals and concert halls the situation is viewed as dire by many commentators and it seems destined to get worse.  The British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS) is but one organisation which has apparently accepted this without being able to suggest solutions.  Some years ago they were already forecasting "a scenario in which pipe organs are exceedingly rare ... along with the role of the organ in a long-defunct parish system” [8].  Yet there are still thousands of small and medium sized organs remaining in our churches, so now is the time for action rather than leaving it until it is too late.  Put another way, the direness of the situation is more cultural than real as of today, but unfortunately negativity has now become the default state of mind.  It strikes me as sad that organisations such as BIOS are apparently not grasping this nettle while they still can – the issue of the organ’s survival - rather than focusing so strongly on the historical and antiquarian aspects which will only ever interest a small minority.

 

The critical mass phenomenon mentioned above is related to the current size of the organ building industry.  Statistics shown later demonstrate that most British organ builders employ no more than two staff, and firms of this size mainly service the tuning and maintenance requirements of existing organs.  Anything but the smallest overhauls and new builds can obviously only be undertaken by larger concerns, and moreover it is these which currently provide the training ground for those who later branch out on their own to form the small startup firms.  Therefore, should too many of the larger firms go under as a result of the shrinking market for new instruments or major rebuilds, there will be a domino effect which will also wipe out many of  the smallest ones as well.  This will also result in the disappearance of the skilled craftsmen essential to the organ building profession, and once this happens it is difficult to see how they could be replaced once the market itself has vanished.

 

As to the secondary question posed above, whether the situation matters, it surely must matter that we do not lose the ability for fine players to render live organ music to audiences, in particular the works of one of the greatest composers in history, J S Bach.  If this happened, not only would we lose their performances but the executants themselves – another consequence of the critical mass phenomenon.  If this was deemed unimportant then I might as well stop writing at this point, so I assume it is permissible to take it as a given as far as this article is concerned.  Thus in plain words, it does matter that the organ has a future.  Unfortunately this view is clearly not shared by some within mainstream music, by some recording and broadcasting organisations and by many within the church.   The latter aspect is particularly important in view of the strong association between the organ and religion, though it is now proving to be its Achilles heel.  Churchgoing is diminishing, thus churches are closing, and fewer churches mean fewer organs.  However the effect is amplified by a disproportionality, because attempts by the shrinking church to attract worshippers include replacing their organs by other instruments or none.  Therefore, unless the organ can suddenly project itself onto the world stage as a secular instrument in its own right, like the violin for example, it is difficult to see how the decline can be halted.  Unfortunately it is also difficult to see how this could be accomplished, even though many of Bach’s greatest works for the instrument are non-programmatic and arguably secular.  It is a cultural travesty that we even have to contemplate a situation where these, some of the most sublime achievements of the human mind, might one day become unplayable on any but a few extant instruments maintained as little more than museum pieces.  Yet that is what we are faced with if the critical mass scenario comes to pass.  In that event one can foresee that, beyond legacy recordings, most audiences would only be able to hear transcriptions for orchestra or other instruments of Bach’s organ works.  Some already exist, and presumably they would become more popular and possibly more would be written.

 

Of course, other voices are raised from time to time against this state of affairs, which at least confirms that it is appreciated more generally.  Most recently at the time of writing, we have had the Symposium on the Importance and Future of the Organ [3].  I wonder rhetorically how many readers have heard of it though?  Held in Zurich in September 2011, it resulted in an earnest and very long Resolution which at first sight is impressive, calling on “politicians, church representatives, cultural officials and the broad public to take over responsibility for the preservation and the promotion of the cultural values of the organ”.  One does not wish to lightly pour cold water on it.  However it can be little more than words, because deeds cost money at a time when the world as a whole has little of it to spare, and in this respect the Symposium could scarcely have been held at a worse moment.  Perhaps a candid reflection of how the world has received it so far can be judged by Googling for ‘zurich symposium organ’ (omitting the quotes).  When I did this recently [4], only three hits on the first results page actually found the Symposium’s website, the remainder merely picking it up as chatter on a few Internet discussion forums or YouTube, together with one or two hits dealing with unrelated things like biomedical simulation.  All trace of it vanished on subsequent Google pages.  This is a bad omen for the impact of the Symposium.  Although its visibility might improve over time, a bit of urgent search engine optimisation is required of the Symposium’s website at the very least.  In addition one hopes that reports of the Symposium will find their way onto the pages of the major organ magazines shortly.

