THE organ is eminently suited for religious worship. The great volume of the instrument has practical advantages for leading congregational singing. More significantly, the sound of the baroque organ arouses and instills in men a mood of devotion. Like the soaring arches of the Gothic cathedral, the majestic sonority of the instrument’s tone, its powerful sound, its qualities of nobility inspire us in the quest for an intimate relationship with the divine Presence, the communion that was the end of all devotional services in the age of faith. This mystical attraction of old European organs for even our secular age cannot be dismissed as merely sentimental childhood memories. Nor are arguments and theories based on reason adequate explanations for the sensual, spiritual, and emotional responses of man to organ music. The history of the development of conceptions of sound and musical esthetics from the fifteenth century on is important, however, as a framework for discovery of some aspects of the mysterious power of this centuries-old instrument.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the northern Europeans preferred wind-produced sonority to the vulgar vibrations and nervous accents of bowed strings, especially violins, which were despised as ale-house instruments. The impersonal character of a chorus of trombones and trumpets, its solemnity and seriousness, conveyed the spiritual mood with more dignity than the passionate and sensuous violin. Adam von Fulda, a monk from the heart of Germany who wrote a tract on music in 1490,1 believed that wind-produced music spoke to a man’s character, while violins merely aroused his passions. These musical esthetics reflect the attitude of medieval Christianity, which conceived of spirituality as opposed and inimical to mortal personality; reconciliation of these was not dreamed of, even during the Italian Renaissance. As personal characteristics were erased, musical art approached the sublime, thus freeing the mind of the listener from personal intrusions into contemplation of the divine. The organ was proclaimed the king of instruments, for it was completely depersonalized through its use of bellows and air chambers.
Mechanical sound controls were imposed on many fifteenth-century instruments as well. Reed instruments were fitted with sound caps that deprived them of their exquisite powers of expression. Sound caps placed on such instruments as the Krummhorn, the Rauschpfeiff, and the Schreyari2 severed direct contact of the lip from the reeds, and thus secured an even flow of breath and a uniformity of force and sound quality. Ensembles of these intruments sounded more organ-like and approached the artistic ideals of music of the period. Viols were provided with gut frets, not only to facilitate the pitch but also to prevent the vulgar vibrato. The construction of viol bows and the accepted manner of holding them reduced accentuation to a minimum and erased any suggestion of dance rhythm.
As humanism developed and began to pervade all aspects of late Renaissance culture, artists and estheticians in southern Europe sought to retrieve individual influence in music. They desired drama in music and cultivated close touch with individual emotions. Conceptions of sonority changed. Performers on solo instruments, both string and wind, began to abandon the impersonal art born of medieval Augustinian ideas. The violin became the favorite instrument in Italy precisely because of its ability to express human passions and natural emotions; in 1725 Alessandro Scarlatti remarked to Johann Adolph Hasse of Dresden, “My son, you should know that I cannot suffer the blowing instruments.”3 Not surprisingly, the development of the Italian organ was considerably stunted under these new standards of taste. The infant state of the tiny organ that Bach found at the court of Celle exemplifies the Italian tendency.
In the north the Reformation did not make a clear break with the transcendentalism of the Middle Ages, and in this cultural environment that held onto much of the tradition of past centuries, the organ matured into the magnificent instrument of the baroque period. The sonorous northern organ was pregnant with symbolism; it lifted the soul from its prison into a sphere of infinitude. It was a veritable vox dei ex machina. The underlying stability of tone, effected by mechanical contrivances, called to mind an eternal voice, inspiring steadfast faith and confident reliance. The organ was one of the pre-eminent creations of the Age of Faith.
Master of Sound
Despite the impersonality and mechanical character of the organ its tone was not at all cold; the instrument abounded in overtones. A favorable balance of partials (partial tones) insured this warmth of timbre. Every string or air column vibrated in its entire length as well as in its halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixth parts, etc., thereby sounding respectively its octaves, twelfths (that is, octaves plus fifths), double octaves, double octaves plus thirds, and so on. In a vibrating piano a sharp ear can distinguish the second, and even the fourth partial. When a pianist strikes a string with all the dampers released (when the right pedal is depressed), all the partials of the other strings will echo any pitch that equals any partial of the vibrating string. These sympathetic vibrations create a much warmer tone, that is, one richer in overtones. The organ achieves the same multiplication of partials by opening the mixture or furniture stops, a multiple row of pipes, each of which produces one of the partials. By striking one key several of the sympathetic partials are thus artificially produced (on a pianoforte this occurs naturally), each sounded by a separate pipe. The mixture on the great-organ of Lübeck sounded 15 pipes at the stroke of one key. On the second manual, the Brustwerk, it had eight ranks of mixtures; on the third, the Ruckpositiv, five; and on the pedal, six ranks of pipes. In addition to these four sets of mixtures, other sets of particularly high overtones called the cymbals or sharp mixtures (Scharff) could be used. Moreover, the timbre of a basic tone could be considerably changed by the so-called mutation stops, which emphasized particular partials such as the fifth and the upper third. Again the organ in Lübeck had a rich variety of such stops, among them the sesquialtera, the quintadena, the nasat, the Rauschpfeiffe, and the Gemshorn. Solo stops on these northern organs consisted in limited combinations of individual timbre. The basic organ tone as a ground color was seldom abandoned.
