The baroque organs of Oaxaca

Joseph Mansfield


[This article appeared in slightly different form in Sacred music, volume 133, number 3 (fall 2006), at this link.  The printed version at the link includes pictures of the organs discussed.  The printed version carried this introductory note:


Joseph Mansfield served various churches in 27 years as a high Anglican and entered the Roman Church in 1989.  In 2003 he retired to a small village in Mexico.  The writer gratefully acknowledges the help of Cecily Winter, director of the IOHIO, who read the manuscript, made corrections, and supplied missing facts.  He also relied on the IOHIO’s web site and past newsletters, and on Dr Steel’s paper, “Historic organs of Oaxaca”, mentioned in the text, as well as direct correspondence with Dr Steel.  Bob Waters, of Watersmith Organs in Vermont, also read the manuscript and identified several places that needed clarification.  Thanks are due to all of these.  The writer alone bears responsibility for any inaccuracies or shortcomings.  The photographs accompanying this article are used with the permission of the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca, A.C.]


The Mexican state of Oaxaca, whose capital city bears the same name, lies on the Pacific coast of Mexico southeast of Mexico City.  Its land rises from near-pristine beaches to the majestic ridges and valleys of the Sierra Madre del Sur range.  The first Spanish settlement in the state dates from 1521 and the occupation of the city from shortly after that.  As in the surrounding southern states, settlements were many and times were prosperous.  Even tiny villages nestled in the valleys had small but elaborate baroque churches, a great many of which survive today.  Add to these the great churches in the capital city, along with the many monastery churches, and you have a wealth of noble old churches hardly to be matched in the western hemisphere.  Moreover, local authorities have found indications that at one time, virtually every church in Oaxaca, large or small, had at least one organ.


Today, a total of sixty-eight surviving historic[1] organs has been identified in Oaxaca.  The earliest of these were built in the late seventeenth century and the latest[2] in the late nineteenth.  One by one, due in former days to lack of funds and nowadays to liturgical changes as well, every single one of these organs fell into disuse and into a greater or lesser state of disarray.  Some of the silenced organs were mostly forgotten about over the years and suffered only minor damage.  Others did not fare so well.  At least a couple of small positives became storage cabinets.  One larger instrument found itself converted into a confessional, another into an altarpiece!  During periods of political instability, some organs were robbed of their pipes, which were taken for making bullets.  Some were cannibalized for parts.  Some were lost to earthquakes and fires.  Many were simply destroyed, along with chasubles and the like, due to “modernization”.  It is estimated that possible that as many as a thousand[3] old organs may have disappeared altogether, all too often under tragic circumstances.


In the years since 1991, seven of the silent organs have recovered their voices, thanks to the efforts of a variety of organizations, individuals, and funding institutions.  Prominent among the last is Banamex, a leading bank, which financed four of the seven restorations in Oaxaca.  A very special organization, the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca (IOHIO[4]) was founded in 2000 by Cicely Winter, the present director, and Edward Pepe.  Central among its purposes was, and is, the identification and conservation of as many of the old organs as possible.  The IOHIO works closely with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), the principal federal governmental entity concerned with protection of Mexico’s cultural heritage.


In the earliest period of Spanish settlement organs were imported from Spain.  But local organ building began quite early as well (in Mexico City, shortly after the conquest thereof, possibly as early as 1524).  Of the organs extant today, none was imported from Spain.  All seven of the restored organs were almost certainly made in Oaxaca.  The first locally built organs were modeled on those being made in Spain at the same time.  Subsequent development in Spain, however, was not followed by local builders; the last locally made organs were not a lot different from the first.


As a rule, the organs have one manual and no pedal.  The action is direct on positive, or table,[5] organs, and suspended, perhaps with a rollerboard, on larger instruments.  The lowest register is 8’[6], or on smaller organs 4’ or even 2’.  The manual encompasses four octaves.  It is divided at c/c#, each side having its own stops.  In the low octave, pipes are not included for the first four sharps, so the low octave of the keyboard is “short”.  The lowest key, E, plays C; F# plays D; G# plays E; then F plays F, and so on.  Tuning is mean tone, so these missing pipes are not a serious problem.  (I have not played any of these organs, but I suspect the short octave would take some getting used to.)  The organs are tuned a whole tone low (a=392).  Reed stops are plentiful on larger instruments.  Likewise the organs usually have plenty of mutations but rarely mixtures.  Pipe voicing is invariably crisp and clean.


