The Organ-Building of Munetaka Yokota

The history of the organ in broadest outline has it that the instrument, in a form much smaller than that of so many of the massive models found in churches, was invented in the Mediterranean world of the 3rd century BCE. After the fall of Rome it was cultivated only in the Byzantine Empire, but was re-introduced into the West by means of a gift brought by a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to the Frankish court of Pippin the Great in 757.  In this sense the organ’s survival can be attributed to the East, however contested or illusory the divide between Occident and Orient may be.

There is an appealing symmetry in the fact that one of the greatest present-day masters of the revivified art of organ building as it flourished so radiantly in northern Europe in the 17thand 18th centuries—a millennium after the arrival of those Byzantine ambassadors —comes from the Orient, far beyond Istanbul. It doesn’t get much more East than Tokyo.

In 1966 the fourteen-year-old Munetaka Yokota took money received for Christmas—which his family observed not religiously but as but as a kind of cultural novelty—to a Tokyo record shop. The year before he had bought his very first LP with his own money in this shop, choosing a recording by Gustav Leonhardt of Bach’s harpsichord concertoes. On his return a year later, with the next familial disbursement in hand, he was disappointed to find that the shop didn’t have the next record in that series. “I had money in my hand and was intent on using it,” says Yokota in his elegant and considered English. But another LP with the black filigree bordering motive of the same historically-oriented Telefunken label which those Bach concertos had been recorded on caught the young enthuasiast’s attention.

This other LP had been made in 1938 by Fritz Heitmann on an organ from 1706 in the Charlottenburg Castle chapel in Berlin. The only organ Yokota had heard live was in one of Tokyo’s department stores. He also recalls being fascinated by the pop organ sound of the 60s British band, The Tornadoes and their chart-topping record, Telstar. In most things Yokota tends to be, as he put it, “ecumenical.”

Records have a strange way of changing your life, and the Charlottenburg LP changed Yokota’s.  For almost the last forty years he has dedicated himself to making organs as beautiful as the one he heard as a schoolboy in Japan on that classic recording.

Yokota had become enthralled by a ghost. Like so many monuments of its kind, the Charlottenburg instrument had been destroyed in World War II. Now Yokota is just about to complete his latest organ, an attempt to bring it—or a version of it—back to life in Upstate New York, more than forty years after his serendipitous encounter with that vinyl ambassador of the European art in a Tokyo record shop.

The organ captured on that record had been commissioned by Frederick I, the first Prussian monarch to gain the rank of King in recompense for military favors he did the Holy Roman Emperor.  In the first years of the 18th century Frederick, the grandfather of the king who would share his name but be known as “the Great,” set about renovating one of his residences a few miles beyond the western edge of the still-small, 18th-Century city of Berlin. The original palace in Charlottenburg dated from the late 17th-century, but Frederick hugely expanded the building in an attempt to emulate at least a portion of the magnificence of Versailles, the model for all European autocrats of the age.  Fredrick installed in the new West Wing of his Charlottenburg Palace a fabulous mirrored chamber filled with Chinese porcelain vases and figures. Nearby was the famed Amber Room, one of the wonders of the European Baroque blazingly paneled and decorated in that lustrous substance. (The Amber Room was given to the Russian Czar Peter in 1716 by Frederick’s art-hating son, disappeared in World War II and has now been reinstalled in the Empress Catherine’s Palace at Tsarskoye just outside  St Petersburg.)) Adjacent to these marvelous interiors was the chapel, and Frederick deemed that it should have an organ boasting an opulence commensurate with that of the treasures in the neighboring rooms.

In accordance with his ambitions in accumulating the symbols of luxury, Frederick I hired the greatest organ builder of the period, the Hamburg master Arp Schnitger, who had exported instruments across the breadth of Europe from St. Petersburg to Lisbon. The instrument for Charlottenburg finished by Schnitger had to be fitted into a cramped balcony with the main part of the organ almost out of sight. But another section of the organ, as exuberantly decorated as the flamboyant décor of the chapel itself, was placed on the rail of that balcony and spoke directly into the high, square space.  As in the typical arrangement favored in larger north German organs, the organist was hidden from the listeners down below. But in Berlin these glinting tin pipes and their lavish gilded case had both an intimate and sublime quality: they were tantalizingly near to the auditors, but their music was devoid of signs of human agency, like a fabulous automaton, a brilliantly executed musical clock.

