Pulling Out All the Stops: Making Organ Music Fill a Church

It’s Monday again, & that means it’s time for Bill’s Bologna.

“Boy, they really pulled out all the stops at that party.” If you were to say that about a party, it would mean that the hosts spared no expense in order throw the best one they could. It’s another expression we often use without thinking about how it started. If you’re wondering, you’ve luckily come to the right place because I have the answer.

I love his one because for once, it has to do with music.

Organs are traditional in churches, usually accompanying the hymns being sung. They’re gigantic, ornate keyboard & foot pedal instruments, which send air through a pipe system to make their sound. While a lot of organs are stand alone instruments, in some churches, the pipes are incorporated into the walls.

To get a picture of just how complex this type of instrument is, you can watch a video of the famous organist, Carol Williams play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on an organ, uploaded by Wikipedia user, BellVideo, here. Note all of the knobs & switches. Yes, she’s also playing with her feet.

What does this have to do with an organ? It’s actually a very simple explanation. Many churches, especially Catholic cathedrals, are huge, open places, & because they were build so long ago, there was no way to electrically amplify the organs. How do you make the organ louder? You add a bunch of knobs. While some of them can be turned, others can be pulled out or pushed in, having a direct effect on the airflow through the pipes. When an organist thinks it isn’t loud enough & wants to get the most volume out of it, they can just pull out all of the sliding knobs.

What are these knobs called?

Stops.

Weingarten_Basilika_Gabler-Orgel_Spieltisch

An organ with its stops at Basilika St. Martin in Weingarten, Germany
Photo courtesy of Andreas Praefcke

The connection between the phrase is deceptively easy to make, which the folks at The Phrase Finder acknowledge. They assure us that this is the real origin, though, dating the first known example to be from George Gascoigne’s poem, “The Steele Glas,” in 1576. Gascoigne writes:

But sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace, and loue,
Are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.

It’s in the transition period between Middle & Modern English, which is why it may be hard to read. If you look, you can make it out to be:

But sweeter sounds, of concord, peace, and love
Are out of tune and are in every stop.

According to Max Cryer’s Who Said That First?: The Curious Origins of Common Words and Phrases, as far as we know, the first use of the phrase using of organ stops as a metaphor dates to the 1860s, in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism. He writes:

Knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that powerful, but at present, somewhat narrow-toned organ… the modern Englishman.

So there it is. It was that simple. You pull out all the stops to make an organ the loudest it can be, & you pull out all the metaphorical stops to make your efforts yield the best results. The explanation extremely cut & dry, unlike most.  I can’t really say much more about it because that’s the way it is, & to be honest, it’s a little refreshing to be able to give you a straightforward answer.

Until next week, now you know; you’re welcome.

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