Our Chair writes April 2016

The Rough Guide to Registration – An Introduction for beginners and those who are puzzled…..

Organ_Console_StopsSelecting the right stops for a piece of organ music can be bewildering, the more so when an organ, and aspects of its terminology are unfamiliar to a student or amateur player. Registration is often a compromise between the music’s requirements and the instrument at one’s disposal. Most organists will play music by JS Bach but few have access to the kind of instrument he played on Sundays. Therefore, ask ‘what stops would Bach use on this organ for this piece?’ The choice requires an understanding of the music and of the design of the organ to be played. It is fun to play familiar pieces such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on different organs because it will sound different and, hopefully, convincing every time. Hearing a familiar piece anew is part of the excitement of being in the audience, and of hearing hitherto unheard fresh insights of known music.


In writing this short general account, it is assumed that readers are aware of the differences between flues and reeds, the function of the manuals, pedals and couplers, swell box, and the difference between pipes of 16′, 8′, 4′ and mutations.

Organ lessons tend to concentrate on technical playing issues. A student can expect an explanation of which stops are required in addition to the business of fingering, phrasing, understanding what the piece is ( hymn, psalm chant, prelude, fugue, passacaglia, chaconne, voluntary, chorale prelude etc). The student should note and remember registration used in the lesson and should aim to reproduce the same on the organ being used for practice. If registration is not mentioned, students should ask.

Some important principles:

For note learning and general practice, avoid being distracted by registration issues. Work on an 8′ and 4′ Diapasons or 8′ and 4′ Flute stops on Great, Swell and Choir ( if you have three manuals), together with 16′ and 8′ stops on the Pedal, if there are pedal parts that have no further specified pitches. Coupling Swell to Great, and / or Swell and Great to Pedal may be necessary. Whatever you choose, be happy with it. This method of practice can still allow for manual changes to be worked in. It helps you to hear what you are playing. Working on 8′ and 4′ only means you have to discern what mood the music suggests, and think how one might register it when learned. The ear will not become tired.

By absorbing a piece through repeated listening to another player’s recorded soundscape, you learn that particular view of it without developing your own thoughts. After learning Buxtehude’s Te Deum, and pondering ideas on registration since none are given,  I was amazed at hearing the contrasts in registration between performances by different players on Youtube. I was quietly pleased when one distinguished player’s account came close to my own, and staggered by one where the registration didn’t vary much at all. 15 minutes worth of a mixture chorus is hard on anyone’s ears.

As progress is made, use suggested or specific instructions at the top or bottom of the pages and start to discover the effect of the organ’s timbres on the music. Look in the preface of modern editions for other ideas. Discuss with a teacher the specification of the organ you work on, and compare that with what is before you in a lesson. Ask for an explanation of, or look up why, some stops are more suitable than others, which one might simply be better. The organ you play may not have the exact requirements but hear what your ears tell you when trying out what is available. Small organs with limited choice make everything easy. Larger organs require knowledge and planning.

Preparation away from the organ leads to morelogo_comms efficient work at the console. Keep pencilled written notes on scores neat, and avoid getting instructions for one organ becoming mixed up with another, a page turner’s nightmare. Use another copy if you play the same piece on many organs. To faciliate preparation have the full specification to hand. Search the National Pipe Organ Register for this information.

Organ Management

If using pistons, or doing hand registrations, practise making changes without disturbing the flow; make the movement of stop change part of the way you play. If you pause to change stops, the integrity and narrative of the music is interrupted.


Small and medium sized organs usually have one Open Diapason on Great, Swell and possibly on the Choir. Cathedral, concert hall and larger parish church organs may have up to three on the Great. These are successively bigger in scale, designed to fill a large space with sounds that reach the back of the building. If in doubt, and if there is a choice, try them all out, and compare them before making a decision. Similarly, pedal divisions on small English organs may have only one 16′ rank, and that has to be used for everything, whereas larger organs have many more. For instance, the Dulwich chapel pedal division has one 16′ stopped diapason, one 8′ principal, one 16′ reed. The latter will be used sparingly, and not always on pedal lines in Bach, as it is rather large in scope. When faced with such issues, try the stops out one by one and listen to their effects. If possible, take advice from the person who knows the organ best. S/he should know how well particular sounds blend.

Similarly the Swell division can have a multitude of 8′ stops, including Open and possibly Stopped Diapasons, plus other Flutes, Salicional, Voix Celeste, the latter two of which will be used together for very soft and special stringy effects. There may be three reeds, two 8′, one loud eg, Trumpet, one softer reed, eg, Oboe or Hautboy which can be used for solo work or for blending with the Diapasons to give more grit to the basic sound. Mutations will be based on the flue chorus. If you are lucky, a 16′ reed or flue might be included in order to give body to the full swell effect, often used in accompanying psalms ( swell box shut) when thundery, angry sentiments and actions are being described. Full Swell can be coupled to the Great Diapasons for more power, especially in hymns and Romantic repertoire. Any reeds on the choir will either be soft or loud solo stops eg Cremona, Vox Humana, ( both soft ) or Cornopean, Trumpet, even a Tuba if there is room for one (all loud).

