Day 8: The Ghost of Mendelssohn
by Andreas Ulmer
After a peaceful night’s sleep, our morning started with a light breakfast of müsli and fresh fruit. The plan was to spend the day with Professor Martin Schmeding of the Leipzig Conservatory, which Felix Mendelssohn himself founded in 1843. We drove to meet Professor Schmeding outside of the Aufterstehunskirche Leipzig-Möckern. This church housed an organ built by Schweinefleisch. Ironically, Schweinefleisch means pig in German. However, not to worry…the organ sounded much more beautiful than the grunts of those stout, pink creatures. Scholars know for a fact that this organ was played by Mendelssohn. Originally, the organ was housed at the Reformierten Kirche (Reformed Church) of Leipzig, the same parish Mendelssohn attended. The organ was later moved to the Aufterstehungskirche. The Baroque instrument produced a very bright, sparkling sound; gap registrations of the instrument danced in the acoustic.
It was here at the Aufterstehungskirche that Jennifer Hsaio played the third Mendelssohn Sonata in a masterclass for Professor Schmeding. Throughout the class, Martin Schmeding spoke about how one should approach Mendelssohn’s music. From age nine, Mendelssohn performed in string quartets, and as such, we can interpret his music symphonically. He intended his marked slurs to indicate and encompass dynamic shape, which we can create through various tools, such as our use of touch, tempo, or rubato. As counter-themes enter throughout the sonata, the performer should be meticulous about his cohesive and consistent phrasing markings. To further this discussion, we examined the difference between German and French legato. Professor Schmeding finds French legato to be “absolute,” such that is there is no space in sound between notes. German legato sounds as if one is connecting notes, but the physical connection is not absolutely complete. The difference in sound is slight, but creates a completely different effect. In interpreting Mendelssohn, Professor Schmeding mentioned he plays Mendelssohn with a type of legato somewhere between a Baroque and late Romantic style.
Following the master class, we went with the professor to a local pizza shop where we ordered three pizzas – a cheese, an asparagus (and other veggies), and one with holiday sauce. It was interesting to hear Professor Schmeding talk about his background – his daughter’s love of riding horses, his recent move from Freiburg, and his many students he teaches at the Leipzig Conservatory.
Following lunch, we were off to the next church, the Michaeliskirche, built in 1904 with a spectacular Sauer organ. The organ is nearly completely authentic with only one new stop on the organ, which is a rarity in Germany, as so many organ pipes were melted down to contribute to the war effort during World Wars I and II. The instrument was a perfect choice on which to play Reger, Liszt, Rheinberger, among other German Romantic composers. The console was designed with a “walze,” a wheel next to the swell that adds stops when you spin it. We remarked that, when in use, the walze almost gives the impression that the organist is running back and forth on a small hamster wheel. The organ is fully pneumatic, which gives a completely different feeling when playing at the manuals. Although the action is incredibly light, unlike other organs we have played on the trip, I found this action disarming, because I no longer had the same control over how the pipes spoke. Professor Scheming encouraged us best use the pneumatic action by visualizing pressing air through the musical phrase we are playing. This Sauer organ also contains one of the first combination action systems. A familiarity on our modern American organs, combination action allows an organist to preset registrations for rapid changes while playing.
After the Michaeliskirche, we were off to Rötha, a small village outside Leipzig with a church and a wonderful chapel, built only a couple of years before the Reformation. There we found two Gottfriend Silbermann organs, dating from 1721 and 1722. Gottfried Silbermann was the brother of Andreas Silbermann, who was a French organ builder. We played an Andreas Silbermann organ earlier on this trip when we ventured to Strasbourg. Organs by Gottfried Silbermann are able to accompany large congregations with hundreds of people. However, there is a very intimate side to these instruments – each stop is so rich in tone and very beautiful in the space.
After spending nearly ten hours in churches playing music from Bach to Reger, we walked back to our cars through Rötha. We were taken aback by the stunning colors of the sky: reddish hues painted the sky, capturing a colorful sunset. The drive back to Leipzig was quiet as we alternated between quiet reflection on the day and napping. Noel cooked us a delicious meal of various German sausages and grilled vegetables. It was a remarkable day of learning; we had not only been fed physically, but, more importantly, spiritually.