To the noble tonal textures called forth by these stops, the makers of the dignified baroque organs imposed the sentimental effects of the Vox Humana and the tremulants, those tear-jerkers of our provincial churches. Not all spirits moved on the same high plane. Lübeck’s Marianorgel had a Vox Humana and a Trichter Regal, another tremulous voice, along with two over-all tremulants that could be applied on several stops. It even included two drums and a Cimbelstern, a movable star with bells, displayed at Christmastime. Some organs incorporated bird songs and crowing cocks to illustrate the fateful time of Christ’s denial by Peter.
Michael Praetorius wrote in 1618 that the tremulant had been known for 60 years. Andreas Werckmeister, in his Erweiterte und Verbesserte Orgelprobe (Enlarged and Improved Examination of Organs) of 1681 gives instructions for the tuning of the tremulant, advising very gentle pulsation but leaving the speed of the “beats” to individual taste. (He suggests that the stop sounds best with the Hohlflote.) Praetorius does not mention the Vox Humana in his description of Lübeck’s organ, and since he knew of the stop we may assume it was left off this instrument. Bach had a Trichter Regal in the Thomas church in Leipzig, a slight variation of the Vox Humana which he used in the Saint Matthew Passion. Bach mentioned another tremulous stop, the Unda Maris in his report of the St. Wenceslaus Church in Naumburg; bells and chimes were other favorites of the period. Bach registers a subtle dissent from the popularity of such toys in his 1708 report on the organ of St. Blasius in Möhlhausen, in which he directs the placement of the new chimes “desired by the parishioners.”
The main stay of baroque registration was contrast in tone color and the choir of reeds formed a powerful counterpart to the massive organ tone of the open diapasons. “Bach was a great friend of the powerful reeds,” relates Johann Friedrich Agricola, who was Bach’s pupil from 1738 to 1741.4 Great power was the most admired quality of organ sound, and Bach brought out the full majesty of an instrument’s capacities: he made “the organ resound with such fullness, and so penetrate the ears of those present [in Cassel, 1743] like a thunderbolt, that Frederick, the legitimate hereditary prince of Cassel, admired him with such astonishment that he drew a ring with a precious stone from his finger and gave it to Bach as soon as the sound had died away.”5 The organ at St. Martin’s in Cassel had a particularly powerful array of stops,6 especially in the sub-basses, the trombones, the trumpets that produced these “thundering” tones with reeds instead of the vibration of the lips. (Reeds have long since been replaced by metal tongues.)
The baroque organ was designed chiefly to be heard as an ensemble. The specifications (the list of stops) of these northern instruments show an astonishing number of high-pitched stops and registers of abnormal pitch (fifth, twelfths, etc., marked 3 ft., 2 ft., 1½ ft., etc.). These were almost never played solo but served as complementary coloration and modification of other, more substantial timbres. Names of some instruments, now obsolete, appear on baroque organs, including the Swiss fife, the Krummhorn, the traverse flute, the Rauschpfeiff, the Blockflote or recorder, the Violdagamba.7 But unlike organ builders today, who provide many stops that imitate contemporary instruments such as the clarinet, oboe, and French horn, baroque organ builders borrowed mainly the names and predominant partials of such instruments. The trumpet, trombone, cornet, and Zinck (or cornet) stops8 are the only examples of true imitation. The builder, in fact, strove to sublimate the sonority of individual stops so that their various timbres became so many colors on the musical palette. Like a painting of Rembrandt, very few raw, unmixed, basic tones remained in the final effect, only the glow of light and life. Painters of music like Buxtehude and Bach drew an ever-varying ensemble of sound from their media to blend a sonority rich in life and warmth of soul.