 

Thus despite Zurich, I have not yet been able to convince myself that the organ does have much of a future beyond the next half-century or so, though for the purposes of this article I obviously hope and assume that it does.

 

 

Pipes versus Electronics

 

Having stated already the intention not to highlight the divide between pipes and electronics too strongly, it is nevertheless necessary to address the issue briefly if only for the sake of completeness.

 

There can be no doubt that the best pipe organs sound better than digitals for those capable of discriminating between them.  The issues are objective and demonstrable [1], and therefore it verges on the insulting when manufacturers of electronic simulations insist otherwise.  The fact that some of them do merely demonstrates their cynical focus on the less discerning market segment.  However this is not really the point here.  What matters more is whether digital organs today are good enough, without being necessarily the best, to satisfy a large enough proportion of the market.  It seems pretty obvious that they are deemed good enough, and we should not be surprised by this.  After all, in this respect they are not much different in kind to the imitative reed ‘organs’ of a century and more ago which apparently satisfied a similar customer sector, but in a much larger market (measured by the number of churches of course).

 

If further discussion be sought, one can do no better than to consider the growth of the hybrid pipe-digital instrument.  This probably reflects an emerging view, largely among pipe organ builders themselves, that it is better to have half a loaf than none – to remain in business in some form rather than not at all.  That some firms have resolutely gone this way despite attracting the ire of others, as well as of certain trade organisations, perhaps demonstrates the deepening crisis affecting the industry at large.  A recent example of such an instrument is that in the important city centre church of St Peter in Nottingham.  Apparently this was selected on the advice, not only of the local Diocesan Organs Adviser, but of many others as well [2].  With this level of backing the hybrid organ seems destined to stay, and its existence provides further evidence that the former divide between pipe and electronic sound production is no longer viewed as unbridgeable even within the pipe organ fraternity.  Therefore we need spend no more time discussing pipes versus electronics here.  What matters more is the market.

 

 

The Market

 

The market for organs consists of churches and a variety of secular venues ranging from concert halls to private homes of all sizes.  We have noted that, on the whole, it would be a mistake to bifurcate it too strongly into the two sectors corresponding to pipe and digital organs.  Although a few venues might be expected to opt for a pipe organ, the largest and most prestigious being the obvious ones, even these instruments might today contain digital stops (e.g. Southwell Minster and St Peter’s, Nottingham), and some might buck the assumption completely by going for a fully digital organ (e.g. the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford).  Therefore we are on surer ground by regarding the market as a single one embracing organs of both types.

 

Given this, it is then appropriate to consider other instruments which compete against both pipe and digital organs.  In churches these include the various incarnations of worship bands, and in the home cheap electronic ‘keyboards’ which can be made to sound like ersatz organs have existed for many years now.  Two or more of these can be stacked to approximate to an organ with more than one manual.  But over the last few years another type of digital instrument has arisen which so far seems to be making inroads mainly into the home market, the ‘virtual pipe organ’ or VPO.  A VPO system which I developed myself is described elsewhere on this site [5].  VPOs use personal computers to store and generate the sounds, they are often home-made and they are cheap (though not necessarily nasty by any means).  Because of these differences it would be wrong to regard them as digital organs of the traditional sort, if only because they compete with those products for market share.  But because organ music can be played on a VPO just as easily as on a conventional digital organ or a pipe organ, they can be lumped together with them for the purposes of this article.  This is because we are motivated here largely by whether it matters that we continue to have instruments of any sort which can render organ music for the foreseeable future.  This was touched on above, and in this context pipe organs, digital organs, hybrid organs and VPO’s are all much the same thing.  I am afraid that those who disagree might well be ignoring the main problem by merely fiddling while the city burns around them.

