South America and the Organ

Andrés Günther


Latin America comprises Central America (from Mexico to Panama), the Caribbean, and the South American continent. This article concentrates on continental South America although a brief mention is made of Mexico.

Although I live in a South American country I can discuss South American Organ Culture in this writing only in general terms for reasons that will become apparent. Names of individuals and organs are given only as examples since a complete list would become far too long. Links to some South American organ web sites appear at the end of this article. Constructive comments and suggestions for expansion of this material of course are welcome – send them to me.


South America – continent of charm, adventure, mysteries and contrasts. Charm for its intelligent, versatile people with Old World tradition and social behavior merged with a New World environment. Adventure from its enormous expanse of unexplored nature and breathtaking natural scenery. Magic and mystery from its vestiges of ancient cultures. Contrasts: virgin nature – then suddenly, a hypermodern city in best U.S.-fashion. A two- or three-century old church – and a 40 story skyscraper beside it. Suburbs with millionaire mansions – but 500 yards away a slum with hundreds of cardboard and tin huts.

All this is true, yet none is completely true because the backgrounds are so complicated. The exceptions show up at the most unexpected places and moments, and the changes can happen in sudden and unexpected manners. Although South America belongs to the "Americas" the differences between this continent and "The North" (USA and Canada) are so big that we live in two completely different worlds.

1. History and social background

South America was conquered and colonized by Spaniards and Portuguese. The common language is Spanish; in Brazil the "Brazileiro" Portuguese. The continent is divided into twelve countries with also many citizenships, currencies, immigration laws... and consequent travel and trade difficulties. Each country is divided into states or departments.

In the 19th Century South America possessed an almost medieval artisan and agrarian feudal structure under the rule of nearly omnipotent dictators and regional leaders who were ousted more or less regularly with bloody coups d'état. To remain in power without interruption they usually discouraged education of the lower classes. Also, the hot and humid climate of the tropical and sub-tropical regions (which makes impossible to work hard, even for people who would like to do it) allows the growth of fruits and crops in abundance without special care, and the continent holds immeasurable rich ores almost at soil level. As a result of all this the lower classes who constitute an average 80% of the population never learned to sustain steady employment, habits of saving (thus accumulation of wealth), nor acquired a solid cultural background outside their native folklore traditions. This situation worsened in regions where the dictators used to provide them with goods and services following the "Panem et circensis" policy of the ancient Roman emperors.

The 20th Century brought reliable communications, economic growth and democracy to most South American countries. But the "democratic" presidents still have a ruling power that can only be dreamed of by their first world colleagues. While the feudal structure is formally abolished it still remains in the background and still has a strong influence on the economy and society. Although there is no discrimination there are enormous differences between the rich and poor, between authorities in power and the average citizen. People get a better education now but still are used to expecting almost everything from the State – and they get it. Culture (by which I mean general knowledge, respect for the fine arts and a well developed applied intelligence) still is found mostly in the middle class and, of course, the rich and powerful. They who have money have culture and vice versa, culture often being a veneer to show wealth and convey prestige. The major exception to this rule is, of course, academia.

Since 1990 South America has faced a massive economic breakdown except for a very few countries. This breakdown has lead to strong political changes, the most significant ones being a shift to left in some governments and movement toward an integrated community like the EC. The effects of these shifts have yet to be understood.

2. Organ culture

Organ culture developed in several different directions, more in some regions than others, and, while occurring at different times, many patterns are common. Because of these differences, any essay about "organ culture in South America" cannot be 100% accurate. Any proper history or cultural study of the organ in the diverse South American countries would be a lifelong (but fascinating) task.

Significant studies have been made by Francisco Curt Lange (in several South American countries), Miguel Castillo Didier (in Chile and Venezuela), Enrique Carlos Godoy (in Argentina, Peru and Bolivia), Angelo Camin, Jaime Diniz and Calimerio Soares (Brazil), and many others. It should be mentioned regarding South American organ culture that organists are frequently organ historians and organ builders or technicians and conversely. Regrettably most of this interesting material is available only in Spanish and in regional publications. Many investigations still remain unpublished.

The organ panorama in South America must be seen in the light of the historical and cultural backgrounds and the Spanish Roman Catholic Church music tradition. The organ, no matter its quality or size, almost always played a secondary role as accompaniment, rather than being an instrument for solo organ interpretations in or outside the liturgy. Large and valuable organs are found mostly in the former colonial capitals and major archdiocesan seats, for example, Cuzco (today's Peru and Bolivia), Nueva Granada (today's Colombia), La Plata (today's Argentina), or regions with wealthy natural resources like Potosí in Bolivia or Minas Gerais in Brazil – all places where wealth accumulated and the rich and powerful (thus culture and prestige) lived. Large, first-class organs were seldom in poor regions, but even there a surprise could happen if a strong religious order or community established a mission there or a wealthy "Señor" decided to make a donation to a local church – or even to donate the entire church itself, complete with organ.

