Wild Air

I Want a Principal Within

April 9th, 2012

A Diapason Pipe

I once was talking with an organbuilder about an instrument I had recently played that had been built by a the ___ Organ Company.   As I recall, I said something to the effect that I really liked the flutes and strings on this organ, but wasn’t wild about the principals.   His reply to this was that  the principals (principles) of ___ were not certainly  NOT  as  high as they should be.    Okay… it loses something in the translation.  

When we speak of principal stops in an organ, we are usually talking about stops of the  “diapason” family, that produce what might be called pure organ tone.   The word  “diapason” actually means full-compass, and may refer to  ancient organs in which these pipes were the only ones that played across the entire keyboard compass of the instrument.    In  more recent times, the word has come to mean basic or fundamental, as in Longfellow’s great poem, The Arsenal at Springfield, which compares a military aresnal to a giant and awful pipe organ:  

And ever and anon, in tones of thunder,
The diapason of the cannonade.
 

(The poem also shows that Longfellow knew something of organs!)  

The term “diapason” is found in the English organ tradition.   In most modern organs, we usually call these stops “principals,” a reference to their place in the hierarchy of the organ’s ensemble.   In the orchestra, the concert master is the principal first violinist, and is essentially the lead instrumentalist.   In the organ, the main diapason stop in each division is often called the Principal.   Other stops, their names denoting pitch relative to the Principal, are also diapason stops: the Octave (one octave above the Principal), the SuperOctave (two octaves above), the Twelfth (an octave and a perfect fifth above), the Fifteenth (two octaves above), and so forth.  

The diapasons, or principals if you will, are the tonal backbone of a good classically-conceived  organ.   Each musical tradition, in fact each builder, defines the sound of a good principal differently.     These  voices can be fat, warm, and fluty, or they can be thinner with a hard edge to their sound.   They can be quite loud, or relatively gentle.   They can be heavy or silvery.   So, when judging the sound of an organ, it is perhaps well to start with the principal stops. If you like them, you will probably like the organ. If not, not.  

At times in the organ’s long history, the diapasons have perhaps been mishandled, leading one writer in 1919 to opine, “If (an organ stop) sounds like something you never heard before and are not anxious to hear again, it is undoubtedly Diapason tone.”   Probably the organ our writer had in mind had too few diapasons, and those stops were working too hard – that is, they were overvoiced to fill the room.  

Interestingly, the “principal” stop of the theater organ is not the diapason, but a large flute called the Tibia.    

If you are an organist, get to know your diapasons.   They are the very heart and soul of the organ.

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