Exhibition | 2000 Years of Organ Building and Playing

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 18, 2019

Press release (via Art Daily) for the exhibition now on view at MK&G:

Manufacturing Sound: 2000 Years of Organ Building and Organ Playing
Manufaktur des Klangs: 2000 Jahre Orgelbau und Orgelspiel
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 5 July — 3 November 2019

Johannes Rusch (1728‒1791) / Hermann Seyffarth (1846–1933), Positive Organ, 1777 / 1898 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität Leipzig; photo by Christina Körte).

With over 300 organs, Hamburg is home to a unique and widely varied organ landscape. In addition to those in the city’s churches, there are numerous other instruments located in schools, in the Elbphilharmonie, in the studio of the NDR public broadcasting station, in the State Opera House, at the University, and even in the prisons. To mark the 300th anniversary of the death of Arp Schnitger (1648–1719), one of the world’s most famous organ builders, the city of Hamburg has declared 2019 the Year of the Organ, with the motto ‘Hamburg Pulls Out All the Stops’. Concerts and events through-out the city, along with a major exhibition at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, are arousing public curiosity about this impressive instrument and its history. The exhibition Manufacturing Sound: 2000 Years of Organ Building and Organ Playing invites visitors to learn more about the design, construction, and technical finesse of the marvellous invention that is the organ. The show is centred around organ construction and organ music, which UNESCO added to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017. Over 30 exhibits, including 14 historic instruments and reconstructions, allow visitors to immerse themselves interactively into the cosmos of the organ. How does an organ actually work? Where does the ‘organ wind’ come from? What are stops? What do the different organ pipes sound like? The exhibition answers these and many other questions by means of models, interactive displays, media presentations, and films that make the mysterious technology of the instrument visible. Using a model constructed especially for the exhibition, guests can try out the interplay of bellows, windchest, and pipes and produce sounds for themselves. An organ simulator allows them to operate organ keys and pedals and experiment with ‘registration’ techniques. Using photographs of spectacular organ constructions as inspiration, visitors can even design their own unique organs with the help of virtual reality glasses.

Gladiator Battles and Court Ceremonies

Over 2000 years ago, the Greek mathematician Ctesibius invented a vertically adjustable mirror for his father’s barber shop in ancient Alexandria. Its technical highlight was a pressure pump. This stroke of genius was the precursor to the construction of an instrument called the organon hydraulikon, which was capable of producing sounds. As part of the exhibition, a reconstruction of an ancient water organ (hydraulis) from the third century demonstrates how this hydraulic pump system worked. At a height of up to 2 metres, the organs of this period were comparatively small and transportable. Historical sources and archaeological findings from antiquity attest to the instrument’s great popularity. Whereas in ancient Greece, this often took the form of musical organ-playing competitions, in ancient Rome, the organ more often served as musical accompaniment to sports events—such as the famous gladiator fights—and was heard in the villas of wealthy Romans at social receptions and banquets. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, knowledge of organ construction was preserved in the Byzantine Empire. There, instruments such as the double organ—a replica of which can be seen in the exhibition—accompanied public events such as horse races and was played at court ceremonies.

The Move to the Cathedrals

Only in the Middle Ages, thanks to the influence of educated clergy, did organs enter into Christian cathedrals, where they were put to use for the musical elaboration of the liturgical programme. The still relatively small, movable organs of this period were transportable instruments—so-called ‘positive’, or even smaller ‘portative’ organs which players could hold on their knees or hang around their shoulders with a strap. The exhibition demonstrates what such a portative organ might have looked like with a reconstructed portativ organetto, built according to plans written by the polymath Arnaut de Zwolle (ca. 1400–1460). For the reconstruction, the Dutch organ builder Winold van der Putten also referred to depictions in paintings by Flemish masters such as Jan Van Eyck (1390–1441), and Hans Memling (1433–1494). The pipes of medieval organs were generally all equal in diameter. Another reconstructed organ in the exhibition, which followed a ‘pigeon’s egg scale’, illustrates a type of objects that were used to measure them at that time.

