They Also Serve Who Only Pull or Tread

If the organ is the “king of instruments,” its monarchy is built on deception. The largest, most technologically complicated, most tonally diverse, and most visually stunning of musical instruments, the organ was often held to be an earthly symbol of perfection: it stands motionless in its balcony and from its massive frame produces awe-inspiring music without the slightest intimation of effort, except for an occasionally spinning star or an automated figure thumping a kettledrum in happy approval.

But behind the gleaming facade relentless there is relentless toil. The organ is a wind instrument, and without breath the king cannot speak, not to mention sing. In the European millenium before the advent of electricity, the seemingly effortless majesty of the organ’s voice drew breath from constant, unseen labor, ruthlessly exploited.

Over the last half-century the German musicologist Walter Salmen, the greatest reseracher into the social status of musicians from medieval times through the industrial revolution, has time and again proven his skill, creativity, and resourcefulness when peering into unseen and poorly lit corners of music history. In shining his light into the bellows chamber, Salmen has added fundamentally to our understanding of the organ’s past. Well into his second decade of retirement, Salmen tirelessly continues his own work. His latest book, The Organ Pumper: Hisory of a “Lowly” Service (not yet translated into English; is a provocative and concise account of the those who, before they were displaced by electric blowers, raised the instrument’s wind by pulling or treading the bellows. They were paid next to nothing during their lives and were duly forgotten by history.  Constructed from dozens of telling examples extracted from archives and from musicological studies often only tangentially related to the organ, this slender book makes us reconsider the terms of labor on which the instrument’s reign was founded.

As Salmen points out, these lowliest figures in any musical establishment in town or at court or church often worked in dark, vermin-infested chambers, bitterly cold in winter and brutally hot in summer. Payrolls and other primary documents included in the book show just how little money they made: usually a small fraction of the organist’s salary, as little as tenth. Organ pumpers had little chance of improving their social standing or that of their family; though some were, or became, instrument makers, these workers were for the most stuck in a dead-end job. Organ pumpers were essential but replaceable. Not only playing the organ, but building, tuning, and voicing it required vast amounts of human labor. Whenever Bach tested the lungs of an organ by pulling out all the stops and playing on full organ, someone had to be working hard behind the scenes.

This unseen and poorly remunerated work was often part-time employment for gravediggers, sextons, and bell-ringers. These laborers were typically gathered from society’s margins: drunks, cripples, homeless, the aged, the infirm—and women. Through numerous examples, Salmen demonstrates how significant the female labor pool was to the organ:  otherwise forbidden to take part in the divine service, women were frequently allowed to do their work at the bellows out of sight, unheeded and unoffending. When those men with permanent, life-long positions, however poorly paid, died, their widows were then pressed into service to support themselves even unto their own deaths. The downtrodden did the treading.

In the fall of 1831 in Wallenstadt, encircled by the sublime Swiss scenery of mountain and lake, Felix Mendelssohn treated himself to a “a private three-hour organ session”; the bellows were operated by “an old, lame man; otherwise, not a single person was in the church.” (p. 70) This is not to say that Mendelssohn was necessarily exploiting the man.  Few would turn down the chance to eavesdrop on one of the greatest musical geniuses as he played “in private,” though three hours does seem like a long time for such a person to have to do work, that, depending on the system (pulling by hand or treading with the aid of body weight and gravity) can be quite taxing. When I played on that same church a few years ago, I simply flipped a switch and had at it.

The Wallenstadt vignette reflects another lesson this book teaches us anew:  it is too easy today to forget that, uniquely among musical instruments, the organ (aside from self-operated small ones) could not be played alone. Someone else had to be doing the work.

Though not needing massive training, raising the bellows did require some skill, and Salmen includes many complaints of incompetent or, in the case of poor schoolboys forced into service, rowdy bellows pumpers, who, through their missteps or the mischief of their yet-unbroken spirits, blasted big holes in the music or even damaged the bellows themselves.

Among the illuminating, funny, and touching documents included in a substantial appendix, along with numerous illustrations of bellows pumping over several centuries, is Mendelssohn’s diary-entry recounting his visit to the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (pp. 96-7).  At the end of the service on  September  10,  1837, he launched into Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543). All the musicians Mendelssohn knew in London were gathered to hear him and the large congregation, riveted by this German way of playing, stayed to listen.  Apparently disgruntled at having to work so long after the service, the pumper decided to leave his post, even as the church’s organists pulled frantically and fruitlessly on the notification bell for more wind. Just as Mendelssohn came to the fugue’s daunting final pedal solo the wind gave out. The church’s organist insisted on fetching the errant pumper, but Mendelssohn had no more time to play. As he left the cathedral, Mendelssohn witnessed the Dickensian scene—or biblical one played out in Victorian costume—of a furious mob of congregants shouting “Shame! Shame!” at the man for his dereliction of duty, committed within a few bars of the end of one of Bach’s greatest fugues. The person on whose labor Mendelssohn’s performance relied, had been the only one who could not enjoy it directly. Shut off in his chamber, only able to hear muted strains of the music over the respiration of the bellows and the clacking of the organ’s action, the pumper felt he had wage-slaved long enough on that day of rest.

Salmen’s book also includes an excellent concluding chapter written by Markus Zepf on the technology and development of human-powered organ winding systems. A final photograph brings us back to the beginning—to a newly-reconstructed system that allows for human labor (p. 153).  One of the many things we have learned from this return to older technologies is that good organs often sound better when the wind is raised by people rather than motors.

At the end of a recent dedicatory recital in Rochester, New York on a copy of the 1776 Casparini organ in Vilnius, Lithuania the two bellows operators, both students at the Eastman School of Music, were called to the gallery rail after the music had concluded to take their bows.  How things have changed.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at





DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at