A Visit to Arnstadt

Stephen Roberts

Arnstadt! The very name conjures up images of a teenage Johann Sebastian Bach, just starting his career. I visited the town during a trip to Germany in August of 2002. The town itself is a charming little medieval market town in Bach's native province of Thuringia. It is little changed since the 18 year old Bach came there in June 1703 to test the newly completed organ by the organ builder Johann Friedrich Wender of Múhlhausen. In the central square of the town a rather fanciful statue that is supposed to represent the young Bach occupies a prominent place. To those of us accustomed to the rather serious looking old man of the Hausmann portrait, the only authentic portrait from life that exists of the composer, this reclining, jaunty figure comes as somewhat of a shock. Though it cannot be proven to resemble the actual features of Bach as a young man, it admirably conveys an impression of the high-spirited young fellow who was rebuked by the parish officials for ducking out during a long sermon to visit the wine cellar. Facing the square is a small museum that contains some documents-mostly photocopies- from Bach's tenure as parish musician. The centerpiece of the museum, however, is the original console of the 1703 Wender organ that Bach played. This little two manual console is a precious survival, because it is the only console we have from all of the organs that Bach played in the churches where he served during his lifetime. It and the newly restored Wender organ have many lessons to teach. Much recent attention has quite rightly been given to the wonderful 1746 Zacharias Hildebrandt organ at Naumburg, which was recently restored by Eule of Bautzen. In contrast the restoration of the 1703 Wender organ in Arnstadt by the firm of Otto Hoffman in Ostheim/Rhon has received much less attention in this country. The history of the Wender organ, its rebuilding, and its reconstruction and restoration is the subject of this article.

The "Bach Church" as it is called today is located just around the corner from the square. The original church was called the Bonifatius-Kirche; this church burned to the ground in a disastrous fire in 1581. One hundred years later in 1683 a new church was built on the site of the Bonifatius-Kirche and called simply the "Neue Kirche". This was a time of financial hardship, so there was not enough money to build an organ at first. Finally in 1699 a wealthy citizen promised on his deathbed to leave the parish 800 Gulden for a new organ, if he could be buried in the church. The church officials agreed, and on October 17, 1699 a contract for a new organ was signed with the distinguished builder, Johann Friedrich Wender. The organ was completed on St. John's Day, the 24th of June, 1701.

The Bach family had for several generations enjoyed the greatest reputation as musicians in this area. When the time came for the organ to be tested, inspected, and approved, the 18 year old Johann Sebastian Bach was called upon for this purpose. That so young a man would be charged with such a responsibility is surprising: it is quite likely that Bach's family connections in the Town Council were instrumental in securing this prize for the young man. Though documents pertaining to the contract and the building of the organ survive, the report that Bach presumably made on the new instrument unfortunately does not. Shortly after the organ was tested and approved, the young Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed to his first church position by the Town Council.

Bach's relations with the church and town officials were rather rocky almost from the start. Bach's main function in the church services was to accompany congregational singing and to improvise or play a chorale prelude as an introduction to each chorale tune. Some of Bach's earliest keyboard works probably date from this period, including perhaps his first free works, and chorale based works such as the Neumeister chorales. Bach was later to be criticized by the rather conservative congregation for his daring modulations and harmonizations of the chorale tunes. Bach was also supposed to work with a choir of students from the school, some of whom were actually older than he was at the time. Bach had a street brawl in the market square with one of these students, a young man named Geyersbach, in which the two scuffled, and Bach was forced to draw his sword. Bach was also reprimanded for taking a "frembde Jungfer" ("unknown" or "unfamiliar maiden") into the choir loft to make music with her there. The "unfamiliar maiden" apparently became very familiar, for on October 17, 1707, Bach married the young lady, his distant cousin Maria Barbara Bach.

The young Bach presided over a completely new two manual, 21 stop organ by a fine builder-a privilege that few organists enjoy, then or now. The organ was installed in the third balcony of the church under the barrel vaulted ceiling. The shape of the ceiling and the limited height and space dictated that there were no 16' stops in the manual; instead there was a Quinta 6' (5 1/3) in the Oberwerk which quite effectively generates a synthetic 16' pitch when drawn with the chorus. The tuning of the organ was in a then modern "well temperament", not the quarter comma meantone prevalent in older organs of the time. The tuning allowed the use of a wider range of keys than would have been available in meantone temperament. This fact may have encouraged the young Bach to experiment with bold modulations and excursions into keys that would have seemed quite shocking to the conservative parishioners. These experiments may well have led to the criticism of Bach that was mentioned above. The basses, except for the missing low C-sharp that was almost universal in those days, were otherwise fully chromatic and not the "short octave" found in so many organs of the preceding generation. For the time it was a very modern organ, and it must have exerted a considerable influence on the young composer.

