J. S. Bach and the Organ – Some Neglected Threads

Lecture read at the International Organ Festival at St. Albans 2nd December 2000 By Stephen Bicknell

To use imagination in any area of serious study is a difficult business.There are no facts to be found in imaginary exercises. There may be insight of a kind, but that insight is deeply compromised by being at one stage removed from reality.

Even with this cautionary note an imaginary exercise can sometimes be useful, and I am going to start by inviting you to consider just such a speculation in the hope that it may generate some tiny fragment of concrete information.

Imagine that there was once a celebrated Thüringian organist and composer named Bach, widely respected for his ability as a performer, for his genius as a composer, and for his understanding of the art of organ building. Suppose further that Herr Bach had had the opportunity, at the height of his career, to commission a completely new organ that exactly represented his wishes as regards a really fine instrument. Imagine that negotiations with a leading organ builder led to a scheme for a substantial three manual organ of, say, about fifty stops; that a contract was signed, and that in due course the instrument was completed and delivered. Imagine that this instrument exhibited many innovative features which reflected not just the precise areas of development and interest that preoccupied musicians and craftsmen of the day, but also the specific inspirations and insights of the great man himself.

If such an instrument had existed in respect of J. S. Bach himself we would have a far greater understanding of the man and his music. In truth the historical record conspicuously lacks any such instrument. There is no identifiable Bach organ, and despite the hopes of many researchers the possible connection between J. S. Bach and the design of any particular instrument – whether the Trost organ at Altenburg or the Hildebrandt at Naumburg – is at best treacherously tenuous.

The study of Bach and the organ is very like the study of Stonehenge. At Stonehenge we have a leviathan monument of palpable importance. It has been studied extensively and with modern methods it is possible to trace with some accuracy the various stages of construction and use over a period of fifteen hundred years. Yet the archaeological record is infuriatingly slight. Apart from the stones themselves, the various filled holes suggesting previous states, and the earthworks which complete the site, there are virtually no artefacts or other evidence that might help to complete the picture. It is as though a Neolithic sanitation team had deliberately scoured the entire area removing every item which might conceivably give any clue as to the true purpose of the structure.

There is an exceptionally fine book about Stonehenge by the archaeologist Christopher Chippindale, entitled ‘Stonehenge Complete’. Far more than describing in readily accessible terms what modern archaeology has discovered about Stonehenge, a job which can be satisfactorily completed in remarkably few pages, he presents a complete modern history of the monument, describing its rediscovery in the seventeenth century and explaining without fear or favour every single one of the sometimes mad theories which have been applied to it over the last four hundred years: that it was a temple at which Druids performed human sacrifices; that it was a giant astronomical observatory; that it was a landing site for flying saucers; and so-on.

Chippindale makes several points from this study, especially that in the absence of any more coherent understanding based on fact these flights of the imagination are the very stuff of which Stonehenge history is made. They may not be true but they are worthy of study in their own right and in a very real sense they are the intellectual context of the monument. He goes on to say that each theory is in turn a reflection not of the factual history of Stonehenge – there are precious few facts to be had – but a reflection on the life and concerns of its own period and its own social context. Through studying Stonehenge we learn not about our Neolithic forebears, but about ourselves. The situation with the study of J. S. Bach and the organ is delightfully comparable. The historical record contains none of the information that we seek. The manuscripts of Bach’s organ music are virtually without rubric. Where there is an instruction for registration – such as in the Vivaldi Concerto in d minor – it serves only to tantalise. From the mouth or pen of the man himself we have nothing concerning organs, their disposition, their manufacture, their use, or their sound. From his friends, relatives and pupils we have only the most slender indications of his preferences and these are couched in terms of impenetrable ambiguity. From Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and from Bach’s pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola, and from the early biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, we have only a handful of oft-repeated chestnuts about Bach and the organ: that he required an ample winding system and would test a new instrument by drawing all the stops; that he could play on the pedals passages which other masters would fear to play with their fingers; that his manner of registering was original to the point of daring. From the record of surviving instruments we have none at which he presided. There are several which he played, even a few where he made a formal inspection at the time of their completion. All have suffered from the vicissitudes of time and, even where they have been conscientiously restored, the sounds that can be heard today give only a partial insight into the instrumental world that the great man inhabited.

