The monarchy of the King of Instruments is built on deception. The largest, most technologically complicated, most tonally diverse, and most visually stunning of musical instruments, the organ was often held to be an earthly symbol of heavenly perfection. It stands motionless in its balcony and from its massive frame produces awe-inspiring music without the slightest intimation of effort, except occasionally for a spinning gilded star or an automated angel thumping a kettledrum in joyous approval.
But behind the gleaming facade there is relentless toil. The organ requires wind in order to bring forth sound, and without breath the King cannot speak, not to mention sing. In the European millennium before the advent of electricity, the seemingly effortless majesty of the organ’s voice drew inspiration (in the literal sense) from unseen labor.
Before being displaced by electric blowers, instrument’s wind was supplied by bellows operated by human arms pulling ropes or human feet treading on levers. Wind workers were paid next to nothing during their lives and were duly forgotten by history. These lowliest figures in any musical establishment in town, at court or in church often worked in dark, vermin-infested chambers, bitterly cold in winter and brutally hot in summer.
These Calcants, as they were known in Germany, drew a small fraction of the organist’s salary—as little as tenth. Organ pumpers had little chance of improving their social standing or that of their families; though some were, or became, instrument makers, these workers were for the most stuck in a dead-end job, essential but replaceable. Not only playing the organ, but also tuning and voicing its thousands of pipes required vast amounts of human labor. Whenever Bach tested the lungs of an organ by pulling out all the stops and playing on full organ, someone had to be hard at the bellows—the original StairMaster or Elliptical workout.
This unseen and poorly remunerated job often provided part-time employment for gravediggers, sextons, and bellringers. Other laborers were gathered from society’s margins: drunks, disabled, homeless, the aged, the infirm—and women.
For millennium the work of women has been unpaid and unseen, even when in full view. Yet they were also crucial to organ pumping, and in that capacity doubly invisible: otherwise forbidden to take part in the divine service, women were frequently allowed to tread the bellows out of sight, unheeded and unoffending. When those husbands with permanent, lifelong positions died, their widows were often pressed into service to support themselves until their own deaths. The downtrodden did the treading.
In the fall of 1831 in Walenstadt, Switzerland encircled by sublime Alpine scenery of mountain and lake, Felix Mendelssohn treated himself to “a private three-hour organ session.” The bellows were, as the musical tourists noted in a letter to his sister, operated by “an old, lame man; otherwise, not a single person was in the church.” Mendelssohn paid him some Trinkgeld, but doesn’t report on whether the man was pleased to eavesdrop on one of the greatest musical geniuses of his or any time. Still three hours is a long time to do work, that, depending on the system (pulling by hand or treading with the aid of body weight and gravity) can be quite taxing. When I visited same church nearly two centuries after Mendelssohn had been there, I simply flipped a switch and had at it.
The Walenstadt vignette imparts another lesson. It is too easy today to forget that until relatively recently in its 2,000-year history, and uniquely among musical instruments, the organ could not be played alone. Someone else had to be doing the work of making the King breathe.
Though not needing massive training, raising the bellows did require some skill, and the archives of organ history are full of complaints of incompetent or—in the case of poor schoolboys forced into service—rowdy bellows pumpers, who, through their missteps or the mischief of their yet-unbroken spirits, blasted big holes in the music or even damaged the bellows themselves.
Mendelssohn is again the most illuminating source for the changing status of wind work in the age of industrial capitalism and wage slavery. In his diary he recounted a visit to the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At the end of the service on September 10, 1837, he launched into Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor. London’s leading musicians were gathered to hear him and the large congregation stayed to listen. Disgruntled at having to work so long after the service, the pumper peremptorily left his post, even as the wind gauge at the console descended ominously and Mendelssohn’s assistant pulled frantically and fruitlessly on the knob that rang the bell in the bellows chamber. Just as Mendelssohn came to the fugue’s rousing final pedal solo the wind collapsed.
The cathedral organist Thomas Attwood, a good friend of Mendelssohn and a former student of Mozart, insisted on fetching the errant pumper, but Mendelssohn was himself due elsewhere in the city and refused to resume his performance. As he left the cathedral, Mendelssohn witnessed, and in his diary condemned, the Dickensian scene—also a biblical one played out in Victorian costume—of a furious mob of congregants shouting “Shame! Shame!” at the poor man for his supposed dereliction of duty, committed within a few bars of the end of one of Bach’s most thrilling fugues played by this towering musical celebrity.
The person on whose labor Mendelssohn’s performance relied had been the only one who could not enjoy it directly. Shut off in his chamber, able to hear but muted strains of music over the workings respiration of the bellows and the clacking of the organ’s action, the pumper had labored long enough on the sabbath—Day of Rest.