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The Organs of Salamanca

Histories of the organ draw a stark distinction between the instrument’s origins in antiquity, where it was deployed in the arena to accompany gladiatorial combat, and its later life in Christian Western Europe as a magnificent devotional tool—the apogee of technological advance and theology as sound. How is it that, after being reintroduced into the West from Byzantium in the eighth century a half-millennium after its invention as portable device used for state processions and real-life combat, the organ took on ever greater complexity and size to become a towering symbol of Augustine’s City of God in monasteries and churches? That the King Of Instruments would then return to baseball stadiums and roller rinks in North America completed the historical circle, if in a form  less mortally than in the Roman Coliseum.

In the Cathedral of Salamanca in Spain this convenient wall between war and peace, between violent original purpose and pacific elevation above the congregation and the fray of earthly battle crumbles in the cavernous gloom and glory, wrecked by two glorious organs of unmatched majesty and mystery.

Salamanca occupies a hill above a vast surrounding plain: one can see the gothic-baroque spires of the cathedral for dozes of miles on the approach. The cathedral is built not on the very top of that hill but on an incline just below the summit: among the structure’s many marvels is the way its exterior descends as it follows the hill downward while the floor of the interior must remain level. The foundations to the edifice’s western end is significantly lower then the stairs leading to its eastern portal.

The main, “new” cathedral was built between 1513 and 1733 directly alongside and uphill from the old one, begun in the early twelfth century and, exceptionally, still standing. Visitors—and there are, surprisingly, only a handful on this breezy afternoon —enter near the younger, higher structure and after touring the nave, choir, and many chapels descend a broad staircase back in time and down through history to the old cathedral flanked by a cloister.

At the western end of the “new” nave is enshrined a bronze cross that the forces of El Cid are said to have carried into battle against the Moors. As in almost all Spanish sacred sites the contest between the Christian indigenes and the Muslim invaders is at the center of the story: it’s a story of good versus evil hardly modulated for the current state of geopolitical play.  In such places as the Salamanca Cathedral, much more than in the JFK airport security line, one’s suspicions are more vigorously confirmed that the War on Terror is merely the latest name for the Crusades or the Reconquista, never mind that El Cid himself was an opportunist who fought on either side of the religious war, for both Muslims and Christians, at different junctures of his military career.

Some hundred yards to the east of El Cid’s cross is the cathedral’s choir. It is enclosed by an ornate iron screen placed well within the outer walls of the cathedral so that one can promenade around its periphery while remaining within the building. Facing each other from perches high up on either side of the choir are two organs.  The older and smaller of these dates from the sixteenth century and was originally built for the first cathedral, but, exceptionally, was retained and moved to its current position more than a century later. This magnificent antique has thus been in continuous use for nearly five hundred years.

The organ’s case is crowned by pitched roofs and crenellations that suggest the just-mentioned Augstinian Holy City—the New Jerusalem, the old one chronically contested by various branches of monotheism. The architectural and theological context of the instrument’s construction and placement make it loom above like a fortress under siege. But it is bastion able to dish out retorts to any invader below. One of the most important organs of the Spanish renaissance, indeed of European music culture more generally, it was retro-fitted in the seventeenth century with horizontal trumpets that endow it with increased offensive power. The organ does not merely stake out a defensive position.

Admiring the façade of this Epistle organ (so called because it is on the left side as one faces into the choir) from the floor of the cathedral one sees and hears a military machine, its salvoes like the report of canon and musket, although the instrument is also kitted out with quieter stops that encourage pious reflection when the din has.

On the Gospel side is a much larger organ with a double façade that speaks into the choir and out into the side aisle of the cathedral; depending on your point of view (or point of hearing) it is capable of either spreading the Good News in all directions or of protecting the Christian rear from encirclement by the infidel foe’s cavalry. This baroque organ from the mid-eighteenth century has a much larger battery of horizontal trumpets that are splayed so as to send a much wider span of volleys against the heathen attackers—and, of course, to embolden the Christian believers.

Whereas the diminutive Roman and Byzantinian organs could be carried into battle, these Spanish instruments stood immovable and impregnable in their ecclesiastical redoubts.

From the early seventeenth century, Spanish keyboard composers were masters of battle music, battaglias that anticipated later pieces like Wellington’s Victory by Beethoven and other blood-curdling symphonies and film soundtracks. With their evocations of the gathering of forces, charges, battles-joined, enemy flight, and victorious celebrations, these works were calls-to-arms for the faithful and a reminding of the glorious deeds of El Cid (when he was under the command for Christ) and later heroes.  The two organs can even join forces in their portrayal of holy war: a bracing reminder that the contest between the forces fighting under the banners of East and West, Islam and Christianity shows no sign of abating.

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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

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