With Allied bombing campaign against German cities well underway, the Charlottenburg chapel organ was removed to the basement of another former royal residence, the Berlin City Palace in the center of the metropolis.  The City Palace was not destroyed in the war, but a bomb did found its way into that basement and obliterated the organ. It is little consolation that the instrument would have perished even if it had it not be removed from Charlottenburg, since that palace was also hit, and the chapel consumed by flames. Only the recording, photographs, and carefully-made measurements of the pipes remained.

That first organ record purchased by Yokota features music from J. S. Bach’s Clavierübung III of 1739, a collection that contains settings of the melodies of the Lutheran German Mass and Martin Luther’s  catechism hymns. These are framed by the monumental Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552. Yokota played nothing but that record over the next year, acquiring a pocket score so that he could study the music when out and about, in the subway, on a bus, in the car, walking the street.  “It was,” he says in his calmly self-reflective manner, “a way of centering myself.”

Yokota was still taking piano lessons at the time, and knew of Bach’s keyboard music—his inventions and fugues, and, of course, some of the harpsichord concertos on his first LP. But what he heard in the extraordinary music played on the Charlottenburg organ was “an expression of universal principles.” For Yokota, organ building, like music, is not just about craftsmanship and the creation of sonic and visual beauty, but about bigger issues still. He is not afraid of grand statements, but never makes them with an air of self-importance. He likes to laugh, especially at himself.

After playing the Charlottenburg disc uncountable times over the next twelve months, he began adding other Telefunken recordings of historic European organs to his collection. Intuitively he came to the realization that these “old organs sounded better than new ones.” It wasn’t that, as some have asserted, these instrument improve with age, for he thinks this claim has been often made as an apology for shoddy modern work.  Rather, something registered as vitally different about their qualities even to his unschooled ear. For all his subsequent training, research, examination of old organs, the triumphs of his own organ-building projects, it is this intuitive response that still guides his craft, his artistic choices and the minute skill of his ears and hands.

Years later, after being named guest professor at the internationally-recognized center for the study of organ construction, history, and performance at the University of Gothenburg, he put a facsimile of the first-page of Bach’s Prelude in E-flat on the door to his house office, as a reminder to all who entered — including most especially himself— of Bach’s achievement, and of the highest calling of the organ arts. There is no music more uplifting—Bach’s title page promises “refreshment of the spirit”—in its mixture of magisterial pomp and graceful humor, its bracing excursions into virtuosic fugal territory, and the architectural grandeur that unites what would in lesser hands become a series of digressions. There is a palpable sense of a higher musical purpose, indeed of higher purposes altogether, and this is what captured Yokota’s imagination and has never let it go. The lofty striving and delight of that music is shared by Charlottenburg organ.

Descending from a family of bankers, Yokota enrolled in 1970 in Tokyo’s Gakushuin University where he received a degree in economics four years later. He was also an avid field hockey star with Olympic aspirations. But the love of the organ remained with him and in the last two summers of his college career he become a shop assistant to Hiroshi Tsuji, a pioneering Japanese builder making organs inspired by European masterpieces.  Yokota now saw that it was possible, however uncertain the potential monetary rewards, to make a career as an organ-builder. He also knew that he could pursue a more faithful approach to capturing that old, elusive sound than the one even groundbreaking masters such as Tsuji were seeking.

In the early 70s students engaged in massive protests against Japan’s conservative government, against the Vietnam War and imperialism more generally. Each day protesters thronged the entrance to Gakushuin University with its fine wrought-iron gates. Yokota participated in some of the demonstrations and was sympathetic to the critique of the establishment and the unjust structures of society. He became disillusioned by the infighting of radical groups: “When I saw blood on the street beaten out of revolutionaries by other revolutionaries, I knew that I wanted to make my contribution, to the extant that I could, on the small-scale with my own hands.”