To understand mutations, play bottom C on the Great and draw, one at a time, the Twelfth, then Fifteenth. Ask yourself what note you hear when those stops are drawn. If stuck, push the stop in, then play all the notes from bottom C until you come to the one that sounded. You will hear that the notes in lower octaves sound as two notes whereas higher up, they blend and sound as one note. Then do the same with Mixture stops where you will hear between two and five notes sounding against the lowest one. Being tiny pipes, the pitches are harder to pick out. Mutations are specific pitches in the harmonic series, which when applied correctly, add colour, grit and sparkle to the basic Diapason organ tone.

The third manual, whether Choir or Positive, can be used for accompanying, for contrasts to the Swell and Great. The choice of stops on that manual will determine what use will be made of it. Mostly, these are softer versions of Great stops, hence providing contrasting sounds, but on some organs it is where the Tuba is located.
Cathedral organs mostly have a fourth Solo manual, and St Paul’s has an extra Dome  section and the West End trumpet section, both playable from the fifth manual. Most visiting organists are not allowed to use the latter, and are asked to be sparing with the Dome section. The Solo manual often contains an alternative set of stringy sounds to those on the Swell, alternative reeds, and flutes. They can be helpful in psalm, canticle and anthem accompaniments as well as in repertoire.  Another manual can be useful when a particular stop is needed for just a few bars. It can be prepared beforehand; play it when the time comes.

General examples: a Bach Prelude and Fugue

On a German or Dutch organ these will mostly be played on a Plenum, or Organo Pleno. It means a Principal or Diapason Chorus up to and including the Mixture rank. On German or Dutch organs the Pedal section usually has enough ranks to render the pedal line independent, ie, a pedal coupler is unnecessary. In England, smaller organs do not have the same amount of space for huge ranks of pedal pipes, so the couplers frequently have to be used to give the pedal line body and clarity, and it is not wrong to do so. Sometimes a reed stop is desirable on the pedal line. The reason for it is to make the bass line clear and to be robust enough to support harmony and counterpoint. Use your ears to help decide if you need one. Listen to see whether a chosen reed overpowers the manual parts or not. For this, a second person should listen at the back of the church.  Or, record registrations from a point far from the organ case, and listen to them.

bachIf there are sections of music without pedal parts, this is an indication that another manual might be desirable for contrast. If you have two manuals, then the Swell is the only choice. If you have three, provided the stops given are suitable, the Choir or Positive can be the contrast. If neither is suitable on its own, then coupling suitable stops from Swell to Choir might be a solution. If there is nothing desirable, remove the Mixture stop from the Great to provide contrast, and reintroduce it when the music demands it, ie when the pedal part returns. Be sparing with mixtures, as the ear soon tires of constant glitter and sparkle.

Using a specific organ: at Christ’s Chapel Dulwich I would register a Bach Prelude and Fugue as follows: Great: Open Diapason 8′ , Principal 4′, Twelfth 2 2/3, Fifteenth 2′, Mixture. Pedal: Stopped Diapason 16′, Principal 8′. Swell: Trumpet 8′ ( box half open ), Great to Pedal, Swell to Pedal

The additional boost to the pedal strengthens the bass line, the foundation of all music up to and well beyond 1900.  If contrast on another manual was required I would use the Choir Stopped Diapason 8′, Principal 4′, Fifteenth 2′. The Choir on the Dulwich organ has no mixture. Any Pedal support to the Choir division would need the pedal couplers to be released and Choir to Pedal drawn.

This is not the be- all and end-all of how to register a Bach Prelude and Fugue. It is what happens to work on the Dulwich organ.

Chorale Preludes

If nothing is specified, start with the chorale, its text, and learn its meaning. If it is joyful it may mean using a plenum, similar to that described for the prelude and fugue. If it is penitential it may require less, such as 8′ and 4′ flutes. A florid solo line, for either left or right hand, suggests a solo stop, with appropriate accompaniment. The meaning behind the text of the chorale should inspire imagination. For example, Bach’s Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland BWV661 has the lovely right hand coloratura line. The Great Open Diapason on the Union Chapel, Islington, organ, is one of the most melodious I have encountered, so was chosen for the solo line of ‘Nun komm’  in my 2015 Christmas Recital. At the Dulwich Chapel, however, I might be tempted to use the Swell Cornet, or Great Stopped Diapason with the Twelfth for the solo. One can explore the choices, decide within the context of the occasion which combination of stops to use.  Bach will have experimented and you can do the same. Preludes by Romantic composers such as Karg Elert usually have specific instructions. In these cases, follow them as far as you can, and know that I, II, and III mean which manual to play. (I = Great, II = Swell, III = Choir ).