In the relative absence of any coherent archaeological record the study of the relationship between J. S. Bach and the organ occupies exactly the same imaginary world as the study of Stonehenge, and the results of that study are witness not to Bach’s own genius but to the affairs and concerns of those who have made the various studies. Take, for example, the furious advocacy of Bach’s organ music which gripped London in the mid-nineteenth century and the effect this had on the organs of the day. An example of an organ of this period survives at St. Mary-at-Hill in the City of London.

Built by Hill in 1848, this instrument is currently undergoing restoration by N. P. Mander Ltd after serious damage by fire some years ago. It is a large two manual with up-to-date C-compass manuals and pedals replacing the familiar GG-compass of the old insular English school. A substantial sixteen-foot chorus on the Great organ is answered by an equally well developed Swell Organ, and here the Swell is constructed as an Oberwerk above the Great Organ, not behind it, and thus is balanced on terms of virtual equality with the main manual. The Pedal division is reasonably independent, and the whole scheme is superficially very similar to a large two-manual organ by Bach’s Saxon contemporary, Gottfried Silbermann. However, the tone is light years removed from the German model which Hill’s organ follows on paper. British organ building was emerging from a period of intense refinement and delicacy and Hill’s organ is above all rather soft. The only way to imagine some connection between the sounds this organ makes and the sounds of an organ Bach might have known is to shut your eyes and pretend the building is enormous and the organ two hundred feet away – only then does it begin to make sense.

The Bach organ of 1848 tells us about 1848, not about Bach. Of course the same is true for Bach organs of 1950 – if indeed there were any such in the early heat of the modern movement Organ Revival of that generation – and the same is true of Bach organs today. There is a finite limit to what we can find out from the past; in the case of Bach and the organ that limit is very quickly reached and beyond it lies only speculation.

With this in mind I prefer to see the connection often made between Bach and the organ building of late seventeenth century Hamburg – instruments by Arp Schnitger and his immediate predecessors – as being a story of twentieth century preoccupations. First and foremost it is a story of political upheaval. In the division of Germany after the Second World War the Bach homelands of Thüringia and Saxony became relatively inaccessible, their organs and organ culture obviously so. The instruments of Gottfried Silbermann retained their specific cachet, but that widely acknowledged award of distinction was a matter of survival, not of revival. The remarkable craftsmanship in Silbermann’s instruments led them to be revered not only in his own time but in following generations too. I would go as far as to say that in the nineteenth century he was the only organ builder of the past whose name was widely known in the international organ world.

When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe even Silbermann’s instruments fell for a time into shadow, and the idea of them belonging to an indigenous and varied local organ culture passed completely into oblivion. Attention was naturally diverted for a time to the other great area of importance to Bach’s understanding of the organ – Hamburg and the North. This removal of focus from central Germany to the North was also propelled by the engine of twentieth century musicology, which saw Bach not as a romantic genius (surely the Nineteenth Century assessment) but as a single piece in a scholarly jigsaw puzzle. That puzzle could most easily be completed with reference to Bach’s most prominent precursors as gifted Lutheran organ composer-performers, men such as Böhm and Buxtehude. The arrival of Bach on the musical scene was sometimes seen almost as a continuation of that school, and the new organs which emerged in the late twentieth century were a witness to the total concentration of interest on the organs of the North, but revisited by twentieth century craftsmen in new guise, with Modern Movement austerity in design and decoration, too-light mechanical actions, equal temperament, steady wind and every other kind of pseudo-technical pseudo-improvement.

