Organ History, with Strings Attached

By Libin, Laurence | The Tracker, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Organ History, with Strings Attached


Libin, Laurence, The Tracker


Musicologists outside our field commonly regard organ historical studies as insular, if not irrelevant. Fair or not, such criticism needs to be taken seriously because this perception infects students and contributes to a general lack of interest in old organs and their music. Too often, in fact, nearsighted organ historians do overlook connections that could spark wider attention while enlightening our own endeavors.

One blind spot in our vision is the once intimate relationship of organ building to the design and construction of stringed keyboard instruments. By the late nineteenth century industrial specialization had largely divorced these occupations, although even after 1900 a few firms such as Estey and Kimball produced both organs and pianos; but those companies employed separate strategies, technologies, and personnel in the two branches. However, until the second quarter of the nineteenth century (when the introduction of cast iron frames distanced piano construction from the domain of woodworkers) and occasionally later, individual organ builders routinely also made stringed keyboards, if only to fill time between organ commissions (Emilius Nicolai Scherr produced guitars as well). Some builders such as John Geib evidently found piano manufacture more lucrative in the long run and quit the organ business. Others sometimes worked for piano makers, as when Alpheus Babcock, the inventor of a metal frame, employed Thomas Appleton.

The oldest known work of the pioneer German-American organ builder Johann Gottlob Clemm is a spinet dated 1739. It is no coincidence that many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German clavichords bear inscriptions identifying their makers as "Orgel- und Instrumentenbauer" or "Orgel- und Claviermacher" Instrument and Clavier both meaning primarily the clavichord, but by extension any stringed keyboard type. This traditional and universal conjunction of crafts, illustrated explicitly in Dom Bedos's L'art du facteur d'orgues (Paris, 1766-78), should alert us to the insights we can gain from examining the entire output, not just the organs, of such multifaceted figures as Gottfried Silbermann.

For all his accomplishments as an organ builder, Silbermann was arguably more inventive as a Claviermacher. Among other things, he originated the cembal d'amour, a particularly resonant clavichord with double-length strings struck in the middle. More importantly, he took on the challenge of developing Bartolomeo Cristofori's (or more likely, Giovanni Ferrini's) newfangled grand piano, which he first encountered in the early 1730s. As is well known, J. S. Bach eventually acted as Silbermann's agent in selling one of his pianos, and Bach's interest in this tonally colorful, dynamically flexible but intimate medium should be enough to engage our attention. The so-called Pantaleon (a versatile hammer dulcimer that Silbermann elaborated for the virtuoso Pantaleon Hebenstreit) further shows the great organbuilder cultivating a fashionable chamber instrument. Listeners as astute as Frederick the Great were enraptured by these new struck-string sounds, which might have influenced trends in pipe voicing in ways we have not yet fully grasped.

The long list of influential organ and clavier makers includes Mozart's favorite, Johann Andreas Stein, few of whose organs survive. Mozart's Stein clavichord, dated 1762, now belongs to the Hungarian national museum in Budapest; it shows the refinement of a builder who was by all accounts also a sensitive performer. Stein's remarkable combination organ and grand piano (claveçin organisé], built about 1781 and currently on loan from Göteborg to The Hague's municipal museum, offers rare insight to his tonal goals, as least as concerns chamber music, but its organ apparatus awaits thorough scrutiny.

"Organized" pianos by builders active from Russia to Mexico testify to the once widespread appeal and commercial viability of these hybrids. The Puerto Rican artist and organist José Campeche depicted one in a portrait he painted in San Juan about 1792. …

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