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When going through pipe organ specifications (such as this historic Arp Schnitger's organ in St. Jacobi), I came across a peculiar nomenclature for the manual / pedal compass (as of 1693):

  • I Rückpositiv CDE–c3
  • II Werck CDEFGA–c3
  • III Oberpositiv CDEFGA–c3
  • IV Brustpositiv CDEFGA–c3
  • Pedal CD–d1

In particular, I'm asking about the meaning of the letters for the lower end of the compass. Does "CD" in the pedal means there is no C# and "CDE" in the Rückpositiv means there are no C# and D#? This would mean the 2nd to the 4th manuals possessing no black keys in the lowest octave except the B-flat. Is this right?

For completeness, here's a more restricted compass of an earlier version (1592) of this historic organ:

  • I Rückpositiv CDEFGA–c3
  • II Im Ober Werck FGA–g2a2
  • III Unten in der Brust FGA–g2a2
  • Pedal CDEFGA–c1d1

In the above specifications, am I right in assuming that

  • FGA means the lowest note is F and there are no F# and no G#,
  • In the upper compass of the manual g2a2 means the manual ends with a2 with no g#2, and
  • In the upper compass of the pedal, there is no c#1 ?

There is an interesting conflicting information that sometimes the Brustpositiv manual is specified as CDEFA-c3 such as in this blog article. I wonder whether this is a typo or whether it implies there is no G as well (which doesn't make sense).

2 Answers 2

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This is something you'd find on older organs (i.e. mainly baroque and older) called a "short octave". However, instead of leaving out the black keys, they left out the lowest keys altogether (so it looks like the range extends only down to E) but kept the black keys above that. These play the missing white notes instead. Usually, the E key would play C, and D and E would be where F# and G# would normally be, with F - B (including Bb) in the usual place. however, organs being tailor-made instruments, there are numerous variants of this. This practice went out of fashion around the 18th century when music started to require the full chromatic set of notes.

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    Do you know how to decipher the specific examples given by the OP? Commented Jan 24 at 11:12
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Does "CD" in the pedal means there is no C# and "CDE" in the Rückpositiv means there are no C# and D#?

Yes.

This would mean the 2nd to the 4th manuals possessing no black keys in the lowest octave except the B-flat. Is this right?

Not quite. The arrangement, known today as a "short octave" is described in another answer. There is als a Wikipedia article. The keys look like a normal keyboard with white and black keys, but the pitches are reassigned so the black keys play "white key" pitches, as in

      D   E   B♭      C♯  E♭       F♯  A♭  B♭
C   F   G   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
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  • When I looked further in the Wikipedia article for the Schnitger organ, there is in fact a high-res detailed picture of the 4 manuals (Rückpositiv being the bottom, per convention). The upper 3 manuals (the CDEFGA-) look consistent with your diagram. It would be great if your answer can also provide a diagram explaining the "broken octave" of the Rückpositiv too, especially since the physical layout is not the same to the one used in harpsichords. Are the short ones F# & G#? Commented Jan 24 at 15:23
  • This CD liner of a recording of Matthias Weckmann's works (b. 1616), organist of that same instrument (!) and recorded using the restored Schnitger organ, is a good resource as well. Commented Jan 24 at 15:27

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