Gary Blaise Early Keyboard Instruments
Home About GB Early Keyboards Special Projects Articles
  It is possible, however, that these instruments could easily have been practiced silently at any time of day to gain 'keyboard' familiarity without wearing out the instrument in any significant way or disturbing others. The use of keyed metallophones, small, quiet carillons, also seem well within the capabilities of the medievals for the purpose of organ practice. Upon these points, however, the fossil record is silent, and it seems far more likely that proficiency on the earliest organs would have been learned in much the same way that the bards learned their repertoire, through a sort of on-the-job training or apprentice system. It is easy to imagine early organ students learning in this way from the master players and pumpers. Perhaps a student started out pumping, working his way from the bellowing basement to the beckoning bench. In the absence of pages to turn, the novice might assist the organist, at first pulling a lever here and shoving one there at critical moments, learning the repertoire and its performance practice, eventually becoming an organist.

The Thirteenth Century . . .

A lovely picture of a positive organ with large button keys appears in the Rutland Psalter of c1270. This instrument has a sort of keyboard with big, button-like keyswhich replaced the huge hand-levers of earlier instruments. The player seems to be contorted in the picture just to show us that he is playing the instrument with the fingers of both hands, and that such a finger technique was in use by this time. A similar picture appears in the Antiphonary of Beaupre, c1290.2 Small positives may have offered a limited practice experience as they were probably quieter, could be more conveniently located, and required far less maintenance than the big fixed-in-place organs. They would have had the additional advantage of requiring no more than one pumper as suggested, although two centuries later, by Meckenen”¦s well known engraving, The Organist and His Wife, c. 1500.3 Though no representations exist to my knowledge, the wind for a small positive could easily have been supplied by the organist himself via a simple foot-pumped system, a device well within the technological development of the age. A system such as this consists of a resevoir bellows filled by the alternating action of two foot-pumped feeder bellows beneath it. This, indeed, would have created a very tempting practice situation despite the continuing prohibitive cost of such an instrument for most persons.

The portative may have provided another option for practice. This is a small, arm-held organ with tiny, typewriter-like button keys which are played with one hand while the other hand pumps a tiny bellow. As such, however, any skills gleaned through practice on the portative would be completely inapplicable to the keyboard of the larger organ.

The Fourteenth Century . . .

Small bits of keyboard music from the Robertsbridge Codex and the Faenza Manuscript have survived from the end of the 14th century and give us an idea of what people were playing at tat time. The only reason to write such things down, the only reason for libraries, is so that we don”¦t have to store loads of information which might not presently be required in our cerebral cortexes. Just as written words alleviated the mind of the bard, written-out keyboard music would likewise have freed early organists to think about other things like, well, whatever organists think about. When it was required to perform a piece of music, the piece in question was conveniently selected from a file of papers, scanned into the cortex via the eyebulbs, and played. Well, perhaps not that simple. Their biochemical microprocessors, like that of our own, would have required a lengthy loading process which no doubt came to be known as 'practice'. Although the earliest ”„sheet music”¦ may well have been used by geniuses who required little or no practice, a growing abundance of keyboard music would have steadily been making its acquaintance with an ever larger group of organists - one with an ever declining number of musical geniuses per capita. This new body of written-out keyboard music would have been pointless had there been nothing on which to practice. Faenza, in fact, may have been written down specifically for the purpose of study since the organ mass which it contains was otherwise a completely improvised form.

previous page | next page