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Let us take a detailed look at one organ, located in the church of San Jerónimo at Tlacochahuaya (see photo).  The church goes back to 1558.  The present organ was built probably shortly before 1730 and was located in the nave of the church.  It was a 4’ organ.  It had no stop knobs; the sliders extended out the ends of the case, out of the player’s reach.  In 1735 a choir loft was added to the church and the organ was moved up there, being placed a meter or so out from the south (epistle side) wall.[7]  A full rank 8’ bardón was added, along with a right-hand 8’ trumpet mounted horizontally from the façade.  Stop knobs were added on either side of the manual.  In the nineteenth century the keyboard was refinished in bone and wood.  Nevertheless, the organ had fallen out of use well before it was fully restored in 1991 by Susan Tattershall.[8]  It had been out of use for a long time; no one in the town had any memory of its sound.


The specification of the organ, after the 1735 changes:


Left hand (21 notes)

Right hand (24 notes)

Bardon 8’ (stopped bourdon)

Bardon 8’

Flautado 4’ (principal)

Flautado 4’


Flautado II 4’

Octava 2’

Octava 2’


Octava II 2’


Docena 1 1/3’

Quincena 1’


Diez y novena 2/3’


Ventidocena/Quincena ½’ *


Bajoncillo 4’ (trumpet, vertical)[9]

Trompeta en batalla (horizontal) 8’

     (* breaks back)



There is also one toy stop, the Pajaritos (birds).  It is still operated by pulling a slider on the right side of the case. 


The 1991 restoration included addition of an electric blower.  The earlier pair of bellows is in working order as well.


The casework, as the photo shows, is highly ornate. It stands a full 3.68 meters (12 ft) high.  Its finish is polychrome and gilded work, and the pipes are polychromed.  The case was fully refinished in the 1991 restoration. 


An intriguing feature of this case is the rounded hips on either side.  These hips are common on larger organs in Oaxaca and are not found outside that area.  No one knows why they were added.  So far as is known they serve no acoustical purpose. 


Going contrary to received wisdom, the back of the case of this organ is not solid.  There was no back to the case when the organ was rebuilt, and the rebuilder, not knowing if the case ever had a back, put in a cross-hatched cover to give protection while allowing sound to escape. 


Perhaps the cross-hatching is just what the doctor ordered.  For this organ, despite being a mostly four-foot instrument, speaks with a presence and richness that, for my ear, exceed the speech of the other four Oaxaca organs I have heard.  It fills its rather large church with startling warmth and fullness, yet perfect clarity.


*          *          *


One would think that “restoration” of an organ would not preclude just a little bit of modernization, such as, perhaps, an electric blower.  But there is a certain inspiration to be drawn from an organ restored exactly to its pristine condition, so far as possible.


Such is the case at San Andrés in Zautla.  The not-so-little table organ there has no stop knobs, but only sliders projecting through the ends of the case, out of the organist’s reach.  If changes of registration are desired during a piece, two assistants will be needed to man the sliders.  The façade pipework is so low over the manual that there is no room for a music rack.  Performance of anything not well memorized will require an assistant to hold the music.  And there must be someone to raise wind, for this organ is so authentic that it has no electric blower.  A performance on this organ may thus require as many as five persons:   a community endeavor, indeed.


*          *          *


Oaxaca is fortunate to have the IOHIO, fueled by the vision and dedication of its leader and her team of collaborators.  The IOHIO has many functions besides conserving organs.  Among them are:



The IOHIO also conducts an annual organ festival and music conference in November.  I was privileged to attend this conference in 2005 and see at first hand the amazing breadth and volume of work carried out by the IOHIO’s energetic and tenacious members.


