Posts Tagged ‘bellows’

Photo: Early Music America.
Catalina Vicens often performs on an organetto replica built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany.

For something a little different today, let’s look at a forgotten medieval instrument that a few enthusiasts have brought back to the world’s attention: a handheld pipe organ.

Kyle MacMillan reports at Early Music America last week, “Attend a few organ recitals in a church or concert hall and you’ll know that the instruments can vary widely in size — from behemoths with several thousand pipes to moveable, chamber models with just a handful of stops.

“Almost completely forgotten, though, is that an even smaller kind of pipe organ once existed. Called an organetto, it was typically played perpendicularly on a performer’s lap and was one of the most popular instruments in the 13th and the 14th centuries.

“A contemporary reproduction of this tiny organ will be front and center this week when the Chicago-based Newberry Consort presents Music Fit for the Medicis, featuring works that would have been heard at the powerful family’s court. Showcased will be 14th-century songs and dances taken from manuscripts found in the library of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). …

“Featured as the Newberry’s organetto soloist will be Chilean-born Catalina Vicens, an internationally known historical keyboard performer and teacher who lives in Basel, Switzerland, and Bologna, Italy. She is artistic director of the Museo San Colombano, housed in a former monastery in Bologna, which dates to the Seventh Century. She also serves as curator of the Tagliavini Collection, the museum’s prize holding and one of the largest historical keyboard collections in Europe. …

“The organetto fell out of fashion by the 16th century. ‘They weren’t use in anymore, as far as we know, and they didn’t survive,’ Vicens told me.

What experts know today about the organetto comes from its depiction in hundreds of medieval paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows, and well as the literature of the period.

“The instrument is mentioned, for example, in the Roman de la Rose, a famous medieval poem written in Old French, and the organetto playing of Francesco Landini, a famed 14th-century Italian composer and organist, is described in a novella by Giovanni da Prato.

“Today’s organettos, which are based on this historical imagery and documentation and technical knowledge drawn from larger extant medieval organs, typically have 28 pipes in two rows spanning just beyond two musical octaves.

” ‘From iconography, we see mostly instruments with fewer pipes,’ Vicens said. But balancing historically informed instrument building with modern performance needs, she points out that, ‘for us, it is very convenient to take those models with more pipes, because we want to be able to play more notes.’

“Air is produced by a bellows operated with the left hand while the right plays the instrument’s keys. … Because no original organetto exists, it is impossible to know exactly how the medieval instruments sounded. The aural qualities of today’s organettos vary depending on the builder and are affected by the pipes, which can be made of such materials as copper, wood, or a tin-lead alloy.

“ ‘It does sound like a small organ,’ Vicens said of the instrument, ‘but to the ears of many, also suggested by how it looks, it sounds more like a bagpipe. Or I’ve even gotten people who think it sounds like an accordion.’

“Vicens often performs on an organetto built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany, with pipes in a high-leaded alloy made by Winold van der Putten in the Netherlands. ‘I have sort of a custom instrument by different builders,’ she said. …

“While a student of harpsichord performance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Vicens became fascinated with the instrument’s sound and how it was produced. That curiosity led her to study the harpsichord’s origins, including how instruments from several centuries ago were constructed and what early repertoire was written for them. Her interest in turn motivated her to learn about other historical instruments like the organ and fortepianos. Drawing on this background in historical performance and her knowledge of the organ and harpsichord, Vicens taught herself to play the organetto in 2009 and 2010 and soon got regular requests to perform on the instrument across Europe and beyond.

“The organetto poses two main hurdles for performers, starting with playing the keyboard with just one hand, which makes it difficult to convey different musical voices at the same time. The larger challenge is manipulating the instrument’s single bellows. ‘I have to breathe like a singer,’ Vicens said, ‘because with one bellow, you need to fill it every time you run out of air.’ “

More at Early Music America, here. Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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