At the beginning the organs were imported from Europe, mostly from the "motherlands" Spain and Portugal. In time, organ builders came to the new world and trained native artisans, and many organs came to be built in South America.

This pattern holds on to the present day, but again with exceptions. The big capital cities and places with natural wealth got the most valuable organs and cultural life infrastructure. The organ panorama diversified however because anybody who wanted to purchase an organ had his own choice of builder.

Moreover, many churches and monasteries needed auxiliary instruments. This led to many positifs, portatifs and choir organs, along with harmoniums and reed organs, both of which became very popular.

Starting in the mid-1950's the electronic organ "came, saw, and conquered" South America with its obvious advantages: small size, low cost, low maintenance, versatility (the last becoming very useful after the Second Vatican Council). Disadvantages became apparent only two decades later: no resistance to climate and pests, no spare parts (discontinued), need of hard-to-find specialized service. Interestingly, the early Hammond models with wheel tone generators survived best! Nevertheless today many "dead" electronic organs stand around in churches while the ancient pipe organ comes back to life in the hands of skilled local artisans or professional restorers.

Though organs were often purchased more for prestige than for genuine musical purposes there were two periods with strong organ movements. The first was late in the 18th Century when South American countries were still under colonial rule; the second was in the late 19th Century after new social, political and economic structures were in place. Both organ movements were driven by changes in the Church.

In the 1950's interest in pipe organs decreased dramatically, coming nearly to an end in 1960, this attributed to the emergence of electronic organs and to misunderstood 2nd Vatican Council policies, when in most South American countries church music switched from traditional organ and Schola ensembles to folk or rock'n-roll bands almost overnight. The King of Instruments had to wait nearly two decades for a comeback, as will be described below.

Organs in concert halls are recent developments all over the world. Again with the some exceptions (for instance the III/38 Walcker in the Luis Arango Concert Hall in Bogotá), the organ in South America did not become a concert instrument. Meanwhile, the piano and orchestra conquered the secular audience. The problem arises not only in organs' locations but also in the inherited tradition by the average clergy who consider the organ as a "secondary" instrument for accompaniment purposes rather than as a solo instrument. The idea that "a church is not a concert hall" is widespread which suppressed any trend toward organ concert series, even when there was a public interest in them. Exceptions are churches mostly in German or US-American communities, this because of their status as "foreign community churches" usually not visited by the most native people.

Concert halls and orchestras in today's South America are supported mostly by state and private funds. But a sponsor, be it public or private, wants to see a "full house" for his money if he sponsors a recital, a solid organ culture improvement at once if he sponsors an organ. But organ culture cannot be materialize overnight, so a sponsor's investment isn't promptly rewarded which causes them to donate other items instead – a grand piano, a library, a musical scholarship, a social development program. Foreign sponsors are no different. And thus a vicious circle sets in: people don't know the organ except as a "church instrument"; the organ remains secondary; musicians don't feel encouraged to make the organ a career; sponsors give priority to other activities than organ music; and a solid organ culture never develops.

3. Organ Instruction

The few young people who despite all this devote themselves to the King of Instruments have to overcome all kinds of obstacles, and this is precisely what makes young South American organists so valuable. First, music is widely considered as a "breadless" career - and the organ takes the last place. Next, many music schools and conservatories, to say nothing of colleges or universities, have neither organ professorships, instructors nor practice instruments available. Sooner or later the candidate must study abroad. For this he has to get a scholarship and a student visa in the chosen country (usually France).

When he returns home the final and most difficult obstacle awaits him: making a living in his native country from what he has learned abroad because there still is neither a developed organ culture nor a widespread interest in it. Most organists who have studied abroad leave their native countries forever after a couple of years once they have decided that their life is the organ. Others become professionals in other areas and the organ remains as only a secondary interest for them.

4. Organ building

Meanwhile, as a native organ building culture developed in the U.S., South America continued to depend mainly on foreign builders although a skilled artisan would occasionally establish a shop, building his own instruments and maintaining existing ones.

Organ builders and technicians have an easier time than organists, but not by much and their instructional hurdles are the same. Many of them are non-degreed professionals: they don't undergo formal training, study or certification although they are high skilled in their profession and have a remarkable store of knowledge and ideas. In the best case they get a basic training from somebody or attend a workshop or seminar now and then. In the American tradition they are organists, organ builders and organ historians as well. Before the Internet, most of them were only known regionally; now some of them have web pages or at least an e-mail address.

