New Wines, Old Skins
Planning and Building a New Organ
on the Threshold of the 21st Century

Barry Jordan

A new organ! Is there anything more exciting? But then the trouble begins. There you sit, sharpened pencil in your hand and virgin piece of paper on the table in front of you. And now? How many manuals, how many stops: that's the easy bit, assuming you have a budget. But hold on: what do we want to play on this organ? And how do we want to play it?

The fact is: whatever we build or plan nowadays, someone will hate it, either because it's historically based or because it isn't, because it's tuned in equal temperament or because it isn't, because it has three swells or none at all, because it has a mechanical action or because it has a sequencer.

Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. The great Brabanter organ builders of the 17th century, those who influenced Fritsche and Scherer, built huge pedal departments for which there was absolutely no use in the literature of the time. It didn't take long before virtuosic pedal solos were a sine qua non of every respectable praeludium. Composers, who were of course mostly organists themselves, took (in a spirit of pure Darwinism - adapt or die!) to these new opportunities for showing off like the proverbial ducks to water. The centre of flashy organ playing had by this time moved from Holland to Hanseatic north Germany. Still, it was all very much a local phenomenon; well into the 19th century, organ builders in specific regions were still working within their own local traditions, and the idea of an "AGO standard" would have seem so far-fetched as to be absurd; Cliquot, Father Smith or any of the Austrian bilders would not have understood why anybody would want all those pedal stops, or even all those pedal keys, if any at all. The odd accident, like Gottfried Silbermann's apprenticeship with his frenchified brother Andreas, is the exception which proves the rule.

To cut a long discourse tolerably short, what does this mean for us today? And what has changed, to make our organ planning so extremely difficult, such a matter of conflict, even of conscience?

First of all, it means that no historically based instrument which takes as its model an organ of any period up to the middle of the 19th century (at least) is going to be the appropriate instrument for more than a tiny segment of the available literature. This does not of course mean that no other music is playable; indeed, music which only partly suits an instrument can sound charming, even in some way revelatory. I have heard a Ritter sonata on the Trost organ in Waltershausen (pretty, if rather too elegant), but also the Reubke sonata on the great Schnitger in Norden - which was torture. But the fact is that Bach is just as inappropriate to that instrument as Reubke is - we just don't hear it anymore. Baroque is baroque, we tend to imagine. North German mixtures are simply useless for Bach's complicated polyphony. What did the great man play in Hamburg when he sat for hours at Reinken's great Schitger in St. Catherine's church? He improvised for over two hours on "An Wasserflüssen Babylon". We may guess that it was probably more in the style of the Hanseatic fantasia than of his own late fugues. We know that the polyphonic episodes of the Hanseatic praeludia were not played with mixtures, which were reserved for the sections in Stilo fantastico. We might even draw some conclusions, right or wrong, about the Toccata in d minor (538), reportedly written for the trial of the St. Martin's organ in Kassel, and its Stilo antico fugue, or similarly about the F major Toccata.

Looking at Bach's organ schemes today, we often think, "What in the world did he use that for?", and the same feeling assails us when sitting at many a restored historic instrument. Why this and not that, what did Joachim Wagner mean me to do with this Tertia?

We do something today which is historically fairly new - we play old music. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach commented admiringly and with a certain undisguised astonishment in his necrology for his father that, amongst all the rest, he had written six sonatas for the organ that were composed in a manner so galant that they "even today" manage to sound quite decent. Bach's own interest in other music, extensive though it was, was largely confined to his contemporaries; newness was a supreme virtue.

When Mendelssohn revived the St. Matthew Passion he did so in a manner which hardly conforms to our idea of stylistic purity, but even so it was regarded as a rather peculiar thing to want to do. Bach especially was thought of as being the stodgiest of all dead composers, Handel being rather more everyone's cup of tea, for obvious reasons - much less counterpoint, for a start. But no one even thought that it might be a good idea to perform this music with anything less than the mighty forces generally reckoned with for the music of the day; the tenor of the time was an uncompromising belief in the utter superiority of the contemporary. Not to be convinced of this was pure affectation, one of the things on W.S. Gilbert's little list: "The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own". A wonderful early 20th century poster for the performance of a Handel oratorio advertises it as "as improved by Mr. Prout".

Today we are stuck with the extreme choice between building organs which allow us to perform old music "authentically," or building organs for which there may be no literature but which allow the organ builder to retain his status as a creative artist in his own right. In between, there is an enormous gray area - how old is old? How authentic is authentic? Obviously, an organ which is designed "to play Bach" (I have used the quotation marks because even the question of what a Bach organ really is is by no means simple) will not play Messiaen; less obviously, it will also not play Buxtehude properly.