 

However, discussion of the market itself will not be taken further because it would involve a complex mix of cultural and socio-economic factors, how these have evolved into their current form and how they might evolve in the future.  This goes way beyond the scope of this article.  It is simpler and more directly relevant to look next at the current state of the pipe and digital organ businesses because these obviously respond to the market, and then to hazard some educated guesses as to how they might change in the future.

 

 

The pipe organ business

 

Anyone with the slightest interest in the organ will know that its health as measured by the number of firms still active is decreasing, and this sad trend has accelerated within the last two decades.  In the 1990’s Hill, Norman and Beard finally shut up shop after the the rumours circulating about them became self-fulfilling [6].  Not long afterwards Rushworth and Dreaper ceased trading.  Yet another famous name reportedly had to be recapitalised in 2010 after a £300,000 loss [10].  Among other firms still in business a number of mergers and acquisitions have taken place.  These are just a few examples of how the pipe organ business is having to adapt to a contracting market.

 

In an attempt to estimate more quantitatively how this trend is continuing, in the earlier article already referred to [1] I discussed the pipe organ business both in terms of its quality and size.  The latter was estimated on the basis of published statistics which suggested a fairly rapid decline year on year of the numbers employed in the industry.  A linear extrapolation of those numbers suggested (with tongue firmly in cheek) that nobody would be left by 2012!  Nevertheless, as we are now approaching that fateful year it is therefore appropriate that we look again at the situation.

 

That article was written in 2005, so it could not represent anything more recent.  Therefore, six years on, let us take a snapshot of the number of firms and the number of employees in each one as they existed a year later, in 2006, and compare them with similar data for today in 2011.  Although this might sound straightforward, it is hedged with difficulties.  For instance, does one include only organ builders or component and pipe making firms as well?  Either way, the number of firms is relatively small and the total number employed by them only amounts to a few hundred, thus both have to be estimated reasonably accurately if the data are to be useful.  If a firm only employs two people one must know this for sure, rather than casually assuming it might be four, five or ten say.  Therefore how does one get hold of such data in the first place?

 

Fortunately the Institute of British Organ Building (IBO) maintains a detailed register of its currently accredited firms which is available publicly on its website [7], and similar historical data can be extracted from its yearly house journal Organ Building (formerly The Organbuilder).  However by no means all firms are included in the register and some of these absentees are well known, well respected and important.  Moreover, about 13 firms on the register in 2006 are not represented today (2011) even though some remain active.  Conversely, about 6 firms figure now which did not in 2006.  This coming and going is inevitable and it obviously reflects uncertainties onto the data, but it is difficult to do much about it.  We just have to go with what we have, and the IBO data is without doubt very useful.  At least it must reflect a reasonably up to date year-on-year snapshot of the state of the pipe organ business in Britain which would be almost impossible to obtain by other means.  Therefore the data will be now be discussed further, but note that considerable manipulation of the raw information was necessary in order to extract the statistics presented below.  This was done with care but it is mentioned in case errors might have arisen, for which I offer apologies in advance.  If they exist they will be mine and not the fault of the IBO.

 

Restricting the discussion solely to organ builders, i.e. neglecting pipe makers and other suppliers, there were 48 accredited firms in 2006 compared with 41 in 2011.  On the face of it this represents a decline of about 15%, though its significance is diluted by the several firms which continue to trade even though they are no longer on the register in 2011.  Nevertheless, there remains an obvious decline even taking into account (as these figures do) the 6 additional firms on the register today which were not there in 2006.  It is estimated that the overal decline is about 12% given that some active firms are no longer on the register.  This figure is still significant and possibly serious in that it has occurred over only six years.