*          *          *


The final cause of the organ in the church is the worship of God and the edification of the people.  The IOHIO understands this and supports the liturgical use of the organ.  But the initiative for any aspect of liturgy must, of course, come from the church.  In the two churches where I heard mass during my visit, I found the same variety of songs without merit, sung without art,[10] that is common in American parishes.  Indeed, one church with a restored pipe organ leaves the same on the sideline and uses an electric appliance.  It is a Johannus, a very good appliance, and immeasurably better than guitars and rattles, but still an appliance.


Nevertheless, work for the improvement of the liturgy and its music is going on at the highest level of the church.  There is also the beginning of change at the local level:  The recently installed archbishop of Oaxaca, Monseñor José Luis Chávez Botello, encourages liturgical use of the organ and has it used at his Sunday masses in the cathedral.  And when the church does begin a wide return to its favored instrument, the IOHIO will have insured that there will be many working instruments to return to.


The organ speaks with a unique voice.  It is said that the organ helped in the conversion of the Aztecs and other tribes of Mexico, for its voice, transcending culture, spoke to them of the transcendence of God and drew them to the church.  We may pray that the day come soon when today’s catholics will again be drawn to God by the sustained notes of the pipe organ, in Oaxaca and around the world.


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Additional material:  The IOHIO’s web site provides a wealth of data on the organs of Oaxaca and the work of the Institute, and is replete with photographs and drawings of the organs.  It also includes information about this year’s festival, coming up in November and an event well worth attending.  The address:




Some of the restored organs of Oaxaca may be heard in Pipe Dreams broadcast number 242 at this address:


A long article by David Warren Steel on the organs of Oaxaca, more technical than this one, is to be had at:


There are many additional materials to be found by searching on organs AND oaxaca.


*          *          *


The 2005 festival included a visit to Tiltepec, where we found a tiny village and a tiny church, a church which nevertheless has a pipe organ.  One of the bellows on it would produce a little wind and we got a few tentative sounds out of the machine.  A number of the villagers had turned out to greet us.  One of them was an older lady who stood not much over four feet tall.  After watching me for a while, she came over to me, lifted her bronze, lined, weathered face, and asked, “Who are these people?  What do they want here?”  I said, “These people are from an organization that is going around the state restoring organs.  They hope to restore this one someday.”  The lady paused and looked deeply into my eyes.  And she said, softly, slowly, “¡Ojala! [May God grant it!]  I know this organ.  I remember when it used to speak.”


[1] The “Oaxaca Protocol” of 2001, pertaining to the restoration of old organs, arbitrarily defines a “historic” organ as one at least 50 years old, counting back from the current year.


[2] I refer to the latest Mexican-made organs; there were some twentieth century imports from Germany.


[3] To our American ears a thousand organs lost in one state seems a very high number.  But I am assured that it is reasonable, considering the prosperous times, the large number of inhabited settlements, the fact that even small settlements usually had a church and an organ, and the time span of more than four hundred years during which many an organ would have just worn out and, in the prosperous years, been replaced.


[4] How is “IOHIO” pronounced?  Well, try “yo-yo”.


[5] Many of the “table” organs of Oaxaca, despite being table-mounted, are in fact too big to be carried around.


[6] Spanish and Mexican organs usually express base pitch in palmas, literally palms, but the measure is close to our span, a bit under eight inches.  So an eight foot stop would be called a “thirteen palm” stop.  In this paper I have opted to stick with the familiar foot notation.


[7] Organs in Oaxaca are usually against a side wall of the loft (i.e., facing across the nave), or positioned diagonally in the loft.  Only occasionally is the case aligned with the axis of the building.


[8] This remarkable lady has restored a number of organs in the nearby states of Tlaxcala and México, as well as completing four of the restorations in Oaxaca.


[9] A bajoncillo is normally mounted horizontally. Dr Steel speculates that this one might have been originally horizontal, but later moved into the case to make room for the battle trumpet (David Warren Steel, personal correspondence, 14 June 2006).


[10] Apologies to Walker Percy.







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