Historic Organs of Oaxaca

by David Warren Steel

The following article was published in the online journal Sapaan 3 (Spring 2004). This journal is currently offline, and the article is posted here for the convenience of readers. Since this article was published four additional organs have been restored to playing condition, making a total of eleven. See a summary of the current restorations.

The state of Oaxaca is one of the most culturally diverse in all Mexico; it is also one of the richest repositories of historic pipe organs in the New World: some 65 organs have been identified, nearly all in a distinctive regional style, with some instruments dating back to 1690 or earlier. While most are in various states of deterioration, and some are clearly endangered, seven have been restored in recent years to playing condition.

To protect and promote this musical legacy, the Instituto de Organos Históricos de Oaxaca (IOHIO, pronounced “yoyo”) was established in 2000 by Cicely Winter and Edward Pepe, with the goals of studying and documenting the organs of Oaxaca, preserving and protecting them from natural and human hazards, and publicizing and promoting them to local and international audiences through conferences and festivals. The third annual Organ and Early Music Festival was held on November 13-17, 2003, and included visits to nine organs, concerts on five organs, with opportunities for visiting organists to play three of them. Readers of the following article may follow alternative paths: the main narrative describes the featured instruments, their physical and cultural setting, and the performances heard during the festival; those interested in more technical subjects are invited to follow hypertext links to additional information.

The musical resources of these organs are modeled on those of Spanish organs in the 17th century. Oaxacan organs have a single manual, and no pedal keyboard. The keyboard is recessed in a rectangular “window” in the case; up till around 1850, this consisted of 45 keys, or four octaves, from C to c''' with short octave in the bass. The organ is divided between middle C and C-sharp: stops are drawn separately above and below this dividing point. In fact, on most Oaxacan organs, the selection of stops varies from treble to bass, with some stops available only in one hand. Pitch is low, around A=392 Hz, and the pipes are tuned in a meantone system that produces strong, ringing chords in the common keys and church modes, but can produce sour intonation in remote keys or modulations. The organs are provided with slider chests, and all but the smallest have a suspended tracker action. Wind is supplied by a pair of multifold bellows located near the organ case.

The pipes are of the usual types: principals (flautados), flutes, and reeds. The reed pipes may be vertical and housed in the case (trompeta real), or they may be horizontal, protruding from the front of the case (clarín or bajoncillo); larger organs may have both types of reed pipes. The appearance of Oaxacan organs is often as arresting as their sound. Many are richly decorated with painting and carving. The facade pipes of some organs are painted, with grotesque faces painted around the pipe mouth. In addition, most Oaxacan organs have distinctive rounded swellings or “hips” at the sides of the lower case, a feature unknown elsewhere.

Early arrivals for the festival attended a harpsichord concert by Guido Iotti on the evening of November 13, at the resonant and richly decorated temple and cultural center of Santo Domingo in downtown Oaxaca. I arrived on Friday, 14 November, and registered at the IOHIO office, housed in a single room of the Oaxaca Philatelic Museum (MUFI). The nearly fifty participants included organists, organbuilders, musicologists, art historians, and others interested in music and the arts in Mexico.

Oaxaca Cathedral

The festival proper began Friday evening, November 14, with a concert by Lynn Edwards Butler on the organ at Oaxaca Cathedral. The cathedral, located on the city’s central plaza (zócalo), has a quire (coro) near the west end of the nave. Raised several feet above the nave floor and enclosed on three sides by a heavy carved screen, it is connected to the distant high altar by a narrow alley for processions. In some Spanish and Mexican cathedrals, there are two organs, located atop the north and south sides of the quire, and this seems to have been the case in Oaxaca in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the 19th century, however, components from two deteriorating organs were apparently combined to produce a single instrument atop the west wall of the quire, near the great doors. Subsequent deterioration rendered the lower case unusable, so in the most recent restoration, by Susan Tattershall in 1997, the ornate polychromed upper case was mounted on a new lower case of plain cedar, resulting in a visual discrepancy not evident in other Oaxacan organs.

