Organs Truly Worth Twittering

The re-eruption of American exceptionalism prompts this excerpt from my soon-to-appear book, Bach’s Feet,which devotes some of its pages to what might be called German Organ Exceptionalism; this is a phenomenon that finds its most notorious expression in the Nazi propaganda poster of 1935 entitled “Germany, The Land of Music.”  Even?or perhaps especially?when traveling, Germans, like Americans abroad, were eager of signs of their own superiority and the organ provided that sense of security.

An abiding sense of inferiority pervaded German music culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: nearly ubiquitous was the fear that foreign music was better.  This self-doubt spawned affronted defenses of native musical values, even as it colored the adventurousness that sent countless musicians to France and especially to Italy in search of that which could not be found at home: the latest musical fashions of composition and performance heard in the richness of their native environments.

The dominance of the French language and fashion at German courts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the taste for French dancing, the rise of Italian opera and instrumental genres such as the sonata and concerto, and the influx of foreign virtuosos all produced a cultural trade deficit between Germany and the European south. Constantly confronted with the bald truth that theirs was a debtor nation in the marketplace of musical ideas, German musicians reflexively measured their worth against foreign standards.

No account of German inadequacy is as unstinting as that found in Johann Joachim Quantz’s Essay on Playing the Flute published simultaneously in 1752 in German and in French, the language of the Berlin court where Quantz was tutor of the flute-playing King of Prussia, Frederick the Great. His education and travels funded by the cosmopolitan Saxon court rich in foreign music and musicians, Quantz had made a grand musical tour between 1724 and 1727, with the longest part of his stay spent in Italy and shorter periods in France and England. In Quantz’s seminal treatise the Italians and French lead, the Germans follow. The Italian music is “unrestrained, sublime, lively, expressive, profound, and majestic”; the French are “lively, expressive, natural, pleasing and comprehensible.”

Yes, Quantz lists some of the national faults to which the French and Italians had been prone and the tendencies toward stagnation and decline to be witnessed in both nations in the eighteenth century. But these petty foibles in no way compare with the abuse Quantz dishes out to his fellow Germans, whose traditional style he describes as “flat, dry, meager, and paltry.” Obsessed with rules and slavishly correct in their compositions, Germans needed to go to Italy to break free from all that, just as Quantz himself had done. In Quantz’s telling, the Italians would seem entirely justified in having once thought of all Germans as practitioners of the gusto barbaro?the barbarous style.

But there is one area of European culture where, according to Quantz, Germany has long reigned supreme: in everything to do with the organ. The famed flutist, who encouraged his collection of flute duets to be played on the organ, argues that as early as the middle of the seventeenth century, organist-composers Froberger, Pachelbel, Reincken, Buxtehude, and Bruhns “wrote almost the first very tasteful pieces for their instruments,” and they did so without relying on foreign influences from the South.

The German organ art was then brought “to its greatest perfection” by the “admirable Johann Sebastian Bach,” whom Quantz himself had seen perform at the Potsdam Palace in 1747 when he improvised on the Royal Theme in front of Frederick the Great and his stable of star musicians. The next day Quantz was certainly among the large audience that heard Bach play the organ at the nearby Heiliggeistkirche. Among the few German musicians Quantz mentions in his long treatise, organists are held up as the greatest indigenous musical heroes. In his account of the German organ tradition, Quantz is expressing an article of faith: only at the King of Instruments did Germany hold sway over its European musical counterparts.

While Germany’s cultural trade deficit extended far beyond music, pride in their organs armed Germans for their confrontation with the other European arts, both at home and on the Grand Tour. One of the most popular German travel guides of the mid-eighteenth century was Johann Georg Key?ler’s Latest Trips through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorraine, which appeared first in 1740 but was subsequently reprinted several times both in German and in English translation; this thick book gives a good impression of Germans’ own view of their standing in the cultural geography of Europe.

