Day 6: Following in the Footsteps of Bach
by Kade L Phillips
Bright and Early
After our first night in Leipzig, we are up and at 'em, out the door at 0800 hours and on the road to Naumberg. The crown jewel of today's expedition is the organ at St Wenzel's, built by a bloke named Zacharias Hildebrandt in 1746.
Back in the day, Naumberg was more important than Leipzig. It was a center of trade, with wealthy merchants to fund the construction of St Wenzel's with its high ceilings and what not.
"...Blah blah blah, proper name, place name, backstory stuff..."
One of the most famous German organ builders of history is Gottfried Silbermann, whose instruments we will have the pleasure of getting acquainted with in the coming week. In 1713, Hildebrandt began apprenticing with Silbermann. Although Hildebrandt had no money to pay for his education, Silbermann recognized Hildebrandt's potential talent (and profitability) and thus agreed to take him on as an apprentice, provided he sign a non-compete clause. Hildebrandt eventually broke this contract, leading to several years of bitterness, but as I understand it, they did reconcile.
Johann Sebastian Bach personally knew both Silbermann and Hildebrandt. Bach was highly regarded as an organ expert in his time, and was frequently asked to design stoplists (that is, choose what colors ought to be on a particular organ's sonic palette) and test instruments (to verify that the money a town paid was equal to the worth of a builder's handiwork). It was on the recommendation of Bach that Hildebrandt won the contract for St Wenzel's, and in 1746 the instrument was completed, examined by Bach, and given his seal of approval.
Sometime over the next two centuries, the organ was modified. Its reed stops (trumpets, oboes, trombones, and the like) and mixtures (higher pitched stops that fill out the overtone spectrum) were replaced with sounds that were more in vogue at the time. In 1992, restoration work began that would take 7 years and return the organ to more-or-less its state in 1746. Most excitingly, the keyboards, drawknobs, and foundation stops are original.
Dipping Your Big Toe in the Lake of History
Playing the St Wenzel organ is both a pilgrimage and a revelation. It is a pilgrimage because we literally touched the keys that Bach touched, drew the stops that he drew, and heard the sounds that he heard. Bach is regarded as a god of the western musical world—his music has a depth that surpassed every one of his contemporaries, and he remains the greatest writer of polyphonic music who ever lived.
It is a revelation because true Baroque instruments sound very different than the imitations we have in the US. This is mainly for two reasons. First, in the mid-20th century American builders did not have access to the instruments in Eastern Germany. They therefore modeled their instruments after north German ones, which have a sharper sound than the instruments Bach knew and wrote for. Second, most Baroque organs in the US were built during the "organ reform movement", whose organs stood in stark opposition to the thick, lush, and rich orchestral character that preceded it. The movement rejected "tubbiness" in favor of clarity. In retrospect, the organ reform movement was largely reactionary, and in some cases over-reactionary.
As an organbuilder, it was especially thrilling for me to record the character of the instrument and take measurements of the pipes I had access to. Even if I'm not creating an instrument in the Baroque style, I'd love to capture the same qualities that are present in the work of the old masters. The recordings will help me remember the sounds that have inspired me, and the measurements will provide guidelines should I ever try to recreate these incredible stops.
As organists, we gained an understanding of how simple registrations could have great efficacy. For instance, a Bach trio sounded brilliant when played with only a single Principal stop for each thread of the music. In the US, many organists would feel the need to draw many more ranks to achieve what they mistakenly believed was Bach's intended texture. Here at St Wenzel's, a single Principal stop had sufficient character and depth for the job.
Put simply, the St Wenzel organ is breathtaking, and a quick poll at the end of the day revealed it is everyone's favorite so far.
A Brief Aside
After St Wenzel's proper, we headed to the winter church, a smaller space for the congregation that is easier to heat. On our walk over, we passed the building where Bach, Silbermann, and Hildebrandt had lunch on several occasions. The winter church contains a small, but lovely, Ladegast organ that we played for forty-five minutes before heading back to snag a few last minutes on the St Wenzel organ.
From Dust (to Glass Cases) to Dust
Next we went to the Bach museum in Leipzig, which is impressive in that it caters to both laypersons and experts. Sharing the entirety of what we learned would fall outside the scope of a blog (and more importantly, would mean I have to write even more than I'd like!), but worthy of particular mention are the original autographs of Bach scores. Pages are rotated in and out of display, three or so at a time, to avoid light damage. To stand a foot away from paper on which he had written music made me think about him as a person, rather than as a musical colossus. When he wrote, say, that page of a counterpoint lesson for one of his choir boys, was he eating a sandwich? In a rush, catching a moment between teaching Latin and conducting a choir? Looking forward to a party that night? Worrying about a dispute with the town council? Thinking of his children? Perhaps the most prominent character traits of Bach, our guide said, were that he was a workaholic and a master of time management. He would frequently pay substitutes to teach for him in order to free up time. This way, he could write a new cantata for each Sunday, even though it was not required of him. To think of the man's day-to-day life, underpinned by a deep and abiding love for music and God, only gives greater meaning to what he left us. Of course, he could not have known how much his work would eventually influence the world.
Bach lived in the St Thomas School, which is unfortunately gone, but the museum is located in the next best thing—the house owned by the Bose family, close friends of the Bachs. Their home happens to be adjacent to the St Thomas School. The Bach museum is a part of the Bach Archive, which conducts research on Bach. This research is funded by tax dollars, and reflects the nation's appreciation for the composer; for instance, soon after we leave a huge week-long Bach Festival is being held in Leipzig.
Since tomorrow is our day off ("Freitag ist unser freier Tag!") we took the evening easy—grilling hamburgers, taking the canoe out for a spin (our apartment is by a canal!), veritably sweating our guts out in the sauna, and soaking our feet in the tub. Alles gut in Leipzig!