Organistrum: matching three different keyboards

Organistrum: matching three different keyboards

Describing 3 different interpretations



from Gate of Glory of Santiago de Compostela cathedral

and their efficiency.


Agreed that the instrument has 3 strings and 11 keys 




  1. The “chromatic/parallel” keyboard has 12 one-way “up and down” keys with 3 tangents each one.

Tuning: V, IV or IV, V.


The 36 semitones obtainable from each string occur in 1 arrangement coinciding with the tuning, they are available 3 at a time in 12 single choices which cannot be combined with each other. Therefore, the virtual range of 2 octaves minus 1 semitone is reduced to its half.

Francisco Luengo, who built this kind of keyboard in the eighties writes: “The keys are eleven … twelve available sounds, surely a chromatic octave. This fact doesn’t imply that organistrum was intended to play other than modal music, but, certainly, it was an instrument for transposition, able both to change the pitch of any composition and to carry out all exachords combinations” (Francisco Luengo in: El Portico de la Gloria. Musica, Arte y pensamento. “Cuadernos de Musica en Compostela II” Santiago de Compostela, 1988 , p.111). Approximately the same words in Christian Rault, La reconstitution de l’Organistrum (available on Google).

My only observation concerns the impossibility of transposing an 8 sounds average gregorian melody entirely within a single octave.


  1. The “diatonic/polyphonic” type has 10 one-way “up and down” keys and 1 both “up and down” and 180° spinning key.

Tuning: I, VIII.



3 keys operate on the bass string, 4  (3+1) on the middle one, 5 on the treble. 1 key of the latter group can be spun 180 degrees and operated both on the middle and on the treble strings alternately, producing different sounds. Then  14 sounds are available and they can be combined operating the independent keys, 2 at a time, as follows:


(4x5)+ (4x6) + (5x6) = 20+24+30 = 74


But, since part of these 74 combinations generates 22 dissonant intervals either rarely or never performed (II and VII) plus 4 tritones, the total number of actual combinations amounts to  74 - 22  - 4  = 48 .


On this diatonic keyboard, with this tuning: A,A, a (whole scale: one octave plus one fifth) it is possible to perform music in 2 modes: Protus plagalis and  Protus autenticus. Some advantages are that the three “mother-strings”  Do, Re and Mi  lie on the bass string and the main exachords: naturalis, durus  and  mollis  are all represented, while f# (ficta)  introduces an additional “false” exachord.

In 12th century two voices polyphonic  compositions, whatever the Mode, a range of 20 to 30  combinations of sounds is requested.   

The amount of 48 is  enough to serve no more than 1 authentic mode and its plagal, considering that they have a good deal of sounds in common.

In a mathematical way:

48:2 = 24



3.The “chromatic/polyphonic” keyboard has 11  both “up and down”  and 360° spinning keys bearing  5 tangents on 4 different positions each one,

Tuning: IV,V or V,IV



The 12 semitones obtainable from each string can be managed separately by using 1 key at a time. To these 36 choices some others have to be added:  the 12 “organum parallelum” choices on treble and middle strings keeping the bass as a drone. Thus  36+12 = 48 choices in total.

Furthermore, by managing 2 keys at a time, 6 combinations of sounds are available for each couple. Since keys combinations are 12x12 = 144 in total, then the sum of all possible combinations of sounds amounts to 144x6 = 864,

to which  the first group of 48 sounds has to be added:  912  possible combinations of sounds in total.


12x12 =    144

144x6 =    864

864+48 = 912

But, since in all 12th century music compositions, no matter which modal transposition occurs, no more than 8 keys are required, performing combinations are, as follows:


8x8 = 64

64x6 = 384

384+48 = 432


Then, all combinations that give dissonant intervals rarely or never performed (II and VII) have to be subtracted from this number: 44 dissonances between the outer strings and 4 for each semitone of the adjacent strings:

44+( 4x11) + (4x11)  = 132  in sum

Adding to this amount 28 tritones and 11 fourths (or fifths, depending on middle string pitch) not to be performed by the same key on the bass and middle strings: 132+28+11 = 171  combinations to be avoided.

