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Title: The Art of Virgil Fox--A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, by Martin Luther, arr. by Virgil Fox; Virgil Fox, organ. Label: EMI. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDM 5 65426 2 4. Track: 1.

Title: The Art of Virgil Fox--A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, by Martin Luther, arr. by Virgil Fox; Virgil Fox, organ. Label: EMI. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDM 5 65426 2 4. Track: 1.

Title: The Art of Virgil Fox--A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, by Martin Luther, arr. by Virgil Fox; Virgil Fox, organ. Label: EMI. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDM 5 65426 2 4. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The chapel organ at Grinnell College is an electro-pneumatic driven duct-flute and reedpipe aerophone that includes electro-acoustic and electrophonic components as well. The pipe organ itself originated in Europe but has subsequently been introduced throughout much of the world with the spread of Christianity and of European cosmopolitan concert-hall practices. An organ such as the one found in Grinnell's Herrick Chapel and described below is custom made for the space in which it is installed. The design and construction of such an instrument involves ingenuity, creativity, a firm grasp of acoustics, and impeccable craftsmanship. There exists an extensive repertoire of solo works for organ that has been created over the past six hundred years. Much of it was created for liturgical use, although eventually non-liturgical pieces came to be composed. In addition to solo works, the organ is often used in combination with choral forces and there exist a few symphonic works that call for the organ. Today most organists learn their craft in tertiary educational institutions such as schools of music and conservatories that include faculty organists and that confer undergraduate and graduate degrees in organ performance. Most graduates from such institutions seek employment with institutions that possess organs, such as churches. Every generation includes at least a few virtuosic performers who concertize around the world, commission new works, and make commercial recordings. Organs, while typically found in churches and cathedrals, may also be found in secular settings such as theaters, conservatories and schools of music, and recital and concert halls. There was a time in the 20th century when even some large department stores would have a built-in pipe organ.


The pictured organ was designed for and built into Herrick Chapel on the Grinnell College campus. It consists of a console (see first gallery photo), a pipe chamber fronted by a decorative display of nonfunctioning pipes (see second gallery photo), and two stacked, out-of-view spaces the lower of which contains the bellows for the organ (first detail photo) and a multitude of electronic circuitry (second and third detail images), and an upper chamber containing five wind chests and thousands of single-pitch pipes and other sound-producing objects (fourth and fifth detail photos). This is an electro-pneumatic organ, meaning that the selections made and the actions performed by the organist at the consul are communicated electronically to the pneumatically-driven actions of valves located in the organ’s wind chests. Sounds on this instrument are produced in a variety of ways. The vast majority of the sounding elements are single-pitch, end-blown duct flutes (2,963 of them!) called flue pipes, which come in a variety of tube shapes (cylindrical bore, conical bore, tapering bore) and designs (open ended, stopped, stopped with a vent tube), and are constructed from either sheet metal or wood.  There are also some 591 reed pipes that, like the flue pipes, are end-blown tubes (again, of great variety in their design) each capable of producing a single pitch. Encased at the base of each of these reed pipes is a thin metal tongue functioning as a single reed over which an airstream is directed to produce the sound. Additionally, this organ has 61 steel bars and 25 tubular chimes; in other words, struck idiophones. The twelve lowest-register notes on the organ are electronically generated, so there is an electrophone component to this instrument as well. The 3554 pipes housed in the pipe chamber are divided into five groups or divisions called: great, swell, choir, positiv, and pedal. All of the pipes in a division are physically situated together, mounted atop a common wind-chest, and controlled from one of the keyboard manuals on the player's console (one of these keyboards is used to control two divisions--the swell and positiv). The console (first gallery photo) has three keyboards (each covering a range of five octaves) and a foot-operated pedal board (covering a range of two octaves and a fifth). Each keyboard and the pedals have associated with them a number of stops (a stop is a row, also called a rank, of single-pitch pipes of a particular design, one each for each key on its associated keyboard or pedal board) that can be selected (that is, brought into action) by using the stop knobs situated to the left and right of the keyboards. On the Grinnell organ there are a total of 66 ranks from which the performer may choose to sound singly or in a wide range of combinations. Very simply put, the operation of this complex instrument works something like this: the selections of which ranks of pipes will be in action and which particular notes are to be sounded on them at any given moment are made by the performer sitting at the console by pulling specific stop knobs and depressing specific keys and pedals on one or more of the keyboard and pedal manuals. This information is transmitted electronically through a labyrinth of wiring, circuits and patch-boards to the electromagnetically operated valves at the foot of each pipe. Opening one of these valves allows some of the built up air pressure in a pipe's wind-chest (provided by the bellows located in the space below the pipe chamber) to escape into the pipe to sound it.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer sits on a bench facing the console’s keyboards and uses the fingers of both hands to depress the keys; additionally, the organist uses his or her feet to depress the keys of the pedal board. The three accompanying audio clips, although not performed on the Herrick Chapel Aeolian-Skinner organ, were made on an Aeolian-Skinner organ of the same vintage (installed one year earlier in the Riverside Church in New York City). The performer heard on these examples is Virgil Fox, the same individual who presented the inaugural recital on the Grinnell organ in 1949. The first clip illustrates the sound of a mixture of flue stops (edge flutes), the second a mixture of reed stops (single-reed pipes), and the third a mixture of flue and reed stops.


The history of electro-pneumatic pipe organs goes back only to the beginning of the 20th century, and the organ described here, designed by Elbert Morse Smith and built by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company for Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College, dates to 1948-1949. It was dedicated with a recital by organist Virgil Fox on May 19, 1949. In 2006, the instrument was completely restored (by the A. Thompson-Allen Company) and re-dedicated with a series of concerts in 2009. Most histories of the organ as a type of instrument begin in Greco-Roman antiquity, with the understanding that an instrument built 2400 years ago is going to be vastly different from the organs of the present day. A detailed history of the organ’s development is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that it was for centuries (especially prior to the Industrial Revolution) one of the most complex technological pieces of equipment invented by mankind. Organs entered the world or religious ritual perhaps as early as the 8th century CE, but how and by whom they were used probably varied greatly from one tradition to the next. By the latter half of the Middle Ages, organs of varying sizes and designs were increasingly found in cathedrals. Most of the pipe designs and much of the core mechanical workings found in modern organs were already in place by the 17th century, which was the beginning of a two-century long ‘golden age’ of the organ. During this period a number of distinctive regional styles of organ building emerged. Organs started to be exported during this period to the Americas, and a tradition of organ building soon developed there.

Bibliographic Citations

Fesperman, John T. and Barbara Owen. 1986. “Organ,” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Don Randel, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, pp. 578-589.

Owens, Barbara, et. al. “Organ,” in Grove Music Online. Accessed December 15 2014:


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.222.4-61-8 aerophone--set of dissimilar flutes with internal ducts: two or more flutes of more than one kind (open, partly stopped or stopped) are combined to form a set; with rigid air reservoir; with keyboard

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: multiple tubular shapes: cylindrical with closed distal end; cylindrical with open distal end; conical with open distal end; tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: mechanically-selected outflow from bellows-supplied reservoir of pressurized air channeled into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: multiple mechanisms: beveled edge in wall of instrument, indirectly blown against with aid of duct; encased percussion (single) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - multiple single-pitch tubes bundled together and activated indirectly with pitch selection facilitated by a keyboard


72 in. width of console

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
reed - metal


Aeolian-Skinner, Boston, Mass.

Entry Author

Roger Vetter