March 27By Linda de Vries
On this date in 1795, Heinrich Andreas Contius, an organ builder, died, and this provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach and the Organ Makers.
Sebastian was both a master of the instrument noted for his virtuosic ability at improvisation and a technician of the organ. He traveled about his area of Germany consulting of the restoration and improvement of organs in town after town. Seven of his detailed reports survive to this day. As he consulted on organ construction, he came to know many of the builders well.
Heinrich Andreas Contius (1708-1795), our impetus for this date, was from Halle, Thuringia, and was much respected by Sebastian. Contius built the first organs in the Baltics in the 1760s and moved his Halle workshop to Volmar, Latvia in about 1780. His most important organs are in St. Jacob’s Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in Riga and in the Liepāja Holy Trinity Cathedral. The latter organ was the largest pipe organ in the world until 1912, is still the largest historical instrument that has not been reconstructed, and is the largest pipe organ in Latvia.
Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), whose life almost perfectly coincides with that of Sebastian, built not only organs, but harpsichords, clavichords, and fortepianos. He was born the son of a carpenter in what is now Saxony, learned that trade from his father, and moved to Strasburg in 1702, where he learned French-Alsatian organ construction from his brother Andreas.
He returned to Saxony in 1710 and built his own organ shop in Freiberg, where his second German project was the organ in the Freiberg Cathedral of St. Mary, completed in 1714. He was honored with the title Honorary Court and State Organ Builder to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony by Frederick I. All of the Silbermann organs were of a consistent style, and tuned to mean tone temperament, which put him at odds with Sebastian, who preferred a more flexible tuning.
Silbermann also played a central role in the development of the piano, by passing on the ideas of the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, to his apprentices, and by inventing the prototype of the damper pedal. Silbermann built his first piano in 1732, a year after Cristofori’s death, and in subsequent years King Frederick the Great bought some say as many as 15 Silbermann pianos.
Sebastian’s initial reaction to Silbermann’s pianos was, according to contemporary Johann Friedrich Agricola, that the tone was weak in the treble and the keys hard to play. Infamously stubborn and proud, Silbermann nevertheless took this criticism to heart, and the improved pianos met with Sebastian’s approval. The composer is recorded as having acted as a sales agent for Silbermann on May 8, 1749. Sebastian also changed his mind about Silbermann’s organs, and played the inaugural concert on one of them in the Church of Our Lady in Dresden on December 1, 1736. Silbermann was godfather to Sebastian’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel.
Silbermann’s influence lives to this day through his students, one of whom perfected the “Viennese action” preferred by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and his “twelve apostles” who fled to England during the Seven Years’ War and eventually evolved the “English action,” further improved by Sébastien Érard and Henri Herz to become the action used in all grand pianos today.
Georg Christoph Stertzing, born in Ohrdruf in 1659, was an organ maker Sebastian knew from childhood, as Stertzing was responsible for the repair of the Eisenach organs and thus worked closely with Sebastian’s second cousin Johann Christoph on the organ at St. George’s Church. Stertzing, who died in Eisenach in 1717, passed on his skills to his son and to his student Johann Georg Fincke.
Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688-1757), born in Silesia, was apprenticed to Silbermann in Freiberg. He first built an organ at St. Nicholas Church in Langhennersdorf, then one in Störmthal near Leipzig, where he became friends with Sebastian. Unfortunately, Silbermann sued him as a rival, and Hildebrandt agreed to take only those orders rejected by Silbermann, working locally in Leipzig and Thuringia.
Johann Nicolaus Bach (1669-1753) was the eldest son of Johann Christoph Bach, Sebastian’s second cousin. He was a musician and composer as well as a builder of harpsichords and organs, although few of his compositions survive. His fame rests on the fact that he is credited with being the inventor of the lute-harpsichord, an instrument made only by two others, Johann Christoph Fleischer of Hamburg and Hildebrandt.
The lute-harpsichord was similar to a harpsichord but with gut rather than metal strings, and an oval resonator in the shape of a lute beneath the sounding board. It produced a rich, mellow tone, but lacked dynamic expression, which led Johann Nicholas Bach to make an instrument with three manuals, whose keys sounded the same strings but with different quills and at different points on the string, thereby providing two or three levels of dynamic and timbre.
The lute-harpsichord was much favored by Sebastian for its combination of softness and strength, and recent research reveals that he played such a double manual harpsichord at Zimmermann’s coffeehouse. At his death he owned two of them, built by Hildebrandt to his specifications.
Although the 18th century specimens have not survived, contemporary Hungarian early music specialist Gergely Sárközy has reconstructed a lute-harpsichord, and the Baroque Music Club has produced a recording entitled Bach’s Domestic Keyboard Instruments, Bach 740 on which they perform some of Sebastian’s keyboard compositions.