An organ recital with a difference

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Oliver Condy faces up to a particularly challenging organ in Banyalbufar, Mallorca

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One of the biggest challenges of giving organ recitals is not knowing much about the organ you’ve been invited to play. All pipe organs are different – very different. They all feel different, sound different and behave in varying unpredictable ways, from sticking keys to missing pipes and out-of-tune reeds. But you learn to adapt – after all, most of the organ recitals I give are to raise money to restore the instrument I’m playing on. You expect the organ to misbehave at some point.

But from time to time, an organ can present you with a slightly different challenge. I was invited this past weekend to give a recital at the parish church in Banyalbufar, Mallorca, for Kirker Holidays – a private concert for one of their cultural holidays. The beautiful one-manual organ (with seven pull-down button pedals) is a late 17th-century Spanish instrument, and a fairly typical one at that with its trademark colourful, spicy sound coming from an incredible array of mutation and mixture stops. Organs like this weren’t designed to accompany hymn-singing. They were there to allow the organist to improvise short pieces (many early Spanish organs didn’t have music stands), alternating with the choir who sang passages of plainchant throughout the service.

Exotic sounds apart, the organ presents some technical quirks. Firstly, its keyboard divides at middle C-sharp, enabling the player to solo either the right or left hand. Stops are assigned to either the top or bottom half of the keyboard ­ – something that resulted from dividing the soundboard in two to avoid cracking in the hot, dry Iberian summers.

But the killer feature on this, and many Spanish organs, is its short bottom octave. The short octave was historically intended to give organs and some other keyboard instruments an extended bass range, but for those of us weaned on ‘normal’ keyboards, it can come as quite a shock. So, how does it work? Well, the organ appears only to go down to bottom E, but that bottom E is, in fact, bottom C. What appears to be F sharp is D, G sharp is E and the scale up resumes normality back down at F. I took a small video to show the audience the conundrum which you can see here:

So there you are. With just four hours to get used to the system, I found myself applying Tipp-Ex to photocopies of my Cabanilles and Bruna Tientos, deleting anything below bottom F, and replacing them with the notes as they appear on the keyboard. It seemed to work…

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Oliver Condy

Oliver Condy

Oliver Condy is the editor of BBC Music Magazine

Oliver Condy