pop Interesting Manila:
Old Organs and Choirs


by George A. Miller, 1912

Men have immortalized their names in paint and marble, but it was left for Padre Diego Cera to build to himself a monument in bamboo, and a more interesting and unique memorial could scarcely be found. Padre Diego should have been a Yankee.

He came to the Philippines to build organs, and when he arrived, there was neither metal, nor suitable wood, nor tanned leather, nor wire, nor pipes, nor keys, nor anything else with which organs were usually made; but with a genius worthy of an eighteenth century Edison, he rose to the occasion and built an organ of bamboo.

When Heaven blessed with a son the humble home of Joaquin and Francisca Cera way back in 1762 in old Spain, there was of course due rejoicing. But little Diego soon began to show his inborn affinity for anything that went with wheels and levers, and no doubt his mother chided him, as do the mothers of all geniuses. As his parents were devout people, a happy solution of Diego's waywardness would be to make of him a priest, and so it was arranged. But Diego was also a musician and he was taught the art of making organs. In 1787 he became a regular priest, three years later a missionary to Mexico and then to the Philippines where he served the church as priest and organ builder, The most interesting record of his skill stands ten nules south of Intramuros.

Las Piñas is far from the maddening crowd, and the old and roofless church looks harmless enough surrounded with its weeds and vines. The Filipino padre received me kindly but seemed unable to understand why I should care to see an organ so old as to be out of use, and built in such poverty that its pipes were made of bamboo. He concluded, however, that my form of lunacy was harmless, and with two muchachos took me to the gallery of the church. I must admit that I had been skeptical up to this moment. It could hardly be that so delicate and complicated an instrument as a pipe organ could be built of bamboo, but seeing was believing, for there it stood with its front about twelve feet wide, all of bamboo-speaking pipes, the largest being eight feet long and nearly five inches in diameter. The further I went with a careful examination the more the wonder grew. The horizontal reeds are made of soft metal, rolled very thick, but aside from these 122 pipes, every pipe in the organ 15 made of bamboo; and as there are 714 pipes the unique character of the old instrument may be imagined.

The most surprising thing is to find ail organ one hundred and nine years old with a five octave keyboard; Padre Diego was eighty years ahead of his age. He placed a full octave of pedal notes below his one manual which has an "F" scale, and the upper keys were originally covered with bone, but have been stripped long ago. There are twenty-two stops arranged in two vertical rows, the names being written on a strip beside the knobs instead of on their faces. I had no sooner seated myself at the keyboard than the two muchachos essayed to invoke the spirit of the eighteenth century genius by vigorously working the handle of the old bellows. The effort was well meant, but the result was ghostly enough for the most fastidious; the hoary old pipes began with one accord to weep and wail the dirge of their long dead master, and no howling dervish could have done better or worse. It has been some years since the last mass was played on the bamboo organ and the "cyphers" appear to have outvoted the rest of the box of whistles. The slides are stuck, and few of the stop knobs will draw. The action is a roller board and is in good order yet. Crude as is the workmanship, it stands; and if the chests were as good as the action and pipes, it would be a good organ to-day. The interior of the orgaii is full of interest. It stands inside of and under one of the arches of the heavy wall of the nave, and is thus partially protected from the weather. Many of the pipes are full of dirt and now speechless, but most of them are as good as the day they were finished back in the seventeen hundreds. The old bamboo is as hard as iron and where not injured by rough handling is only the better for its long seasoning. There is the inevitable "mixture" of five ranks on thirty notes in the treble organ, and it must have sounded like a score of hungry pigs when twenty of those squealing whistles were sounded in a (dis)chord.

Like most old organs there is very little bass, and none of greater length than six foot stopped, and of course there were no string tones. The two metal reeds afforded the only variety in the assortment of flutes of every size and pitch. The tones of single pipes taken out and sampled is surprisingly good, and one falls to wondenug whether, after all, old Padre Diego did not hit upon something that might have been worth a little further development. Why not make organ pipes of bamboo? The wood is 'strong, perfectly tight and almost everlasting. Straight pipes of circular form could be selected, and with a little ingenuity there is no reason why a good stop should not be made of the one universal commodity of the Orient. At any rate Diego Cera did it, and his work have lived after him these many years!

