A wealth of information can be gathered from the known, extant pipe organs in Oaxaca. Regardless of their current condition, careful examination has yielded significant data on the construction history, keyboard arrangement, pipes, registration, and range of size of these organs. Taken together, the information allows us to define their major characteristics and demonstrate their unique place in the history of organ construction.



Sixty-nine pipe organs have been registered to date in Oaxaca; however, these represent only a fraction of the number of instruments that must have existed since the mid-16th century. In fact, many of these organs are actually the last in a line of replacements or upgrades in their corresponding churches, and each of them may have been preceded by at least one other organ.

As a group, organs in Oaxaca tend to be older than those in other areas of Mexico. Around 40% of them date from the 18th century or earlier, whereas the majority of organs registered elsewhere were built during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Oaxacan organs may still be found in relatively unaltered condition and have not been modernized over the course of time. Yet this is not so much a reflection of local interest in preserving them, but rather of the increased marginalization and poverty that occurred once Oaxaca´s economy began to decline around the mid-19th century. When the organs ceased to function, they were neglected or abandoned (and frequently destroyed), because the clergy or local authorities could not or would not pay for their maintenance or repair. While the preservation of the remaining instruments is a boon for organbuilders and scholars today, it also reflects the reality of the organ´s loss of prestige over time in Oaxacan communities.



We do not know what the earliest organs looked like or how they sounded, since not one 16th century organ survives today in Mexico. A few late 17th-century instruments remain, though the only confirmed example in Oaxaca is the case (but not the pipework and wind chest) of the organ in the Basílica de la Soledad dated 1686. One might surmise however that 16th and 17th century Oaxacan organs were not terribly different from the oldest extant instruments, since the organbuilding tradition in Oaxaca seems to have been extremely conservative. Organs built well into the 19th century still included such baroque features as divided registers and pitch at a’=392 Hz, while organbuilding in the altiplano region of Mexico to the north of Oaxaca was already “modernizing”, and a few instruments included pedals and swell boxes (permitting dynamic variation) along with their single keyboard and divided registers. Once European imports began to arrive in Mexico in the late 19th century, Oaxacan organbuilders, unlike their counterparts in Mexico City and Puebla, were apparently unwilling or unable to adapt to the new technology. There also may have received increasingly less support from the clergy during this period, and the profession simply died out. The latest Mexican organs (1880s and 1890s) in Oaxaca were built in Puebla, and the two 20th century pipe organs the only foreign imports, come from Germany.
People in the towns commonly assume that the organ in their church must have been foreign-built (from Germany? Spain? The United Sates?) if it is valuable or important, so it is always most gratifying to explain to them that nearly all the Oaxacan organs were built in Oaxaca by Oaxacans.



Eighteenth-century Oaxacan organs consistently reflect their Spanish baroque models. They have just one keyboard and no pedals in contrast to instruments from other European countries of the same period. Until the mid-19th century, keyboards had 45 (or sometimes 47) keys, approximately half the compass of a modern piano keyboard. These early keyboards included a short octave, in which the notes C#, D#, F# and G# were omitted from the lowest octave, since these were not used as foundation notes when accompanying the liturgy in the old church modes. As a result, the octave was shortened or compressed, and the lowest note on the keyboard, which looks like E, corresponds to C, F# to D and G# to E. The use of the short octave was above all a cost cutting device. Since the most expensive aspect of organ construction is the pipework, the elimination of four of the largest pipes could significantly reduce the expense. Even with this economy, the pipes of the lowest notes were often built of wood rather than metal, again to reduce cost. Around 1840, keyboards began to be lengthened at both ends to encompass up to 56 keys, and the notes that did not exist in the short octave were now included in a normal chromatic arrangement. Into the latter part of the 19th century, Oaxaca organs were still pitched at a’=392 Hz, a semitone lower than their counterparts in Spain (a’=415 Hz) and a whole tone lower than modern pitch (a’=440 Hz). Preliminary investigations suggest that they may have continued to be tuned in classic quarter-comma meantone as well.



Similar to their Spanish predecessors, all Oaxacan organs have divided stops or registers (“medio registro”), with the division at middle c’/c#’ (21 keys/ 24 keys). In a few Oaxacan organs, the ranks of smaller pipes break at b/c’, even while the sliders beneath them break at c/c#’. The upper half or treble (“tiple”) registers are controlled by stop knobs on the right side of the organ´s façade and the bass (“baxon or bajón”) registers by stop knobs on the left. Thus it is possible to combine or alternate two contrasting sonorities at the same time, producing an arresting effect unique to Iberian organs. The most famous 17th century composers—Pablo Bruna, Francisco Correa de Arauxo, Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia, Francisco Peraza, Sebastián Durón, Joan Cabanilles and others—frequently used divided registers in their compositions, and the repertoire evolved according to this tonal aesthetic. Even in the 19th century when composers no longer based their works on divided registers, organs continued to be built with this feature. The organist also had the option of choosing matched registers in order to produce the more unified effect of organo pleno.