The problem with the musicologist’s view is one of cart and horse, or one of telescopes and wrong ends. Study concentrating on the surviving works of great composers gives a very one-sided view of the musical culture of the past. An organ culture is not remotely dependent on good composed or written music. It may reach a pinnacle of excellence with only the most modest or basic creative musical input, as happened in Catholic South Germany in the eighteenth century, or in Spain in the eighteenth century, or in England in the eighteenth century, or even, dare I say it, in the Netherlands in the twentieth century. To view Bach’s position largely in terms of structured links with his predecessors is justified only in terms of musicological scholarship; to elevate those predecessors to the position of precursors may even be misleading; in the case of Buxtehude, as Christoph Wolff has so ably pointed out, it has almost denied Buxtehude himself of his proper status as an composer in his own right and has caused the finest section of his oeuvre – the choral music – to be sadly neglected. Who is Buxtehude to us today? All too often I am afraid he is merely the name of the composer immediately preceding Bach on the recital programme of the modern eclectic virtuoso.

That is not to say that the North was without influence upon Bach and his view of the organ. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places for the effect the experience had on him. In my imagination I see his experience of Lübeck and Hamburg leading naturally to an appreciation of large organs but not necessarily to an appreciation of the specific layout fashionable in that part of the world. I do not think he would necessarily have found a Rückpositve advantageous, nor a Brustwerk, nor detached pedal towers. He would not have heard the word ‘werkprinzip’ which is of twentieth century coinage, invented to explain seventeenth century organ building in terms of a Modern Movement design philosophy of ‘form follows function’.

It takes a certain leap of the imagination to understand how the spatially separated parts of a North German organ are intended to work together, and though that leap is certainly well within the intellectual grasp of a man as intelligent as Bach, so is the other side of the coin: why should an organ not be made as one single entity, homogenous and integrated, built in one case, not in several and, most important of all, leaving room on the same gallery for instrumentalists and singers? Bach played on the four manual Schnitger at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg in 1720, and of course the experience would have been fascinating. But would he not have been surprised to find the main chorus of the organ divided over two manuals, Hauptwerk and Oberwerk? Would it not have seemed odd to him that the sixteen foot manual plenum could only be obtained by coupling two manuals together, with a corresponding deterioration in the quality of the touch? And whereas an organ by Schnitger was built with a certain economy of wind distribution, so that only certain stops sounded well together and even then in combinations of only a few at a time, would not the exploring fingers and improvisatory mind of Bach the player quickly have discovered exactly where those limits lay and have been led to wonder with automatic inevitability what might lie beyond them?

Posing rhetorical questions does not necessarily mean that one should be tempted to answer them. I do not propose to take the dangerous step of filling in the gaps and telling you what I think Bach might actually have thought. To understand the true position of the North in Bach’s mind we need a gentle reminder that he would have met people there as well as organs, and that there is no reason why his concentration might not have been devoted more towards the successful creative careers of Böhm, Buxtehude and Reincken and less towards the specific details of instruments of that area, where he never held an appointment.

We need to remember that J. S. Bach was not a citizen of modern greater Germany and that Hamburg was foreign territory. Germany would not become a single entity until after 1848; until then there were separate independent states, duchies and principalities. Thüringia was one of these, as important in its way as any other, and there several generations of the Bach family made their home and devoted themselves to careers in music. The strongest line of communication was between Thüringia and Saxony, its neighbour to the east. The two states co-existed in happy cultural rivalry: Saxony boasting the great court city of Dresden and the intellectual strength of Leipzig, and Thüringia competing with rather more centres of cultural activity, but each one much smaller than the two major cities of Saxony.

