The "Bach" Organ


An important part of learning about the music of Johann Sebasitan Bach is knowing something about the organs he played. As organists in the United States living some 250 years after his death, we are far removed from the life Bach lived, and our individual musical backgrounds are worlds apart from his. We can't duplicate his life experiences, nor can we shut out our knowledge of music written since 1750. It is a part of our lives, and it inevitably affects the way we both hear and perform Bach's music. If we make it our goal to understand Bach's music as he meant it, as a part of his life in central Germany in the eighteenth century, then learning about the organs he heard can be an important step. If we know the sounds he heard - - better yet, if we know which of those sounds he liked - - then we have learned something important. That knowledge should affect the way we hear and perform his music.

One of the first steps we can take is to understand where Bach lived and worked. On the map to the right, the red area is Germany today - - a single political unit only since 1989. Bach was born and lived most of his life in Thuringia. If you move your mouse pointer over the map, you can see the general extents of this region, contained within the small red circle.

The rest of modern Germany was, in effect, a different place, a foreign land (almost) where people happened to speak the same language - - with maybe a little different accent. Look at the three cities that are Thuringian. Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Weimar were the first three places Bach held significant positions. He also worked in Erfurt and was born in Eisenach, not far away from Weimar. Since his "formative years," to use a modern phrase, were spent in this small area, we might find our first important information about his musical background by looking at the instruments he knew there.

Leipzig, where Bach spent the last 25 years or so of his life, is not so far away in Saxony, just to the north of Thuringia. Leipzig was a larger, more cosmopolitan city, however, and its resources were greater.
This relatively small area of modern Germany was Bach's home. He was born, worked and died there, with only a few excursions into other areas. Most music history texts, not to mention the biographies of Bach, talk about some of his more well-known trips outside the area. We know he traveled to Lübeck, for example, and there he heard Buxtehude play a large Werkprinzip organ typical of North German cities. 152 We know of his trip to the great Hanseatic center of Hamburg, where he is said to have applied for a position at the Jacobkirche, and we can read reports of his playing the Silbermann organ in Dresden. 171

The accompanying pages, then, give some details about

  • The Thuringian and Saxon organs in the churches where Bach held positions as Organist or Music Director.
  • One of the Werkprinzip organs he is said to have heard: the Schnitger in the Jacobikirche in Hamburg.
  • One of the Silbermann organs he played: in the Frauenkirche in Dresden.
These represent the most important organs he knew, and in a sense, three of the most important types of German organs that were being played during the first half of the eighteenth century. Knowing about these instruments will give you a foundation for understanding Bach's organ music.

Organs in Central Germany

Thuringia has been described as a region of small towns, and in fact, there were no cities there in Bach's lifetime that could compare to the great commercial cities of the North. The churches were also smaller, and the village organist was the most common church musician in the area. It is not surprising, then, that the typical Thuringian organ was smaller than the giant Werkprinzip organs you have read about in connection with composers in North Germany.

Central German organs, of course, had many characteristics in common with instruments from other parts of northern Europe. Most instruments had more than one manual and a pedal division, and you could easily tell how many manual divisions were present by looking at the façade and the layout of the case. 172 In central Germany, the Rückpositiv was not so common by Bach's time as it once had been. Most builders placed the secondary manual division above the primary manual, where it was usually called an Oberwerk. Furthermore, placing a pedal division in separate towers was less common in central Germany than in the North. Other than that, the general disposition of an organ in two or more manual divisions and a pedal was common in both regions.

Organs in both North Germany and Thuringia had principal choruses on the primary manual, and usually a secondary chorus on another division. In Thuringia, however, this chorus was probably smaller, and it was often quieter than its northern counterpart. Additionally, the pedal division of a Thuringian organ might not have included a separate, complete chorus, but it would have had at least one flue at 16' pitch and a reed as well.

Around 1700, string stops began to appear on organs in central Germany, and we find a Viola da gamba or a Salicional fairly often on organs from Thuringia. These would have been new sounds during Bach's lifetime, perhaps even a novelty. We know that he found them useful, because he asked that the 8' Gemshorn in Mühlhausen be replaced with a Viola da gamba. Unfortunately, we don't know how he used strings, or even in which of his compositions they might be appropriate. Perhaps he only drew that stop when he improvised, and never intended any of his written works to be played using it. We do know that it represented a timbre that he must have liked, though, however he may have used this or any other string.

Another peculiarity of these instruments is found in the presence of tuned bells. In the accompanying stoplists, you will sometimes see them called "Carillon," sometimes "chimes." In either case, they were tuned bells, not tubular chimes, and they appeared most often as a 4' stop in the pedal. They are found for the first time in central and southern Germany around or slightly before the time of Bach. Again, we don't know how Bach would have used them, and we can infer from one document that he probably wasn't that fond of them. In his disposition for the repairs to the organ at Mühlhausen, he said the bells were "desired by the parishioners," and that they would be responsible for paying for them. 173 Nowhere else in that document does he shift any resposibility to a third party, so the inference that he did not want the bells has some basis.

The details of organs in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Weimar give a good picture of what these organs were like. I recommend that you read those pages and make some comparisons on your own. You will then be able to better understand the nature of the Thuringian organs that Bach knew. After that look at the Schnitger organ in the Jacobikirche. This was a completely different type of instrument, on paper and in the room. It was bigger, stronger, more open and forceful in sound than Bach would have been accustomed to hearing. Finally, consider the organ in the Dresden Frauenkirche - - a model of elegance and refinement.

These organs are all a part of the puzzle that the search for "the Bach Organ" is for us today. It is a puzzle we may never solve, at least in regard to playing specific pieces on specific instruments, but the search for its solution can lead us to a greater understanding of Bach's music and how it sounded when he played it.

© 2000 AD James H. Cook