Bamboo Organ, Las Piñas.

The records of the Order of Recoletos show that Diego built two of these bamboo organs at the same time, and that the other one was sent as a gift to the queen of Spain, who prized it highly, saying that there was none like it in Spain or England. In this her royal highness was certainly within the facts, and unless the twin in Spain is still "living," (as the Tagalogs say of a watch), this relic at Las Piñas is the only organ of its kind in all the world, and for the seeker after things unique and interesting, it stands well up near the head of the list of the muy curioso.

Oldest organ in Manila,
Recoletos Church.

These old records describe our padre as "having a perfect knowledge of machinery, being able to play well the organs that he built; that he worked hard for his parishes and was much beloved by his people." His masterpiece still stands in the Recoletos church of Manila and may some time be repaired for further use.

Like "the harp that once through Tara's halls the soul of music shed," it now haugs mute on the high church walls, silent in its iiarrow side gallery on the right of the nave. Its keys are brown and broken, its stops have few names left to tell what was to be expected when they were drawn, and age and decay are written all over its old case. The big diapasons in front have crushed with their own weight till they stand mute and broken witnesses to the march of time. There is something pathetic about those drooping pipes. They are bowed in weeping that they can no longer sing to the glory of Cod; the organ is dead, and its soul has fled to join the spirits that help swell the music of the spheres. But there is both music and poetry in the silence of the old pipes and yellow keys, "the silent organ loudest chants the master's requiem."

In its original form the organ was a remarkable construction. It has always stood in its present position in the south gallery of the nave, but as first built there were a number of figures of angels scattered about the cornice of the church, each of them holding to its lips a trumpet. The trunipet pipes were connected with the main organ by tubes. and any or all of them could be sounded at the will of the player. The effect of the tones coming from all over the church is said to have been most striking. In fact it is claimed that the worshipers were so distracted by the unusual sounds from strange places that the use of the scattered trumpeters was after fifty years discontinued and the organ reduced to its present form and position.

The pipes are arranged in most peculiar fashion in groups scattered about the interior of the space ranged along the wall. The sixteen-foot pedal bourdon is reinforced bv a set of wooden reed pipes of conical form, and way tip above the chest is a box thick with pipes a foot long and less, like a veritable pandora's box of whistles.

Back of the player's seat and forming the front of the gallery is the great organ with its huge horizontal reeds. These reeds, as all the others in the organ, have no independent pipes for the foot, but are placed in rows stuck into holes bored in long pieces of wood. The case is cracked, the keys are broken and the stop-knobs are nameless and yellow.

There are some forty of these knobs and the organ contained about a thousend pipes when in good order.

What the tooth of time and the wear and tear of constant usage could not do was reserved for the Spanish soldiers in 1898 when they were quartered in the church during the siege. With profane hands they tore out the pipes, broke the keys and defaced the noble old organ so that it has never spoken snice The action is well made and might be easily rebuilt, but there is no hurry. The Order has filed a claim with the United States government for eight hundred pesos for damage done during the insurrection by Spanish soldiers. When this is paid the organ will be rebuilt, and then, the courteous guardian of the temple informed me they would send for me that I might know the pleasure of playing the organ with such a history. This I would count a rare treat, but under the above conditions I am not making any dates for the event.

After forty years of service in the Philippines, Fr. Diego died at the age of seventy-two, in the convent of San Sebastian, and there closes a picturesque and interesting life that is now all forgotten except for the name on the musty page and the organs that he built of narra and bamboo. If this tribute from an alien hand may make his memory live a few days longer, I shall be content to have honored a man for whom I confess a fellow feeling, for have not I too been smitten with the deadly fascination that has seized the descendants of Jubal even unto the present Time?

Did you ever see a bamboo band? If not your education has been neglected mucho: I used to try to feel duly impressed before an imaginary picture of the first shepherd boy standing before his first flock of sheep playing the first tune on his first pipe cut from the reed that grew by the river's brink. That was "when music, heavenly made, was young," and the picture was instructive, in its way, but here in the islands we have the whole evolution of the making of musical instruments right before our eyes; and perhaps to see a world in the making is as near as some of us will ever get to the heart of the universe.

