After the Portico of Glory, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (XII century)

Made by  César Árias and Francisco Luengo


Photo: Tony Esparís

Structurally, the organistrum of the Pórtico de la Gloria shares characteristics of instruments carved out from a single block of wood, and those built from pieces: the ribs are carved from a single block of wood, while the soundboard and the bottom are made of separate pieces, as well as the keyboard box.

The organistrum is a “bowed” stringed instrument, with a wooden wheel instead of a bow to produce the sound. The three produce a simultaneous sound, wich can be modulate by keys. It is closely related to the monochord.

Christian Rault, in his excellent study on the organistrum, mentioned above, examines four possible systems for the action of the keyboard, according to movement of the keys: rotation, sliding (like hurdy-gurdies), or balance.

It is crystal clear that the sliding system, used in almost every hury-gurdy, is a first order reference, and the typical structure of keys protruding through square hole on both sides of the keyboard box can be seen in more than one image,

Two musicians are necessary to play the organistrum: para tocarlo: one deals with the crank that drives the wheel, holding the instrument firmly against their knees; the other one operates the keys to produce different notes.

To learn more about this instrument is recommended the  comprehensive book by Christian Rault “L’Organistrum, les origines de la vielle a roue” Paris 1985 (Ed. Aux amateurs de livres).

Two instruments of this kind can be found in Santiago de Compostela: The best known of the Portico of the Glory, the one we ca see in the photo above, an the less known but no less interesting of the building next to the Cathedral, the Palace of Xelmirez.

Photo: Tony Esparís
Photo: Santy López
Photo: Tony Esparís
Photo: Tony Esparís

Organistrum. Portico of Paradise. Cathedral of Ourense

Among all the images of the organistrum found in Europe, the one present in the Portico de la Gloria has peculiarities that make it of special interest. We see the accuracy of the sculpture, the abundance of constructive details and the perfect proportions. Moreover, the keyboard, with its twelve keys, sets a conceptual challenge to us; and the unknown inner action, wich challenges us to give a constructive an functional answer to the enigma.

The soundboard has several sound holes, apart from the magnificent rose with floral motifs, typical of Magister Mateo`s school.

The wheel is perfectly placed in relation to the bridge and the assumed string length.

It shows three thick strings.

Photo: Santy López

Organistrum. Xelmirez Palace. Santiago de Compostela

There are two more examples in Galicia, both in porches of churches: the one in the Church of San Nicholas, Portomarin (Lugo) and the one in the Portico of Paradise of the Cathedral of Ourense

i.e. the organistrum of the Cathedral of Ourense, (see the photo above). We can assume that this system has been used successfully.

However, after long experience with this type of keyboard we find that this system has some serious functional problems in the case of instruments made after the Portico the la Gloria. These problems are mainly two:

-As the strings are very long, its oscillation is so wide that they hit continuously the tangents of the keys, specially in high  notes. This breaks the vibration, producing noise and undesirable harmonics. This effect is particularly strong when the key approaches the string.

-The strength required to pull the keys tend to separate the instrument from the knees of the musicians. This is due to the type of action: once pulled up, the key must return to its rest position under its own weight. This requires placing the organistrum in a tilted position to facilitate the return, more tilted than the position we see in the portic. The musician in charge of the keyboard pulls the strings up to limit the string vibration. This strength is greater than it may initially appear, and this tends to lift the instrument, separating it from the knees of the

performers. The person in charge of the wheel  should offset this effect by pressing the instrument tightly against the legs of both performers. This leads to a kind of struggle between the two musicians. The result is a tiring and unstable performance, with lot of noises.

The high prominence the organistrum in the Ordo Prophetarum that Actus stages guide us to make a new reflection about it, in order to make a confortable instrument. Finally, we have chosen the balance system as the best suited for the Portico instrument.

In the Portico of Glory we can see just one end of the keys, the top, the one handled by the performer with the fingers. the other end of the key is hidden inside the keyboard box. This arrangement invited us to create a keyboard of a type similar to the clavichord, that touches the string from below. The keys lie in repose beneath the strings, and this have no obstacle for its vibration, because there are no vertical elements obstructing it.

The problems of stability disappear with this kind of action. The performer press the keys like in a piano, he does not pull them, so the instrument rests comfortably on your lap, without any undesirable movement.

This is, for now, our last cogitation about the organistrum, an instrument that once was king.

We hope that in the future more players will start playing and experimenting with it.

  1.                                                 F. Luengo

To know more about it read the following publications:

“L’Organistrum, les origines de la vielle a roue” Paris 1985 (Ed. Aux amateurs de livres)

"El Pórtico de la Gloria, Música, Arte y Pensamiento", 1988 published by Cuadernos de Música en Compostela,

"Los Instrumentos del Pórtico de la Gloria", 1993 published by Fundación Barrié de la Maza,

“Instruments à cordes du Moyen Age”, 1999 CERIMM, Fondation Royaumont, published by Créaphis,

“Instrumentos de Corda Medievais”, Lugo 2000 published by Deputación Provincial de Lugo

Benedicamus Domino

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