Bach learned a great deal from Wender, and the two seemed to have enjoyed a very warm friendship and a close professional collaboration. When Bach left Arnstadt in 1707, he went to Múhlhausen, Wender's hometown. One wonders if Wender had a hand in Bach's appointment there. When the time came to rebuild the organ in Mühlhausen, Wender was the builder chosen to do the work. Bach's recommendations for the rebuilding of the organ there is one the most revealing documents we have concerning Bach's taste in organs. In it we see the same concerns expressed by Bach that appear in virtually all of his organ reports: a desire for plenty of wind at a steady pressure, stops with "gravity", a taste for string tone both at 8' and at 4' pitch, and the inclusion of a reed at 16' pitch in preference to a 8' reed in the same division.

The Arnstadt organ survived into the nineteenth century virtually intact, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the little two manual organ with its 21 stops and old fashioned tuning and layout did not satisfy the tastes of the time. Heinrich Bernhard Stade, the organist in the mid-nineteenth century, persuaded the church officials to entrust the complete rebuilding of the organ to a young and rather inexperienced builder, Julius Hesse. The organ was to be enlarged to three manuals and the number of stops more than doubled. According to the contract, signed in September of 1862, the rebuilding was supposed to take one year and one month and be completed by October 11, 1863. The price agreed upon was 1,100 taler. A status report dated September 15, 1865 ends with the following lament: "Instead of one year and one month we now count three years and three months"! The organ was still far from completion and the price paid to the builder had now risen to 4,100 taler. Nothing worked properly, and the half finished organ was full of ciphers and other problems. Finally in October 1867 (!) the church officials demanded that the organ be completed or else. Hesse left in haste with the money he had been paid and was never seen in Arnstadt again.

The organ remained in this incomplete, sorry state until 1873, when Friedrich Meissner was awarded a contract to complete the organ in a workmanlike manner. Fortunately Stade, the organist of the church, had the foresight to preserve the original Wender console and certain parts of the case. These were incorporated into a new choir organ. In 1901 this little organ with the "Bach console" was sent to Berlin for a Bach exhibit, but it was badly damaged in transport and donated thereafter to the Bach museum in Arnstadt. The organbuilder Hesse also kept the orginal annotated treatise by Wender that described the organ. Hesse had installed his new organ behind the old façade of the Wender case, and had reused much Wender pipework, including six stops that were retained in their entirety. All of the remaining original material was later to prove invaluable, as we shall see.

In 1913 the Bavarian firm of Steinmeyer was commissioned to rebuild the organ yet again. The new organ had pneumatic key and stop action, and all of the then novel romantic registrational gadgets were included. The new organ had 55 stops, actually four fewer than the previous organ by Hesse and Meissner. The remaining original Wender pipework was retained yet again, and the manual and pedal compasses increased to 58/30. The third balcony was demolished, and the new organ was installed in the second balcony. The organ remained in this state until 1997.

During the communist era the German Democratic Republic (DDR) spent relatively little on the upkeep of churches and organs. In 1981 Gottfried Preller was appointed organist of the Bach church in Arnstadt, and though there was little money at the time, he began to do research and investigations about what to do with the organ, which was by that time in poor condition. After the fall of the DDR serious discussions began about the restoration of the organ. The dilemma was whether or not it was appropriate to destroy a fine, historic Romantic organ in order to reconstruct the original Wender organ that Bach knew. It was finally decided to separate what remained of the Wender organ from the Steinmeyer, and restore the two organs separately.

The original Wender material consisted of 320 pipes from 1703, the annotated organ treatise, the original shutters of the organ, the original contract, and wooden mandrils with the circumferences of the pipes in the treatise. The original console in the Bach museum was measured precisely and copied down to the last detail to provide an exact replica for the restored organ. The structural parts and the windchests were copied from original Wender material in other organs in Dorna and Erfurt. Old methods and materials were used exclusively. The firm of Otto Hoffman in Ostheim/Rhon was chosen for the project. The third balcony was reconstructed, and the Wender organ was reinstalled in its old position, with the restored Steinmeyer organ occupying the balcony below. Four wedge bellows were reconstructed using the original wind system in Dorna as a model; these were installed in the attic. The organ may be hand pumped, but an electric blower has been provided for service playing and practice. The original pitch of the organ was restored and set at 465 Hz at 18 degrees Celsius. The original temperament and pitch was determined from the pipes of the Gemshorn 8' on the Oberwerk. Stops that were missing entirely were modeled on Wender pipework that existed in other organs. Since the reconstruction and restoration of the organ was in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, the completion date was set for December 31, 1999. The rededicatory recital took place on January 16, 2000.