Saxony and Thüringia had flourishing organ cultures of their own, as distinct as any other national or regional school at the turn of the eighteenth century. These schools depended on no single great artist, for even Gottfried Silbermann himself was a parvenu, the local lad who went away to France and returned in 1710 with some new ideas and scored a popular success. The wide spread of local activity is well revealed by the names of organ builders whose work Bach encountered during his career, men such as Wender, Scheibe, Stertzing, Trost and Trebs. That no one of these can be identified as a great star in the firmament of organ building tells us not that they were less able, but informs us intead about the social structure of the area in which they plied their trade. For example, Tobias Heinrich Gottfried Trost was indeed a major figure in the craft, but because of his position as organ builder to the Court at Altenburg and the structure of Thüringian society he was only able to undertake two major projects in his lifetime, and even then his organ at Waltershausen had to be finished by others. The position of Arp Schnitger, for example, is quite different: the model of Hamburg mercantile society allowed him to sense the possibilities of being an autonomous tradesman and manufacturer building standardised instruments, managing a workforce of collaborators, selling his work to clients rather than waiting for instructions from his Lord and Master in a nearby castle, and ultimately exporting a product to all parts of the known world. Similarly with Gottfried Silbermann in Saxony, able to score a double success by working for both Lutheran and Catholic patrons, using standardised formulae for the rapid execution and prompt delivery of a relatively large number of surprisingly self-similar organs, and allowing his popular reputation to rest on the luxurious excellence of materials and craftsmanship he had surely learnt in Paris, and on his organs being extremely loud.

To me Gottfried Silbermann is the Saxon equivalent of Father Willis. The instruments are impressive for their technical excellence and for delivering power with sophistication and refinement. Both builders were outside tradition in seeking brilliance through a certain manner of voicing rather than through the use of high pitches. Both builders incorporated a modicum of French influence in the form of powerful reeds and special solo colours. Both built organs to standard recipes with a narrow tonal palette and with little variation from one organ to the next. Both were stubborn and stuck with meantone tuning at precisely the time it had gone out of fashion. Silbermann’s organs are loud to the point of being problematic. They put all other instruments in the shade, unjustly making the work of others appear dull and even lacklustre. In the context of the accompaniment of the eighteenth century chorale and cantata based liturgy their loudness must surely be a difficulty: individual stops are sensuous enough but in combination there is a telling forcefulness which does not blend well with other performers.

You will by now detect that I am proposing that J. S. Bach was brought up in the distinctive organ culture of his native Thüringia and that his foreign travels may only have added to his family-based experience. If this is the case, then the Thüringian organ needs to be defined so that we can learn from it. I have already hinted that the social structure of Thüringia and the system of patronage applied to organ building leads not to one consistent style but to a variety of styles going on concurrently, each individual artist seeking his own solutions and his own particular answers to the needs of the day. The organs of neighbouring Saxony provide another source of alternative recipes. Thus, a visitor to central Germany around 1730 might find organs that sounded quite different from each other, in the same way that an organ by Father Willis sounds quite different from an organ by Hill or Lewis. Silbermann’s forthright voicing, his frenchified mutations and reeds, and his taste for brilliant tone would have represented one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the scale were dark, fluty toned organs, such as those made by Herbst, where the chorus has a distinct cornetty twang and a thicker, heavier character. On a separate branch line altogether is Trost, with his love of delicate intonation and edgy tone, his repeated experiments with new kinds of string stops and fancy flutes, and his plenum delivered in a spine tingling crash by means of one big multi-ranked tierce mixture.

All three builders were concerned with the trends of their time, and the very departures from common seventeenth century practice are the stuff of our enquiry. Keyboards now had more notes, the introduction of the accidentals in the bass octave firmly implying the use of new key signatures and more extensive modulation, and thus opening the way for mildly unequal or circulating temperaments replacing the old meantone system. Organs were now often housed in one single case, allowing more extensive use of the gallery area round the console and tending to homogenise and blend the sound. This new kind of organ structure – the instrument built in one lump – seems to me to mirror the difference between the major solo works of Buxtehude – many sub-sections used to throw the separate parts of the Northern organ into distinct relief – and the later major works of Bach, in which single massive movements explore a self-contained spectrum of tonality through the medium of structured schemes of modulation. At this time also new stops appeared to delight the ear: in Silbermann’s work they are reeds and mutations; in Trost’s work they are strings and flutes. Above all this period seems to be one in which there is a new found interest in grandeur or gravity of effect, reflected in Bach’s own instructions regarding the rebuilding of the organ at Mühlhausen, with its new thirty two foot bass and rebuilt pedal reed for added ‘gravität’ and the telling reference to the sixteen-foot manual Bassoon introduced for its delicacy in concerted music.

