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Bach and the Organ
By Matthew Dirst
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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Bach's Report on Johann Scheibe's Organ for St. Paul's Church, Leipzig
Lynn Edwards Butler
On Thursday, December 16, 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach, court Capellmeister in Cöthen, diligently examined the organ "partly newly built and partly renovated" by Johann Scheibe for St. Paul's Church at Leipzig University. At the examination, the university was represented by the then-current rector Carl Otto Rechenberg, former rector Johann Burkhard Mencke, and professors Johann Cyprian and Johann Wolfgang Trier. Two days later Bach acknowledged receipt of twenty talers' compensation for testing the organ and for pointing out "the problems that might occasionally present themselves." His well-known written report, dated December 17, 1717, is preserved in the Leipzig University Archives. Johann Kuhnau was cantor at the Thomas School and City Music Director at the time; Daniel Vetter, organist at St. Nicholas Church, had overseen the seven-year project.
Contemporary sources are unanimous in describing the examination as successful. Scheibe himself said the organ was "found [to be] free of even the smallest major defect," and the university agreed. Minutes of the administrative council at St. Paul's report that the examination revealed "no major defect ... only a few inconsequential items, as, for example, that the pipes were not yet properly tuned, and also, that the space for the organ is somewhat too cramped, about which there was nothing the organ builder could do." Vetter reported that there was "not one major defect" and, further, that Bach "could not praise and laud [the organ] enough, especially its rare stops." According to Leipzig chronicler Christoph Ernst Sicul, Bach could "find little to complain of." The major parts of the organ had been "well made" and "nothing needed to be pointed out to the University." Anything that needed improvement either was fixed immediately or was excused. Bach's nineteenth-century biographer Philipp Spitta viewed Bach's report as "highly favorable," and Bach scholar Arnold Schering considered Scheibe's organ "a masterpiece." "Scheibe's success, confirmed by no less a figure than Sebastian Bach," Schering wrote, demonstrated that the citizens of Leipzig "had not erred in their estimation of the local builder. ... The University Church in Leipzig now owned one of the newest and most beautiful organs in Germany."
While positive judgments continued for many years, a negative tone was set when Gottfried Silbermann's early twentieth-century biographer Ernst Flade — perhaps not the most objective voice as concerns Scheibe — claimed the university had received a decidedly mediocre instrument when Silbermann would have built a "masterpiece." Flade's views marked a turning point, and they seem to have influenced subsequent writers, who, without commenting on the positive aspects of Bach's report, instead emphasized what Flade labeled "Bach's serious concerns": the available space was used poorly, the wind was unsteady, the voicing uneven, the action heavy, and the wind chest design out-of-date. Werner David called Bach's report "lukewarm and critical," a sentiment echoed by Hermann Busch, who concluded that because Bach had expressed reservations without giving any compliments, "the organ appears not to have impressed him very much." In 1994 scholars became aware of the comments of Johann Andreas Silbermann, a nephew of Gottfried Silbermann's who visited the organ in 1741. According to him, "the tone and workmanship" of the twenty-five-year-old organ "did not accord with the report of Herr Capellmeister Bach." The playing and stop actions were difficult, the Pedal reeds "not worth a damn," the internal layout confusing. Silbermann's viewpoint seemed to confirm Flade's assessment, and this became the standard reading of the episode. In his recent study of repairs made to the organ after Scheibe's death, Andreas Glöckner thus emphasizes what he called the organ's "substantial construction problems."
Fortunately, however, in assessing the success of the St. Paul's organ project we are not limited to the opinions of Scheibe's contemporaries, to the views of later writers, to sentiments ascribed to Bach, or even to Bach's report itself. Documents from the Leipzig University Archives, many of them written by Scheibe, make it possible to expand considerably on and to reassess the bird's-eye view that Bach's report gives us of the project and allow us to view it in a new context. They reveal the university's ambivalent and tight-fisted attitude toward the organ and its builder as well as Scheibe's heroic efforts to complete the project in a manner of which he could be proud. They allow us to understand more fully the problems enumerated in Bach's report, both those immediately fixable and those he believed likely to be encountered in the future, and they provide background for Bach's insistence that Scheibe be judged fairly and compensated fully.
In the first and fifth points of his report, Bach dealt with problems resulting from the "too tightly confined" case. Expectations regarding "roominess" changed in the eighteenth century. Andreas Werckmeister's well-known guide to testing an organ never explicitly mentions the need for a roomy case, although he does say that the key action "should not be too crowded," that pallets need to be easily accessible, and that problems may arise if pipes are mounted too close together. In a later guide to testing, compiled by Jacob Adlung, a case so crowded that repairs were difficult to make was considered a major fault; and in testing guidelines attributed to Gottfried Silbermann, one reads the same admonition. At St. Paul's, Bach accepted Scheibe's explanation that he had not designed the case himself and, further, that the university had refused his request for the additional space that would have allowed him to build more capaciously.