Finally: 432-171 = 261  useful combinations.


In 12th century two voices polyphonic  compositions, whatever the Mode, an average amount of 20 to 30  combinations of sounds is requested.   

Sure enough, this advanced keyboard, actually extended over 2 octaves minus a semitone, allows us to play in each of the 8 modes.

In a mathematical way:  

261 :8 = 32,625










El 2 de julio ha sido reabierto el Pórtico de la Gloria a Santiago de Compostela.  Este extraordinario documento non para de nos maravillar. Fue evidenciada la POLICROMIA del portal aportando a todo el edificio una nueva luz resplandeciente.

Al mismo tiempo, NUEVOS estudios ha descubierto el concepto de POLIFONIA leÍble en las representaciones con istrumentos musicales de los venticuatro ancianos de Apocalipsis.

Los instrumentos están rapresentados en parejas de dos (dos arpas, dos laúdes) y esto puede referirse a ejecuciones musicales duplices, y el teclado cromático del así llamado Organistrum, a la cumbre del pórtico, sugiere un progreso muy avanzado de la teoría musical a Compostela al final del siglo XII.

Por otro lado, las composiciones a dos voces del Codex Calixtinus testifican el trabajo hecho para el desarrollo de  la polifonía en la misma época.

En nuestros estudios hemos demostrado que el instrumento en la cumbre del Pórtico es verdaderamente singular, DIFERENTE de cualquier otro que conocemos. Su gama cromática, inútil por la música sagrada da la época, nos sugirió la creacion de una TECLA POLIFONICA que sirve al repertorio especifico del siglo XII. Si las viejas  "Lyras a dos hombres" con su escala diatónica, podían quizás acompañar las polifonias simples describidas en "Musica enchiriadis" y "Micrologus", el instrumento de Santiago representa una mejora, un heraldo de una música nueva: Conductus y Motetus , asi come el "canto nuevo" de la Apocalypsis).  Esta prospectiva nos enseña debajo de una luz nueva todos los instrumentos del Pórtico: el hecho que sean representados en parejas no responden simplemente a necesidades de naturaleza coreográfica, indican en realidad un pensamiento polifónico nuevo.

De manera similar la nueva restauración restituyó al Pórtico los colores originales, aportando una luz nueva a la intera obra.

(Thanks to Alejandro Gangui for original pictures of the Portico)

Para ahondar estos temas miren los blogs :








On 2018, July 12th the famous Gate of Glory in Santiago de Compostela has been re-opened. This extraordinary document of art and thinking still leaves us astonished and admired. The many colours of the original gate have been partially restored, giving a new look,a new surprising light to the monument.

At the same time NEW researches have revealed that a polyphonic experience lies behind the depictions of musical instruments in the hands of the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, all around the arch.

All instruments are depicted in couples (2 harps, 2 lauds ...etc.) suggesting they can be played in duet. The so-called Organistrum, at the top of the arch, played by two musicians, shows a chromatic scale, thus indicating a possible extraordinary evolution in musical thinking at Santiago de Compostela during the 12th century.

Then, two-voices compositions in Codex calixtinus witness the developement of Polyphony at Santiago in the same age.

In our studies we have clearly demonstrated that Portico de la Gloria top instrument is a SPECIAL ONE, different from any other "two men lyre" known. In fact, its chromatic scale, quite useless for sacred music at that age, has suggested us the creation of a POLYPHONIC KEYBOARD that serves perfectly 12th century  new polyphonic repertory. If the first "two men lyre" with its diatonic scale could help may be accompanying simple polyphonies such as those discribed by "Musica enchiriadis" and "Micrologus", SANTIAGO's INSTRUMENT is the improvement of it, the herald of a new musical world.

This shed a new light over the whole Portico della Gloria music instruments setting: the couples are actually showing a polyphonic idea, not following only a sort of scenical arrangement.

Such as nowadys "chromatic restoration" of the gate: everything there shines in a better light !


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