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"breeding Lines" Instead Of "repertoire".

Pierre Lauwers

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What can I play on which organ ?

We can reply after several ways ; first, there are the facts : Compasses, number of manuals, are the Pedals needed or not, do simple pull-downs suffice or not ; do the Pitch fit to the music we want to play, ditto the temperament ?

And then, there are the « qualitative » requisites : do the action, articulation, attack, winding, tones available, balance, permit a correct rendition ?

Is the organ made for polyphonic music or rather homophonic one ?


The typical neo-baroque way to deal with that question is a mechanical one : a german organ

from the 18th century allows to play the music written during that epoch in that area, both seen more or less widely.


This simplistic approach, the « Repertoire » concept, leads to a cultural suicide.

For what do we do with that provincial thing we’d just find in a remote corner of southern Austria, for example, and which would display an incredibly hybrid character, mixing italian and central european traits in a simplified, « village organ » structure ?

To the bin that thing, like many flemish and british organs were discarded « because you cannot play Bach thereupon ».


So I would like to present another concept, based on the little I know about the History of the organ.


Any organ we can describe after a two-ways method :


1)- As belonging to a style, which is an entity by itself, that is, whose justification lies

in itself, and not compared with « better », more « universally recognized » ones :

this is the « no hierarchy among the styles » ethics.


2)- As a piece in a long chain, a « breed line », which links it to many, many others organs

belonging to several, sometimes widely different, styles.


As a wrote elsewhere, all organ styles we know descent from two Renaissance types we must see as their ancestors, which themselves evolved from an unique type, that is, the medieval Blockwerk.


As a result there are many common traits between apparently widely different organs, for example a northern german one and a spanish organ ; they share a common ancestor, the Brabanter organ as develloped by Hendrik Niehoff.

A bit later the Niehoff type expanded troughout northern germany, where it evolved nearly

unspoiled, while in Flanders Matthijs Langhedul develloped a more colored version, a type he then implemented in Madrid, Spain (Flanders was a spanish dominion at that time), then in France, where he laid the basis of the french baroque organ, before coming back in Belgium.

This was about 1580-1600.

Later others flemish and german masters worked in Spain as well ; and though…..How blatant are the differencies !


Different languages, differing habits, differing musical cultures soon imponed regional idiosyncrasies upon organs, which evolved as seperate entities ; compasses, pitches, temperaments, number of manuals, specifications and voicing techniques differed. But we can still find , under a thick layer of regional traits, a common genetic stock.

As written elsewhere the other ancestor was the northern italian one, which gave the provençal and the early english type ; how that one arrived in England is still not sufficiently known, but we can take for granted the bridge was the Burgundy (Bourgogne).


Those two breed lines met two times, first during the Restoration period in England, when french and german styles fusionned with the traditional Ripieno (Diapason chorus), resulting in a baroque english organ which inherited thus the complete genetic pool of the european organ, then in central Europe with Casparini coming back in Germany after long decades working in Italy –though there were some cross-fertilizations between italian and central european styles even before that, as many polish organs demonstrate-.


So should we find an incredible « thing » in a remote corner of Europe, far away from any city with an active musical life, we shall have a provincial, limited instrument, strongly idiosyncratic, maybe with no Pedals or twelve Pull-downs, belated compasses for its time, etc.

But this instrument will also partake many things with many others that are on the same « breeding line », maybe between ‘S Hertogenbosch and Vienna ; and so, should we find in the pile of music sheets we took with for the trip something from a « big master », but that could cope with the instrument’s limitations (no Pedals, short compass…), we could be quite surprised the magic could happen : IT SOUNDS !


Who was the builder of this thing ? Maybe a pupil of a more important Master, who came in that rural area in order not to compete with his Master –something many Masters asked their pupils !- and then comformed to the wishes of his clientele, whose organists could not use Pedals, did not need full compasses of that time, etc.

But this builder had « something in his ears », a musical culture, so that the few things he built in his village organs work with the attack, articulation and tone, that fit in that tradition.

The physical limitations are there, but the qualitative traits the organ displays exceed widely

the actual rural needs the organ was designed to satisfy.

This builder may have been followed by several generations, working in the very same style

for a century of more, staying in the same area (example : the Le Picard dynasty in Liège

and their followers, who continued to build 1700 nearly-french organs up to….nearly 1800),

or even two thousand kilometres away (the Casparini dynasty).

And so we find organs suitable for Grigny in Liège round 1800, and italian/ german synthese

organs in…Lithuania !


Now as many preserved ancient organs are actually rural ones, because the « Top-players »

are in the big towns, where they can have the organs updated after ther fads, we can understand why these little village organs so often are splendid ones.


Now if we see a builder like John/ Johannes Snetzler/ Schnetzler, for example, under that light, we open quite a number of new windows.

As a pupil of Egedacher in Passau, he belongs to a southern german-austrian tradition ; he then worked with Müller at the famous St-Bavon, Haarlem, before arriving in England, somewhere between 1741 and 1747.


Schnetzler of course conformed himself to the wishes of his english customers with matters as compasses, etc. But what he built in his organs might well have been far closer to a true « between Bach and Mozart » affair than any neo-baroque organ, up to these « strange », shrill, tierce mixtures, which were actually nearly the same Bach had most of the time.


So should we want « an organ for Bach », for example, a british builder acquainted with what remains of Snetzler’s work might be more wise by far to build after Snetzler’s manner than to pile up « Repertoire requirements » like scholar musicians do. He might as well follow Father’s Smith, another german from the same school than….The Trosts !


And so we do not think mechanically, filing all things, music and organs, in a little

« Repertoire » area, but rather, we reason after styles seen and understood as breed lines.


Let us take another example.

There are much in common between an Eberhard Friedrich Walcker organ from round 1840

and both the german baroque organ and the french one.

Indeed, without these two, a Walcker organ would have been impossible to imagine ; its choruses, though not « pure », are nearly the same as Trost’s, Gabler’s or Holzhey’s. There is

a distinct « german baroque » accent in a early Walcker.

And there is a strong french flavour, too : We hear something like Cornets and Grand-jeu in

any a bit consistent registration ; indeed, the french Grand-jeu was the basis upon which Walcker built the whole !


And so we have many organ styles that are so rich and varied as « genetic pools » that we can have them behave like chameleons. Here are two examples of what you can do with a Walcker :







Be sure a british 18th century organ also can behave as a chameleon, sharing things with nearly all continental organ styles.


Now if we make a reference recording, we need to stick to the reference –that is, at best the very organs the composer played, or had in mind- ; in order not to lose Bach, or Couperin, we need reference interpretations on reference organs.


But as far as Recital, church-service are concerned –Live performance- we may look at the organ we have with a different bias :

Too which breeding line(s) does this organ belong ?


If it is, say, that 1840 Walcker, we can take for granted it can speak Bach’s language, maybe with another accent, but without butchering it.

Bach’s music will remain a most hyperlative thing thereupon.


If we deal with that Renatus Harris, and provided we choose carefully, much french music

should remain interesting.


This is just the beginning of a prospective thinking. I shall let you shot now !



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