But no great South American organ building firms ever emerged out of this background. This was due to a number of reasons. First, because of the unstable economy, South American organ builders never can predict their income reliably, making it impossible to devise a sound business plan. Second, there isn't enough demand for new organs in their countries, and exporting to or working in neighboring countries is complicated. Finally, Europe and the U.S. produce enough high quality organs to meet the remaining world market demand. So another vicious circle sets in: all this does not justify, much less encourage organ building enterprises in South America; so South American organ builders don't feel encouraged to undertake time-consuming and expensive study or training and acquire professional affiliations or certifications; so most South American organ building remains at artisan level sometimes bordering on the amateur. As a result, when a South American organ builder or technician goes out of business or into retirement the workshop usually disappears with him.

On the other hand, there regrettably remain many "screwdriver techs" and bad amateurs who ruin valuable instruments by taking advantage of the ignorance and lack of professional coordination and supervision in this field.

5. Organ inventory

South America is an organ treasure trove. In many regions ancient Spanish or native organs from colonial times still are preserved. In the Mariana Cathedral in Minas Gerais (Brazil) there is a Schnitger. I have unconfirmed information that somewhere in Colombia there is a Cliquot. Thanks to a steady economic growth in late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a period which luckily coincided with an organ and church music movement, a lot of Cavaillé-Coll and Walcker organs were purchased and brought to South America. The 1889 Cavaillé-Coll catalogue lists as follows: 12 organs sent to "Amérique", 1 organ to Bolivia, 8 to Brazil, 7 to Chile, 1 to Colombia, 2 to Peru, 1 to Argentina and 4 to Venezuela. In subsequent years many more were imported. Argentina, for example, got 19 "Cavaillé-Coll - Charles Mutin" organs becoming such an important client that Charles Mutin etablished a branch firm in Buenos Aires. Besides these great brands there are other ones which are less known but of first quality, mostly German, French and British manufacturers, Sauer, Beuchet Debierre and Harrison & Harrison being only three examples. All these instruments form a priceless treasure, not only for South America but for the entire world.

A sad fact is that in the 20th Century some distinguished European firms made their organs of less termite-resistant wood and with pneumatic or electropneumatic actions which couldn't resist the tropical climate.

But there is a lot of junk too. Since organ culture is not solid, in many cases organs are purchased without professional advice, leading to the unscrupulous selling or building of organs of low quality or unethically high price. This lack of professional advice has a second consequence: many organs – even from first line builders – are "stock" instruments bought from catalogues and are not always suited to the churches for which they are destined – from size and external design to scaling and tonal design. Of course again there are exceptions. An example is the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the French Priests Church in Valparaiso (Chile), which was designed for the church and came with an autographed booklet by the Master with detailed assembly, installing and adjusting instructions.

Some organs in impoverished countries or regions have a perverse bit of good luck: their abandonment preserves them from being remodeled or altered, and this way they remain originally conserved. In other cases, conscientious organ technicians or builders respected the original substance of the organs. But in certain countries which enjoyed huge economic booms many historic organs were badly altered or even discarded and replaced by new instruments.

Speaking of lost organs, several valuable ones were lost or badly damaged in earthquakes, mostly in Chile and other countries of our Pacific coast side. Others were destroyed in riots. And, as elsewhere, there were cases of priceless historic organs that were disassembled and sold to junkyards and others destroyed by vandalism or discarded by ignorant people – historic instruments destroyed in the course of church restorations or sold to foreign countries. So the King of Instruments was increasingly abandoned and then almost forgotten for an average time of little more than twenty years.

6. Present situation

In the last three decades certain countries have declared their most valuable organs as part of their cultural heritage and put them under legal protection. This was due to the efforts of conscientious organists/historians/organ builders. In South American countries the State is responsible for the restoration and maintenance of such patrimonies. But in many cases this protection exists only on paper, not for lack of good will but because there always are other priorities to consider. With this we return to the previously noted problem of sponsorship. Although the interest for pipe organs is reawakening in South America, many organs still are abandoned, mostly for lack of organists, technicians or money to repair them.

Lately, European countries show increasing interest in the restoration of historic organs in South America still in their original condition – just in time given the actual situation. This intent is to rescue the existing patrimony but does little to encourage acquisition of new organs. Development aid policy usually dictates (with some justification) that in South America there are humanitarian priorities higher than acquiring a pipe organ for a concert hall. But this is an impediment to evolution of an organ movement. And without a proper organ movement the restored historic organs soon will fall back into desuetude and abandonment.

