Tag Archives: Portative Organ

Medieval Musical Instruments Part Eleven

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=493264

These week’s instrument is as sweet in sound as it is amusing in looks. The portative organ is, as its name suggests, an organ that could be carried. It has a single set of pipes arranged in two rows and a keyboard. The pipes are set into what is essentially a wooden box on which is mounted a structure to keep them upright.

The pipes are wooden tubes through which a set of bellows forces air. The tubes are different lengths, with the shorter ones being higher pitched and the longer ones being lower. A key is depressed and the corresponding pipe is opened. The pipe works in the same way as a recorder, with the air being split over a labium, producing the vibrations that make sounds.

The player played the keys with the right hand and pumped the bellows with the left. You’ll notice in the videos below that that this requires quite a lot of co-ordination. The portative organ had a very close relative in the positive organ, which was very similar, but sat on a table. The bellows (there were two) on this instrument were pumped by a second person, allowing the player to use both hands on the keyboard.

As you can see in the picture above, there was a strap that the player wore to keep the organ close to their body. I’m not sure why the angel is wearing it, though, as that must have made everything unstable.

It’s another quiet instrument suitable for playing indoors.

As you can hear in this video, it could be played with the ever-popular drone.

Here’s another haunting performance from Catalina Vicens.

In this video you’ll see a completely different playing style.

A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Medieval Music