In the light of these new trends in early eighteenth century organ building I would like to draw attention to three organs which can still be heard today. The organ in the castle church at Lahm-in-Itzgrund, in Franconia neighbouring Thüringia to the west, where Johann Lorenz Bach was organist, built by Heinrich Herbst in 1732 and surviving virtually unaltered. Then, the organ in St. Peter’s Church in Freiberg, Saxony, completed in 1735 by Gottfried Silbermann, surviving in fair condition despite some nineteenth century revoicing . Finally, the Tobias Trost organ in the castle chapel at Altenburg in Thüringia, completed in 1739 and inspected and approved in fairly glowing terms by J. S. Bach in September of that year.

These three organs are of a type quite new. All are only two manual instruments, and yet all three attempt a sixteen foot chorus on the Hauptwerk and a thirty two foot stop on the pedal. This is a radical departure from normal practice, for almost all organ builders of any period, given a space sufficient for an organ of this type, would sooner offer their client or patron an instrument at the same price but with a greater number of rather smaller stops spread over three manuals and pedal. Each of these instruments occupies the amount of space in which Schnitger – or for that matter Rudolph von Beckerath – would have built a three manual organ based on an eight-foot Hauptwerk.

Here is the true impact of the new desire for ‘gravität’ – schemes where the myriad possibilities of dialogue and interplay between three manual divisions are exchanged willingly for a smaller two manual organ offering a more homogenised, but more massive, overall effect. To detect the hand of Bach in the invention of these schemes would going too far, but the coincidence of their appearance in the right place and at the right time, and two of them with distinct Bach connections, is both delightful and intriguing.

Each builder tackles the problems of such a scheme in a different way. Note, for example, how the Pedal is disposed in each. Herbst builds two separate pedal organs, one department of big basses behind the organ and a separate one devoted to chorus work disposed in the northern manner in towers on the gallery front. Trost achieves a pedal chorus by a technically adventurous method – he arranges for several ranks to be shared between the Hauptwerk and Pedal, with a complex soundboard design including non-return valves under each pipe. Silbermann, true to form, plays safe, and would doubtless have argued that the provision of pedal upperwork was catered for in his design by means of a pedal coupler that operated separate pallets in the Hauptwerk soundboard. Note also the provision of the new narrow scale registers alongside the traditional quintatons: in the Silbermann organ a single mild Viola da Gamba; in the Herbst instrument Viola da Gamba and Gemshorn; in Trost’s organ at Altenburg a whole collection of experimental tonalities, including both strings and unusual flutes on both manuals and pedal.

Which of these three organs would Bach have preferred and why? There is no answer to this question, but there is a non-answer that has a distinct appeal: that Bach might have enjoyed all three equally and have relished their differences. Among the mere handful of comments handed down to us about his organ playing is this famous passage from Forkel’s biography:“To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he 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 could never be produced by their mode of registration.”
“This peculiar manner of using the stops was a consequence of his minute knowledge of the construction of the organ and of all the single stops. He had early accustomed himself to give to each and every stop a melody suited to its qualities, and this led him to new combinations which, otherwise, would never have occurred to him.”
I think that this passage contains a most important clue. To a player whose grasp was as complete as Bach’s, able to improvise fully structured works in five and six parts with obligato pedal lines, the different quality of sounds emerging from organs by different builders would have been a never ending source of delight and pleasure. His music making would instinctively have been altered to suit. No one instrument – provided it obeyed his commands that the right notes should be played at the right time – would then be in any way preferable to another. Thus there is no ‘Bach organ’ – rather many Bach organs, or a pool of Bach organs, all of them belonging to the varied schools of central German organ building at the beginning of the ‘galant’ period. However there is one instrument which has long been regarded as the strongest candidate for a tonal scheme devised by Bach, the Hildebrandt organ in St. Wenceslas Naumburg, completed in 1746, and examined and approved by J.S. Bach and Gottfried Silbermann in September of that year.

