FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Germany’s Lost Organs: When Bigger was Better

The greatest musical casualties of World War II were Germany’s historic organs. To leaf through books on German organ builders can be a depressing pursuit. Black and white photos of massive, three-story instruments with thousands of pipes and ornamented with elaborate carvings and statuary flash past. In the description below, inevitably in parentheses, are the words: “destroyed in World War II.” The vast majority of Germany’s large city instruments are gone, their pipes melted by firebombs, their lavish cases splintered and burned.

Where manuscripts and smaller instruments could be placed in bunkers or removed from urban centers whose destruction German authorities anticipated, dismantling organs was a much more laborious and politically delicate matter. Such a project could hardly be done surreptitiously. To remove an organ was to announce in the most public way that the authorities believed destruction was on its way.

Not only could boxes of music could be secretly taken away, but they were not in constant and visible use before large audiences. The organ was the most public of instruments, always on view in churches; they were not only major cultural landmarks of German cities but were a vital part for religious services. To pull them out was to acknowledge the impending threat of bombing and also perhaps to admit that God was not on the German side.

In a few cases, however, organs were saved. In Dresden, for example, the last organ made by Gottfried Silbermann, one of the most important builders of the 18th-century, was taken from the Catholic Cathedral (in the 18th-century the Court Chapel) in 1944, not long before the Allied attacks.

Along with the opulent church with its huge ceiling fresco, the organ’s case was destroyed in those attacks, but the pipes remained safe in the cloister at Marienstern in the Saxon countryside. In the 1960s the organ was reconstructed with its original pipes, and then given another round of refurbishing in the 1990s, when money was also poured into the church in a renewed effort to recreate some of its vanished Baroque splendor.

I had the pleasure of playing a recital in the Cathedral in 2005, in the organ’s 250th anniversary. It was an uncanny feeling to hear the voices of those old pipes reverberate through that surrogate church and know that that sound, itself so ephemeral, was the only thing that survived in original condition from that glorious past. It was like hearing a magnificent ghost.

Dresden’s 18th-century skyline was dominated by another of its churches—the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche. In the Seven Years’ War, Frederick the Great, no great friend of religion, had pointed his canons at the city’s proudest landmark. According to one English traveler of the 1770s: “The King of Prussia, in his last bombardment of Dresden, tried every means in his power to beat this church … but in vain, for the orbicular form of the dome threw off the balls and shells, and totally prevented their effect.” Not so, the Allied bombs of the night of February 13, 1945.

The Frauenkirche’s organ was a larger and arguably more significant instrument than that in the Cathedral; J. S. Bach had himself played celebrated concerts there. But attempts to convince the authorities that the Frauenkirche’s organ should be taken from the city along with that of the Cathedral were rebuffed. Silbermann’s organ in the Frauenkirche, one of the greatest visual and musical masterpieces of the era, went up in flames.

At much expense and effort, the Frauenkirche has now been reconstructed with breathtaking accuracy, even using all the old stones that could be found in the heap of rubble which had remained on the site since February, 1945. Astoundingly when the church was reconsecrated in 2005 the only thing that hadn’t been remade was Silbermann’s famous organ. Behind the facade copied from Silbermann’s original lurks an eclectic modern organ. My interpretation of that strange turn of events, owing everything to the cultural politics of Dresden and the rebuilding effort rather than to sound musical and historical judgment, is that the Germans have for centuries seen themselves as the greatest innovators at the organ and the true masters of organ culture. They saw the organ as “their, German instrument,” and only because of this attitude could defend doing something new in a large-scale rebuilding project that was otherwise all about the past.

The Germans long considered themselves the masters of the organ art, true innovators of this most complicated pre-industrial technology. For centuries German travelers calmed any sense of cultural inferiority they felt beyond their borders by reminding themselves of their preeminence with the King of Instruments.

When their attention turned to foreigners’ organs they were conspicuously unerwhelmed.

A good example is Johann Georg Keyßler’s guide-book Latest Trips through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorraine of 1740. At Naples, the southern terminus of the Grand Tour, Keyßler visited Monte Oliveto, and the church elicits a rapturous account of its altars, ornate bibles, family chapels filled to overflowing with beautiful objects. But when Keyßler’s attention turns to the organ he is conspicuously underwhelmed: “The organ of the church cost 3,000 scudi and people here make a big deal out of it.” After blithely dismissing the Monte Oliveto organ as merely a decorative object, Keyßler then proceeds to a grand statement about Germany’s dominance at the instrument: “The outstanding organs alone, which one finds in Germany, surpass all the foreign ones, and this has attained for Germany—both for the makers of this musical instrument, as well as for the artists who know truly how to play it—a great advantage over all other nations.” It is the organ that puts Germany on the cultural map.

Likewise, in J. G. Nemeitz’s Selection of Special Reports from Italy of 1726, we read in the preface that Italy excels all other nations in architecture, painting, and music; birthplace of the great sculptors and painters, Italy is also the “storehouse” which has supplied the whole of Europe with “Capellmeister, Castrati, female singers, and other virtuosi.” While Nemeitz acknowledges the overall superiority of Italy in the musical arts, he assures his readers that “our nation surpasses all other when it comes to the organ.” German organs were bigger, German organists better.

This historic German pride in their preeminence at the organ was further cultivated by the Nazis. Lothar Heinemann’s iconic 1935 poster “The Land of Music” pictures a glowering, steely blue Nazi Eagle, its outstretched wings filled with organ pipes, beaming upward like Albert Speer’s Nuremburg light displays. In Heinemann’s poster Germany is not only the master of the organ, but the organ is the musical symbol of the master race.

So memorable is Heinemann’s image that it darkens the facades of all German organs, both those that survive, and those that have been reconstructed, newly built, and those photos of destroyed in instruments to be seen in the books of the lost.

Another vanished organ of extraordinary beauty was in one of Frederick the Great’s palaces, in Charlottenburg, Berlin. That instrument was built by Arp Schnitger, a builder hugely admired by Bach. The organ was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. A reconstruction of the instrument is now underway in Ithaca, New York. I’ll report on that project next time.

With Heinemann’s poster in mind, some might find it easier to think that the organs and people of Dresden and so many other German cities deserved their annihilation. To think like that would reduce to sadism the pleasure of listening, admiring, playing, and reconstructing Germany’s lost organs. Instead of beauty there would only be lies.

The Dresden Cathedral Organ:
http://www.jehmlich-orgelbau.de/deutsch/frame.htm

The Frauenkirche organ (new in a reconstructed case):
http://www.shingleton-net.f2s.com/images/Germany1.jpg

For Heinemann’s poster see: (http://ccdom.caixacatalunya.es/)

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

Your Ad Here
 

 

 

 

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail