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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:
The Frauenkirche organ (new in a reconstructed case):
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 email@example.com