The bamboo trumpets are better to look at than to listen to. I heard an orchestra of the improved cornstalk variety and the weird echoes of the tuba that had but two notes in its scale will not soon be forgotten.

The modern successors of the bamboo bands are the Filipino church bands that are found everywhere in the islands. Every large church has its band, and some of them play with much skill and excellent expression. The music is nearly always marked by the wild rhythm of those who play by ear, and every man of the company might be in a trance so far as results are concerned. These bands will play for hours without a note of music before them and with very few changes of tune. Some of the music played in the church processions is singularly beautiful in its way, rising and falling with utter abandon to the swing of the melody, and with pleasing absence of the squeak and blare of the circus band. So susceptible are these people to music that it would be evidently impossible for any man to get out of time or to fail to merge himself in the ensemble of the band. The Christmas music of these bands is familiar to every one who has lived a year in the city, and the early morning hours are oft aud again broken by the wild aud plaintive marches that come and go like echoes borne on fitful winds. It is such music as this that "soothes the savage breast, softens rocks" and might on occasion bend a knotted guijo tree.

The Filipinos are naturally a musical people aud they owe most of their training to the church. The native bands are church bands, and the choruses are church choirs. That the church has not gone a step further and taught the people to sing hymns seems a great pity, for they sing well, aud the chant of three thousand people in the cathedral would be an impressive act of worship.

All the larger churches have boy choirs that sing the masses very effectively, though usually in metallic voice. The cathedral, Santo Domingo and St. Ignatius have choirs counted among the best, and the echoing chants are certainly effective. The system of teaching these boys is an interesting process to behold. In the cathedral the maestro stands at the head of the choir which is seated on the main floor and fills all the pews of the center aisle. At the end of each seat a subleader stands with music and stick, and it is needless to add that both the effort and the order leave little to be desired.

To one who has never heard it before the chanting of the priests from the high galleries affords a sensation never to be forgotten. Whether such voices were foreordained for the use of the church or whether they have been developed by long practice is not evident, but certain it is that the resounding roll of basso profundo that wakes up the last shrinking echo from its hidden corner is worth going a long way to hear. Rich and resonant as a trumpet, and musical as a bass viol, these voices fill the vaults like full organ harmony. In the Recoletos and Franciscan churches these "solos" be heard at three or four o'clock nearly even afternoon, and it is well to step in and listen for the sake of a memory that may some time refresh you.

It is still true as in the days of Pope that "some to the church repair, not for the doctrine but the music there," and for such the center of interest is ever the choir gallery. The choir lofts of Manila churches are treasure houses for the antiquarian. They are musty with romance, hoary with antiquity, abounding in relics of ages dead and mellow with meniories of the melodies of singers "who have gone before to that unknown and silent shore."

The curious visitor who may belong to that annoying class that always wants to see the works and find what makes the wheels go ronud, should get a pass for the gallery and view the mass from above. If the floor is thronged, the sight of the kneeling multitudes, the robed priests, the lighted candles, the decorated altar and the rising incense are most impressive. High mass in the Christmas season should be seen from the organ loft to be fully appreciated.

In Manila there is material for a fascinating study of the history of organ building. The extremes of the first rude octave of wooden whistles and the last finished product of human skill are both absent but most of the intermediate stages are represented.

The peculiar interest about Manila organs arises from the fact that the Philippines are so far from the European centers of musical culture that the organs here have been untouched by the multitude of modern improvements. Most of the old organs of England and Europe have been rebuilt once or twice, but the old organs of Manila stand as when first installed, plus the increment of age and use. That no really modern organ exists here is of little moment: these may be found anywhere, but these crumbling relics are in Manila.

