The ‘wave of the ocean’ in a pipe organ

A lunchtime concert at Old West Church will feature its C.B. Fisk organ.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file
A lunchtime concert at Old West Church will feature its C.B. Fisk organ.

This Wednesday, May 31, Jennifer Hsaio, organist at Old West Church, performs a lunchtime concert on the church’s C.B. Fisk organ, including Louis Vierne’s 1927 “Naïades.” Named for river nymphs of classical mythology, “Naïades” is, indeed, aqueous, a gentle whirlpool of fast-moving notes drifting from harmony to harmony. But in the slower counter-theme, Vierne channels the innovative, build-it-and-they-will-play history of pipe organ construction by specifying an unusual, appropriate organ stop: the Unda Maris.

The Unda Maris belongs to the family of celeste stops, soft-sounding pipes tuned slightly sharp or flat, creating, when combined with a regularly-tuned stop, a vibrato-like effect. Unlike most celeste stops, in which the in- and out-of-tune interaction produces fast, shimmering vibrations, the wobble of the Unda Maris is slow and undulating — hence its name, “wave of the ocean.” (Vierne wasn’t alone in taking literal advantage of that image: Jazz and pop organist Eddie House, a star of early radio, christened his yacht the “Unda Maris.”)

The stop began to appear around the mid-18th century. When, in 1746, Johann Sebastian Bach and organ-builder Gottfried Silbermann journeyed to Naumburg to inspect the Church of St. Wenceslas’s new organ, they noted that an Unda Maris had been installed — a novelty not mentioned in the contract. A year later, when Johann Christoph Richter succeeded Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann as organist of Dresden’s Sophiakirche, he had Silbermann’s shop add an Unda Maris to that instrument, too.


It was not unlike the advent, two centuries later, of synthesizers: the best players eager to get their hands on the most up-to-date sounds. Nineteenth-century France subsequently gave the Unda Maris its 1980s-synth-esque moment in the sun. Organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll habitually included all manner of celeste stops in his grand instruments; the organ at Notre-Dame de Paris, Vierne’s longtime post, gained its Unda Maris in an 1864 renovation by Cavaillé-Coll. French Romantic organ music was soon saturated with the wash and waver of celeste stops like the Unda Maris.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The ubiquity practically ensured a reaction. With the revival of original-instrument performance and the ever-advancing exaltation of Bach’s music in the organ pantheon, organ construction returned, for a time, to more austere Baroque models. Old West’s organ, for instance, built in 1971, has no celeste stops, relying for such effects on a tremulant, which varies the airflow through the pipes. But a more recent Fisk organ — Op. 139, installed in Harvard’s Memorial Chapel in 2012 — includes an Unda Maris. The wave, so long in trough, may be cresting again. Matthew Guerrieri

Jennifer Hsiao performs music of Bruhns, Vierne, Messiaen, and Dupré May 31 at 12:15 p.m. at Old West Church, 131 Cambridge St., Boston. Free.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at