The water organ

W.H. Auden’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, memorably set to voices by Benjamin Britten, sketches the patroness of music thus:

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on,
Poured out her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Why would St. Cecilia construct an organ by the shore? We don’t think of that as a hospitable place for delicate instruments. But the earliest known pipe organ, the hydraulis, invented in the third century BC, ingeniously used water to maintain the pressure in its wind chest. This animation illustrates the mechanism:

and this reproduction instrument at Bath illustrates some of its potential for sound:

No wonder the Byzantine emperors used it in their court ceremonies. This German reconstruction sounds more refined:

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