On his visit to Naples, the usual southern terminus of the Grand Tour, Key?ler catalogs the city’s immense cultural riches. At Monte Oliveto, for example, the church elicits a rapturous account of its altars, ornate bibles, family chapels filled to overflowing with beautiful objects. But when Key?ler’s attention turns to the organ he is conspicuously underwhelmed, an attitude that is all the more marked coming so soon after the unrestrained praise of the church’s other artworks: “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, Key?ler 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, the preface of J. G. Nemeitz’s Selection of Special Reports from Italy first published in Leipzig in 1726, acknowledges that Italy triumphs over 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 Music Directors, Castrati, female singers, and other virtuosi.” While Nemeitz readily grants Italy overall superiority in the musical arts, he assures his readers that “our nation surpasses all others when it comes to the organ.” The organists of the Italian peninsula are belittled as light and frivolous: Italian organs are commented on only for the lavish decorations and cute toy stops, such as nightingales and cuckoos. The organ bolstered those preparing themselves for the Grand Tour or otherwise trying to get a vicarious sense of it through the travel literature. In the context of Germany’s collective inferiority complex with respect to Italian art and music, the organ alone provided Germans with the joys of smugness.

We see these attitudes reflected in the travel diary of J. S. Bach’s sometime employer Prince Leopold of C?then, who visited several organs in villas (and in their surrounding gardens) on his tour of Italy in 1712. These small instruments were equipped with the typical bird sounds of Italian organs; prompted by the travel literature he used to guide him through Italy, Leopold saw these organs more as novelty items than as instruments fit for proper music-making. Only one church organ is remarked on in the diary: that in Santa Maria Maggiore in Trent, praised by Leopold as a “beautiful and large organ.”

Trent was the first Italian city encountered by tourists after coming over the Alps from Innsbruck, and the lavishly decorated organ in the city’s Santa Maria Maggiore, which had hosted the Council of Trent in the 16th century, was an important destination for tourists, an artistic triumph visually and sonically, as it had been from its completion in the 1530s by a German builder. Prince Leopold duly visited this organ with a travel guide?probably Maximilien Misson’s best-selling Noveau voyage d’Italie which highlighted the instrument?in hand; the Santa Maria Maggiore organ was an important sight to be seen according to this popular book, reprinted many times in several languages after it was first published in 1691.

A few decades before Prince Leopold’s visit, this same organ had made a showy appearance in Wolfgang Caspar Printz’s Satirical Composer first published in the 1670s. In the last chapter of the book’s two volumes the narrator, Phrynis Mitilenaeus, resumes his picaresque adventures when he is called away from Germany to Italy, indeed, to Trent. Finding himself with a day to kill, Phrynis is shown around the city by a German who lives there, and they make their way to Santa Maria Maggiore.  The organ astonishes Phyrnis, who had not expected to find an instrument so beautifully decorated or boasting such big pedal pipes in the facade. Phyrnis learns from his German guide that the early 16th-century instrument had recently been restored and enlarged with ten new stops by a builder with the distinctly Italian sounding name Eugenio Casparini. “My usual curiosity made me ask him who this Casparini was,” says Phrynis.  “To this [the guide] answered in the following way: He is a German by nationality. Indeed he is born in Sora in Nieder-Lausitz.” Printz’s pride speaks through the German expatriate character, who, standing on foreign soil, extols a fellow countryman, a boy from Brandenburg, who had come to Italy and?in his view?become its best organ builder. In his Historical Description of the Nobel Arts of Song and Music of 1690 Printz had praised Bernhard the German, in similar tones of adulation to those he sung in Casparini’s name: Bernhard’s innovations were not only important musically, but his introduction of the pedal to Italy had also “brought the Germans not a little honor

The entire exchange between Phrynis and his German guide staged in Printz’s Satyrischer Componist sounds like the script for a real-life German tourist’s visit to the city. Printz begins his treatise by admitting that he was spurred to write the book because Italy was so much richer in musical treatises than Germany. He ends it with a set-piece of German self-congratulation: in the first Italian city encountered by travelers after coming down from the Brenner Pass stood one of the great monuments to German artistic achievement. For Germans, the Grand Tour in Italy began with a trip to a German organ.

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

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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