Portative, positive, tomato, tomahto….

Porta –what?

Our Artistic Director, Derek W. Stannard explains the terminology of moveable organs…
Derek Stannard
Most people are familiar with the image of a church organ. Large pipes facing forward, a console (where the organist sits) that looks like the inside of a fighter jet, and a sound that ranges from ethereal strings to bombastic trumpets. However, all organs are not created equal. When working in a huge cathedral, something larger would be necessary, but for intimate performances, a smaller organ might just be the right fit.

In Auriel Camerata’s November 7th performance of three of the Bach motets and selected Biber “Rosary” Sonatas, we are using an organ that fits the music we are performing. So, a portative it is. Or, at least that’s what I’ve always called it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve called the organ we will be using a portative. Upon further
research it seems that this term actually refers to a very portable organ that is pumped and played by hand, and contains one single rank of pipes. From the Latin “portare” or “to carry”. See below. This is not the instrument that we’re using.

So what is it then?

Well, as it turns out, the small organ we will play is called a Positive. This time from the Latin
verb “ponere” meaning “to place”. Organ aficionados will know this term as the smaller unenclosed division on a pipe organ, generally containing a scaled-down principle chorus, a few flutes and a reed or two. On some instruments this division would be called a ruckpositiv (forward, in German) and would be mounted on the edge of a balcony.
positive 2

These organs can range in size from looking like a scaled-down traditional church organ, to what is called a box or chest organ. On these instruments, the organ is often no higher than the keyboard and all of the pipes are tucked away within. These size organs have become exceedingly popular for chamber music due to their convenient size and portability (or should I say “positive-ability”?). These small instruments are usually made up of a few ranks of pipes (or sometimes one rank, playable at different octaves) and are perfect for accompanying basso continuo work, exactly as you will hear in the Bach and Biber program.

I hope you’ll join us for this wonderful program. I’m positive you’ll love it!

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