Timbral Rediscovery

Walter Chinaglia in his makeshift workshop at the Deutsches Museum. (Attribution) Photo: Deutsches Museum, K. Rainer, MatMu-32 CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the challenges for modern organ builders in recovering the sound of the Italian wooden principal is that wood as a pipe material has come to be so closely associated with the sounds of the gedackt and the open flute that it is not natural to imagine wooden pipes making a sound that approximates the timbre of a metal principal. To better understand the practical issues surrounding the recovery of the organo di legno’s historical timbre, we collaborated with the Italian organ builder Walter Chinaglia. At the beginning of collaboration, Chinaglia had recently completed two single-rank organi di legno and had previously experimented with the voicing of open wooden principal pipes. During our collaboration, Chinaglia began work on a large organo di legno, closely based on the Innsbruck organ.[4]

Walter Chinaglia’s tools. (Attribution) Photo: Deutsches Museum, K. Rainer, MatMu-8 CC BY-SA 4.0

Since the sound of the wooden principal of the organo di legno contradicts modern assumptions about the natural sound ideal of wooden pipes, Chinaglia stresses the importance of stepping outside of the tacit knowledge tradition of modern organ building, transmitted from master to apprentice. By default, organ builders voice wooden organ pipes – even wooden principal pipes – in a way that mutes the even-numbered overtones, so close is the association between the sound and the material. When constructing wooden principal pipes, Chinaglia prefers to approach the pipe with a tabula rasa, allowing the material itself to reveal the pipe’s timbral potential. The result is that Chinaglia’s organi di legno sound noticeably different from those of many other contemporary builders. Specifically, his wooden principals sound more akin to Italian metal principals than do those of other modern builders.


[4] Walter Chinaglia: Towards the Rebuilding of an Italian Renaissance-Style Wooden Organ (DM Studies 5). Munich 2020, incl. Preface "Musical Instruments as Material Culture" by Rebecca Wolf. https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:bvb:210-dm-studies5-4

Citation: Leon Chisholm, ‘The organo di legno’s timbral timber’, in: Materiality of Musical Instruments. A Virtual Exhibition.