The creative crisis in organ building in the 20th century was analogous, at least to a certain extent, with the violent reaction of the composers of the time to late romanticism. With a certain amount of imagination, one could equate neo-classicism with the "Orgelbewegung" and serialism with that reinventing of the wheel evinced by specifications such as (although one shouldn't push this too far, obviously):

Rohrgedeckt 8'
Prinzipal 4'
Flûte à pavillon 2'
Oktave 1'
Scharff I III-IV
Scharff II I-II
Quinte 8/3'
Terz 8/5'
Septime 8/7'
Kubische Pfeife 8' ("cubic pipe")
Viola di Gamba 4'
Holzstabklinger II ("wooden stick sound")
Trichterflöte 8' (undulating)
Krummhorn 8'

(Walcker, 1958, St. Matthäus-Kirche, Berlin. Disposition by K. Th. Kühn and Herbert Schulze)

The Hauptwerk and pedal of this organ are more conventional, their peculiarities being limited to the pitch nomenclature of the Quinte and Terz (16/5' and 16/7' repectively) and the inclusion of a three-rank "Schreipfeife" (literally "screaming pipe") - all Hauptwerk - and a "Mollterz" or minor third at a pitch of 128/77' in the pedal .

(Incidentally, it's more the inner logic of the scheme that is remarkable than some of the strange stops - these can be found throughout the history of organ building, whether it's the nightingales and cuckoos of Bavaria or Praetorius' "Hölzerne Glechter", the meaning of which is not quite clear but is probably "wooden laugh")

One is too inclined to dismiss nearly all organ building of the mid-20th century as "neo-baroque", but this is too easy. Witness Johann Nepomuk David's scheme for St. Eberhard's cathedral in Suttgart:

I. Deutsches Werk II. Römisches Werk
Quintadena 16'a) Engchor - narrow scaled stops
Principal 8'Prinzipal 16'
Oktave 4'Oktave 8'
Oktave 2'Quinta decima 4'
Mixtur V 1 1/3'Vigesima secunda 2'
Scharff IV 1/2'Quinta 1 1/3'
Terzzimbel III 1/6'Vigesima secunda 1'
Rohrflöte 8'b) Weitchor - wide scaled stops
Schweizerpfeife 2'Prinzipalflöte 8'
Blockflöte 4'Oktavflöte 4'
Trompete 16'Quintflöte 2 2/3'
Trompete 8'Terzflöte 1 3/5'
Trompete 4'Septflöte 1 1/7'
None 8/9'
III. Organo di Legno (Swell)Gedekt 8'
Gedeckt 8'Flöte 4'
Prinzipal 4'Tremulant
Flöte 4'
Mixtur 2'
Zimbelflöte 2/3' + 1/2'
Oktave 2'

The pedal is much what one might expect, containing principals at 16', 8' and 4' pitches, quieter flues from 16' to 2' (just one stop at each pitch), two mixtures, a five rank mixture beginning at 2' pitch and a six rank Rauschwerk at 5 1/3, as well as reeds from 16' to 2'.

This is not "neo-baroque" at all. What it does attempt to be, is genuinely "modern", which in this case has meant attempting to stow as many disparate elements as possible in one organ case; that such a scheme is almost certainly doomed to failure is obvious, however, because it is simply too eccentric and combines too many elements to be seminal. It is (or was) unique, generated no literature, and was never copied. Indeed, any further instruments in this manner would have seemed uncreative, since the gestures made are too unsubtle to be copyable, in the same way as every organ piece in which the wind is switched off while a chord or cluster is held remind us very forcibly of "Volumina".

Perhaps the time has come to recognise that, under normal circumstances ("normal" meaning that a church or hall is likely to have only one organ, and that there are no very good reasons for attempting a reconstruction or copy of a lost instrument), the eclectic approach to organ building practised by most builders in the latter half of the 20th century was not such a bad idea after all. How well the artistic problems arising from the attempt to combine only partially reconcilable elements was solved is another matter entirely, but it should be admitted that some very fine instruments were created in the process (some of the best Beckeraths, for example), as well as some staggeringly bad ones.

Contemporary American builders have adopted a number of imaginative approaches to the problem of an authentically modern organ. Most of these are firmly grounded in the past, and that is good. Indeed, the need which was felt in organ building as well as composition to turn the clock back or make a radically new start, to ignore centuries of experience, was the cause of a lot of the problems experienced in these arts in the last centuries. But what builders like Paul Fritts, whose PLU organ is certainly one of the most remarkable instruments I have ever played, are doing is not in any sense simply recreative, as the copying or reconstruction of a lost, or even still preserved, organ might be. That is to say: if a builder determines to find out why that Silbermann principal sounds so wonderful, measures it, analyses all its parameters, and then uses the knowledge he has gained to make his own beautiful principal, then he is being truly creative; if he copies a whole organ as well as he can, then he is like an student copying the Mona Lisa -- certainly, he is developing his technique, but he is not adding to the world's store of original art.

Fritts's shop methods approach the mediaeval; what comes out of it has a strong personal voice and real conviction. The same applies to Manuel Rosales, whose methods are almost industrial; he routinely orders his pipes from supply houses (stipulating all parameters extremely carefully), and is at his happiest when able to concentrate his strongly creative mind on the sound of the instrument and not on its construction. Both however resist categorising as builders of "romantic" or "baroque" organs, and both have contributed masterpieces of contemporary organ building which are surprisingly versatile.