With the dawning realization that he wasn’t quite Olympic material on the field hockey pitch, Yokota resolved to become an organ builder. After graduating from college, he apprenticed full-time with Tsuji, as his college classmates went off to jobs earning three or four times his salary.  He was not interested in making money: “The development of my skills was a deposit not into my bank account but into myself.” Another crucial encounter was with the German organist, Harald Vogel, who came to Tokyo in 1973 playing concerts and giving lectures and slide-shows featuring photographs of historic organs like the one that had enchanted Yokota as a teenager. In the midst of his three-year apprenticeship with Tsuji he went to Vogel’s North German Organ Academy in the summer of 1976, where he heard for the first time in person one of Schnitger’s great early works, the magnificent and newly-restored instrument in the north German city of Stade.

In 1978 Yokota moved to the United States to Eugene, Oregon to work with the important builder John Brombaugh, a crucial figure in the North American engagement with historic organs of Europe. Yokota has not lived in Japan since. After a year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he toyed with the idea of starting an organ workshop, he moved to California’s central Valley to become an “artist in residence” at California State University in Chico, where he lived from 1984 to 1990. This was Yokota’s first time leading an organ project, and he approached it an utterly novel way: show up in a small college town alone, without a team of trained craftsmen and without materials and attempt to make an ambitious instrument according to the highly-evolved 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.)

Yokota, endowed with a calm but pied-piper-like charisma that attracts people to his organ-building projects, recruited volunteers from the student body and community as his assistants and trained them in the handcraft techniques of the early 18th century. Yokota’s was a quixotic idea which  reflected not only his exacting patience and highly refined aural and manual skill, but also a fantastical imagination, a true gift for teaching, and an astounding capacity for risk. Show up at an empty Manhattan lot and convince passers-by to join in building a skyscraper from scratch: that is something like what Yokota did in Chico. His commando approach to organ building yielded one of North America’s great organs, even if the instrument, tucked to the side of the stage in the campus theatre and music building, still seeks a fitting architectural and acoustic home.

The pipes of Yokota’s Silbermann-style organ were cast from lead reclaimed from spent bullets from the LAPD gun range. This was a wonderful, and highly practical, inversion of the dismal story of many historic organs, including important instruments by Schnitger himself, whose precious façade pipes were removed and melted down into bullets by the Germans in World War I, a symbolic action meant to show that even art had to be sacrificed for the victory that never came.

From California he was lured to Sweden as a visiting professor to embark on his largest scheme to date, a colossal Schnitger-style instrument like those built for the large Hanseatic cities. Important research was done at the university in conjunction with engineers and organ historians into old techniques, which could now be further refined by Yokota working for the first team with a large team. These investigations led, among other things, to the casting of the pipe metal on sand for the first time since the 18th-century. All wooden surfaces were hand-planed, all metal parts made by a Swedish blacksmith. The result of this six-year effort was as expensive as it was beautiful. The minutiae of handcraft and what, from a modern perspective could be dismissed as excessive—unnecessary—labor produced a technological and sonic wonder in which the sum of the individual acts of craftsmanship undertaken by students, laid-off steel workers, and many other collaborators yielded a sound and an experience of music-making fundamentally different from that of modern factory-made organs.

These two instruments, the one on the west coast of North America the second on the west coast of Sweden, have secured Yokota’s legacy. More recently he and an international team have finished a copy of an instrument from 1776 in Vilnius, Lithuania, on the shores of Lake Ontario for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. This Eastman organ demonstrates again the unlikely ways Yokota has become of the great musical cosmopolitans of his or any other time. “Still,” he says, putting his skilled hands together a few inches in front of his eyes, “the Wall between Occident and Orient is always directly in front of me.” I ask in what ways this barrier divides these two worlds. “In every way,” he says, then agrees to give one example. “My Japanese aesthetic allows for, indeed demands, the co-existence of irregularities and imperfections in a work of art. That these tensions and differences are necessary and beautiful is one of the important things, I think, that fascinated me about the Charlottenburg organ when I first heard it.”

Yokota is now in Ithaca, New York listening to those competing voices on a nearly-completed “fantasy reconstruction” of that very instrument as he comes to the final weeks of his attempt to bring back to life a sound that has traveled from Berlin to Tokyo and now to somewhere in between.

Next Week: The Charlottenburg Organ Reborn

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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


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