Butler’s program was varied and interesting. Little is known about what Mexican organists played between 1550 and 1900; few examples of printed or manuscript organ music survive, other than a few “organ tablatures” in the Gabriel Saldívar collection at Puebla. It seems likely that improvisation played a large role in organ music for the liturgy. The lack of pedals and the narrow range of Oaxacan organs, with their “short octave” keyboards, limits the available repertory of European masterworks, while the horizontal reeds and the provision of divided keyboard (medio registro) make these instruments ideal for a large amount of 17th- and 18th-century Iberian organ music specifically written for this arrangement. Butler played eight works by Spanish composers including Francisco Correa de Arauxo, Pablo Bruna, Juan Cabanilles and Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia, of which four called for medio registro. She also played a Froberger toccata and two plainsong works from German manuscripts, with alternatim chant sung by cantor Israel Rivera Pérez. The works were masterfully played, but heard only with difficulty: at least four bands were on the plaza beyond the west door, vying for the attention of citizens and tourists with brass and electric instruments, and with giant dancing dolls (monos). This is a perennial problem with organs located in busy urban settings, where church services and outdoor activities make recording impossible and concentrated listening nearly so.


On Saturday morning, festival participants met at the IOHIO office at 9:30 and boarded a bus for the Mixteca Alta region. The first stop was the hillside community of Santa María Tiltepec, where the village church, built before 1575 on pre-Hispanic foundations, is characterized by ornate carved decoration in the tequitqui style consisting of syncretistic motifs (Mexican and European) in low, mainly two-dimensional relief. As in other village churches, we were welcomed by male elders making brief speeches. After viewing a 16th-century footed baptismal font with feathered serpent motifs and a fine set of 18th-century retablos (reredos), we ascended the “west gallery” (coro alto), though at Tiltepec, with its unconventional orientation, this was actually at the south end of the building. Here we found the unrestored organ of medium size dating probably from the mid-18th century, and encountered the peculiar shape of the typical Oaxacan organ case: the upper case richly decorated with carved work, the recessed short-octave keyboard, and the polychromed lower case, with its non-functional bulges or “hips” which contrast sharply with the top-heavy design of many Northern European organs, in which the lower case is considerably narrower than the main division. The facade pipes comprise the four-foot flautado (principal), though an eight-foot bardón (stopped flute) enabled the organ to play at unison pitch. Also located in the facade flats on either side of the central tower are upside down pipes from the one-foot quincena rank. Handpainted labels near the stop knobs show that the disposition included internal trumpets in both treble and bass, and the usual “toy” stops of tambor (drum) and pajaritos (songbirds). A cascabeles (harness bells) stop may have been similar, but was more likely a kind of tierce mixture for the right hand. The instrument seems well-preserved, and would seem an ideal candidate for restoration—certainly the inhabitants take pride in their church, which is undergoing thorough conservation and restoration. With its relatively remote location, however, and the lack of local organists or a surviving tradition of organ-playing at mass, it would be difficult for such an instrument to achieve a critical frequency of use, and it seems that restoration may have to wait.


The next stop was the ex-convent of Yanhuitlán, formerly the headquarters of the Dominican order for the entire Mixtec region. Perched upon pre-Hispanic foundations on a hill beside the old royal highway leading from México and Puebla to Oaxaca and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the imposing edifice boasts a high ceiling with vaulting in Gothic style and a breathtaking view of the surrounding valley from the west door. Access to the unusually deep coro alto is not by the usual spiral staircase at a corner tower, but through an extensive multi-storied cloister with mosaic floor. The organ, like that of Tiltepec, is located on a balustrade that extends from the coro along the north side of the nave. Its large size and copious decoration proclaim its importance as a component of native evangelization. Built probably by 1700, the organ has wedge-shaped side towers and a rounded central tower surmounted by a sculpture of the order’s founder St. Dominick, the whole surrounded by a nimbus of intricate carved work and polychromed painting. Especially exuberant are the grotesque faces painted on the lips of the facade pipes, grinning fiercely through the mouths of the pipes. The disposition, as restored by Pascal Quoirin (1998), includes open flautados at eight-foot pitch, bright upper-work without tierce ranks or mixtures, a trompeta real (internal trumpet) in each hand, but external trumpet only in the treble. The keyboard is a 19th-century replacement, with 47 keys.

