Organ Contests of Dresden: Program Notes

Organs are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most geographically specific of instruments. Even to this day, each national tradition clings to long-cherished peculiarities that make the task of the touring organist endlessly challenging. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such differences were much more pronounced, often confoundingly so: organs encountered by travelers on the international scene were hugely varied, not just in sound but in the layout of the console; most vexing was the number, compass, shape, and size of the pedals. In the use of the feet—and many other matters as well—a foreign organist had to be supremely adaptable.

In spite of a variety as wide and unpredictable as the European weather, baroque organs from across the continent often incorporated elements imported from foreign lands. The work of the great Saxon organ builder and colleague of Johann Sebastian Bach’s, Gottfried Silbermann, is just one celebrated example of international influence, his instruments reflecting the lessons learned working with his uncle in Alsace and also the Italian influence of Eugenio Casparini, a German who had spent many years in Italy before returning home in the last decade of the 17th-century. Nonetheless, the comforting sound of a reed stop that reminds the traveler of his native land doesn’t quiet the nerves when he’s got to find that low G-sharp in the pedal in the heat of performance.

Becoming acquainted with a new organ in private over a leisurely few hours was a rare luxury in the age of the Grand Tour. More than likely the organist of the church would be along, eager to hear what the visitor could do. Local grandees, musicians, and enthusiasts might join the outing. Even more exciting, another touring virtuoso might also be in town. There was never time for practice and preparation: the challenges had to be dealt with while seated for the first time at the bench of an organ that was foreign in every sense, colleagues and possible rivals standing by.

The magnificent baroque city of Dresden was one of the most visited destinations for musical travelers. The Saxon rulers collected not only acclaimed musicians, but also fabulous objects of art and science. Among these treasures were the organs in the court chapel. In the first half of the 17th century the building housed an opulent instrument with, among other unique features, ivory fronted reed pipes in the façade. That instrument’s greatest player was Matthias Weckman, who had been sent by his teacher, the Saxon Kapellmeister Heinrich Schütz, to study in the Hanseatic organ capital of Hamburg. The result is said to have been that Weckman “moderated Praetorius’s severity with Scheidemann’s humor” —those two names belonging to famous Hamburg organists who had both studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam. Weckman’s musical lineage was august indeed. No less impressive was the pedigree of one of the most adventurous of 17th-century musical travelers, Johann Jacob Froberger; he had studied with the great Frescobaldi in Rome. In late 1649 or early 1650 Dresden was the first stop on Froberger’s multi-year European tour that would lead ultimately to Paris and London. These gifted contemporaries, Weckman and Froberger, met in Dresden in a contest that led to a lifelong friendship. The idiosyncratic gestures of Froberger’s improvisational style as heard, for example in tonight’s Toccata, and the grace and variety embodied in his variations on the charming melody Die Mayerin (The Milk Maid) must have deeply impressed Weckman as they would generations of European keyboard players, including J. S. Bach. Weckman’s Fantasia ex d has its own dramatic rhetoric that might reflect Froberger’s influence. But the Dresden host’s expansive setting of the Lutheran chorale Es ist das Heil for six contrapuntal voices—two of them in pedal—is something Froberger could not have done. Had Weckman displayed this very north German skill of playing with the feet, the visitor would have been as awestruck as I remain today by this sublimely expansive counterpoint. In 1717 J. S. Bach was set to compete against the visiting French organist Louis Marchand. As reported by Bach’s sons, the Frenchman fled after hearing Bach play. Whether true or not, the claim often distracts from the truth that Bach greatly admired Marchand’s music, which is full of many wonderful things—including a Catholic pomp that must have pleased the Catholic Saxon rulers—not to be found even in Bach’s incomparable oeuvre. Tonight, Marchand does not flee but instead stays to share his talents, demonstrating in the opening Plein jeu with its double pedal that a Frenchman could sometimes keep pace with his German contemporaries. Bach welcomes the tourist with a fugue in five voices (called Fantasia) in a style more French than the French, then let’s loose with two Italianate trio sonatas that mark the apogee of organ technique from 1717 until today.

The last Dresden encounter finds the German virtuoso Johann Wilhelm Häßler—student of a student of Bach’s—and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart coincidentally arriving in the city in April of 1789. The site of their spontaneous contest was the Court Chapel, by then home to a glittering instrument by Gottfried Silbermann. As usual in such clashes, Mozart was dismissive of his opponent. A few months after the meeting, Häßler assembled a collection of 42 short pieces that show him to be at home in the galant style and a demon with his feet at the pedal board. Mozart was typically backhanded about his perceived talents: “This Hässler’s chief excellence on the organ consists in his foot-work,” he wrote, adding rather nastily, that this “was not very wonderful.” He went on to say that the local Saxons had wrongly believed that he, Mozart, wouldn’t be able to play the pedals because he was from Vienna where organs did not have the full north German array. Häßler’s Fürs volle Werk is indeed a workout for the feet worthy, one that even Mozart might have deigned to admire.

I conclude tonight’s program with my transcription of Mozart’s mighty Fantasia in F minor, K. 608, for mechanical organ; I feel sure Mozart played it too at the organ, proving that he could keep pace with, even surpass, the musical machine for which he wrote the fantasia. The work ends with the feet rushing maniacally towards the final cadence, a furious close that comes after a grand recurring overture, two fugues of increasing complexity, and a piling up of counterpoint in a coda to be ranked with the Jupiter Symphony finale. Here’s betting that Mozart himself was jolted into improving his footwork in the aftermath of his organ afternoon with the genial Häßler.

In offering the quickest of musical surveys of these three historic meetings, I’ll add my own bits of commentary—an opening prelude, a transition or two, some extra variations—mostly to the music of the foreign visitors as a way of showing that they could, like Mozart, get their feet into the act in Dresden where performance with all four limbs was required of “true” organists.