 

As for staff, there was a total of 236 employed in 2006 compared with 231 today (2011).  These figures must be interpreted along with the number of firms which employed them, but unlike the firms themselves the decline in staff numbers is small and probably insignificant over the five years represented by the data.  The staff complement of 7 firms increased between 2006 and 2011 whereas that of 7 others decreased.  This must account to some extent for the relative constancy noted in the total numbers.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the data is the distribution of staff among the various firms, and this is shown for 2011 as the histogram in Figure 1.

 

 

 

Figure 1.  Distribution of staff numbers among IBO-accredited organ builders (2011)

 

Each bar represents the number of firms having the number of staff shown on the horizontal axis.  Thus, for example, the first bar on the left shows that there are 4 firms with only 1 member of staff.

 

Some other features are relevant:

 

1. In statistical terms the distribution is multimodal, that is it has several peaks and troughs.  To some extent this merely reflects the granularity associated with the limited amount of data, though it does show that the majority of firms are very small – 34 firms out of the total of 41 (83%) employ 6 people or less as shown by the cluster of bars to the left of the distribution.

 

2.  Three somewhat larger firms employ 9 - 10 and another three 14 - 15.

 

3.  There is then nothing between these and the single firm which employs over 50.

 

4.  Therefore we can reasonably separate firms into the three groups of ‘small’ ‘medium’ and ‘large’.  There are 34 ‘small’ firms with 1 – 6 staff, 6 ‘medium sized’ firms with 9 – 15 and one ‘large’ firm with 50+.

 

5. The principal mode of the distribution, representing the number of staff which are found most frequently, is well defined and it equals 2.  This is the second bar from the left and it shows that 11 out of  the 41  firms (27%) employ only 2 staff.

 

Thus it is seen that the current British organ building industry is very small, though this is not a criticism in itself because any business can but reflect the size of the market it services.  It is going too far to say that it heralds the approach of the critical mass scenario mentioned earlier in which the industry could collapse, but it might indicate a lack of robustness in the longer term .  We have noted already that the number of firms has declined by a significant factor (probably around 12% if non-IBO firms are included) over the last five years, but set against this is the encouraging fact that the total number of employees has remained about the same.   Therefore perhaps the rather steep decline in the numbers employed a few years ago and noted in the previous article [1] has bottomed out, at least for the short term.  It is now definitely unlikely that everyone will have disappeared by 2012!

 

The data in Figure 1 seem to capture quite well in numbers the qualitative flavour of the organ building business which most readers will recognise, though this is really only a statement of the obvious – all industries reflect their markets.  Importantly, it confirms that the data are broadly sensible even though they exclude the considerable number of non-IBO accredited firms.  Most of the ‘small’ firms are so small that they are probably well positioned to capture much of the tuning and maintenance business on account of their low overheads and therefore their ability to offer cost-competitive services.  They are able to escape the worst effects of VAT, other business taxes and the capital and depreciation costs of major plant and premises.  Although the turnover and profit margin from such work is relatively low in absolute terms, it will still have a good chance of sustaining these firms with only a small handful of staff as long as the number of organs remains much as it is today.  At the other end of the spectrum, the single ‘large’ firm has actually grown in terms of employee numbers since 2006, which presumably indicates a pretty healthy business position for the most prestigious work even given the general austerity of the times.

 

The ‘medium sized’ firms attract a mix of both types of work – tuning and maintenance on the one hand together with medium to large contracts on the other.  It is interesting that some firms of this size have effectively split their businesses in two, presumably to enable them to handle the two aspects competitively.  Others have relocated into different premises either nearby or at a greater distance.  All this illustrates an ability and determination to invest in their businesses by adapting and remaining responsive to a somewhat challenging climate.  One hopes that the challenges do not become so overwhelming as to cause businesses to fold completely, and thus we might find mergers or acquisitions playing a continuing role in the short to medium term as they have in the past.  It is a strategy which is in the interests of the employees, the client base and the survival of the organ itself.