The restored Wender organ has the following specifications:

Oberwerk II (C,D-c3; 48 notes) Brustwerk I (C,D-c3; 48 notes)
Principal 8' (1)Still gedackt 8' (44)
Viol di Gamba 8' (42)Principal 4' (1)
Gemshorn 8' (39)Nachthorn 4' (27)
Quinta dena 8' (26)Spitz flöte 4' (0)
Grob gedackt 8' (46)Quinte 3' (1)
Quinta 6' (1)Sesquialtera doppelt (II ranks; 2)
Octava 4' (46)Mixtur 3 fach (18)
Mixtur 4 fach (18)
Cymbel doppelt (II ranks; 8)Pedal
Trompet 8' (0)Sub Baß 16' (wood)
Tremulant and 2 Cymbelsterns,Principal Baß 8' (tin)
 one plays a C major chord (CEGC),Posaunen Baß 16' (wooden resonators)
 the other G major (GBDG)Cornet Baß 2'
Shove coupler I/IIPedal Coupler Oberwerk/Pedal

The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of original Wender pipes that remained in each stop. 25.6% of the pipework is original. The temperament is well tempered, based on temperaments used by Wender around 1700. The pitch is 465 Hz at 18 degrees Celsius.

Most of the technical and historical information concerning the organ was obtained from the CD booklet contained in a CD entitled "Bach in Arnstadt: Gottfried Preller spielt an der Wender-Orgel (1703) der J.-S.-Bach-Kirche zu Arnstadt", purchased at the church when I visited there in August 2002. Other historical material in this essay is principally from two sources: Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff; and The New Bach Reader, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, revised and expanded by Christoph Wolff.

A book that U.S. organists frequently consult for the stoplists and specifications of the organs that Bach knew is The Bach Organ Book by Homer D. Blanchard (Prestant Press 1985). Blanchard used mostly secondary sources for his information; if his specification for the Arnstadt organ is any indication of the reliablity of his and some other modern reference books, then one must conclude that such sources are often quite unreliable. The specification that Blanchard lists for the Arnstadt organ is riddled with errors: both the manual and pedal compasses are incorrect; the order of the manuals is reversed; the nomenclature of several stops is wrong; a partial compass "Hohl-Flöte 8'" is included in the pedal division instead of the Cornet 2'; the number of pedal stops is listed as five, when it is really only four: a Violon-Bass 16' is listed which does not exist; the Cymbal in the OW is listed as III ranks, not II; the Mixtur in the Brustpositiv (misnamed in Blanchard) is listed as IV ranks, not III. Even the normally reliable Bach Reader contains one error: the BP Nachthorn 4' is omitted from the stoplist. That mistake may be due to the fact that the Bach Reader presumably relied on the original Wender treatise for the stoplist, and that stop was added later. One begins to realize that one must be very suspicious of the information that one finds in modern sources, and careful about information contained even in primary source material. The problem is the same as that found in much teaching: misinformation that was told to the teacher by his or her own teacher, who had no actual first hand knowledge of the facts in the first place, being repeated generation after generation. Second hand information is almost certain to be garbled in transmission. A healthy dose of skepticism and independent corroboration of the so-called "facts" is apparently in order.

What does the restored Wender organ in Arnstadt have to teach us today about the young Bach's music and his tastes in organ matters? Quite a great deal, it seems to me. The opinions that I am about to express are my own, based on my observations when playing the instrument during my visit. I think that the main areas in which this organ may have influenced the young Bach are registration and playing technique.

First of all the neo-Baroque taste for gap interval registrations in Bach must be reconsidered, at least for the early works. The Arnstadt organ has no independent 2' stops on the manuals, which make registrations like 8' and 2' impossible. On the other hand there are four 8' foundation stops on the Oberwerk, three of which work well both alone and in combination with the lone 4' stop-the Octave. There is a string stop in the Oberwerk as well: the Viol di Gamb 8' is a fine accompanimental stop for the stops of the Brustpositiv, which is at either side of the console and is surprisingly weighty and powerful. The two Quint stops-the only independent mutations on the organ-seem to be there for ensemble purposes, not as solo stops. As mentioned before the Quint 6' provides a quite effective and convincing synthetic 16' when drawn with the plenum of the Oberwerk.. The Quinte 3' in the Brustpositiv is the highest pitched stop in that division other than the Sesquialtera and the Mixture. It doesn't blend well when drawn with 8' and 4' stops of that division, but sticks out and separates from the rest of that division. When drawn with the plenum however, it serves to strengthen and reinforce the sole 8' stop. It seems to me very likely that Bach used single stop registrationson each manual a great deal, a hypothesis which is born out by the few existing original Bach registrations. The three 4' stops in the BP division provide a surprising variety when added to the 8' Still gedackt-the sole 8' foundation stop in that division. One may conclude from the stop list of the Arnstadt organ that Bach used simple registrations here; whether or not that was true when he played other organs is open to debate.

