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The Use of the Organ
in the Orthodox Church
Abridged Article
by Fr. Nicholas Alford

At first glance the title of this article might suggest a very brief treatise, as one often hears that “Orthodox worship does not permit the use of instruments – all of our music is acapella!” While this might be true for Slavic congregations, it is certainly not true for Byzantine or Western Rite parishes. The new organ at St. Gregory’s stands in a long line of ‘Orthodox organs.’

We encounter references to the organ in Holy Scripture (e.g. Psalm 150), but the Hebrew word Ugab, sometimes translated as “organ,” actually refers to something like a panpipe, a series of flutes blown by one player, though the same word may also have been used for a harp-like instrument. The organ, in a form, somewhat recognizable to us, Greek historians proudly proclaim, was invented by the Greeks. About the year 265BC a Greek engineer in Alexandria, by the name of Ctesibus invented an instrument called the hydraulis or “water organ” which used a water source to raise air pressure to be forced through flute-like pipes when played by keys. Water organs were evidently very loud instruments and were used both for the ancient Circus and for Imperial processions. In the fourth century, the Emperor Theodosius erected an obelisk (portions of which may still be seen) which displays an organ in the stone carvings. The early association of the organ and other instruments with the pagan circus led a number of the church fathers to forbid the use of such instruments in Christian worship, but nevertheless, an organ was placed in the Narthex of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for use in processions of the Emperor’s entourage. The first documented organ in Russia is found chronicled in the frescos of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, where minstrals are shown playing a portable instrument.


The organ was introduced to the West when organs were presented as gifts from the Byzantine emperors to Western rulers and it was soon used in churches, as it was not associated with pagan use in the West. In the seventh century, Pope Vitalian is said to have introduced the use of the organ at Rome to help improve the singing of the congregations. In England, St Maildulf (d. 675) and St. Ethelwold (d. 984) both made organs, as did St. Dunstan in the tenth century. St. Aldhelm (d. 709) refers to the organ building of the Anglo-Saxons: “hearing the enormous organs with a thousand blasts, the ear is soothed by the windy bellows, while the other portions of the organ shine in golden cases.” King Pepin the Short received an organ from Constantinople in the eighth century and Charlemagne, his son, received an organ of Arabian manufacture. By the eleventh century, the organ had begun to replace all other instruments used in worship and in the fourteenth century Guillaume de Machaut first referred to the organ as the ‘King of Instruments.’ Composers from Johann Sebastian Bach to Olivier Messiaen have given Western Christians the best of their musical genius through compositions written for the organ used in worship.


While the Orthodox West had a well-documented use of the organ, the East maintained its prohibition of instruments to accompany worship until the twentieth century. St. Innocent of Alaska (d. 1879) did make a few barrel organs which he sold to the Franciscan missionaries in California to help finance his mission work, but these were not used in Orthodox worship. In the twentieth century numerous congregations of the Greek Archdiocese and, to a lesser extent, the Antiochian Archdiocese, made use of electronic or pipe organs to help support the singing of the choir and to provide music before and after weddings. In 1960, Lewis and Hitchcock (the organ building firm that I work for) built a pipe organ for the Greek Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore which is still in use today. In the Washington area, St. Sophia, Saints Peter and Paul, and St. George’s in Bethesda all make limited use of the organ, primarily for wedding music and so forth, but I have served at Greek parishes in Florida and Texas where every note sung by the choir was accompanied by an organ!

The Orthodox prohibition against the use of instrumental music in worship sprung from associations which those instruments had with pagan rituals. In the West, the pipe organ is almost exclusively used to accompany worship, giving support to the singing of choir and congregation. Composers, nearing the point of becoming ‘iconographers in sound’, have proclaimed their work solely “to the glory of God.”

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