Bach had known of Hildebrandt’s work since at least 1723, when he examined the one-manual organ by him at Störmthal. Hildebrandt was a pupil of Gottfried Silbermann. When Silbermann died in 1754, mid-way through the construction of the large three manual organ for the Hofkirche in Dresden, it was completed and voiced by Hildebrandt. Yet Hildebrandt’s style at Naumburg is noticeably divergent. Other builders were content to follow Silbermann’s footsteps more closely : in Berlin Joachim Wagner was happily building near replicas of the master’s work, if anything showing even more caution by providing fewer manual reed stops. What is the new influence that sets Hildebrandt’s work at Naumburg apart from his teacher’s instruments?

The most satisfactory answer is that the influence is Thüringian, and that is part of the argument for the connection with Bach. The string stops are the first vital clue: on the Rückpositiv there are both a Viola da Gamba 8 and a Fugara 4 – the latter being one of Trost’s inventions, and used by him in his substantial three-manual organ at Waltershausen dedicated in 1741. Also Trost-like is the provision of string basses in the Pedal, and the large multi ranked mixture on the Hauptwerk. From Silbermann come the Cornets both composé and décomposé, and the undulating Unda Maris. Common to the period, but bearing a particular connection with Bach’s own instructions regarding the rebuilding of the organ at Mühlhausen, are the Fagot 16′ on the Rückpositiv and the thirty two foot in the Pedal. Although the provision of a complete pedal chorus might be regarded as showing northern influence, one other distinctive feature is in contradiction with northern practice. Note that the flute stops are arranged in families: a choir of Spillflöten on the Hauptwerk; Gemshorn and Waldflöte, both tapered, on the Oberwerk; a pair of Rohrflöten on the Rückpositiv. This is not the northern way, where adjacent flutes on the same manual were always constructed differently and in contrast to each other.

The Naumburg organ is currently being restored to something near its original state, and the world waits with baited breath to see what further insights it may bring. This cannot quite be described as being “J. S. Bach’s Ideal Organ”, as has been claimed by Ulrich Dähnert and others, but it certainly demands our close attention.

I started this talk by inviting you to imagine that a composer named Bach had commissioned a large new organ for his personal use. I am delighted to finish by telling you that this was not in fact a flight of imagination, but an attestable fact. The Bach concerned was not Johann Sebastian, but his older cousin, the highly regarded performer and composer Johann Christoph Bach, and the organ in question was that at St. George’s in Eisenach, planned in the 1690s, built by the local builder Sterzting, and completed in 1707. As a young boy J. S. Bach would have known of the scheme; construction of the instrument started at about the time his father died and he was removed to stay with his brother at Ohrdruf. The story of this important instrument was uncovered by Claus Oefner and more work is now being done by the American musicologist Lynn Edwards. The technical details of this organ are both startling and significant: in a recent lecture Ms. Edwards showed that the organ had three manuals and fifty three stops, full chromatic compasses with fifty three notes in the manuals and twenty nine in the pedals, a separate wind supply to each department of the organ, a case concave in plan with no Rückpositiv so as to leave ample room on the gallery for other performers, and that the completed organ was visited and sketched by none other than Gottfried Silbermann’s nephew Johann Andreas.

As you can see, the true story of the Thüringian organ is unfolding only gradually. As it does so, we become painfully aware of just how short the neo-classical organs of the late twentieth century fell in their attempts to emulate the sounds that Bach knew, and how much they reflect instead the tastes and concerns of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century it is too much to hope that we will actually recover some of the understanding that Bach brought to the instrument – the archaeological evidence simply is not adequate to the task. However, I am sure we all welcome the opening of a new chapter, bringing with it fresh insights and new discoveries touching on the intellectual world of the great man.

© Stephen Bicknell  http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~oneskull/

Some further links:
1. A recording of music on the Herbst organ in Lahm-in-Itzgrund
2. Disposition of the Silbermann organ in St. Peter’s Church, Freiberg
3. Recording made at the Trost organ in Altenburg castle, from OHS website
4. Site dedicated to the Trost Organ in Waltershausen , Thüringia
5. International Pipe Organ Discography