The concert at Yanhuitlán began at 1:00 pm, with a sizable and diverse audience that was nonetheless dwarfed by the ancient temple. The program, too, was the most varied of the weekend: three organists played, and there were more transcriptions and popular pieces than in the other events. Oaxacan organist and conductor Eliseo Martínez played pieces by Corelli, Handel, and Clerambault, as well as two well-known works by J.S. Bach based on chorales. In these last two, Inocencio Mena Amaya supplied the chorale melodies on the trumpet. The other two recitalists, Edward Pepe and Cicely Winter, are co-founders of the IOHIO. Pepe played three tientos by Iberian composers, and pasacalles by Frescobaldi and Cabanilles. Winter played batalla pieces by Cabanilles and José Ximénez, accompanied by a drummer, and a toccata by Frescobaldi. The audience responded most directly to her transcriptions of Mexican classics: “Dios nunca muere” by Macedonio Alcalá (1831-1869) and the nostalgic Canción Mixteca (“Que lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido”) to which most of the audience sang the words. All three artists played beautifully, despite the minimal time they had to practice on this unique instrument, located at some distance from the city in a church that is frequently locked or used for other events.


After the festival participants ascended the gallery and some organists had an opportunity to play the instrument, we boarded the bus and headed south for our last appointment, at San Andrés Zautla in the Etla region near Oaxaca. Over the past few hours we had alternated between the old highway and a new motorway which could be traveled much more quickly, but had fewer exits. Indeed, to reach the Zautla community, we would have had to lose a whole hour doubling back to reach the old road. Anticipating our predicament, however, the IOHIO had secured permission to create a temporary exit ramp for our one-time use. With great effort, our driver turned onto the inclined plane of earth and gravel, and we pulled into Zautla to the sound of fireworks, church bells, and a folk ensemble of chirimía (clay shawm) and drum. The welcome had only begun: we were each presented with a wreath of purple bougainvillia blossoms and a draught of mezcal (agave spirits) in a calabash cup; we were then conducted into the church courtyard, where we were seated for a dinner of quesadillas with toppings, followed by chicken estofado, a savory stew of tomatoes with raisins, almonds and guajillo chiles. The performers had already arrived for the second concert of the day, so we entered the church, joining the large crowd of villagers already present for the 6:00 concert.

The organ at Zautla was built in 1726, and stands on a low stand in the west gallery, with its bellows behind. The case doors swing open to reveal paintings of the four archangels, while the sides of the case bear paintings of Saints Peter and Andrew. The instrument, restored in 1997 by Susan Tattershall, has a four-foot flautado and cannot play at unison pitch. The sound, nonetheless, has a strong presence, and one scarcely noticed the lack of the fundamental pitch, especially when it was used to accompany the high, clear voice of soprano Lourdes Ambriz. Like other small Oaxacan instruments, the Zautla instrument lacks the suspended tracker action found in larger organs. Instead, a pin action offers a comparatively heavy and uneven touch. In addition, the sliders or registers that engage and disengage individual stops are not controlled by stop-knobs near the keyboard, but must be pulled and pushed from either side of the case. The keyboard itself is positioned immediately below the facade pipes, leaving no room for a music-desk. Finally, the wind must be raised manually, as the village elders declined an electric blower when it was offered recently. As a result, the playing of this concert was a cooperative effort, involving a bellows-blower, two stop assistants and a music holder, in addition to Mexican organist José Suárez Molina, who did a masterful job in choosing music that would sound best on the instrument. This included organ works by Giovanni Gabrieli, J.P. Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and Cabanilles, and vocal works by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Carissimi, Cavalli, Couperin and Handel.

Suárez played the music without compromise, while providing a flexible and sympathetic accompaniment to the vocal works. As I stood there holding the maestro’s sheet music, feeling on my hands the living breath of the grotesque faces painted on the facade pipes, it struck me that as it took five of us to play the instrument, it had taken many more to build it so long ago, to care for it, to restore it, to cultivate relations with the community, to advocate and educate, and to organize the event. The sound of the organ and voice was certainly beautiful, and I would gladly own a recording of it. But I’ve increasingly come to think of music as a sum total of all the human interactions and behavior that come together to create artistic sound. Music cannot be recorded, only the sounds of music—this music, however, in this place, was a complete and exquisite experience, never to be reproduced or removed, yet never to be forgotten.


