Abbey Organ Chronicles I: Medieval Europe

The pipe organ in the church of Saint John’s Abbey and University was completed by the elder Walter Holtkamp in 1961 as his last major project. It has 65 ranks and three manuals. Plans are underway for a massive expansion of this instrument, with work scheduled to begin in 2018.

This series of occasional chronicles will report on the history of organ building, especially by Benedictines, forerunners in Collegeville to the Holtkamp organ, the process of completing the 1961 instrument, and the expansion project as it unfolds.

In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V sent an organ and other costly gifts to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. King Pepin may have requested this earlier. Pepin’s son Charlemagne was impressed with the organ and is said to have requested a similar instrument from either a Byzantine leader or the caliph of Bagdad. It arrived in 812 and was put in the chapel in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French).

In 826 a monk from Venice by the name of Georgius constructed an organ for the palace of Louis I in Aachen. Soon, monks in many monasteries across Europe began to build organs. These were used to give signals rather than accompany the liturgy; it is reported that they were also used to teach chant. In the ninth century there are reports of organs at the Benedictine monastery of Bages in Catalonia as well as several cathedrals.

In England in the seventh century, the Irish monk Maeldulph is said to have built organs. Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (909-988) built organs for Glastonbury Abbey and other churches.

The famous monk Wulfstan of Winchester (c. 960 – early 11th century), poet, cantor, and composer, gives us the first extensive account of a bellows organ. It seems that the good monk was given to exaggeration – historians do not believe his fanciful account of the Winchester organ:

[T]he instrument had twenty-six bellows (requiring “seventy strong men”), forty notes of ten pipes apiece, and a divided set of perforated sliders requiring “two brethren of concordant spirit…each managing his own alphabet,” a diatonic (white key) scale, plus B flat. The hyperbolic Wulfstan compares its sound with “thunder; the iron tones batter the ear… reverberating to such a degree, echoing in every direction, that everyone stops his gaping ears with his hands, unable to draw near and hear the sound that so many combinations produce. The music is heard throughout the town and over the whole landscape.”

In the spirit of Wulfstan, it is tempting to report that the expanded pipe organ at Saint John’s Abbey will have six manuals (recalling the six days of Creation) and 288 ranks (one for each article of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium). But no: the completed organ will have well over 100 ranks, and that will be more than enough to challenge and delight the organists who play it.

Coming: Dom Bedos de Celles, Benedictine organ builder of the 18th century.


(Images: Coronation of Charlemagne, Biblioteque nationale de France; 14th c. ms. from England, British Museum. Material on Wulfstan: The Organ, an Encyclopedia, Douglas Earl Bush, Richard Kassel, Psychology Press, 2006, 327-8.)


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