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The History of the portative organ

The Organ in Ancient Greece

In the Beginning

    The  organ originated from Greece and the Greek word „organon“ as well as the  Latin word „organum“,  initially simply meant „tool“ or „instrument“.  It was only in the late Roman times that the word organ started to  define this particular musical instrument. During the migration period  (barbarian invasions), the organ disappeared completely in the Occident,  surviving only in the Eastern Roman Empire and the Arab world. 

In the year 757, Emperor  Charles the Great received an organ as a present from the Byzantine  Emperor Constantine V.  In order to copy this precious and unusual gift,  priest George from Venice, known for his knowledge of antique organ  building, was called upon. Thus the instrument was reintroduced into  common use and development later to reach a peak in medieval times. The  basic design of the Pipe Organ in it's essence, hasn't changed much  since medieval times.  

A Medieval Portative Organ in an early music group.

The Medieval Organ


The smallest of the medieval organs was the Portative. Its name comes from the Latin verb portare to carry, and it is called that because it was small enough to be carried easily. The typical portative organ had:

  • a single manual usually with less than two octaves range. 
  • only one rank of pipes arranged in one or two rows. 
  • In most cases a single bellows attached to the back of the instrument (in rare cases two), so that while one hand played, the other supplied the wind by operating the bellows. 
  • Single bellow portatives had to pause  briefly between phrases to take "breaths" as it were to recharge the  bellows for the next phrase. This was no problem since, with practice,  the Organist did the same as a flute player would,, timing the breaths  so as not to distract from the music. 

The  Portative Organ was so popular that images of Portatives can be found in  many manuscript illustrations and Paintings of the twelfth through the  fifteenth centuries.  

A Medieval Positive Organ in a home setting.

The Medieval Positive Organ

  Another  Very common medieval Organ that did manage to survive in different forms  into modern times is the Positive Organ. Modern Positive Organs usually  have multiple ranks of pipes of different materials and timbres,,  however the medieval Positive was very similar to the Portative with the  exception of a larger range of notes and a dual bellow system for  providing a continuous supply of wind.  

While the Positive could be  played by one person in much the same way as a portative,, it was most  effectively played by two persons, one pumping the bellows and the other  playing at the keyboard. Some very rare Portative Organs also adopted  the dual bellow system to provide an uninterrupted wind supply,, however  it should be noted that this difficults the ability to play expressive  passages possible on portatives with a single bellow.