The Organ as Status Symbol

During the baroque period, large-scale organ-building projects served as demonstrations of wealth and power, even within the church. Increasingly lavish and imposing instruments were constructed. In Europe, regional building styles also emerged during this period. In addition to the monumental church organs, smaller types of organs continued to spread in popularity. They were prized by the nobility and the bourgeoisie as prestigious additions to their homes. Examples of these from the exhibition include a processional organ, which ranks among the most valuable transportable organs of the Italian baroque period, and a cabinet organ from the workshop of Johannes Stephanus Strümphler (1736–1807) in Amsterdam. A truly eye-catching piece from the rococo period is a positive organ adorned with gilded carvings, built by the Bohemian instrument-maker Johann Rusch (1728‒1791). Rare historical sources document the development of organ construction during this period. On display are the Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten, a treatise on organ building and organ playing by Arnolt Schlick (before 1460–after 1521), of which only a few copies exist worldwide; the baroque-era book on music theory and instruments, Syntagma musicum, by Michael Praetorius (1571‒1621); the comprehensive work on music theory, Musurgia universalis, by the polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680); and the standard eighteenth-century text on organ construction, L’Art du facteur d’orgues, by Dom François Bedos de Celles (1709–1779), illustrated with detailed engravings.

Arp Schnitger (1648–1719), Design of an Organ for the Reformed Church in Altona, ca. 1686, watercolour and pen drawing (Staatsarchiv Hamburg).

Arp Schnitger and North German Organ Building

It was in this period that Hamburg grew to be one of the most important organ-building cities in Europe. Wealthy merchants commissioned the best organ builders and treated themselves to veritable luxury organs. With his sophisticated, tonally powerful instruments, Arp Schnitger represented the zenith of the baroque North German organ-building tradition. His workshop produced a total of 170 organs, of which 47 survive to this day. At its completion in 1687, his organ in Hamburg’s St. Nikolai Church—with 67 stops and more than 4000 pipes—was the largest in the world and made Schnitger famous well beyond his home region. The organ was destroyed in a fire that swept the city in 1842. Today, the organ in Hamburg’s St. Jacobi church, completed in 1693 and restored multiple times, is the largest functioning baroque organ of the North German type, with 43 stops. An early console, whose stop knobs are decorated with carved portraits of famous organ lovers of the period, bears witness to part of its eventful history.

Hans Henny Jahnn and the ‘German Organ Movement’

Prior to the First World War, Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), who was a trained organist, campaigned for a re-orientation in organ building, and in the 1920s, Hamburg became the centre of an effort at reform that later became known as the ‘German Organ Movement’. The head of this movement was the Hamburg author Hans Henny Jahnn (1894–1959), who also designed several organs and who successfully campaigned for the preservation of the Schnitger organ in Hamburg’s St. Jacobi Church. For Jahnn, this baroque organ, with its ‘honest’, clear tone, was the counter-design to the ‘symphonic’ organ type that predominated at the time, and whose romantic sound he perceived as excessively ornate, dark and opulent. Thanks to a film produced expressly for the exhibition, an organ designed by Jahnn—located at the Heinrich-Hertz School in Hamburg-Winterhude—can be heard playing in the MKG.

The Allure of Organ Design

To this day, the organ has lost none of its fascination: all over the world, organ builders, architects, and designers continue to create spectacular instruments. A photo wall in the exhibition presents selected organ constructions of the past and present which illustrate the close relationship between the craft of organ building and the disciplines of design and architecture. The best-known example of this may be the thrilling design by star architect Frank Gehry (b. 1929) for the organ in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which was completed in 2004. Whether they are traditional or futuristic, the varying methods of construction serve as inspiration to exhibition visitors, who are invited to try their hand at building their own organs with the help of virtual reality glasses. The fact that nearly every organ is one of a kind—conceived for a specific space as part of its unique architecture—means that there are (almost) no limits to what present-day organ builders can do. Proof of this can be seen in the spectacular organ constructions of the recent past—such as the organ built for Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie (opened in 2016) with its approximately 5000 pipes. A media presentation allows exhibition visitors to discover the fascinating instrument in Hamburg’s most famous concert hall.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the MKG and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, in cooperation with Orgelstadt Hamburg e. V. and the Musikfest Bremen. The project receives additional support through the close cooperation with Rudolf von Beckerath Orgelbau, Hamburg; Johannes Klais Orgelbau GmbH & Co. KG, Bonn; the MultiMediaKontor Hamburg GmbH; and the Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche in Norddeutschland.

Lenders to the exhibition: Catalina Vicens, Basel | Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin | Johannes Klais Orgelbau GmbH & Co. KG, Bonn | Marienbibliothek Halle, Halle an der Saale | Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg | Elbphilharmonie Hamburg | Hans Henny Jahnn Verein e. V., Hamburg | Hauptkirche St. Jacobi Hamburg | Orgelstadt Hamburg e. V. | Römerkastell Saalburg, Bad Homburg | Georg Ott, Kirchensittenbach | Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität Leipzig | Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Archäologie, Mainz | Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche in Norddeutschland | Aug. Laukhuff GmbH & Co. KG, Weikersheim | Winold van der Putten, Winschoten

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