Another very interesting feature is the inclusion of tuned Zimbelstern stops of four bells each. Several of Bach's Christmas works are in C major, and Bach often associated certain keys with various "Affekten". The Zimbelstern is often associated with Christmas works; this association is perhaps strengthened by the fact that one of the two Zimbelsterns on the Arnstadt organ plays a C major chord. I am not sure that Bach liked bells very much, however, since he pointedly says that the 26 tuned bells at 4' pitch that were to be added to the pedal of the Mühlhausen organ were "desired by the parishioners"!

The well temperament of the organ has some significant implications, I think. I have already mentioned the fact that the temperament allowed Bach to play in keys with more sharps and flats. C.P.E. Bach writes that because his father "lived at a time when a gradual but striking change in musical taste was taking place, he was obliged to devise a far more comprehensive fingering and especially to enlarge the role of the thumbs and use them as nature intended; for, among their other good services, they must be employed chiefly in the difficult tonalities. Hereby, they rose from their former uselessness to the rank of principal finger." The fact that Bach could play in keys with more sharps and flats probably encouraged him to experiment with new fingering techniques as early as the Arnstadt period. Since the majority of surviving examples of Bach's fingering are in C major and use crossing, this has led to the mistaken idea that Bach was slow to adopt passing the thumb under for scale passages. C.P.E. Bach tells us that "crossing the fingers…is applied primarily to passages with no accidentals." The fact that most of the examples of Bach's fingering are in C major has perhaps skewed our opinions about his fingerings, since they make extensive use of finger crossing, which C.P.E. Bach tells us was the "normal" fingering for such passages. Since there are no examples of Bach's fingering in complicated passages in keys with more sharps or flats, we can only surmise what J.S. Bach did in such cases by inference, and by examples taken from his son. Since the young Arnstadt Bach was free to use more remote keys on the Wender organ, it seems likely that he already was making more extensive use of the thumb at this early period than was previously thought The fully chromatic bass octaves in both the manual and the pedal of the Wender organ also freed Bach to use a wider variety of keys as well.

The console itself provides some of the most important clues to Bach's playing techniques, it seems to me. For most of my life I have wondered what it was like to sit at that console, ever since I first saw it pictured in the Gleason Method Book as a teenager. Some years ago I was told that since this console is such a rare and precious thing, no one was allowed to touch the original Bach console, much less sit at it and try it out. Since the new console of the restored organ is an exact replica of the original down to the last millimeter and detail, I finally got to fulfill my dream and satisfy my curiosity. What I am going to say will contradict a lot of what has been said about Bach's pedal technique, and may raise quite a few eyebrows. To those skeptics I simply say, "Go and play the organ yourself, and see if you agree with my conclusions." First of all the pedalboard seems to be recessed under the manuals a bit more than on many other old organs I have played, including some Central German organs from about the same time. Very significantly there is no "toe hold" to rest one's feet in the panel right about the pedalboard; most old organs have such a foot rest hole in that position. The fact that the pedalboards on most old organs are recessed under the manuals very little makes the player lean forward and assume a rather unnatural stance, or at least it seems that way to those of us accustomed to modern console dimensions. In Arnstadt there is a molding above the pedalboard that can serve as a rather precarious perch for one's feet, but that is all. Interestingly enough there is also a foot rail under the bench, something that is missing on many old organ benches of that time. All of this means that the posture that the player assumes in Arnstadt is more upright, and therefore more similar to the stance customary today. The pedal keys, though shorter than modern ones, allow for the use of heels. To test my theories about Bach's pedaling, I tried out the pedalings of Johann Samuel Petri included in his treatise of 1767, revised and expanded in 1782. These are the earliest complete pedalings that we have, and since Petri was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (whose only teacher was his father), there is a direct link to J.S. Bach himself. I can tell you that the Petri pedalings are perfectly comfortable on the Arnstadt organ. That doesn't prove that Bach pedaled the same way Petri indicates, but it does at least prove that Bach could have used heels at a very early period in his career. No one can say that he couldn't, for the proof is there in Arnstadt that he could. Since Arnstadt is the only organ that survives of all of the instruments Bach played in the churches he served, this is the best evidence that we have, it seems to me.

The Arnstadt organ deserves to be far better known internationally than it is, I think. One can question some of the details of the restoration-I have some reservations about the voicing and speech of some of the stops, for example-but one cannot deny that the results of Hoffman's restoration are quite impressive. One thing is for certain: nowhere else can we be so close to the young Johann Sebastian Bach as we are sitting at the console of the restored 1703 Wender organ in Arnstadt.


About the author: A native of Mississippi, Stephen Roberts studied organ at the University of Oklahoma and Yale University, where he was the first student admitted to the then newly formed Yale Institute of Sacred Music. A Fulbright scholar, he studied in Vienna, Austria with the late Anton Heiller. He teaches organ at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, and is also Director of Music at St. Peter RC Church in the same city.