Early English, Spanish and Italian Repertoire

small organOrgans in smaller churches are generally not large. One can play most English Voluntaries on the Diapasons, including the Stopped Diapason combined with the Open Diapason. Occasionally a reed stop may be required, in which case, it may be specified in the title or be obvious from the trumpetty nature of a solo part. A single manual Portuguese organ in Lisbon which I played in 2014 had a divided single keyboard, enabling the right hand to use a solo reed, whilst the left hand accompanied on flutes. It was a tiny restored organ, whose function was largely liturgical, but was a joy to play and the music made sense once I became familiar with the instrument. The sound of flues across the nations may differ slightly but the choice of diapasons, flutes or both together for voluntaries or accompaniments will be easy to make.

Short Romantic pieces by Whitlock, Howells and others:

These can be tricky as there may be few instructions beyond dynamics, ranging from pp to fff. Suggestions at the start should be followed if the edition is good. The only plan, in the absence of any instructions, is to work with and from the dynamics. Learn how to build a crescendo with a combination of adding stops and opening the swell box. If it says fff or full organ, use it, provided everything blends. Then work out from there what ff might mean ( possibly not using mixtures and/or reeds), then f ( possibly the chorus up to 2′ without the mixtures). When adding extra stops, a good rule of thumb is to add reeds before mixtures, starting with quieter ones, then adding the louder ones. See if there are any solo passages and what sort of sound would be suitable, flute or reed. It is difficult to play any Romantic music without using settable divisional and general pistons. In other words, registering such music requires planning, practice in setting, saving, and pushing pistons with either hand.

French Music, from Couperin to Widor, Vierne, Messiaen

Flag_of_France.svgFrench music is very specific and all instructions are usually given. In French Classical music, eg Organ Masses, Magnificat settings, Noels, the registration is often in the title. An English organ may not have all the specified stops but some will be equivalent, eg a Nazard can be substituted by a Twelfth.

Organs built by Cavaillé-Coll use a ventil system where flues and reeds are prepared in advance, and at the right moment, when reeds are required ( les anches) you press a single pedal and the already drawn stops sound instantly. On an English organ this will mean setting general pistons to get the result you want.

Registering 17th and 18th Century French Organ Music:

It is essential to learn 17th and 18th century French terminology: Fonds= Foundation stops. This means flues, diapasons and principals up to 4′ where specified. Anches= reeds. Accouplements = couplers. Montres ( = show) = Principal pipes displayed at the front of the case. Grands Jeux = 8′ or 8′ and 4′ Reeds, Cornet* and 4′ Principal on the Great. On another manual for contrast, use 8′ quieter Reed eg Krummhorn or Clarinet, 4′ Principal ( provided it blends), Nazard and Tierce if available. These should be coupled together if possible. Pleins Jeux = Great Foundation stops up to and including the mixtures but not the reeds. If a 16′ foot flue is available, use one. Petit Plein Jeu means the same as Pleins Jeux on a secondary manual, eg the Choir. Sometimes the Great Chorus is called Grands Pleins Jeux to distinguish it from the Choir and manuals should be coupled. It is necessary to compromise when sounds on the organ you play do not match what is specified en français. Most of the time, such compromises are possible, even when mutations and reeds are not the same. In the 19th century, organists started to use Grand Choeur ( Full Organ ) which effectively combined the Grands Jeux and the Pleins Jeux, a combination which was not used in the classical era.

A word about Couplers: in French Music of all periods the following terminology is used: Tirasses = Pedal Couplers. eg Tirasse G = Grand Orgue ( Great ) coupled to Pedal. Intermanual couplers use the letters G, P and R as follows . Eg GR = couple Recit to Grande = Swell to Great, and GPR means couple all three manuals together.

Cornet* means a mixture stop of wide scale pipes at 8′,4′, 2 2/3′, 2′, 1 3/5. This stop produces a Trumpet like tone for the treble half of the manual compass only. If your organ does not have a cornet, use the mutations as specified.


This account is no more than a generalisation. Every piece will use slightly different registration on another organ. By learning the principles about organ design, the music to be played on the organ you have, then the journey of learning how to approach it has begun.

If you haven’t looked at the RCO website for a long time, now would be a good time to start. It has been redesigned, and now has a virtual campus consisting of video demonstrations, pages of RCO News, there is much to see and learn. To access the iRCO you need to join…..

SSLSO is holding a masterclass on registration at Penge Congregational Church on Saturday 4 June 2016 at 3.0pm. Members are invited to bring repertoire to learn how to make choices. Please contact the Secretary if you would like to take part, and list the pieces with which you would like assistance. This can include accompaniments to choral items, hymns and psalms.

Marilyn Harper

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