In Europe, particularly in Germany, the tendency to think in narrowly defined categories is far stronger and the resistance to the genuinely new or progressive greater. Perhaps one should say that the anxiety before the solecism is more crushing. In our own new organ project here in Magdeburg, there was strong pressure from many quarters for a number of possible alternatives: - the reconstruction of the Compenius organ of 1608 - the construction of the "ultimate late Schnitger organ" - the cathedral never had a Schnitger organ, but there were 8 organs by the master in the city - the reconstruction of the Reubke organ, which had quite an interesting specification, but which never worked properly - the construction of a "proper" Cavaillé-Coll organ.

It is interesting to note that all of these alternatives fall back into the safety-net of historical precedent; interesting also that the reconstruction of the monumental Röver organ of 1906, destroyed by a bomb in 1945, was not propagated by anyone.

A number of factors were of importance in the planning of this organ. First of all, perhaps, the huge cathedral and its long reverberation mean that the music of Bach or his Saxon or Thuringian circle, however well suited the organ might be to it, must always play a subordinate role, if any at all. Secondly, the cathedral will always have at least three instruments: the west organ, which is the one of which we are now speaking, a choir organ, and one or possibly two in the winter church or "Remter". A planned new organ for the Remter, which has ideal acoustics for the Bach style, will deal with that portion of the repertoire. Finally, the liturgical requirements of the (Lutheran) cathedral are not at all typically Protestant, so that the organ needs a wide variety of wafting sounds as well as considerable power for the 120-meter-long church.

It was felt strongly that the concentration on the Cavaillé-Coll style alone would ignore too much contemporary literature. Expanding the resources of the organ to deal with later French composers (Messiaen, Alain, Langlais) poses no particular problem, but every attempt to cast the geographical net wider leads to more difficult questions. Most particularly, French-style reeds are not very much at home in German romantic literature, since they dominate without providing the reedy cloudiness characteristic of the German sound, but there are real differences in the characteristics of the labial stops as well.

Simply attempting to combine stops of divergent pedigree would be one way of dealing with the problem, but probably not a particularly fruitful one; the result would, in the end, be different only in degree and type, not in principle, from the Stuttgart organ discussed above. What is needed is a creative handling of disparate influences, a willingness to learn, and, more than anything else, a liberation from the idea of "authenticity."

A recent review in an English periodical of a CD of French romantic works recorded on a new organ by a Dutch builder in Sweden criticised the instrument for "not really sounding like a Cavaillé-Coll." Indeed it doesn't, but that is really irrelevant; builders of our time may not approach Cavaillé-Coll's genius, or they may (heretical thought) even surpass it; what they shouldn't be doing is copying it, as Beethoven did not copy Haydn. The recording industry has a lot to answer for, as the close allying of certain works with certain instruments means that, for example, a new recording of a Widor symphony made on any instrument other than a Cavaillé-Coll is likely to get a critical reception which is less than ecstatic, if a company can be found to produce it in the first place. (The movement towards "authenticity" in music making has reaped rich harvests, but there are some shadows too. Most particularly, a certain over-emphasis on the sound itself has resulted in a narrowing of literature considered "appropriate"; so that we now need different orchestras with different instruments for Bach, Mozart, Schumann, and everything since.)

It is unlikely that a new organ could be planned to meet all the requirements of all composers ever, even if a Gamba were a Gamba were a Gamba. Interesting that in a recent interview with Oliver Latry on the subject of his Messiaen recording on the vast Notre-Dame organ, he enthused about the possibilities of the computerised action of the instrument for playing any stops from any division, enabling him to fulfil exactly Messiaen's registrational requirements - requirements deriving from the composer's own, much smaller but very individual instrument. This of course still leaves open the question of how closely the actual sounds in the actual buildings really resemble one another. The law kills, the spirit gives life...

One should perhaps not forget that Messiaen himself was always very enthusiastic about Almut Rössler's interpretation of his music on the Beckerath organ of St. John's church in Düsseldorf, an organ which might be thought to be less than ideal.

Genuinely modern organ building must result from a consideration of all valid parameters and a creative response to them. Organists must free themselves from the obsession with "correctness," and instead concern themselves more with musicality, freedom and joy. The old saw, "Bach would have loved (insert favourite stop)" is less false than unprovable, but so is its opposite; such assertions are valueless and not conducive to good argument. More pertinent are considerations like, "I can hear all the polyphony really well if I play the piece like this on that organ". No organ can do everything equally well, nor must it do so. But to build it so that it excels at a tiny corner of the repertoire and fails at everything else is probably, except in those few cases where a copy or a reconstruction would seem really sensible, even essential, is surely a mistake. The modern instrument does not have to contain anything really new, although it may do so, which is why Jean Guillou's outré specifications will probably never be very influential (even though they essentially warm over the ideas of the Abbé Vogler), but it should be a result of vision, adventurousness, courage, and above all, art.

About the author: Barry Jordan was born into an unmusical but church-going family in 1957 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He was recruited from Sunday School into the church choir at the age of 10 and soon discovered a love of, and possibly aptitude for, music, which his parents indulged as far as they could. At 13 he found himself substituting on the organ bench, from which he has been unable to escape for the last thirty years. He studied in Cape Town, Vienna and Lübeck and is now cathedral organist in the central German town of Magdeburg.