A few early 18th century organs have non-parallel dispositions on the right and left halves of the keyboard in order to even out the pitches, to avoid screeching tones in the treble and above all, to make the sound more audible. This means that some registers would double back at the octave halfway through the rank and thus repeat the same octave rather than continuing up the scale. This doubling back is easy to spot in the pipework, since the row of pipes does not progress in a smooth angled line. In the organ in Tlacochahuaya, treble ranks are replicated and thus reinforced and do not correspond to the bass disposition. Other early organs were built with similar dispositions on both sides, though the divided keyboard always provided possibilities to mix and match sounds. The disparity between the two halves of the keyboard diminished with time and by the mid 18th century, both sides were matched.



Sometime around 1725, a rank of horizontal trumpets protruding from the front of the case (clarín and bajoncillo) first appeared on Oaxacan organs, and their bright sound was particularly effective for fanfare and battle (batalla) pieces. Although many unrestored organs still have some, if not all, of their horizontal trumpets, it is more common simply to find the row of holes in which they had been lodged, since these pipes could have been easily removed as curiosities, used as noisemakers, or melted down for bullets in times of conflict. Larger organs often include stopped flutes (bardón 8´ and tapadillo 4´) as well as interior reeds (Trompeta real), usually just in the left hand.

The principal pitch of smaller organs was often enhanced by a rank of stopped flutes. These could produce the same pitch as open flutes with half the length or at the same length would sound an octave lower. A 2´ stopped rank was pitched like a 4´ open and 4´ stopped rank like an 8´. This afforded small organs the possibility of a register one octave lower then the principals and more depth of sound.

Toy stops (registros de juguetes or registros de adorno), especially nightingales (pajaritos) and drums (tambor), are common on 2´ and 4´ but not 8´ organs. Other less common special registers are the bell stop (cascabeles), found so far only in Ahuehuetitlán (on a 19th century organ built in Puebla), the angel statues singing from atop the towers of the organ in Teotongo and the strange tlaxaqueña register in Tlaxiaco.

Mixtures as compound stops are rare and the only examples in Oaxaca appear on the organs in San Pedro Cholula and on the organs in the Basílica de la Soledad and the Cathedral in Oaxaca City.



Key action is suspended on stationary organs, either by direct tracker action on some earlier instruments or though a rollerboard. This latter mechanism dominated in stationary organs after the mid-18th century. The key action of 18th century table organs calls to mind the sticker or pin action of Renaissance chamber organs in which the horizontal equivalent of trackers are located below the keyboard. This type of action disappeared along with the production of table organs by the 19th century.



The dimensions of Oaxacan organs (or more specifically, the cases necessary to accommodate the height of the principal pipes) range from the largest 8´ (foot) stationary organs through 4´ stationary and table organs to 2´ processional organs. The measurement refers to the height of the tallest principal pipe, usually but not always the central façade pipe. Historic Spanish terminology used palms as the standard measure instead of feet—8´=13 palms, 4´ =6 palms, and 2´=3 palms. In fact, neither term appears in documents or on original stop labels and the measurements were apparently implicit. The number of registers varies from two (on the simplest processional organ in Tlacolula to 12 ranks/ LH and 15 ranks/ RH (on the organ in the Basilica de La Soledad in Oaxaca City. (See the Chronological List page of this website for more information about the classification of Oaxacan organs by size.)

Table organs were prevalent during the 18th century and certainly earlier, although their construction slowly tapered off and finally ended in the early 19th century. The group of eight 2´ processional organs hearkens back to the earliest models imported from Spain. Since they could be moved around easily, these little instruments would have been most useful at the time of Dominican evangelizing, during periods of church construction, or for processions and liturgical celebrations outside the church. In contrast the larger 4´ table organs (nine of them), based on the processional model and particular to Oaxaca, are much too big and heavy to be easily moved. Yet they still could have been lifted and repositioned to protect them from rainwater or ongoing church renovation and repair projects. The organs in Santa María Peñoles and Concepción Buenavista are huge structures measuring nearly 10´ tall from the floor, amazing spin-offs from processional organs.

Churches in Oaxaca are relatively small (although with massive walls); they were built this way not only in relation to the size of their communities, but also in view of potential earthquake damage. Organs were also small and designed for stability, either to sit on tables or with a lower case as wide as the upper. Even in the larger, wealthier communities, the largest organ cases never accommodated pipes larger than 8´ and there are no 16´ organs in Oaxaca. Transport of goods to remote communities by burros or on the backs of hired transporters or the townspeople themselves was laborious, so the smaller the organ, the easier the job. In this way, pipe organs were distributed all over the state of Oaxaca.

The assembled organs were magnificent both to hear and behold. Great skill went into not only the construction of the musical components but also into the construction and decoration of the organ case. “Decoration”, the next section of “About the Organs”, describes this in detail.

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