Organ Transplants: An Odyssey to Ithaca

Among  Upstate New York’s greatest resources are its decrepit, disused barns. Long past its agricultural Golden Age of the nineteenth century, the region’s fields are now being reclaimed by hardwood forests and modular homes. Many are the abandoned farm buildings in the area that won’t stand up against another heavy winter snow.

The city of Ithaca is located in the middle of the state, halfway between Buffalo and New York City.  After one drives out of town past the fraternities and the long lawns and slate-roofed houses of the Cornell faculty ghetto and the malls that moat the residential areas, the landscape gives way to fields, many of them growing up with brush and young trees. Trailer parks are tucked in the creases of the hills. The old barns begin to look out of place.

Along a semi-rural route beyond the city limits stands one of those barns. It has seen better days, but it is still standing, and there is a new roof—the most obvious sign that someone cares about the building and is apparently not going to let it fall in any time soon.

You’d never know that in this barn now stands a towering oaken organ case, every one of its hundreds of pieces planed and carved by hand by Christopher Lowe, a master carpenter who lives and has his wood-working shop a few miles away. He and his associate Pete de Boer attached the last piece of elaborate molding to the case a few days ago and there’ll be a party to celebrate the achievement this weekend.

Lowe temporarily walled off a smaller section of the barn to be able to heat the workspace through the severe Ithaca winter. Lined with silver insulation, the space has the feel of a NASA silo. The rocket about to be launched in 2010 will be all wood and metal and boasting the technological state-of-the-art circa 1708.

There’s really no predicting what’s going in the Ithaca Hinterland, where Amish pacificists live within shooting distance of NRA members in good-standing, where eco-villagers share property lines with radical evangelicals, where Operation Rescuers and animal activists hatch their plans on either side of the same intersection, and where a hand-made replica of a vanished German organ case looms where tractors and cows once loafed.

The case is a reconstruction of one of the great instruments made in the first years of the 18th century in Germany by the age’s master organ builder, Arp Schnitger. Bach was just one of many organists who greatly admired the work of Schnitger, whose reputation and organs were spread across North and Central Germany and the Netherlands.  Such was Schnitger’s fame that he exported instruments to Russia and the Iberian penninsula and from there to the New World. Many of these wondrous machines, centuries-old musical and architectural monuments, were bombed in World War II, victims of their own majesty: the biggest of instruments, organs are the hardest to move. When the bombs fell, they fell too.

One of Schnitger’s lost instruments once stood in the chapel of the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, where the Hohenzollern’s rulers of Germany hoarded many of their finest treasures: porcelain, paintings, and various other rarities. The eighth wonder of the world, the Amber Room, was built in the castle in the first decade of the 18th century. A few years after it was finished it was given by the art-hating King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm I to his ally Peter the Great.  In World War II the Nazi’s looted the Amber Room from Catherine the Great’s Palace outside of St. Petersburg, and it has since disappeared, perhaps now providing the decor for some Russian mafioso’s amber jacuzzi in his own palace of corruption.

The designer of the Amber Room was the Prussian court sculptor and architect, Andreas Schlüter, a Mennonite pacificist, who nonetheless worked for the militaristic Prussian monarchy. Schlüter’s triumphal equestrian statue of the “Great Elector” Friedrich Wilhelm now stands in front of the Charlottenburg Palace, but his most eloquent sculptures are the dying warriors in the courtyard of the Berlin Zollhaus (now the German Historical Museum), which, ironically, the Nazis turned into an arsenal where they held an elaborate annual rally. In 1943 Hitler narrowly escaped an assassination attempt beneath Schlüter’s representations of the tragedy of war.

While Schlüter was overseeing work on the Amber Room, Schnitger was installing his own world-wonder in the nearby chapel. Schnitger’s organ was completed in 1708, the Amber Room the following year. Whereas Friedrich Wilhelm I’s gift of the Amber Room to his Romanov ally saved Schlüter’s miraculous creation from the bombs (though not from Nazi greed), the chapel and its organ were destroyed by the Allied attacks of 1943.

The Palace had been inaugurated only in 1699. Designed by one of the complex’s architects, the classical-minded Johann Eosander, the chapel was completed a few years later. It was a soaring cube with high-up windows through which the interior was filled with light from above. The chapel’s sparse decoration was meant to reflect the sober Calvinism of its rulers.

