The pipe organ is familiar to any member of Western civilization. For many, it’s that instrument in the back or front of a church building that accompanies singing. It can be found in many secular sports arenas and concert halls (criminally underused) and is the instrument of choice in cinema for gothic villains and hunched evildoers. What might be unfamiliar to the average person is an organ that looks like this:
These jutting out, horizontal pipes are commonly described as “en chamade.” The term is French and loosely translates as “to sound a parlay,” perhaps comparing it to a battlefield trumpet that would sound for a pause in battle (a parley). The comparison is a fair one: pipes placed horizontally go from loud to ear-splittingly loud. As a result, reeds—organ pipes that produce sound with a vibrating piece of metal—are almost exclusively employed in en chamade configurations.
The crazy practice started out in the Cathedral of Huesca, Spain. The practice quickly spread like wildfire to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula as the setups grew in size and complexity. These early “horizontal trumpets,” as they were called, weren’t as loud and brash as they’d soon become and were built instead to provide a clear, crisp sound that imitated a real trumpet. They were also very practical: pointing a pipe out instead of up meant that no dust or flies would collect inside the tube, a distinct advantage in the dry region they inhabited.
In comes Juan Bautista Cabanilles to up the ante. His instrument at Valencia Cathedral in 1665 was ahead of its time and unusually loud. Though some Spanish organ music before the mid-1600s can be played with horizontal trumpets (albeit with historical inaccuracy), Cabanilles was the first to write specifically for them. His “Batalla Imperial” (literally “Imperial Battle”), much like other batallas would follow, used the horizontal trumpets to imitate the sounds of battle. One over-the-top rendition by famed organist E Power Biggs sounds less like "Amazing Grace" and more like fiery chorus from Hell:
The practice was exported outside of the Spanish realm by the 1700s. Revolutionary organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll often had a “trompette en chamade” built on his instruments that dotted France. His 19th century “symphonic style” aimed to have organs sound less like ancient synthesizers and more like symphonies. The resulting organs were large, dark in tone quality and very, very loud. Thus, a line of horizontal trumpets was an ideal way to imitate the booming sound of a symphony’s brass section. One of Cavaillé-Coll’s most famous organs, installed at Notre-Dame de Paris, features five separate horizontal stops, the majority of which have been installed in subsequent expansions. When used together with the rest of the organ, the resulting sound is roar unlike any other instrument:
Today, pipes simply referred to as “chamades” see widespread use on large organs, especially in the United States. Using newer construction techniques, modern chamades are often conical, lack now unnecessary scaffolding, and are sometimes placed in unusual, awe-inspiring configurations. Many within the organist community believe that horizontal pipes have been reduced to a status symbol, installed on glitzy new organs in halls too small to support their overwhelming sound. Unlike the early form seen in Spain, they’re booming and sluggish in their sound. Sometimes, chamade “batteries” are installed opposite of the main organ to add an antiphonal sound, a setup seen in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral.
For purists that abhor these “brutish” modern chamades, they still have legions of well-preserved organs in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and other former Spanish territories. Replica instruments can be found in Europe and the United States, built to sound like a 17th century Iberian organ without any of the 17th century wear and tear. Organists and their record companies often produce entire albums dedicated to just Spanish organ music and its horizontal trumpets. Those wishing to venture into the genre should check out Ton Koopman’s “Batalha - Iberian Organ Music” (linked above) and Nicholas Jackson’s “Great European Organs No.39: Segovia Cathedral.”