When it was decided in 1710 to dismantle the large organ and move it to the west gallery, it was agreed that a new case would be built for the organ, for which Scheibe provided an initial drawing. In his earliest estimate, dated September 6, 1710, Scheibe agreed to supervise the joiner and to instruct him how "one thing or another should be made according to my [Scheibe's] drawing and formulations." The earliest preserved contract, an unsigned and undated draft, states that Scheibe would be responsible for "the entire organ — except the case, which will be made by the joiner." But another case design may have been solicited as well, for "organ architect" Adam Orazio Casparini of Breslau was paid a modest fee for providing a case drawing (Orgel-Riß). As I suggested in a previous article, the payment to Casparini raises the possibility that the organ's case was built according to Casparini's design rather than Scheibe's. If so, it may have been when he was confronted with Casparini's design that Scheibe requested additional space so that he could "arrange the layout more capaciously." The university specifically required that the organ be placed in the gallery in such a way that as much sunlight as possible could enter through the west window, which restricted the size and shape of the case. As Bach reminded the university, Scheibe's hands were tied; he had had to accommodate the internal layout to the restrictions of the allowable space as best he could.
In the report's second point, Bach confirmed that all essential parts of the organ had been "well and carefully built." There was nothing the university needed to be made aware of, except that there were occasional surges in the wind that needed to be minimized and that Scheibe had affixed the rollers to rollerboards, as was his practice, rather than mounting them on a frame. Vetter had described the old organ as "lacking strong wind," and he wanted the renovation to provide larger bellows valves and wind trunks with "adequate dimensions." In fact, Scheibe built a completely new wind system at St. Paul's: new bellows, new wind trunks, new wind chests. Each of the six wedge bellows measured approximately eight feet by five feet and was equipped with counterweights; the "6 new hair ropes," as they are referred to in Scheibe's receipt, cost 18 groschen.
That the occasional wind surges were not considered a major fault is a point that needs emphasis, especially because Scheibe is often criticized for having built an organ with wind problems. The schedule of subsequent bellows repairs, however, suggests normal wear and tear rather than any major defect. In addition, changing registration practices over time would have demanded ever stronger and steadier wind. By comparison, it is worth noting that the large organ built by Christoph Contius for the Church of Our Lady in Halle is today considered a success, and Contius's reputation remains good, even though the wind pressure was too low for an organ of its size and the shaky wind in the Oberwerk was so severe that the examiners (including Bach) cited it as a major fault — that is, a fault that had to be corrected at the builder's expense before the organ could be accepted. Interestingly, the term used in Bach's Leipzig report — stossen, or surging, pushing — is unusual in passages concerning an organ's winding and is found in Werckmeister's treatise only in his discussion of the tuning problems that can occur when an organ has borrowed stops, or transmissions. Adlung was not against transmissions. He cited Werckmeister's passage in its entirety but added that problems could be avoided if a builder used the necessary intelligence and built with precision.
Surprisingly, Bach's obvious preference for a frame rather than a rollerboard has rarely drawn attention from modern writers. Here Bach and Jacob Adlung seem to be in agreement. According to Adlung, it was sometimes "more convenient or satisfactory" to mount rollers in oak frames, a practice that had apparently become customary by the 1750s. Werckmeister, by contrast, had decided against the practice. While a "strong oak frame" could provide a more dependable key alignment, he observed, it was nevertheless "best to retain conventional roller board construction" and to equip the keyboards with adjusting screws.
Bach's positive evaluation — the main parts of the organ had been "well and carefully built" — must have been very welcome to Scheibe. Early in the project Scheibe's skill had been disparaged by Vetter and cantor Johann Kuhnau, who told the university that the task of moving and repairing the large organ required no special ability and that they could recommend Scheibe as "honest, reasonable, and hardworking" (redlich, billig, und fleißig). Some University Council members distrusted Scheibe's ability so much that they insisted on hearing the organ played in the midst of its repair and reconstruction, apparently while it was still dismantled. The newly repaired bellows, which were not fully dry, ripped apart during the demonstration, and new skins had to be procured. The same council members then blamed Scheibe for the damage to the organ. These and other slights rankled. Seeking redress from the university, Scheibe wrote that his "honor and the possibility of being further recommended [had] suffered painful and irrevocable damage."