Eosander originally designed the chapel without an organ in mind, the Calvinists not being disposed to music in the divine service. He erected an inset balcony along either side of the room running between the altar and pulpit in the front of the chapel and the enclosed royal box at the rear. While the preacher delivered his sermon, his hot breath steaming the cold air, the royals remained snug in their heated enclosure—a forerunner of the drive-in churches of Southern California. Above the royal box rose the Hohenzollerns’ fearsome coat of arms crowned by a Fox-t.v. style warrior-eagle, this iconography making it clear to any preacher that Christian cheek-turning was not an appropriate sermon topic.

But with the opulence of the Amber Room in the same building, how could the thrilling sound of the organ, the most elaborate technology of the age, be banished from the same premises? Schnitger, the greatest builder of his time, was engaged so that organ music could further brighten the Calvinist austerity of the chapel.

But given the layout, Schnitger had to squeeze the organ into the balcony at the side of the chapel. I wonder if he consulted with Schlüter in pursuit of his solution, which put a large medallion of pipes, extravagantly framed by gilded carvings, on the balcony rail, with the bulk of the organ hidden from the viewer seated below. As in Schlüter’s Zollhaus, the essence of Schnitger’s organ is behind the facade.

Not only was the Charlottenburg organ’s design unique. So was its sound, which incorporated a number of the gentle flute and string sounds favored in Prussia. Schnitger’s activities in the region were effaced by the war. But through archival research and the aid of pre-war recordings of the Charlottenburg organ, its qualities are now being reconstructed in Sweden under the direction of Schnitger’s 21st-century heir, Munetaka Yokota, a Japanese organ builder living in Sweden and building organs under the auspices of the University of Gothenburg’s Organ Arts Center.

Yokota made his first organ for Chico State University in California, recruiting volunteers as his assistants using the handcraft techniques of the early 18th century. The seminal instrument was made according to the aesthetic and artisanal principles of Gottfried Silbermann, a colleague of J. S. Bach. Silbermann’s most famous organ, in Dresden’s recently reconstructed Frauenkirche, was also destroyed in World War II. The pipes of Yokota’s Silbermann organ were cast from lead reclaimed from spent bullets from the LAPD gun range. (Advance notice for Central Valley CounterPunchers: I’ll be in Chico to play a concert on Yokota’s organ in early March of 2009.)

Over the past decades Yokota has intensely investigated Schnitger’s organ-building methods, and  has built two large organs in this style for Sweden and Korea.  He and his team now cast the pipes on sand with urine as the binding agent. The pipe metal is planed by hand.  The nails and fittings are made by a blacksmith.  As in Lowe’s case, no power tools are used for the finishing work.

Yokota came to the barn a few months ago and proclaimed that Lowe had made the most beautiful organ case he had ever seen.  In two years time it will be filled with pipes and filling the balcony of Anabel Taylor Chapel at Cornell. For concerts the bellows will be raised by human pumpers, though an electric blower will be available for practicing, a luxury Bach and his students would have greatly esteemed.

Because the Cornell chapel is a long narrow space more typical of the churches for which  Schnitger provided organs, Lowe’s case has been modeled not on that of Charlottenburg but a beautiful example of his usual design found in the central German town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld in the Harz mountains. In this arrangement towers with the large pedal pipes frame the main part of the case in which flat fields of pipes are interrupted by jutting triangular clusters. On the gallery rail behind the organist is a smaller version of the main case; this so-called Rückpositiv (“small organ at the back”) hides the organist from those below just as at Charlottenburg. The distinct locations of the various parts of the organ, each operated by separate manuals and pedal, allows for spatial dialog, contrast and concerted cooperation. The Charlottenburg-inspired pipes made in Sweden under the direction of a Japanese organbuilder will be placed in this Clausthal-style case built by Ithaca craftsmen and put in a college chapel built in the 1930s but sharing the proportions of an 18th-century ducal establishment.

Lowe’s case is for the time-being empty. Run the hand along its surfaces, and you can feel their fine irregularity.  Even the facets of the complex moldings, which so delight the eye with their progression of steps upward and outward, were made not with a router but with tiny planes. The warm irregularities apparent to the touch also shape the overall visual impression gained from a distance. A work of art in itself, the case is now like an enormous and glorious picture frame (or perhaps altar piece) awaiting its Old Master canvas: cone housing the gleaming tin-foiled pipes, its intrinsic beauty will be completed when that chapel fills with sound like that first heard in 1708 by Schnitger and Schlüter and silenced since 1943.

For more on the Cornell Organ Project and a photo gallery see:

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

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at