From the Organ Loft: Germany, and the Importance of Bach

From the Organ Loft: Germany, and the Importance of Bach

The organ life of Germany.

Edwin Kwong
Melbourne, Australia

From the Organ Loft: Germany, and the Importance of Bach

The organ life of Germany.

Welcome to From the Organ Loft

I will be penning an article monthly for this brand spanking new column - I hope to demystify some preconceived notions that you may have about the pipe organ, whilst also educating you about this incredible instrument that I love, and perhaps letting you all in on some tricks of the trade!

Each article will take a different shape - over the next 3 months, I’d like to show you the incredible history and the flourishing tradition of European organ music in Germany, England, and France.

During my travels around Europe over December and January, I had the chance to visit Germany, and for a week I travelled to the four cities of Leipzig, Eisenach, Freiberg, and Dresden.

Leipzig is a city with a long history of musical connections. It is where Johann Sebastian Bach worked for the last 27 years of his life, where Richard Wagner was born, where Felix Mendelssohn established the first music conservatory in Germany, and where Gustav Mahler worked for 2 years. Whilst Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Mahler are all veritable giants of the classical music world, they are all perhaps more closely linked to other places (Bayreuth, Britain, Vienna). But Bach stands alone in his contribution to musical life in Leipzig, and in his unique association with the city.

Whilst Bach needs no introduction, perhaps his organ music might. The typical musician will no doubt be familiar with works like the Well Tempered Clavier, or the St Matthew and St John Passions (premiered at the Leipzig churches of St Thomas and St. Nicholas respectively). But his organ music is largely only familiar to organists and organ aficionados, which is a real shame because one cannot attain a complete grasp of Bach as a composer, nor as a person, without knowing close to what amounted to almost one-fifth of his entire musical output.

So it was fortunate that I was able to attend a concert at St Thomas on the very first night that I was in Leipzig, presented by Daniel Beilschmidt (organist at the University Church of Leipzig) and his ensemble Capella St. Pauli. Musically, Leipzig is quite a conservative town – the denizens of the city enjoy, expect, and are used to Bach, Buxtehude, Schütz and their contemporaries; hence this concert was a particular curiosity to me as the program was a mixture of quite modern organ/vocal improvisations, and Renaissance and Baroque vocal and instrumental music from around Europe,  as well as Peru! It was a most refreshing and interesting concert. As I am friends with Stefan Kießling, the assistant organist at St Thomas whom I stayed with in my time in Leipzig, he very kindly allowed me to play on the two organs of the church after the concert: the Bach organ (built in 2000, in the style of North German Baroque organs), and the Sauer organ (built in 1888, a fine example of German romantic organ building by the famous firm of Wilhelm Sauer). Naturally, since I was at ‘Bach’s church’, I had to play Bach – it was a dream come true! And complete the experience, all of the musicians from the concert, Stefan and myself all went to the pub next to St Thomas for a beer (or three) afterwards, of course!

Over the course of the next few days, I attended two more organ concerts – the first at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater (founded by Mendelssohn) featuring organ students studying church music, and the second at the Peterskirche with local organist Konstantin Heydenreich. Whilst perhaps in Australia, the music of Bach may feel a little disconnected from our daily lives, in Leipzig it is a unbroken continuing tradition, and it was evident by the centre stage that both his music and his influence on music took in both of these concerts.

And so, in a kind of pilgrimage and to further understand who Bach was not just as a musician, but also as a person, I went on a day trip to Eisenach, the birthplace of Bach, where I visited the Bachhaus – located only minutes away from where Bach’s childhood home would have stood, as well as the Church of St George, where Bach was baptised. Through the thoroughly informative exhibits at the Bachhaus one can get a glimpse into what might have shaped Bach as a person. To me, it comes down to his unshakeable Christian faith (as evident by the phrase Soli Deo Gloria – to the glory of God alone – which he wrote under his manuscripts), and the incredible suffering he endured during his life (orphaned at the age of 10, the sudden death of his first wife, and the deaths of many of his children as infants).

During the weekend of December 12th and 13th, I visited Freiberg and Dresden where I assisted Stefan Kießling at the organ console for his concerts at the two cities. The great organ at the Mariendom in Freiberg was built by the renowned organ builder Gottfried Silbermann in 1714, who was a contemporary and colleague of Bach. Whilst there is no record that Bach played on this organ, there is no doubt that Bach played and tested many of Silbermann’s other organs, and was extremely familiar with them. The remarkable thing about this particular instrument is that in the 302 years since it was built, it has not been significantly altered, and remains mostly in its original condition. And so to hear Stefan, who is in a way a successor of Bach, perform his music on an organ similar to those he might have played, was a revelation.

The organ music of Bach is incredibly significant for organists and musicians alike, for both stylistic and educational reasons. Thus, to hear it performed by musicians in the tradition of Bach, in the city where he lived and worked, was a marvellous thing.

At the Bach revival concert which Felix Mendelssohn gave at the age of just 20, at St Thomas, Leipzig, on August 6th, 1840, he performed a chorale prelude from the collection known as the ‘Leipzig’ Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, named for the fact that they were written in Leipzig between the years 1741-1750. This chorale prelude, on the hymn “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele”, or “Adorn yourself, O dear soul” is incredibly moving, and prompted Mendelssohn to confess that, if life were ever to deprive him of faith or hope, this one work would restore both. Robert Schumann, after hearing Mendelssohn’s performance of it also praised it highly: “as priceless, deep and full of soul as any piece of music that ever sprung from a true artist’s imagination”. I could wax lyrical about the incredible ingenuity of Bach’s music, especially his organ music, but I do think Mendelssohn and Schumann both say it much better than I ever can – so I’ll leave you with those to ponder.