In point three, Bach confirmed that Scheibe had provided the stops listed in the disposition as well as everything included in the contracts. Bach used the plural here: contracts. Contrary to what various writers have claimed — that proposals were received from Scheibe, Gottfried Silbermann, and Christoph Donat II, and that Scheibe's proposal was preferred by the university because he asked for less money and was a local builder besides — Scheibe did not compete for this job in the modern sense of this word. There is no rebuilding proposal from Scheibe, there is no proposal for a new organ, nor is there a disposition for a 3-manual, 54-stop organ associated with any of the contracts that have survived. Since none of the surviving contracts includes the organ's disposition, it is impossible to know exactly what Bach had in hand during the examination. Bach mentioned two Pedal reeds not built by Scheibe, but in a 1713 memorandum urging the project's completion, among the stops yet to be built Scheibe listed four reeds: Schallmey 4' and Cornett 2' in the Pedal, and Vox humana 8' and Schallmey 4' in the Hinterwerk. And in a memorandum written in 1716, Scheibe wrote that the university had "specifically prohibited" him from building three stops in case they would — as reeds do — "from time to time require either tuning or close attention," a circumstance Bach confirmed in his report. It is impossible to explain this discrepancy; however, it is easy to pick out the positions reserved for two Pedal reed stops in the engraving of the organ's stop knob arrangement. On the right-hand side, in the second column in from the extreme right, among the Pedal stops are two stop knobs without names; one, below the Holl Flöten Bass 1', would have been for the Cornet 2'; the other, below the Trompet Bass 8', for the Schallmey 4'.
Bach also discussed the voicing, which had various faults that were to "be improved immediately." He specifically mentioned the lowest pipes of the Posaunenbass 16' and the Trompetenbass 8', which spoke "roughly" and with "a rattle," rather than with a pure and firm tone. These Pedal reeds had been newly built in the first phase of the project, the Posaunenbass with wooden rather than metal resonators. Vetter and Kuhnau envisioned a 16-foot stop with the same effect as the one Zacharias Thayssner had built for St. Nicholas Church, a stop imbued with gravity, strength, and, above all else, the ability "to penetrate ... during congregational singing." During the second phase of the project, when he was building the tin pipes for the façade, Scheibe was asked also to make the new Pedal reeds sweeter, or more elegant (lieblich). Again here, though, it is worth comparing the assessment in Leipzig with the assessment of Contius's organ in Halle, where the examiners requested additional voicing of the Subbass 16', the Posaunenbass 32', and of other reeds. It was not uncommon at examinations for builders to be asked to make improvements in voicing, especially of reeds.
At both St. Paul's and in Halle, it was noted that the organs would need to be tuned more accurately after the examinations. It was a sore point with Scheibe that the examination, which had been delayed for more than a year, then took place, as he put it, "in the worst possible weather." Bach acknowledged this when he promised that Scheibe would perfect the voicing and re-tune the organ when the "weather is better than it has been recently." Bach said nothing about either the pitch or the temperament, which suggests they were acceptable to him. Johann Adolph Scheibe, Scheibe's son and a music critic in Hamburg, wrote that the temperament at St. Paul's was "exceedingly comfortable and harmonious." (In Halle, by contrast, after discussion at the examination, Contius agreed to reset the temperament.) The pitch at St. Paul's had been lowered at least a half tone, an item not included in the contract and also not billed separately by Scheibe, even though there was considerable work involved. Scheibe described the effort to bring the organ into "proper Chorton":
In addition, not only were there many small matters taken care of for the instrument's better longevity, appearance and utility, but also it was brought into proper Chorton. This was requested by the musicians ... and was also necessary so that the organ could be used with the usual instruments accompanying the church music.
As already noted, Bach's report also dealt with some of the extra work Scheibe had done and included the recommendation that he be reimbursed for the parts newly built over the contract — in particular, "the new wind chest for the Brust." Flade erroneously thought Bach had found the Brustwerk chest so old-fashioned at the examination that he had insisted Scheibe build a new one and be paid a supplement for the additional work. In fact, Scheibe had already built two new wind chests for the Brustwerk; had he been required to rebuild them, this surely would have been considered a major fault in an instrument that suffered no major faults. The archival record suggests otherwise as well. Because the newly built organ was to have no Ruckpositiv, the plan from the beginning had been to move the old Ruckpositiv chest to "the Brust" — that is, into the interior, or breast, of the organ case. This new division, which became known as the Hinterwerk, was in addition to the already existing Brustwerk, which was retained and enlarged. When Bach talks about a new chest for "the Brust," then, he is referring to the new chest Scheibe built for the Hinterwerk "in the Brust." Long before Bach had written his report, Scheibe had already explained to the university why it had been necessary to build a new chest for the Hinterwerk rather than reusing the old Ruckpositiv chest. He gave the same reasons later cited by Bach: that a new chest had been necessary because the old chest had a table and only enough channels to accommodate a short-octave bass. It not only had been impossible to build a supplemental chest — perhaps because of the tightly confined case — but also would have been very time consuming and difficult to repair the old chest's warped table (one large piece of wood that covered the entire chest), a method of construction that in any event had gone out of favor. Bach noted one further reason why the new chest was necessary: it was important that all three keyboards have the same compass (with a "complete" rather than a "short" bottom octave), something that was neither necessary nor particularly desired in earlier organs but which clearly the Leipzig organists — and Bach — now considered essential.
Excerpted from Bach and the Organ by Matthew Dirst. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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