Bach had astonishing mastery of registration, as a short excerpt from Forkel’s biography, based on information from Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, illustrates:
To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he [Bach] combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which never could be produced by their mode of registration.9
Evolution of the Baroque Organ
From 1618, when Michael Praetorius’ Syntagma Musicum appeared, to the time of Gottfried Silbermann, who died three years after Bach, German organs underwent many transformations. The art of organ-building was never static during baroque days. When Jakob Adlung (1699-1762) described organs in his monumental Musica Mechanica Organoedi, he found that very few of the 219 instruments he had examined remained unchanged from their description by Praetorius.10 The organs in Hamburg, Lübeck, and Lüneburg had been repaired, modified, and augmented several times since 1618, and the history of Buxtehude’s organ (which can be traced from its building in 1518 by Bartold Hering) is an excellent example of the constant refinement of instruments. In 1561 the instrument was enormously enlarged by the addition of a positiv, and in about 1640 Gottschalk and Borchert built the organ up to about 40 stops. In 1670 Bergiel restored the organ, under Buxtehude’s direction, to include the array of 54 stops that Bach witnessed on his memorable visit. In the same year a few exterior improvements were also added, including a more up-to-date console and some wood sculptures of trumpeting angels.11
But the conception of organ-building was destined to evolve even further. The famous manufacturer Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) introduced certain departures from the typical baroque organ. Adlung’s criticism of Silbermann’s innovations (written in 1767) is quite revealing of the changing taste:
Mr. Gottfried Silbermann, born in Frauenstein in Meissen, two miles from Freyburg, who learned the art of organ building from his brother in Strassburg (Andreas) has built this work [the catholic palace-organ in Dresden, with 45 stops] (his pupil Zacharias Hildebrand finished it, because Silbermann saw his death approaching). . . . True connoisseurs of the organ find nothing to censure: except the all too uniform disposition, which stemmed only from an exaggerated precaution to risk nothing of such registers of which he was not entirely sure that nothing would go wrong with them. Further the far too obstinate temperature, and finally the far too weak mixtures and cymbels, by which the organs have not enough pungency [Scharfe— shrill, penetrating quality] and piercing quality [durchschneidendes Wesen].12
He praises the durability of his instruments, their great simplicity and magnificent intonation, and also their “light and easily playing keyboards [clavier].”
Bach undoubtedly shared Adlung’s dislike of the “all too uniform disposition,” although he had only words of the highest praise for Silbermann. His deference to fellow composers led him to temper any criticism with mention of admirable aspects of a man’s works, and he took the same attitude of generosity toward instrument makers. Agricola, however, does not spare words in his criticism of Silbermann’s treatment of the powerful reeds that Bach so loved: “Is the convenience of some organists and organ makers really reason enough to scorn such stops, to call them names, and to eliminate them?”13 Mr. Agricola exaggerates when he accuses Silbermann of leaving the reeds out altogether, but the number of reeds on his instruments had been markedly reduced from that on the older instruments at Hamburg and Lübeck.
The function of the mixtures underwent a steady refinement from the Middle Ages to the period of Silbermann and his school. Praetorius points out the coarseness of mixtures on the older instruments, which “must have emitted throughout a strong noise and a powerful screaming,” and “cannot have been particularly pleasing” on account of the great number of pipes that responded to each key.14 The older builders arranged as many as 30 to 40 pipes to each key for cymbals or smaller mixtures, while Praetorius recommends 10 to 12. When Bach visited the organ in Lübeck its cymbals numbered only three to five ranks.
This steady decrease of mixture and cymbal pipes reflects a change in their function and esthetic purpose in baroque times. In the Middle Ages, like singers of organum who delighted in multiplying every note of a chant with consonances, that is, parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths, the organ typically augmented every note of a song with several consonances.15 By the Renaissance parallel fifths, octaves, and even fourths were considered barbarous and “Gothic,” and disappeared from the scores of fifteenth-century composers. But the northern European organ did not abolish its mixtures; it modified the harsh and screaming tone of voice, thus clarifying the fundamentals. Mixtures accenting the natural partials of the fundamental tone were gradually adopted and used to enhance vibrancy without impairing the basic pitch. These northern organs show a more direct transition from the medieval organ to the baroque than the Italian instruments, which omit mixture stops altogether and use the few stops available as weak mutation stops rather than true mixtures.16
Silbermann incorporated an astonishingly small number of pedal stops into his organs. He obviously had a different kind of music in mind than that of Bach, Buxtehude, and the great contrapuntal school of the past. Following French taste in general, he stripped the pedals of their power as an active musical force participating in contrapuntal ensemble, and reformed them into an instrument of accompaniment. Silbermann’s organ, with its new treatment of mixtures as well as the reduction of reeds and pedal stops, responded more to the predominantly melodic music of the gallant age than to the mystic profundity of Bach’s polyphony. The new music and instruments became a polite art for a secular society instead of a source of inspiration to the spiritual substratum of the mind.