7. A look into the future

In South America there are always young people who devote themselves to the instrument and skilled individuals who decide to become organ builders. Thus the King of Instruments survives in precarious manner, but it survives.

In Mexico, professional organists and organ builders' associations similar to the AGO and AIO in the U.S. were founded to promote organ culture, restore historic organs under close supervision and then assure their further use and maintenance independent of a need for a foreign workforce. This example should be emulated in the South American continent as soon as possible. In the last two decades organists have begun to form some local organizations and organ movements. In Chile, Argentina and Brazil there are organ associations who plan activities and publish information. In Venezuela efforts to start a sustained organ movement have begun and I was told recently that the new Music College in Caracas wants to start a "Latin-American Organ Professorship" which, once established, would be the first multi-regional organ-related project of its kind.

A sustained organ movement, however, can come about only if the organ goes out from the church into the concert hall, and regular recitals and conventions start taking place regularly. Only then would common people become interested and the King of Instruments become more popular. As this happens, demand will increase enabling organists and organ builders to make a living from their professions without having to work in other areas. Only then can effective training programs be started and professional expertise be raised.

The next step must have South America become more independent from organ studies in or technical services from foreign countries. This is not chauvinism from me but instead a recognition that South America differs so much in culture and thinking patterns from modern Europe or North America that it has to develop itself in its own way, though always staying in close contact with foreign organ movements and associations for artists and information exchange. For this, South American organ associations must join at a multi-regional level and become structurally and financially strong enough to publish information: a) in regular manner; b) in the two main languages Spanish and English; and c) in enough quantity to be distributed worldwide.

All this is an enormous task that requires huge human effort and financial investment in its early stages and will be successful if only the generation who starts it is aware that development will be very slow – so slow perhaps that the starters won't see the final results. This is hard enough to accept, but additionally we will face backlashes and may have to overcome certain negative thinking patterns and attitudes from our people which have been in place for centuries. This alone will take one or two generations to correct.

At this moment, South America faces stormy times, but also maturing changes which could help a lot to promote an organ movement if properly harnessed. A fusion of the South American countries into an EC-like bloc (MERCOSUR) is under way. Once it is established (scheduled for 2013 according to my latest information) it will be much easier to join, travel, trade, stay, work or study across South America than in past and present times. This will allow the necessary interchange of artists or workforce to achieve the outlined goals.

Some websites which are related to this article are given next. Unfortunately almost all our online information is only in Spanish.

The Organs of Latin America (in English), Calimerio Soares and Ton van Eck. Since this online article is really excellent I didn't go into details about organ history in our region in this article.

The Chilean Pipe Organ Site by Dr. Carlos Lauterbach and Prof. Miguel Castillo Didier. This page is in English and Spanish and very comprehensive. It gives lists from Chilean organists, organ builders, and organs in Chile. Miguel Castillo's article "The Cavaillé-Coll organs in Chile" is worth a read; regrettably it's available only in Spanish.

Main Pipe Organs in Argentina, an English-Spanish website with links to the Cavaillé-Coll - Charles Mutin organs in Argentina and its capital Buenos Aires which is available in English too.

Cavaillé-Coll organs of Argentina, direct.

Enrique Alejandro Godoy, organ builder. In Spanish only, but has links to other websites. Enrique Godoy was born 1967 in Buenos Aires; assisted an organ-building Seminar by Jean-Marc Cicchero (France) in 1994 and an organ restoration seminar by Mrs. Susan Tattersall (USA) in 1998. Made diverse organ restorations in Argentina and Bolivia. Like many Organ people in America he is musician and historian too, and published diverse works about Colonial time organs in the Andeans (Cuzco [Peru] and Bolivia).

Brazilian Organists Association; only in Brazileiro. The Association organizes concerts and edites records and information material. Its journal is Caixa Espressiva.

The Arp Schnitger Organ in the Mariana Cathedral (Minas Gerais)

Mexico does not belong strictly to "South America" for us but to "Middle America". But it has such an interesting and exemplary organ movement that I want to include their website. (most is in Spanish, two contact addresses in English). If you click on "Organos Tubulares" at the beginning of the website you will get some photographs of their historic organs that are really enjoyable.

About the author: R. Andrés Günther was born Nov 2 1959 in Caracas, Venezuela. First music studies with his father; then in the "José Angel Lamas" Music High School in Caracas. Degreed as Organist in 1983. Devoted to organ repairs after a basic training with Detlef Kleuker Orgelbau since 1984, he repaired and restored several pipe organs, among them three of the six Cavaillé-Coll, and gave several recitals and information concert-conferences about the pipe organ in his native city.