 

Nothing has yet been said about the inroads being made by offshore firms into organ building in the UK.  This is mainly because it adds too many extra dimensions of complication which cannot be addressed here.  However it is only necessary to say that it is a factor which is apparent to all and it is bound to play a part in whether the organ survives in the UK, and whether the indigenous organ building industry will survive also.  The trade will be aware that the two issues are separable precisely because of the role played by the offshore element.  Nevertheless the situation works both ways, and UK firms have always been conspicuous by their appetite for work overseas.

 

 

The digital organ business

 

No data comparable with that just presented for pipe organs are available for digitals.  This is partly because no single trade body exists comparable to the IBO from which the data could be drawn.  But one reason for the absence of such a trade body is because of the international nature of the digital organ business which contrasts strongly with the national character of that for pipe organs.  British firms still largely service the UK pipe organ scene, north American ones that in the USA and Canada, etc.  On the other hand, digital organs have been associated with global enterprises from the outset with some large firms, mainly in America and Europe, dominating the world market for many decades.  One only has to think of Hammond from as far back as the 1930’s to illustrate the point.  At the same time these firms have co-existed with many smaller businesses based in several countries and some of the latter, though operating on a lesser scale, have nevertheless branched out internationally over the years.

 

Beyond this there are some similarities between the pipe and digital organ businesses because they are at the mercy of similar market forces as pointed out already.  Thus mergers and acquisitions have been almost commonplace for many years, and some brands would have disappeared completely had their names not been appropriated for re-badging quite different products.  Within the UK we once had a plethora of small to medium sized electronic organ firms (using similar definitions of ‘small’ and ‘medium’ to those used earlier for pipe organ builders), but most of these vanished in the late 1980’s and subsequently when analogue technology gave way entirely to digital.  Those which remained have consolidated their positions through yet more mergers from time to time.

 

Digital organs are replaced more often than pipe organs, so the strong emphasis on maintenance over many years or decades which is a necessary feature of the latter is not as relevant to the former.  Although digital organs do need maintenance from time to time, this difference is reflected in the business.  In particular there is nothing like the preponderance of ‘small’ pipe organ firms operating in the digital field.   The digital organ business is more akin to that of the ‘medium sized’ group of pipe organ builders in that less than ten firms account for most of the trade.

 

The future of digital organs is more strongly affected by technology than is the case with pipe organs.  If you produce music by blowing wind through pipes, the way you actually do it is of secondary importance – you will always need metal foundries, pipe makers, voicers and tuners even though the type of action and wind raising gear will vary.  This is quite different to digital musical instruments.  Since the mid-1980’s there have existed two ways of generating sounds digitally – sampled sounds which have been copied as electrical waveforms from pipe organs, and additive synthesis which reconstructs sounds mathematically from their harmonic series.  More recently a third method has been introduced, physical modelling, which employs mathematical models of the sound generating process in organ pipes enshrined as equations within a computer.  I described these techniques in more detail in Organists’ Review in an article in 2009 which is also now available on this website [9].

 

The software and hardware required for all three methods has undergone progressive evolutions, and this will continue.  Until about ten years ago specialised large scale integrated circuits (LSI chips) were needed to generate the sounds, and these were expensive to develop.  They would not have appeared at all had it not been for the huge demands of the global digital audio industry which makes things like ‘keyboards’ and synthesisers for pop musicians as well as computer sound cards.  Now there is a move towards the use of programmable industry standard DSP (digital signal processing) chips running under the control of industry standard operating systems such as Linux.  These are available off the shelf and they offer the promise of making the development of new or improved sound generating systems cheaper and more future-proof in an obsolescence sense.  Once a reasonably generic hardware system has been assembled from these off the shelf components, it is then only necessary to program it for specific digital organ purposes.