In regard to tuning Silbermann was less modern than Bach; but even this rather old-fashioned attitude stems from his commitment to the new French music. Well-tempered tuning is more desirable in Bach’s strongly modulatory harmony than in either the gallant music that was coming into vogue—and that Silbermann was used to hearing in France—or the new style that was capturing German taste. Neither ventured into the rich harmonies of Bach’s great G Minor Fantasy, for instance. Bach used to tease Silbermann about his antiquated tuning by purposely playing in keys that displayed the “wolf” in his tuning.17
We can see that from many viewpoints Bach would not have appreciated the improvements of Silbermann or Johann Adolph Scheibe (1708-1776). Along with Agricola’s sharp criticisms, which undoubtedly reflect those of his teacher, we have Bach’s lifetime of compositions that ignored the simpler, more melodious modern French style. Surely he preferred, and demanded, an instrument suited to his music. We know that in 1720 he applied for the post of organist at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg, which had an organ similar to the one Reincken played, of the same period as that of Lübeck, and particularly rich in reeds, mixtures, and pedal stops—precisely those elements that Silbermann had radically reduced in his organs. Silbermann and Scheibe were of a different culture. Scheibe’s son, a man of modern taste and “enlightenment,” became one of Bach’s severest critics; and Silbermann, who once attempted elopement with a nun, cannot have appealed to Bach’s strict Lutheranism. He had also received his training as an apprentice of his older brother Andreas in Strassburg, who was in the employ of French Catholics. These were truly men of the age of rationalism and enlightenment and their art and taste reflected all that turning away from theology entailed. Music lost its contrapuntal dimensions and became shallow, elegant, and superficially melodious, however pleasing. Bach, a product of orthodox religion both by education and inclination, continued to prefer organs like those in Hamburg, Lübeck, Eisenach, and Lüneburg for his art over the more popular and contemporary instruments of Silbermann.
A New Golden Age?
Our present generation has set about to recreate the sonority, sound fantasies, and majesty of baroque organ music. Thanks in large measure to the work of Albert Schweitzer, educated audiences have begun to react against the gaudy instruments and music of the nineteenth century. With Praetorius’ Syntaga Musicum as a guide, organ-builders are attempting to reproduce an instrument that will be as close to the instruments that Bach played and composed for as humanly possible. Such efforts however are doomed ultimately to failure. The most punctilious reproduction of a past style does not assure the rebirth of its life-giving spirit.
There are many reasons that we will never truly know the beauty of Bach’s art. Our over-mechanized organs were not constructed with baroque music in mind, and congregations raised for the last century on the sentimentalities of extremely inferior composers are not sympathetic to the lofty music of Bach, Bohm, Pachelbel, and Buxtehude. To meet the requirements of their decadent taste, organ manufacturers abandoned the basic organ quality of the rich diapasons almost entirely, indulging mostly in pretty imitations of modern orchestral instruments. Some of the larger and more opulent churches displayed their wealth in organs of mammoth dimensions, impressing their worshippers with colossal effects. A favorite device on such machines was the so-called crescendo pedal, which at any desired speed throws open all the available stops without discrimination. The swell pedal was invented to help eliminate the impersonal quality of the organ so praised in baroque times; with this device the individual organist may “express himself” by diminishing or increasing the tone through a set of Venetian blinds.
Furthermore, the organ was deliberately moved out of the church into the concert hall. Organ virtuosi displayed their prowess at world’s fairs, and entertained the tired businessman on a fantastically garish instrument in the Wanamaker’s store in New York, boasting five manuals, 232 stops, and 18,000 pipes. This aberration of purpose and taste developed in Bach’s own homeland as well as in America. Had anyone presented Rembrandt with a thousand more paint tubes of various and exotic shades, would he have represented the human soul with more penetration?
We are now experiencing a reaction to these ghastly guises for true art. The new organs, inspired by our desire to use a realistic baroque instrument for the performance of baroque music, have enormously decreased air pressure. The diapasons are restored to their former prominence and the instrument divested of all modern accessories. The motives for attempting these restorations are laudable, and the sound of these instruments have certainly been a welcome change for Bach lovers. But completely accurate reproduction is impossible. The choice of the Praetorius organ may be a happy one, but we must remember the constantly changing nature of organs in Bach’s time. Bach may never have known even one of the organs in the same stage of development in which Praetorius had found it. So this restoration becomes an art for art’s sake, a trait totally foreign to Bach’s conception of his art. Bach would not have approved of our treatment of his music as merely an art form. He composed and played his music as a means to a transcendental end, and we completely miss the depth of meaning of his work by removing it from its religious foundations.