On Sunday morning, we set off to see three unrestored organs. The first was at San Matías Jalatlaco, a parish built in colonial times by Nahuatl-speaking workers on city churches and government buildings, but now part of the city of Oaxaca. The unrestored organ by Pedro Nibra (1866) is later than the rest of the organs on the tour, but still represents the native Oaxacan tradition of organbuilding. The keyboard is wider, containing 56 notes and four and a half chromatic octaves—this is still a typical keyboard width elsewhere for historically-influenced instruments. The case is painted blue rather than polychromed, with neo-classical mouldings replacing the baroque finials on the central tower. In other respects, however, the organ at Jalatlaco shows little change from those made 150 years earlier: it has only a single keyboard, no pedal, divided registers for treble and bass, low pitch, a “hipped” lower case, elaborately carved pipe-shades, and a “halo” of carving around the top of the central tower. The stoplist was also typically Oaxacan, with eight-foot flautado, and with both internal and external reeds, though the latter were removed at a later date and their corresponding stop-knobs sawn off at the stop-jamb. Amid the carved scrollwork above the key-desk is the builder’s monogram. The rollerboard is clearly visible behind the keydesk.

As elsewhere, IOHIO staff—Cicely Winter, Edward Pepe, and José Luís Acevedo—presented information on the organs in both Spanish and English. On this occasion they explained that the Jalatlaco organ may be the next candidate for restoration, due to its relatively good condition, but most of all its proximity to the city center, where it can be played frequently, and may also serve as a training ground for young organists. Organbuilders and restorers at the festival, including Fritz Noack, Christoph Metzler, and John Shortridge, examined this instrument closely with such a step in mind, before we boarded the bus for our trip to the Mitla Valley.


The valley east of Oaxaca, along with the mountains to the north and south, is the heart of the Zapotec country, noted for its agricultural production, and also for textiles and other handicrafts. We headed east on the highway, passing a monument to reformer and native son Benito Juárez García; we also passed the giant cypress tree at Tule, called one of the largest single organisms on earth. At length we arrived at the busy town of Tlacolula, where the weekly Sunday market brings producers of every conceivable product to buy, sell, and trade. After an hour or so browsing the markets, we kept our appointment at the door of the church of the Assumption, where we climbed an especially narrow stone spiral staircase to the organ gallery. The organ, dating from the mid to late 18th century, is a large one, whose eight-foot flautado in the facade may be a replacement for an earlier four-foot: the larger pipes protrude from the top of the case and bear painted faces that are more detailed and human than those of any other Oaxacan organ. The dark red painted case, with its classical decor, is reminiscent of that at Jalatlaco. The church is famous for its transept chapel, with its exuberant baroque decoration. On this busy market day, we noticed a continual stream of visitors who approached the altar with lilies, which they brushed against the miracle-working image of Christ so that they could later pass along the blessing to their homes and families.


For our next stop we headed back toward the city, but turned north into the hills until we reached San Andrés Huayapan. The municipal president and cabildo greeted us and ushered us into the churchyard, where shelters and tables had been set up for our next meal. Mezcal and quesadillas were served with the usual selection of salsas and guacamole, but also with chicharras, edible crickets; we were told that if we sampled these, we would surely return. The main dish was a stew of beef, potatoes, green beens and chayote squash in yellow mole. We listened to a brief address by Fritz Noack, president of the International Society of Organbuilders (ISO), in which he endorsed the work of the IOHIO, especially their resolve to avoid the hasty and uninformed “restorations” that have destroyed valuable evidence in Europe and elsewhere. We then entered the church and proceeded to the south transept to see an unrestored four-foot table organ, probably from the 19th century, but with 45-key short octave range typical of much earlier instruments, and with a pin action like that of the 1726 organ at Zautla. There is evidence that the organ was expanded from an earlier state with two-foot facade pipes, possibly by Oaxacan builder Pedro Nibra, whose 1908 signature was found inside the case. As we left the church we were given tejate, a refreshing drink made from atole (cornmeal gruel) flavored with chocolate, mamey seed, and cacao flowers, served in painted calabash bowls.