 

Interestingly, the question as to whether digital organs will vanish altogether is irrelevant, and this puts them into an entirely different league to pipe organs.  If the critical mass scenario mentioned earlier for pipe organs comes to pass, it will thereafter become next to impossible to resurrect the tradition of organ building.  The consequential disappearance of craftsmen such as pipe makers and voicers would be cataclysmic in the sense they could not easily be replaced once they had become lost to the world.  However it is difficult to see how this could ever happen in the case of digital organs.  Even if one postulated a scenario in which every single digital organ and digital organ manufacturer was wiped off the face of the planet, anyone who then decided to make a digital organ from scratch could nevertheless do so.  One would simply construct a DSP system configured and programmed for digital music purposes and load into it the desired sounds.  In practice even this would not strictly be necessary because it is inconceivable that digital musical instruments in some other form, such as synthesisers, would not still exist and these could be used as the basis of the desired organ.  This is because digital organs are merely a special case of synthesisers; they only exist today because they ride on the back of the mainstream technology developed for the popular music and digital audio industry at large.  Another option would be to host a virtual pipe organ on a general purpose computer in the same way as today.

 

Therefore even if pipe organs were to vanish, digital organs would not.  This means one will be able to play the organ works of Bach on them in perpetuity, though whether this prospect will please everybody is quite another matter.

 

 

Concluding Remarks

 

The current status of both pipe and digital organs have been examined in terms of their respective businesses.  In the UK, that for pipe organs is characterised by three well defined groups of organ building firms (‘large’, ‘medium’ and ‘small’) in terms of the number of staff employed.  By far the majority (83%) fall into the ‘small’ category in which firms with only two staff are the most common.  Firms in this category undertake mainly tuning and maintenance activities.  The digital organ business largely lacks this category because these products have a shorter life than pipe organs, therefore they tend to be replaced rather than maintained over very long periods.

 

The future of pipe organs is uncertain in the medium to long term because the industry possibly faces a ‘critical mass’ scenario in which it could cease to exist if the number of instruments falls below a certain level.  If this happens it is unlikely the industry could be resurrected because the necessary skills would have been irrecoverably lost.  This is unlike the digital organ, which could be built at will any time in the future using standard techniques and components common across the digital audio industry much as it is today.

 

Therefore the organ in one form or another has a long term future, but it is quite possible that only the digital instrument will be robust enough to survive indefinitely.

 

 

Notes and References

 

1. “The End of the Pipe Organ?” C E Pykett, 2005.  Available on this website (read)

 

2. The hybrid organ at St Peter’s, Nottingham was chosen after much advice from the pipe organ establishment including, inter alia, the National Conference of Diocesan Organ Advisers as well as from the local DOA (Paul Hale).

 

Source: "Replacing the organ, St Peter’s Church Nottingham", Peter Siepmann, 10 January 2009.  On 5 July 2010 this was available at the following URL but the link has since been broken:

 

http://www.nottinghamchurches.org/organ/brochure.pdf

 

3. International Symposium on the Importance and Future of the Organ, 8 – 11 September 2011, Zurich

 

4. I Googled for ‘zurich symposium organ’ (no quotes) on 4 Oct 2011

 

5.  The Prog Organ virtual pipe organ system is described on this website (read)

 

6. In the November 1997 edition of Organists’ Review the Hill, Norman & Beard advertisement contained the following:

 

“We are aware that some people have resorted to rumour mongering and the reports we have heard as to HN&B’s position are untrue.  We state now that action may have to be taken if malicious rumours prove detrimental to the company”

 

Only six monthe later, the May 1998 edition was the last in which they advertised.

 

7.  The IBO website is at  http://www.ibo.co.uk  (Accessed on 7 October 2011)

 

8.  Editorial, BIOS Reporter, October 2005 (anonymous).

 

9.  “Digital Organs Today”, C E Pykett, Organists’ Review, November 2009.  Also available on this website (read)

 

10. Report in the Liverpool Daily Post, 11 April 2013 by Neil Hodgson about the financial problems of Henry Willis and Sons.