The guardians of each church are liberal in their praises of their particular organ, as is natural. Perhaps the best organ in the city is the one in Santo Domingo. It contains a fine "double open diapason" on the pedals with the longest pipe reaching up eighteen feet above the floor. Like all the old organs it is rich in reeds and the full organ is some thing terrifying in the empty church. The European plan of placing the heavy needs in a horizontal row just above the player's head has the advantage of getting the most noise out of a given number of pipes, but it must be a boiler-factory experience for the organist. The organ referred to contains some dozen stops on each manual and has three or four "mixtures". Rough as the effect may be, when the full organ is used as support for forte passages with full choir, the result is impressive and has a tonal dignity that can not be disregarded. What such effects must be upon the native worshiper, with his susceptibility to impressions alike of sights and sound, may be better imagined than described.

Choir and organ
of San Agustin

One of the finest bits of work in the city is the old lecturn in the choir of the Augustinian church. It is of solid ebony carved elaborately with figures of cupids and scroll work. The organ of this church is about fifty years old and is still in use. The second row of keys is placed below the first and contains three and one-half octaves of very short aud narrow keys which seem to be trying to hide out of sight of their big brothers overhead. The bellows' top rises four feet when full, which allows the muchacho to take naps between turns at the wheel.

The Santa Cruz Church contains an organ that was the pride of Manila in its day. The console is detached from the organ aud reversed, facing the altar, and furnishing the only simple of its kind in the city. But this console is a curio in its way. The keys are of alll heights and sizes aud are brown or black with age.

Many of the "ivories" are missing, and the "dip" or distince the key may be pushed down, varies from nothing up to an inch or so. The pedals are something for an organist to never forget. They are simply pegs pushed up through the floor aud capable of being played only in the most elemental fashion. For that matter the pedal keyboard of the organ in the cathedral is of the same sort which makes one smile at the statement that this is the most modern organ the city.

Any one versed in the history of the organ builder's art can trace the age of the different organs about the city by the devices of construction found that are sure tell-tales of the times at which they were built. The old cathedral organ has a form of bellows that went out of general use about 1560, but somehow crept into the organ that was sent over here. The pumping device emploved at Santo Domingo is much older than the organ. Instead of a handle or a crank to turn, the muchacho steps upon two treadles which he works by shifting his weight from over to the other, not a bad mechanism.

Some of the cases are interesting as works of art and most of them are made of native woods. The Augustinian organ has a carved case of molave that is beautiful in its design and execution and rich in its general effect. The front pipes are nearly always plain.

In tone, some of these old organs are a surprise. In an old gallery, I found the maestro, who proved friendly, aud at the risk of damaging the truth and as well as murdering the Spanish tougue, I told him that I was also a maestro, and the he did what I was waiting for, he asked me to play. The old organ was far better than its appearance and age would indicate. The flutes were smooth aud mellow and had that liquid quality that forms the charm of a good flute everywhere. The action was good for a tracker, and the full organ echoed through the church in true cathedral fashion.

The organists of Manila are a various lot. A Tagalog boy plays one of the largest organs, and a grizzled old Spaniard knits his shaggy brows over another. In every convent there are priests who are good players and know many masses by heart.

The choir are full of interest. The dusty colored glass, the cobwebs in the corners, the changing shadows, the carved lecturns and seat, and the great massive chant books with their square-inch-big notes on staves six inches wide, printed by hand on pages of rawhide three feet square, are curios well worth hunting for. The initial lettering is both unique and beautiful, gold, blue, and red being the usual colors. Some of these old books are so worn with age as to be out of use, but as venerable relics they deserve a place in the archives.

The names of those who put so much labor and pains into these furnishings will never be known, for here it is true, that "who builds a church to God and not to fame, will never mark the marble with his name."

But the evening comes with "setting sun and music at its close." Wether we stand within some broken walled relic of past glory and listen to the silent chant from "bare ruined choir, where late the sweet birds sang," or linger in the shadow aisles listening to the responses in the gathering gloom, there comes the assurance that "architecture is frozen music," and while the fragrant shadows lengthen, the night is again filled with music while the infesting cares once more vanish with the dying day. As the visitor leaves he looks up at the high buttresses, the embattled towers, the uplifted crosses, aud feels that beneath the jarring outside of life there is harmony for song and soul are twins of heavenly parentage.

George A. Miller. Interesting Manila, Revised Edition. Manila, E. C. McCullough & Co., Inc., 1912: pp. 97-123. 

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