After boarding our bus, we left Huayapan and returned east, about half way toward Tlacolula, to make our rendezvous at Tlacochahuaya, a Zapotec village with a rich colonial heritage. The temple of San Jerónimo was built there in 1558 as a retreat house for Dominican friars serving the Oaxaca area. The interior of the church is richly decorated: the walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling are painted throughout with floral motifs. The organ, likely built in the early 18th century, is painted in a similar style, and was the first Oaxacan organ to be restored in modern times, by Susan Tattershall in 1991; it may be heard on a compact disc recording by José Suárez, playing works of Bruna and Cabanilles (Quindecim QP014), and another by Dominique Ferran, playing a variety of Iberian works (Chemins du Baroque K617). We took our seats in the church, where villagers and visitors from Oaxaca were gathered for the evening lecture and concert. Italian organist and scholar Guido Iotti gave a comparative talk, in Spanish, on Italian and Spanish organs; he then played his recital, which, in addition to works by Cabezón, Bruna and Durón, featured music by Italian composers from Frescobaldi (17th-century) to the Napoleonic era. While some of the works strained the modulatory capabilities of the mean-tone system, others offered Iotti the opportunity to exploit the characteristic sounds of the Oaxacan organ, including the pajaritos, which someone likened to a squeaky fan belt, and the horizontal trumpets, which sounded appropriately martial in Gherardeschi’s Sonata a guisa di una banda militare che suona una marcia. Following the concert, we ascended the gallery and examined the organ, and several organists tried their hand at the keyboard. When we left the church, we encountered vendors on the plaza, and enjoyed a late-night snack of quesadillas and chocolate atole before returning to Oaxaca.

La Soledad

On Monday morning, a somewhat smaller group of participants boarded two vans for a tour of the prehistoric sites at Monte Albán, guided by Marcus Winter, an archeologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). After an afternoon siesta in my hotel, I was awakened by the ethereal sounds of voices and instruments playing early music! Proceeding to the lobby, I found a rehearsal going on, the very group that was to play the final festival concert that evening at the Basílica de la Soledad. This monumental church was rebuilt in 1682; the present organ bears the date 1686 on its left side, but its action was remodeled in the 18th century. The case is profusely carved and ornamented; the pipes were once correspondingly decorated but they are now covered by a protective coat of white paint awaiting funds for further restoration. As currently configured and restored by Pieter Visser in 1998, this is the largest organ in the festival, with 11 stops and 13 ranks in the bass and 13 stops and 15 ranks in the treble.

I arrived at La Soledad over an hour early, and took in the refreshment stands and other vendors on the plaza. When I entered the basilica, mass was underway, and I was surprised to hear the organ playing a 17th-century Spanish work for divided keyboard. The organist was playing voluntaries at traditional spots in the rite, as well as accompanying the priest in a few chanted prayers. As the mass progressed and IOHIO staff arrived for the concert, they were as pleased as I to hear the venerable organ in its traditional role. Credit for this rare occurrence surely belongs with organist Rafael Cárdenas Morales, the featured soloist with the Ensamble de Cámara de México, who presented the final concert of the festival. This group consisted of six voices, cello, and baroque guitar and organ. The organ solos were mainly Spanish, including works by Correa, Bruna, and an anonymous batalla, but also at least one English voluntary by John Stanley. The vocal selections emphasized Mexican works, by Hernando Franco (Nahuatl litanies), Gaspar Fernández (villancicos, including the Nahuatl Xicochi conetzintle), Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, and Manuel de Sumaya, who lived in Oaxaca from 1738 to 1755. Several of the works, recently transcribed from Mexican archives, were performed for the first time in 250 years. A piece not on the printed program was a Regina coeli in a homophonic late 18th-century style, perhaps by Ignacio de Jerúsalem. The excellent performances of these Mexican religious works reminded us that the accompaniment of such works was rarely restricted to organ alone, but included a great variety of wind and stringed instruments. Due to the late hour, we were not able to see the organ more closely; several of us adjourned instead to the roof of the nearby Hotel Azucenas to take leave of old and new friends, bringing the rich and informative festival to a close.

Sound Sample (audio and video)